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(we'll keep this short & sweet)
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“How beautiful are the arms which have embraced Christ...the eyes which have gazed upon Christ, the lips which have spoken with Christ, the feet which have followed Christ. How beautiful are the hands which have worked the works of Christ, the feet which are treading in His footsteps have gone about doing good, the lips which have spread abroad His name, the lives which have been counted loss for Him.”
– Christina Rosetti, 1880
My freshman year of high school, I joined a modeling agency. It was one of those places that promised to turn you into a goddess in just six weeks. The fact that I had braces, glasses, frizzy hair, shockingly pale skin, and super-bushy eyebrows supposedly did not matter; nor did the fact that I was gangly, awkward, and utterly style-challenged. I was assured that the amazing instructors and make-up artists at this world-class institution could transform even the ugliest duckling into the most glamorous swan. So, week after week I showed up, learning how to apply bronzer to the top of my cheekbones, how to tame my wild hair into a silky-smooth texture, and how to walk with my neck high and my hips forward (just in case I was ever recruited to strut down the runways of Paris). I was even taught how to do a mock TV commercial for Maybelline, looking flirtatiously into the camera and coyly unveiling my amazing beauty secret to the world – a brand new volumizing mascara.
I’m not really sure why my parents agreed to this ridiculousness, and even paid for the classes, no less. I think it had something to do with the fact that they felt sorry for me. For years, I had been mercilessly teased about my appearance every day at school. I was desperately insecure. It always seemed like other girls could achieve effortless beauty, while I struggled and strived but never got there. Most of my friends had beautiful olive skin with year-round tans, salon-perfect blonde hair that never went limp, and “of-the- moment” clothes straight out of a Guess catalog. I, on the other hand, was plagued with ghostly pale skin, frizzy brown hair, hopelessly crooked teeth (and thus three miserable years of braces), and a disturbing ineptness at making my outfits look even remotely trendy. At that point in my life, I had never been described by the opposite sex as “hot” or “pretty.” The most I could hope for was that guys would label me as “nice” and want to be friends with me. But a large majority of them used me as verbal target practice. They could sense my insecurity and found great delight in pouncing on it.
I still remember walking home from school one May afternoon, my skinny legs revealing my glowing white skin beneath a knee-length skirt. A carload of high school boys suddenly drove by, and one of them yelled mockingly, “Get a tan!” I was deeply mortified. (I will spare you the story of my subsequent attempt at using self-tanning cream, which ended up making me look strangely akin to one of those garishly orange Uumpa-Lumpas from Charlie and Chocolate Factory.)
It had been easy enough to feel like a princess when I was eight, watching Walt Disney princess movies and then twirling around the backyard in a frilly dress. But the older I became, and the more of the real world I experienced, the more I began to feel like an ugly stepsister instead of Cinderella.
It didn’t matter that my parents had repeatedly told me, “You are beautiful just the way you are!” My youth leader’s lesson on “accepting your own inner beauty and getting comfortable in your own skin” had not helped. And my school counselor’s lectures on the importance of self-esteem hadn’t made even the slightest difference in my life. The bottom line was that I wanted to be beautiful – not with some vague “inner beauty” that had no value in the real world, but with the kind of sexy, alluring, culture-pleasing appeal that I saw on billboards and TV. Somewhere between playing with my frilly dress-up clothes and doing the fake Maybelline commercial shoot, I had become convinced that this was the one road to true happiness and the only way to find real love.
I’m not sure if modeling school made any real difference in my physical allure. I certainly did not look like a model by the end of it. One thing I do know – I spent nearly every waking moment of my life for about two years trying to make myself more appealing to the culture and to the opposite sex.
Eventually, all of my efforts did achieve a measure of outward beauty, and I finally began to gain guys’ attention. But the ironic thing was that I still felt hopelessly ugly. The first time a guy asked me out, I thought he was joking and started to laugh. And when another guy told me I was pretty, I was shocked. I looked at him in confusion and the blurted, “Really?”
For all the time I spent chasing after the culture’s beauty standard, I never seemed to actually “get there.” Sure, I might have graduated out of my frizzy-haired, pale skin, gangly, and awkward phase. But no matter how much make-up I put on, I still didn’t look like the covers of Seventeen or Vogue. No matter how much I deprived myself of fries and milkshakes, my thighs never seemed to get as skinny as the girl on the Abercrombie poster. And no matter how many guys showed interest in me, there were always scores of other girls that got far more male approval than I did.
My search for feminine beauty, marred and tainted by modern society, had led me to an existence entirely centered upon myself. Instead of pursuing the elegance and nobility that my fictional childhood heroines exuded, I was pursuing the sensual standard of pop culture. Instead of twirling around in a flowing princess dress, I was sauntering down the halls in skin-tight designer jeans and push-up bras. There wasn’t anything graceful or feminine about it. It was all based on sex. The sexier you were, the more beautiful you were.
It was anything but a fairy tale, and I was anything but a princess. In all of the fairy tales I’d grown up with, the heroine might have been beautiful but she was not admired for her sex appeal. Rather, she was admired for her poise, grace, gentleness, courage and feminine charm.
When I was young, I had spent hours imagining that I was a captivatingly lovely heroine, exuding a sweetness and charm that caused even the birds to come rest upon my finger as I walked through the forest. When I saw injustice, I would quickly rush to offer help and protection. And when confronted with evil, I would sacrifice my own personal happiness to protect what was right. I used to dream about meeting a gallant prince who would be fascinated by all the amazing qualities he saw in me; a man who would slay dragons and conquer kingdoms in order to win me for his
But by the time I was fourteen, I had come to the sad realization that modern guys couldn’t care less about feminine grace or nobility. They measured your worth based on the size of your chest and the shape of your body. They measured your desirability based on how quickly they could get you into bed.
Modern culture scorned fairy-tale femininity. Nearly every magazine cover or fashion ad portrayed the same image of “beauty” – a haughty-looking young woman with an icy scowl on her face, waifish clothes draping her anemic body, and her lifeless eyes lacquered with ghoulish black liner. This, apparently, was the standard for womanly allure – the type of girl that guys were attracted to and that society applauded.
So I traded in my pursuit of true feminine beauty for the cheap counterfeit presented by the culture. The result was a season of hellish misery; throwing myself at guy after guy, only to be used and carelessly discarded; tossing all dignity and modesty to the wind and flaunting my body everywhere I went; exchanging wholesome conversation for profanity and crudeness; ignoring the needs of others and adopting an attitude of selfishness and rebellion; filling my mind and heart with the perverted images of Hollywood and the media. Of course, since I was a Christian, I put limits around how far I let these things go in my life. I always made sure I was a step or two ahead of my secular peers when it came to morality, but that didn’t keep me from being steeped in compromise.
From the world’s perspective, I was on the right track to becoming a desirable young woman; a woman that had forsaken the archaic, restrictive, old-fashioned ideas about feminine modesty and dignity and embraced the empowerment of a self-focused, sensual existence. But a couple of years into this pattern, I finally recognized how empty my life was. I had male attention – but it only led to one broken heart after the next. I had a measure of sensual beauty – but it only made me feel like a sex object. I had social status and popularity – but it made me feel fake and shallow. I had parties and entertainment – but they made me feel slimed and dirty.
It was right around that time that I encountered a young woman in her twenties who was altogether different than any modern young woman I’d ever seen. She was a missionary. She was the most radiant girl I’d ever met. Her face literally glowed. She was beautiful – but it was not a contrived beauty, propped up by outward things like clothes and makeup. Rather, it seemed to emanate from somewhere within her. Her eyes sparkled with passion. Her smile lit up an entire room. She was entirely others-focused and seemed to completely lose sight of herself. Most men groomed by modern culture wouldn’t have given her a second look. She didn’t carry herself with the seductive, flirtatious air that guys always seemed to respond to. She didn’t dress to show off her figure. In fact, she didn’t pursue guys at all. She was far too busy living out a passionate romance with Jesus Christ to be pining after an earthly prince.
She did not posses worldly allure, but she had something far better – a radiant loveliness that reminded me of the princesses in my childhood fairy tales. It was obvious that her beauty was the real thing, and it far surpassed the hollow counterfeit I’d been chasing after for so many years. I was awed and inspired by what I saw.
Suddenly, all I wanted was to be a little girl again – carefree and innocent, floating in my frilly princess dress and pretending to be a fairy tale heroine. The souped-up sensuality and shallow, self-focused femininity I had pursued in recent years had brought nothing but heartache. When I pondered how far I’d strayed from true feminine beauty, I felt heavy with regret. Was it even possible now to return to those days of childhood innocence? Could my femininity ever be restored after I had spent years throwing it to the wind?
That night, I knelt beside my bed, tears of remorse streaming down my cheeks. “God, forgive me!” I cried. “I have strayed so far from You. I have chased after empty, worldly things for so long. All the while I’ve been proclaiming to be a Christian, I’ve been living for myself. Forgive me for allowing my femininity to become so twisted. Restore me and shape me into the kind of girl You designed me to be. Cleanse me from the filth of the world and make me new.”
Though I had distanced myself from God for two years, that night I felt His presence like never before. I knew He had heard my prayer. And I felt a gentle assurance in my heart that He had a tremendous plan for my life; something far more fulfilling than the path I’d been pursuing. But first He needed my life.
During the next season of my life, my femininity was completely transformed. My understanding of beauty was radically altered. God didn’t merely restore my childhood innocence and return me to the days of dressing up like a princess. Rather, He gave me a breathtaking vision for true feminine beauty – His vision. He taught me the ultimate secret to lasting, spectacular beauty. And it was far beyond the most amazing fairy tale I’d ever imagined, even as a little girl twirling around my backyard.
Women who exuded enchanting beauty can be found all throughout the pages of Christian history. They rejected the empty feminine charm of the world, and embraced an altogether different kind of beauty – the beauty of Jesus Christ. They showcased femininity as God intended it to be, in all its elegance, grace, nobility, and lasting loveliness.
Here are just a handful of inspiring examples:
“A pretty woman, with lovely soft features, kind eyes and dark hair, she was never angry, never impatient, never resentful, she patiently wore away prejudices and hatred by her gentle, gracious presence and her blameless life. She had all the firmness of a man, and yet a more gentle and womanly woman it would be hard to find.”
– Said of Lottie Moon, young single missionary to China
“Her presence lends its warmth and health to all who come before it; if woman lost us Eden, then such as she alone restore it.”
– Said of Lucy Hayes, First Lady in 1821
“She seemed endowed with a peculiar magnetism when you were in her presence so that you could not help thinking yourself in the presence of a being much higher than the ordinary run of humanity. I have heard her pray, and she could offer up the finest petition to the Throne of Grace of any person I ever heard in my life. She was always gentle and kind to the Indians, as she was to everyone else. She took an interest in every one at the mission, especially the children. Everyone loved her, because to see her was to love her.”
– Said of Narcissa Whitman, young married missionary to Native American Indians
“They say there is a young lady in New Haven who is beloved of that Great Being who made and rules the world. They say that He fills her mind with exceeding sweet delight, and that she hardly cares for anything except to meditate on Him...She possesses a wonderful sweetness, calmness, and kindness to those around her. She will sometimes go about from place to place, singing sweetly. She seems to be always full of joy and pleasure, and no one knows exactly why. She loves to be alone, walking in the fields and groves, and seems to have Someone invisible always conversing with her.”
– Written of Sarah Edwards by Jonathan Edwards, her future husband
Captivating femininity isn’t supposed to only be found in Jane Austen movies or Cinderella stories. Words like enthralling, enchanting, breathtaking, stunning, delightful, and noble should be the description of every set-apart, Christ-built young woman. It’s God’s perfect design for each of His royal daughters. Our desire to be a radiant princess didn’t originate with Walt Disney – it’s a desire placed within us by our Maker. He created us to shine with royal beauty; not to dazzle with a self-promoting allure, but to be a sparkling reflection of the stunning beauty of our King. And in order to discover the lost art of true beauty, we must look outside the hollow pattern of this world.
When my husband Eric was first attempting to put words to the kind of feminine beauty that set-apart young women are called to, he described it as a blend between Audrey Hepburn dignity and Amy Carmichael selflessness. Audrey Hepburn has been called the epitome of elegance and grace. Though her personal beliefs or Hollywood career are not things I necessarily want to promote, she knew how to carry herself like a true lady – an almost entirely lost concept among women today. Amy Carmichael is one of the most heroic women in Christian history; she gave up personal ambition and pursuits in order to rescue hundreds of endangered children in India with a devotion that is also a forgotten ideal among modern femininity. This dazzling blend of ladylike grace and selfless devotion is what marks a truly set-apart young woman.
When Christ overtakes a woman’s life and transforms her from the inside out, she becomes truly feminine – a picture of elegance, grace, and loveliness, blended with sacrificial and selfless devotion to her King. She becomes a true lady, carrying herself with poise and confidence, yet deflecting all attention away from herself and toward Jesus Christ. She is enchantingly mysterious, holding her inner life sacred and guarding her heart with quiet tenacity.
Noble, breathtaking, captivating, and Christ-centered femininity is truly a sight to behold. It’s a beauty that does not draw attention to the woman, but to Jesus Christ. It’s a radiance that is not dependent upon age, circumstance, or physical enhancements. It’s a loveliness that flows from deep within – the refreshing beauty of heaven, flowing out of a life transformed by Jesus Christ. Even Cinderella pales in comparison!*
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