Is dowdiness next to Godliness?
Some people appear to think so, but we should celebrate the brilliant bodies God gave us, says Sheila Bridge
Imagine for a moment that you have arranged all the women you know into a line. Those who obsess the most about their appearance are at one end and the least bothered stand at the other end. Here’s the big question: where would you put yourself?
All of us know that to be totally, obsessively, anxious about our appearance can’t be a good thing and maybe we know someone we would put in that category. Maybe this woman has beauty therapy treatments we would consider self-indulgent. Maybe she simply looks better than we do. For whatever reason, we judge her as being too concerned about her appearance.
At the other end of the scale, there is the woman we know who takes no trouble at all over her appearance and, quite frankly, we rather wish she did! We prefer to think that we’d be standing ahead of her in the line.
We know, as Christians, that we shouldn’t really be at either extreme end of the line, but the tricky bit is to know where we should stand.
Somewhere in the middle, I’m guessing. Most of us are somewhere between the two extremes because there are some things we like about ourselves, but there are other things that make us feel self-conscious.
There are some things we feel comfortable about doing to improve our appearance (tidying our eyebrows, shaving our armpits, brushing our hair . . .) but other things would feel extreme. The tricky thing is that what feels extreme for one person seems totally acceptable to the next. So is a leg wax reasonable but a boob job obsessive? How far should you go with personal grooming? How much is it reasonable to spend? If the problem you’ve got is sapping your self-confidence, is any price too high to pay the plastic surgeon or is there an alternative way to boost your self-esteem?
Most of us shuffle into the middle ground, believing that we shouldn’t be too showy or ostentatious, but we should all at least make an effort. The problem is that none of us agree on exactly what would be too showy or too much of an effort. For what it’s worth, my opinion is that most Christian women play it safe, rarely making the best of their physical features. We are all too scared to look showy, be misunderstood or seem shallow.
On top of this, most of us don’t like to admit that we are unduly influenced by culture or advertising, though if we are honest, none of us are immune. Maybe you are reading this thinking “actually I’m completely at home with my imperfections thank you”, and if that’s the case, good for you! But there is a woman near you, someone you love, maybe your daughter, your sister, your friend, someone whose life experiences and self-confidence is being sapped by this constant pressure to be perfect or by their own constant sense of failure.
It’s for these honest, struggling women that I have written the book How to Feel Good Naked. It takes a look at the huge pressures we are under from the media constantly blasting out the undermining message that a woman’s worth lies in her attractiveness. For the Christian there is a huge opposite pressure to debunk this attitude. We want to say, “actually my value is not related to my attractiveness. And any hint that it might be makes me want to demand that I be accepted wearing the fashion equivalent of a brown paper bag. I know there is more to me than appearance. I know I have talents, passions, preferences and creativity - all of which matters more than my looks, but I am a torn woman. A part of me is saying ‘don’t judge me for what I look like’ and another part is wondering what to wear to a party at the weekend”.
So does wanting to look good make me a shallow human being?
I guess the question ‘Does God approve?’ sums up our ambivalence.
I grew up in a small, non-conformist church, an ex Brethren assembly. The Brethren had a lot of things going for them, but fashion sense wasn’t one. Female heads had to be covered (hats or scarves), pierced ears were out and long hair was in (on your legs as well as your head)!
It wasn’t the kind of place that encouraged looking good. At the age of 19, after a fair degree of soul searching and Bible study, (yes, really!), I rebelled and had my ears pierced. As far as rebellions go, I’m aware that it sounds unbelievably trivial now, but I had been brought up to believe that as my body was the temple of the Holy Spirit I had no business tampering with it. Pierced ears were more like self-mutilation than self expression. Improving on your natural looks might make you appear flirtatious and why would you want to look attractive anyway? What motive could you possibly have for shaving your legs or plucking your eyebrows? Seduction seemed far more likely than the straightforward desire to look less like a gorilla!
None of this was taught of course. The layout of the temple in Jerusalem was taught but how to look good in a skirt, I had to work out for myself! At church, demure dress was simply an assumption, demure to the point of frumpy, because some Christians did seem to believe that ‘dowdiness is next to Godliness’.
In my journey towards self acceptance, I have come to two firmly held conclusions: the first is that the desire to be attractive, beautiful even, is a natural and good part of what it means to be female.
I believe in a Creator who planted in me an inner desire to be attractive, so I think that wanting to look good is an okay thing. You don’t have to suppress it because being concerned about your appearance does not make you a shallow human being. Yes it’s true that in his sermon on the mount, Jesus told us to stop worrying about what to wear, but in the same sentence he told us that the lilies of the field didn’t try that hard and they are beautiful, and I take it that he meant that being beautiful and attractive is a good thing.
You may have met Christians who sadly give the impression that it’s more ‘godly’ to close your eyes, put your hand into your wardrobe and put on the first five items you pull out. But I do not think we worship a God who will make you wear brown or whichever colour it is that doesn’t do it for you.
My second conclusion is that the secret to being beautiful actually lies much deeper than the surface. It has nothing to do with cellulite or crows feet. It has everything to do with seeing yourself as God sees you and accepting his unconditional love for you.
Looking good and feeling good is not really about what you wear, it’s about who you are and who you are in God is precious and unique. So being attractive should be an expression of who you are. Taking care of your appearance should make you less self-conscious not more. Looking good isn’t about showing off, it’s about celebrating the brilliant bodies God gave us. What we wear and how we take care of ourselves should express the value God places on us. To rewrite the phrase from the L’Oreal advert: “I’m worth it, because God says so!”
How to look good
Sheila’s book takes a walk through the world of diets, exercise and self-presentation. Each section contains a huge selection of tips and advice about ‘stuff that really works’. We asked her to share her favourite tips with us
+ Remind yourself constantly of the phrase “small changes over a long time make a big difference”. Instead of the ‘all or nothing’ approach to dieting, try to make little changes to your diet and sustain them. For example, drink more water. Drinking a glass of water before a meal, or when you have hunger pangs, and waiting five minutes will often mean you don’t fill up on low-nutrition snacks.
+ Sleep more. It’s been shown that after a bad night’s sleep your body will demand more carbohydrates to give it that quick energy burst it needs because you are more likely to feel cold or lethargic.
+ Fill your day with little pleasures. One of my little pleasures is hand cream. It only takes a moment after washing your hands to pause and rub in some cream. It feels self indulgent, but it is calorie free.
+ Carry a good snack with you, something healthy that will help tide over hunger pangs if you are late. It’s important to respond to your appetite if you don’t you are more likely to over-eat later.
One of the best things I have discovered recently is strength training: lifting or pushing/pulling against a weight or resistance band with a view to strengthening your muscles. Just two sets of exercises a day with a quick warm up and few stretches afterwards makes a huge difference. I have been doing this for about six weeks now and it has done more to change my shape than hours of aerobic exercise ever did. I am now a huge fan of strength training.
For example, did you know that if you do aerobic exercise your metabolism will be raised for just a few hours afterwards. After doing strength training exercises, your metabolism will still be working harder for the next 23 hours, burning more fat for all that time. What’s more, it only takes 15 minutes every day to do two sets of exercises, including the warm up before and the stretches afterwards.
+ Get your colours done. This is the single most effective way to improve your wardrobe and to learn what suits you and which colours go together! It’s not cheap, but in the long run it’s worth every penny.
+ Don’t put big bright things in big places unless you want to draw attention to them. This tip applies to size 8 feet (don’t put them in pink clogs) and big beads on a big bust. The exception to this is that small jeans pockets on top of a big bum make the bum look vast!
+ Put lighter colours and patterned fabrics on the parts of your body you wish to emphasise. Choose patterns in proportion: small prints on petite girls and large prints for big girls.
+ Belts and scarves. If there’s not a lot of you between your boobs and you butt, don’t fill that space with a wide belt. Remember that the belt will draw attention wherever you put it, so don’t wear it on your widest part. A short neck needs narrower scarves, but a long neck can get away with a thick scarf looped round to make a polo neck effect. A scarf softens an older wrinkly neck brilliantly and, if you get the colour right, it should lighten up your face not overwhelm it.
+ Love your Empire Line. If you don’t have much of a waist, a tailored dress that falls from under your boobs will work well.
+ If you are a bit chunky around the middle, avoid skirts with pleats at the front and look for side zips in skirts and trousers to give you a smoother profile.
+ Get yourself measured when you buy a bra and don’t skimp on cheap bras. A plain bra in a smooth fabric will be more versatile than a lacy affair.
+ Revisit your make up kit. If you have make-up that you’ve used for years it’s probably time for a revamp. For excellent colour co-ordinated, ethically sourced, good value make up (wow!) go to www.janefardon.com Jane is a Christian running her own business producing and selling cosmetics.
Take it further
* How to Feel Good Naked, by Sheila Bridge ( ISBN 978 1 85424 928 9) is published by Monarch £8.99.
* There is also a How To Feel Good Naked website www.facebook.com/howtofeel where you can make a comment, add to a discussion or download a talk given by Sheila