The Trouble With Beauty

And the trouble with (little-t) truth, and (little-g) goodness: Too often it is so narrowly defined that only one thing at a time can fit the label.

Let’s see if I can explain what I mean.

Years and years ago, Chinese girls of all classes believed that tiny feet were beautiful. They believed this so profoundly that some maimed their daughters and endured their own inability to care for their households (or sometimes even themselves) with feet bound to convey the illusion of smallness.

There may have been many social and relational reasons for this (fascinating, but not the point of this essay), but the result was generations of women, primarily in the wealthy classes, who lived their lives in pain in order to appear beautiful.

Those too poor to be allowed the luxury of useless women still admired the unrealistic standard, forming their opinions on something as impossible to dictate as foot size.

Eventually the ideas of the “outside world” invaded and (if I understand correctly) Christian missionaries led the active campaign to end foot-binding. Remarkably, in a single generation the custom essentially died out, and the Chinese people themselves began to see the bound foot as distasteful and deformed.

The sorrow to me in all this, was that in the effort to promote a newer and healthy form of beauty, that which was formerly beautiful had to become ugly. The women who had endured years of pain and limited freedom for the esteem it bought them found that they were now the symbols of a barbaric and embarrassing time.


In the pursuit of beauty we can easily see this extreme polarizing. It also exists in our pursuit of truth or goodness. While, in theory, honest, useful debates can exist, in reality we’ve usually already made up our minds (with or without guiding reason) and reflexively villianized the views that don’t line up with our own.

I think this is where defensiveness comes from– either in an actual debate or in (compulsively?) explaining why you did something. Ultimately I think defensiveness comes out of fear, or worry: “Did I do the right thing?”

So we seek out like-minded people who made the same decisions, articulate defenders who shoot down the opposition, energetic promoters who put into words the reasons for this choice.

Homeschooling, birth control, large families, abortion, medical intervention, breastfeeding.

These and more come under attack and are vigorously defended.

For me the sad all-or-nothing discussion right now is the birth control vs. large families debate. (<–Though that link is an excellent “discussion” Jess posted on Making Home, and goes a long way to making a gesture of understanding for both sides.)


A little more than a year after I married, I hated what I saw hormonal birth control doing to me and what I was learning about it. The “question” as to whether it was abortafacient was the final nail in the coffin. I quit.

No godly woman had any reason or right to use hormonal birth control. Why does one need to be inoculated against children anyway?

Then, within six months of each other, I met two women with endometriosis, and was humbled to learn from one that the lining-thinning property of hormonal birth control is one of the most (some argue only) effective management option available for that painful condition. There is no cure. Yes there are other methods of living with it, but I had learned what I never expected to find: a significant, therapeutic use for birth control pills.

This began a process of opening my eyes. Not, I hope, to “situational ethics” where I can dictate right and wrong, but to the reality that God does not call everyone to the same kind of obedience in all things (1 Corinthians 8).

If there is one thing I’ve been learning this stint in a mom’s group, it’s the reminder not all goodness (e.g., good parenting) looks alike. I had been around enough… under-developed parenting I’d forgotten that. I had forgotten that not everybody needs my help, and I needed to be reminded that God has different ways of accomplishing his will in each of us.

Those of us who understand our vast freedom in Christ are warned not to hinder the faith of others in the exercise of our freedom, and I’ve been thinking of two different ways this hindering can look.

First, we shouldn’t affirm selfish behavior just because we wish to affirm the individual. By this I mean (for example) reflexively agreeing with a wife’s unexamined use of birth control, or a young mom working outside the home just because she can.

I believe either of these things could be legitimate, but we “older women” (such as we are) aren’t helping them learn to think critically if we agree with a decision they’ve made on merely cultural grounds.

I’m not suggesting we go out and lecture people. I’m referring to those who approach us, asking our opinion or seeking our approval.

Second, we should also be careful not to share our own stories as if they were absolute models– because we shouldn’t encourage anyone to think that by looking like us they will be obeying God’s plan for their lives. That could be just exchanging one set of prayerless assumptions for another.

Better than anyone we know our own imperfections, and I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t dare condemn anyone else to mine.

God has planted some amazing beauty and truth in my life, but I hope I never again assume that that beauty and (little-t) truth are the only things that can be called by those names.

Frequently, when I begin to feel sure of one small “fact” (Women who don’t breastfeed are a reflection of our selfish, me-centered culture.), reality will break in. God will gently insert an exception into my life to remind me that I haven’t got it all figured out.

It’s how he teaches me grace.


All this God also uses to remind me of himself, and my forever-insufficient understanding him.

My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered from time to time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence? The Incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the messiah in ruins… But the same thing happens in our private prayers.

All reality is iconoclastic.

C.S. Lewis
From A Grief Observed

4 thoughts on “The Trouble With Beauty

  1. Very nice thoughts. The point about not hindering one another in our faith is very important, I think. It is easy to confuse our personal convictions based on scripture with scripture. And then the church begins to splinter itself over minutiae that are not central to the message of Christ.

  2. I suppose I must add, because this point was lost:

    I don’t believe exceptions and reminders-to-grace mean I should change my personal stance on any of these points.

    These issues where we disagree are an opportunity to examine ourselves and our ways of thinking, but not (necessarily) a call to sameness or any kind of compromise between our stances. Too many of these things are points where we simply will not agree, yet we are called to live at peace, “so far as it depends on [us].”

    That’s what I’m trying to learn to do.

  3. So very profound!! I’m really liking your blog. You have so much wisdom, and you share it very well. This particular issue is a pet peeve of mine, since I spent so much of my life in a “one size fits all” world. There really are few things in life where that applies.

  4. I think these late realizations disappoint us because we expect to be “smarter.” We think we’ve thought things through enough that a new angle won’t surprise us, and we’re embarrassed to be wrong.

    But this has happened so many times in recent years that I’ve become more grateful that I can say for “quiet embarrassment,” thankful it’s saved me from actually hurting someone.

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