Lady Gaga wrote a popular song about being as free as her – ironically, often fake – hair, but can we really find true beauty and freedom in something as fleeting and temporal as our hair?
I love my hair. No, really. I deeply love my hair. Down to every last tendril and sun-streaked split end. It wasn’t always this way. In fact, I used to hate my hair. Thick, frizzy, tangle-prone, and all around hard to manage, it was a nightmare to deal with as an awkward and semi-hygienically challenged adolescent. But sometime in my early twenties my views on these tresses began to change. Instead of looking in the mirror only to see an enemy to slay (or chop off) at periodic intervals, I began to understand that it was a great gift and perhaps even the crown of my outward beauty. I came to embrace my hair, and with it I embraced my femininity and my unique beauty bestowed upon me by a loving creator.
In Christian circles, particularly among young girls who struggle with low self-esteem or body image, there is a tendency to emphasize interior beauty as the chief marker of development or maturity. I learned all about this view in my younger years and I suppose these teachings did help to sustain my vision for the future through the seasons of life when all I beheld in my reflection was an ugly duckling unworthy of love. I knew all the verses, and all the catch phrases, that taught my fellow self-deprecating peers and I to look after our interior life instead of concerning ourselves with the exterior particularities of our body.
We clung to the words of 1 Peter 3:3-4, “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold 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.” In short, we told ourselves that it was OK if we were overweight, or if we hated how we looked in pictures, or if we neglected our appearance, so long as we desired and cultivated a beautiful spirit.
What I failed to understand, what we all failed to see, was the interconnected nature of interior and exterior beauty. It is not that we were wrong to suggest that interior beauty is of higher (or highest) value, but we neglected the quiet reality that a vital part of refining our interior life is embracing our embodied selves with joy and respect. So long as I hated and abused my outward appearance, so long as I hated my hair or my body or my face, my sense of self was incomplete and my internal growth was stunted. I needed both an internal refining and an external blossoming to be fully open to the transforming work of the Spirit in me.
I have long observed that even the most classically beautiful people, when lacking internal maturity or depth, can be rendered unlovely upon closer acquaintance. So too can our estimation of the beauty for a seemingly “plain” person with a kindhearted and wise soul increase over time.
A great deal of developing the internal life of both men and women is changing our eyes to see the beauty of God in his creatures. This means that as we grow in faith our understanding of beauty alters. Instead of merely appreciating the symmetry of a face or the striking color of someone’s eyes, we come to appreciate all that is good, or all that is God, in the people we see and pass by each day. This also means that we will begin to see all that is not of him as truly ugly or unattractive.
When I embraced my hair, began to grow it out, and started caring for it properly, I did so as an outward sign of my readiness to embrace the goodness of God in the whole of my life. Not merely the whole of my interior life, but of my entire being – body and soul alike. Through a painstaking process of self re-definition meted out in prayer and community, I realized that all this time when I looked in the mirror and saw something ugly staring back at me I was actually seeing the ugliness of my interior life showing through. It was the dark gaping reflection of the deep set and festering places of my heart that I refused to turn over to God.
I had hardened myself to the idea that I could ever be truly beautiful or attractive and I refused to let God make me whole again. I was intelligent and spiritual and caring. I thought this was good enough, for to care about my outward beauty was to face up to the realities of my pain, heartache, and fear. I had bought into a dualist lie and used it to keep myself from the very thing I wanted the most: womanly maturity and womanly beauty.
So long as I precluded the possibility of being beautiful on the outside I could never be fully beautiful on the inside.
We cannot neglect the interior life for the sake of petty externals, and we must always be on guard against the formation of little vanities and prides that crowd out the still small voice beckoning for the continual transformation of our eternal natures. But I have learned, through my hair, that there is no piece of our lives that is shut off from the healing touch of the Father, our creator. To come before him with open hands, relinquishing all that is ugly and broken, and ask for his help in making us fully lovely is to embody the beauty of Proverbs 31. It is to accept the beauty of God’s grace.
Let none of us be so prideful as to tell God which places in our lives are beyond his redemption and transformation. May we all come to know in time what it is like to see in the mirror clearly, and for that mirror to reflect the purity of God’s beautiful goodness.
She is clothed with strength and dignity;
she can laugh at the days to come.
She speaks with wisdom,
and faithful instruction is on her tongue.
Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;
but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
Proverbs 31:25-26, 30