Sydney Spies never imagined that a photo shoot for her high school yearbook would lead to a national news story. Her mother warned her that the shot she selected for her senior class picture might lead to controversy, but even Miki Spies was surprised by the media attention.
The 18-year-old high school student from Durango, Colorado posed on a staircase, looking back over her left shoulder. Wearing a short yellow skirt and a black scarf wrapped around her torso so that it exposes her shoulders and midriff, Spies portrays something more provocative than typical yearbook fare.
A group of her peers thought so, too. The yearbook editorial staff of five students feared the photo would “make our publication seem unprofessional and inappropriate.” The staff also rejected a second photo submitted by Spies in another provocative pose, wearing a form-fitting black mesh strapless dress.
In an interview on the Today show, Spies claimed, “I think it describes who I am. I am an outgoing person and I really do think it is artistic.” She aspires to a modeling career and both photos reflect a model’s portfolio.
While the photo ignited a controversy over legal rights and freedoms, it also begs for a deeper discussion of Beauty. In December, Pat Archbold wrote a blog for the National Catholic Register entitled, “The Death of Pretty.” Recognizing a debate of meaning, Archbold establishes his definition, “I define pretty as a mutually enriching balanced combination of beauty and projected innocence.”
He contrasted pretty with hotness, which he calls a commodity, something that has only temporal worth and invites to be used rather than valued. Archbold does not identify the means for achieving either projected image, but devices would have to include clothing, makeup and the manner in which a woman presents herself.
The blog precipitated a deluge of comments, mostly favorable. Some thought “projected innocence” introduced confusion and one commenter suggested the combination of beauty and virtue. One could argue that Beauty already exists as a virtue, as something inherently good. In an absolute sense, it cannot be separated from moral excellence.
Beauty satisfies the sense of sight. A brilliant sunset, filling the sky with resplendent color, brings joy and satisfaction. It does not need to be touched. It does not need to be smelled. It delights through sight alone. Many objects may offer additional delights to other senses, such as flowers, but their beauty can stand alone, as photographs prove.
Every woman possesses a natural beauty. Like a painting, a frame can draw attention to the beauty or distract from it. Most women want to appear attractive, to elicit a positive visual response. But no woman desires a one-dimensional identity. The complexity of her nature (physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual) demands a corresponding respect and delight. Her beauty projects only one feature of her nature, but the one that is most readily perceived.
Some women complain about the emphasis upon physical appearance and contend that they should not be judged by it. Judging character by appearance often yields disastrous results, but judgment differs from being distracted. Distractions do not imply judgment. Distractions only mean that the appearance can attract inappropriate attention, to see the frame more than the painting.
Women should not disparage physical appearance. God created the body to reflect his glory. When the first man saw a woman for the first time, he was exhilarated (Genesis 2:23). The author comments that the man and woman were naked and were not ashamed (2:25). They did not fear exploitation, devaluation, commodification or abuse. The physical beauty of God’s creation satisfied their sight in the context of purity.
Sin changed that. The man and woman suffered shame. God produced clothing for them. It was necessary to veil their beauty partially in order to restrain the sinful impulses of the other person. Sin subjected the woman’s beauty to possible depreciation due to sinful responses of the observer. Sin interferes with every human interpretation of the created world.
This requires women to use wisdom when framing their beauty. Absolute rules rarely solve the problem, because sinful people invent and interpret those rules. Principles should guide, requiring an understanding of the culture and of human nature. Women must carefully guard their own motives as well as consider the image they project in their appearance.
Many women wisely understand the enhancement of intrinsic beauty without detracting from it. Framing beauty requires prudence, discretion and care. It does not guarantee a pure and wholesome response from the viewer, but it acknowledges the delicate balance between the image of God and a sinful nature in every human.
In an effort to make herself attractive, a woman should avoid appealing to an attraction that goes beyond the visual satisfaction of beauty in itself. The more exposure of the body, the greater the risk of distracting from Beauty. No formula can dictate. Honest discussions between men and women about the effects of female appearance would benefit everyone.
This article only skims the surface of this topic, which needs much more careful consideration than it typically receives. Most people dismiss it too quickly, arguing for relative values and individual freedom (as Sydney Spies does). The pious treat it with an equal shallowness, failing to explore the complexity of beauty, especially as it applies to the human body.
It is neither a male nor female problem alone. We must all own it. It is the consequence of the devastating effects of sin on God’s created order. But his Beauty can be redeemed and restored among those who “put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4:24)