Beauty, attraction and modesty – a five act thought process

 I

A couple of weeks ago I went to Scotland and it was beautiful.

It is as easy and natural as that. The description of beauty was done without any further thought or consideration.

Last night I went out and met a beautiful girl.

Well actually I didn’t, I stayed in on my own and watched a couple of episodes of The Pacific. If I had used a real life scenario it would have suddenly become awkward. And that’s my point. When we talk about beauty and it relates to some feature of nature or a work of art it does not provoke the same array of inquiries as to its meaning or subtle squinting of the eye to work out where the statement in question originated.

If I say a girl is beautiful it is taken to mean something more than just a factual observation. In short you’d probably assume I was interested in her romantically. And I might be: because I’m a guy and have been known to be interested in that sort of way.

But it’s also far too reductionist and it takes a whole swathe of compliments out of use. While I am sometimes attracted to a particular girl because of her beauty, that does not mean I am attracted and seeking to romantically pursue any girl I consider to be beautiful.

II

Beauty is subjective, someone I find especially attractive, someone else might not. It’s true with art, I stood in front of Gustav Klimt’s ‘The Kiss’ astonished by its ability to pull beauty out of chaos. The things that shouldn’t work but before collapsing into a mess of disordered colours and materials pulls together to create something beautiful.

Maybe that is how it works with us. Perhaps when we look at another and are overawed by their beauty, it’s the collection of factors edging towards chaos that provokes such a strong reaction. When others look at us, and see something that stirs them it is a mixture of the beauty and the chaos.

Are there two types of beauty? I ask because I think that I am supposed to think that everyone is beautiful, but I know I only find some people truly so. Is it like love, how I love everyone in Christ but some are positioned for particular affection?

III

I sometimes get distracted by beauty. Admittedly the perils are not quite so great as they are in summer time. It’s not just when you’re walking down the street, in the park, on the beach, or out for the night that beauty might cause problems. It can happen in church when you struggle to concentrate on the worship when there’s a girl in tight jeans stood in front of you.

Yesterday someone mentioned the awkwardness of conversation with a lady because of the way she was dressed, it meant he felt he was looking where he shouldn’t.

What does this mean? Does it mean women should dress differently in order to make my, and fellow guy’s lives easier? I don’t think so. I’m not one of the modesty proponents, I don’t want to blame my problem on someone else. I don’t want them to have to act because I’m affected by the way they look. I’ll admit, it might make my life easier for a moment or two. But so in that regard would never leaving my flat, or walking around with a paper bag over my head.

Just as I might have won favour with a few of my female readers, I’m now going to lose their support. I would never blame the way thoughts that might come into my mind which probably shouldn’t on the ladies around me, but I don’t think that completely lets them off the hook either. I think whatever the circumstance, whether it’s around attraction and lust, or about money or power, or anything else, if we are aware that the way we act causes problems for other people we should be prepared to adjust our behaviour. This isn’t about modesty, it’s about using freedom responsibly.

IV

Now I’ve alienated the guys by saying it’s their problem if they get distracted by their attraction, and also alienated the girls by saying even if it’s not their problem sometimes the gracious thing to do might be to change what you wear, I suspect no one is left reading.

But that’s okay, because it takes the pressure off as I approach the crux of my argument. We get beauty wrong.

A beautiful person is still beautiful whether they are dressed in a short skirt and low cut top or draped in Hessian sacks. Last week I watched someone spend the entirety of a fairly long tube journey applying layer after layer of make up, and it didn’t affect how beautiful they are.

On one slightly trite but nevertheless true level, we are all beautiful. But as important as that recognition is, it is vital to acknowledge the basic reality that we are attracted and interested in some people more than others, and therefore our conception of beauty is more likely to be structured around that attraction than an otherwise objective measure.

So I will find people beautiful who are similar in appearance to people I am attracted to. I think putting it this way round is more helpful than saying that I am attracted to people I find beautiful, and I find a certain type of people beautiful.

V

Beauty is both innate and irrefutable and also a construct. A popular conception of beauty is ordered around that which is attractive to many people, or at least attractive to those people who get to decide what others should think is attractive. So a woman who is sought after because of her beauty, reflects back to us those characteristics of beauty which are deemed attractive, and are thus confirmed in our minds as being indicative of beauty.

It means that beauty is associated with a certain type of woman, it means that it is often affected by age and even race. And now think hard: why are women viewed and judged in terms of beauty in a way men are not? I’ll leave that for you to ponder.

It doesn’t completely remove our own ability to form our own opinions but perhaps it might provoke us to pause a minute before we accept hook line and sinker that someone is beautiful and someone else is not. And it might also cause us to think how we act in response to that beauty. For if beauty if defined by terms that we have accepted and used to form an opinion, why do we object to women seeking to attain that which we have already set out is the standard we want them to reach?

So before we go calling for modesty or appropriate clothing take a long hard look, not at the girl in front of you but at your heart and your mind, and why the attraction you feel towards the person before you might be a mixture of healthy and hormonal on one hand, and a distorted and implicitly imposed construct on the other.

And then celebrate beauty. Fear can cripple, and if we are so afraid of what people might think that we never tell someone they are beautiful then we have been taken out of the game by fear.

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5 thoughts on “Beauty, attraction and modesty – a five act thought process

  1. Great article! (and I see you’re channelling your inner Preston Yancey…)

    I actually agree with you on the modesty / whose problem is it thing. The bible says that a women’s beauty should not come from outward adornments but a quiet spirit – and yet Jesus challenges with a ‘does your eye cause you to win? Pluck it out!’ – not ‘does a women’s dress cause you to sin? Stone her!’ This seems to me to be the main difference between the biblical response and that which we see in Islamic countries today.

    I wonder if the difficulty with a man saying a woman is beautiful is the element of attraction. We do not ‘desire’ or lust after rainbows – we just admire their beauty. Does this make the admiration of a rainbow more pure than admiring a person?

    Interesting thoughts – thank you.

  2. “This isn’t about modesty, it’s about using freedom responsibly.” As a female, I agree with this. Not only do I not want to cause problems for my fellow Christians, I also want to avoid wearing clothing that might cause someone, Christian or not, to think of me as an object or anything less than a person.

    I also wonder what this means for how Christian men dress–though characteristically men are thought of to be more easily tempted when it comes to visuals things, it would be remiss to assume the same is never true of Christian women.

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