by Jack Hoehn | 6 May 2020 |
Whatever beauty God has bestowed on us is not a gift to us; it is a gift to others. Our stewardship of that measure of handsomeness or beauty we were given is not selfish; it is generous.
There were hundreds of wonderful young women when I was in college. Coming from a small class with 23 members, to a new college far from home with 650 new young women to meet and attend classes with was a spectacular thing for a shy young man. I enjoyed meeting many of them, my male dorm mates dated many of them, and we discussed almost all of them. And yet out of the hundreds there was only one that made my heart to sing.
But besides my beautiful beloved that I actively courted and finally won as my life partner, in the male dormitory there was no question but that there was a consensus opinion on different young women. Some girls were just beautiful. Beyond personality, life goals, intelligence, kindness, spirituality they just made you happy to look at them. Once I got the kind attention of my beautiful Deanne, the dormitory discussions of her beauty in my presence became shortened to, “You lucky dog!” I am.
But Deanne’s beauty and that of the other beautiful young women we guys were blessed to see and know was not God’s gift to her or them. Their beauty was God’s gift to us.
Likewise, most of the young men in the college were smart, kind, thoughtful, even funny. But even we guys knew that some of us (not me for sure) were “lookers.” And I suspect that in Deanne’s dormitory there were female discussions and opinions that tagged the best looking, most strikingly handsome males. But their good looks, remarkable profiles, the way their clothes just seemed to hang just right was not God’s gift to them. Their handsomeness was God’s gift to us.
CAN WE APPRECIATE BEAUTY IN OTHERS?
Having stated the obvious, I also recognize that human nature often responds poorly to other’s beauty with jealousy and spite. We feel in competition on “looks” so we may mock, disparage, and belittle those we think are “too good looking for their own good.” Or more honestly “for our own good.” If a beautiful woman is blond, we tell “blond jokes.” If a handsome man dresses well we might accuse him of being vain or stuck-up, or belittle him as a clothes-horse, or question his masculinity. Sad but true, isn’t it?
And I have learned from some beautiful women that they consider their “looks” a curse. And that many truly beautiful women feel insecure and dismissive of their appearance. As a conservative Seventh-day Adventist I was raised with the puritanical biases of our New England founders. Makeup and jewelry were “sinful adornments.” Attention to how you looked was “prideful.”
One young man, already feeling his dominance, in pontification harmed two girls at once. He walked into a classroom and criticized the most beautiful and best dressed classmate in the room (she had been featured in a magazine) by saying, “Why do you have to dress so fancily? Why can’t you dress like…?” naming another female classmate not blessed with equal assets or clothing budget. One remark hurt two women, and likely he raised the anxiety level on appearance or religious appropriateness of most of the other girls in the room at the same time.
I have to admit that I used to value as virtue “plainness.” In my young mind the Quaker black, the Mennonite, Hutterite, head down, hangdog look of religious girls and women was desirable. Even while ignoring the unspoken but visible male dominance that was part of that creed, as much as mandatory head coverings or facial veils. We liked the way that well-dressed girls looked, but we distrusted it as “too showy” or “worldly.” And we didn’t take much obvious care of our own clothing, lest we be seen as “too fancy.” (Although as school photos attest, we boys all doggedly conformed to certain culturally popular hair styles, length, presence or absence.)
A STORY HELPED CHANGE MY OPINION
I no longer remember where I read this story, but it helped me change my attitude towards beauty and clothing, and it was true. There was an Italian school teacher who dressed remarkably well every day. His fabrics were quality, always clean, well pressed, his shoes were polished, his hair in place, he just looked good. His students noticed he was different from most of their teachers, so at graduation some of them got brave enough to ask him why on his limited budget he dressed so well. He smiled.
“During the war, I was interned in a prison of war camp. It was ugly, it was filthy, it was cruel and degrading. We wore dirty, stripped, cheap fabrics that were never washed. I was not certain I would survive and many did not. I told God, if I survived, I would never add any filth, ugliness, cruelty to life, and would always do my best to make life more beautiful. That is why I began to pay attention to my clothing and appearance. I don’t want any of you to have to see the ugliness I saw during those terrible years.”
This motivation for dressing well, for being attractive gave me a new appreciation of those who dressed well, who looked good, who tried to make life more beautiful by their appearance. That it was not vanity, not pride, not selfishness—it was kindness to us for people to enhance their beauty with personal grooming and careful clothing.
MY WIFE HELPED CHANGE MY OPINION
I was always proud of my beautiful wife. But I think I sort of kept it quiet in our early marriage, because I didn’t want to be proud. But by watching Deanne I learned that her carefulness to wear the colors that matched her complexion, her preference for bright cheerful colors, her attention to her hair and shoes and grooming, not only made me happy, but made everyone she met happy. She was not proud, she was not vain, she was not selfish. Her attention to looking her best was a kindness to not only me but to everyone we met. All who know Deanne are made happier by her bright colors. People who don’t know her—mostly women, of course—stop her on the street and tell her, “I love that coat you are wearing. I love those colors. I wish I could wear that.” They are happy because she dresses well. And I know that many men who know us still think, “You lucky dog!” (They are still right!)
MOST OF US WON’T BE IN MAGAZINES
There are very few humans who are so striking that magazines want us in their pages to sell more magazines. There are few of us who will be in the running for “Sexiest Man Alive” by People magazine. And few of the most wonderful and truly beautiful people I have ever known would ever be contestants for Miss America. But everyone can do the service of appearing as beautiful and handsome as they can. Everyone can take care of making the places they are planted more beautiful.
I have learned that we ourselves are not always to best judge of this. I certainly have learned that what I think I look best in is not the same as Deanne sees I look best in. So, you will certainly want to take the advice of a loving partner.
I have also seen that it is wrong for a woman at least to shop alone. It is always more successful if two or three or more ladies shop together. Because again beauty and appearance are not for us, not “what do I like,” as much as what will my appearance do to make others happy. That is why a group of good friends choosing clothes together helps a person focus on what their clothes do for others.
The little dynamo of Marie Kondo from Japan has become a world-wide media sensation with her televised suggestions on organizing and decluttering. Millions of people have watched her help improve the quality of life of many families by decluttering. Her patented phrase to help people decide which clothes to keep and which to send off to the Dorcas or Goodwill is, “Does it spark joy?”
But the same little question could guide us in all appearance suggestions. Not only does it “spark joy” in our own hearts, but does this piece of clothing, these shoes, this haircut, this ornament, this suit, this shirt, this cosmetic “spark joy” in others?
Do others feel happier because they looked at you? This does not require stunning physical appearance. This comes from clean, neat, right color, beauty enhancing instead of detracting choices, including a smile. A relaxed but cute design and pleasant tactile feel is important in fabrics. A few quality clothes are a far better investment than things bought “because they were on sale.” And again, ask others for help. If you have “no sense of style” discuss it with people who do. If you are tempted to “make a statement” by being outrageous, at least try for a few months to be more beautiful, instead of being “more disturbing.” And see how the world responds to you.
Some texts of the Bible didn’t translate well. Perhaps the main offender here has been 1 Peter 3:3,4, which has been largely translated as “Your beauty should NOT come from outward adornment….” and has been freely used by chauvinist theologians to Puritanize women’s appearances. Such a difference comes to this text if just one little word is added— “only” or “not merely” in the New King James and Weymouth Bibles; or “not just” in the World English and New Heart English Bibles. Here is what I think the Bible was trying to say,
“Your beauty should not [ONLY] come from outward adornment,
such as hairstyles and the wearing of jewelry or fine clothes.
Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty
of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.”
—1 Peter 3:3,4 adapted.
It is true that handsomeness and beauty of youth fade. But Prince Charles at age 71 still looks very handsome in a nicely tailored gray suit, and his mother Queen Elizabeth was absolutely beautiful in her green dress with tasteful broach and a few pearls as she spoke to us about the COVID-19 plague at age 93. The unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit is truly of great worth. But a tasteful, colorful, well-fitting green dress on the Queen still helps spark joy for the rest of us. Whatever you can do to enhance your appearance and public presentation is not selfish, it is generous. And your attention to your appearance, I believe, is also of great worth in God’s sight. For is it not
“He [who] has made everything beautiful in its time”? —
Jack Hoehn is a retired physician living in Walla Walla, Washington.