Monday, June 27, 2011

Should Christians Pursue External Beauty?

A controversial Psychology Today article arguing that black women are less attractive than others got me thinking about real beauty.

Give beauty back,
beauty, beauty, beauty,
back to God,
beauty's self and beauty's giver.

(Gerard Manley Hopkins, "The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo.”)

“Why Are Black Women Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women?”

That's the title of a recent (and promptly removed) Psychology Today online article by London School of Economics psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa. It should be a dead giveaway that the content to follow will be nonsense. It doesn’t take a scientist to figure that out. Kanazawa rated survey responses from the Add Health project, a somewhat select questionnaire completed by a small pool of participants. He concluded that black women are “objectively less physically attractive than white, Asian or Native American women.” Kanazawa added, “The only thing I can think of that might explain the lower average physical attractiveness among black women is testosterone. Africans on average have higher levels of testosterone than other races . . . .”

The public and journalistic uproar has died down. I’m sure Psychology Today has since had some interesting staff meetings. Naturally, I am tempted to cite the litany of painstakingly beautiful black women. But responding this way would be moot, suggesting the premise of the “scientific study” is legitimate discourse. Still, I have found myself reflecting on some deeper concerns it gets to, besides issues of racism that most critics have noted.
For me, a Christian Nigerian-American woman, it's equally important to debunk Kanazawa's ridiculous query as it is to examine how tempting it still is to allow ourselves to fall captive to the popular imagination that insists that physical attractiveness encapsulates the highest definition of beauty, and is the chief means by which we measure our and others’ value. Women have never been strangers to this cultural temptation. Beauty, as our culture defines it, lures us to want to both “put it on” and possess it for our personal gratification and public flaunting.

For people of faith, a fuller understanding of beauty is that it always points us back towards God’s self and God’s goodness. If we Christians believe Scripture, then even though we recognize that all creation mirrors the beauty of God, we most fully recognize God through the person of Jesus Christ. To look for God is first to look to the Word that bears witness to the Triune God, and then to match up the witness of the illuminating Word with the Spirit’s movement in the world. Following this trajectory presumes that beauty is that which reflects the life of Christ.
Such reasoning offers a whole new landscape on which to spot and cultivate the multiple forms that beauty takes, including what we do with our bodies, and how we use our hands and minds to nurture the flourishing of those in and out of our communities. Consequently, a historical litany of the most beautiful women would include Harriet Tubman, Wangari Muta Maathai, and the numerous Argentinean women known as Grandmothers of La Plaza de Mayo. A God-centered hunger for beauty is most fully satisfied when we pattern our lives after what we know of God’s character through Christ. And this is by no means to suggest a Marcion reading, that we know God only through the New Testament. Rather, as Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer posited so beautifully, we know God and his covenant story with humanity only by starting in the middle of God’s story, with Christ.

However, lest we throw the supermodel out with the baptismal water, Kanazawa cannot be critiqued for researching physical beauty itself. Our culture’s sinful emphasis on it doesn’t make it bad. As one naturally motivated and affected by aesthetics, I won’t deny the power of the human form in the peoples and cultures that reveal God’s incomprehensible, holy imagination. As a woman convicted that cultivating internal beauty both honors God and provides a way of living into God’s best for us, I also hold that women, Christian or not, can and should delight in the beauty of their human form.

Physical attributes of beauty are also a segment of beauty from the God-centered perspective. Our bodies are works of divine art, in all their shapes and sizes and various abilities or disabilities. It is always an act of faithfulness to delight in that which God delights, and I believe that God delights in what God creates. How one accentuates the beauty of the human form is another topic altogether, full of subjective arguments. But there is nothing inherently wrong with minding how we look and expressing our attempts, albeit at times quite fallen, to layer our multifaceted ideas of beauty upon that which is already beautiful. I am both playfully and sincerely grateful that I have the luxury to dwell on what I believe is most flattering to my human form, what dresses, occasional shade of lip gloss, or flimsy scarf makes me feel beautiful.

But while I delight in seeking to be beautiful on the inside and on the outside, I don't hang my existential coat on this body. The grace of Christ and the power of the Spirit help me cultivate the former and hold the latter loosely. There is no doubt that Kanazawa was on to something in that beauty deserves attention. But that attention should ultimately point us back to God, “beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.”

Enuma Okoro was born in the United States and raised in Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and England. She holds a Master of Divinity from Duke Divinity School where she served as director for the Center for Theological Writing. The author of Reluctant Pilgrim and co-author of Common Prayer (with Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove), Enuma lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. She blogs at

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