Sin in the eye of the beholder

I wore a red shirt with a starched collar to the family Christmas party.

From my upbringing I got the disposition to regard nice clothes as the first step of fivolity toward decadence. I am not sure how much of that was deliberate principle versus circumstance and personal preference, but my mental point of reference is the conception of unstained, unwrinkeled, unfaded clothing as superficial and heathen.

I wore the red shirt to the Christmas party because I get a kick out of wearing bold, dramatic clothes now and then. Any kind of clothing, worn constantly, registers as Just Clothes, but if I usually go around in jeans it feels somewhat like having desert to wear fancy clothes.

The dynamic between attire as just a pleasure of life and as heraldry of worldliness leaves me wondering about some other aspects of personal appearance. My dad is very negative about jewelry or makeup on women. When I first got to the point where I even thought about such things, I took it in stride as a cogent and necessary part of rejecting vain and sensual attitudes. The same unexamined continuum included not using deodorant and not shaving (faces, legs, armpits, whatever). As I got older, and got out around people who questioned my whiskery face, I realized that adherering to normal standards of personal grooming could have practical social effects. Just as your choice of language communicates your personality in obvious and subtle ways, so your choice of clothing is also a constant broadcast about yourself.

I can’t recall any significant questions about my clothes, but there are a few times I can recall where people asked me about my facial hair and I found I didn’t know exactly why I let it grow–other than it does happen to be the natural default state of affairs. In my home environment I never had cause to think about it, so when I started telling someone that I respected the way God naturally made me and they replied that he also made the hair on my head and my fingernails grow too, and I cut those. That is not any kind of air-tight argument; for one thing, I trim my nails because when they get long I peel them and that can get uncomfortable, and the hair on my head would never stop growing; for a while, I treated my beard like my arm hair. It didn’t get too long to be dealt with so I let it be.

But as far as bringing up principles to be questioned, they had a point. In some cultures long hair on a man is not the least out of the ordinary. If I say God uses beards in part of his chosen distinction between sexes, someone can point to males who are naturally hairless on their faces. I always think of American Indians, although I am not completely sure how many of them really were smooth faced and how often they are just portrayed that way. I can give all kinds of opinions on what I think looks appropriately masculine, but I can think of very little within the New Testament that constrains male grooming, and what is written about women is hotly contended and not completely clear to me.

It seems to me abundantly evident from the principles of Christ’s teaching that no material fact of personal attire is all by itself sin. To be seen naked, even, is not of itself sinful on the person beheld. It almost always is, because we are meant to be ashamed of our nakedness, to give us a physical and lifelong reminder of our debased state in sin–not, as some suppose, that reproduction is sinful. But God has chosen to appoint modesty to those parts of us, and reserve them as specially personal aspects of our bodies. Since this modesty is an image and witness of immaterial truth, and not the thing itself, exposure is not itself sin. Whether at the hands of evil men, or in natural need such as childbirth or other medical issue, in certain times and places nakedness does not have its usual connotation of shameless exposure, of willful rebellion to the intent of God’s creation.

Likewise, hair, whether purple or shaved or extra long, has of itself no sanctifying or corrupting property. I have trouble imagining a case of purple hair that is not at heart a rejection of God’s work, but neither can I blithely conclude that people with purple hair are consigned to hell. Even among those actively following after Him God allows some rebellions to go unchallenged–else every one of us would be in constant torment of His judgment, none of us yet being free from sin and waywardness.

From there I wonder how much of personal grooming should be deliberately conformed to cultural norms. It seems to me that if Paul had Timothy remove an irreplaceable piece of his flesh so as to cause no offense visiting the Jewish synagogues, it is a small thing for me to cut off my hair to avoid offending whatever people I might be among. That gets into the whole gray area of offenses, from what someone might considered tastless or ill-bred to the kind of sacrilege that it was to enter Jewish holy places uncircumcised.

I have opinions on this or that aspect of personal grooming, but derived from the above principles and not set in stone. My views are yet to the point where I feel any urgency in proclaiming or defending them. I have learned to be wary of resolving moral academic quandaries just for the sake of intellectual equilibrium; a problem that has not come to me is not necessarily a problem I am meant to solve.

If it is not necessary for me to propound on the proper treatment of male facial hair, it must seem even more spurious to mention anything about female attire. Yet such is the impetus for this post. While I have no qualms about my current mode of attire, it effects only me and can be changed by me on a whim. I get a little more conflicted when I feel I might be actually affecting other parties. When I went on a couple of business trips I felt I was representing my place of work and so got fussier and more concerned with my appearance. Then it occurred to me that I would not have even been asked to go on the trips if my general appearance was considered too outrageous. Then I realized that it was hypothetically possible I had missed some other kinds of opportunties for precisely that reason–which is a hypothetical always pointed out by harpies of class grooming. But again, the only party significantly involved in the trade off has been myself.

I am not presently in a situation where my opinions on attire make a difference to any female on earth. However I once accidentally influenced a young woman to stop wearing earrings. I had expressed my view at some point but I had not intentionally lobbied for any action, nor did I consider it my place to register any such kind of request.

Since that incident I have noticed that one’s opinions can have a much greater influence on women than intended, especially with regard to appearances. I remember remarking on a coworker’s new glasses (or was it new hair style? I can’t remember), and I said quite simply, “New glasses, I see.” The two girls in the office, the subject herself and another, happened to be so frank as to say, after my subsequent lapse to silence, “You can’t just say that or she’ll think you hate them and they make her look ugly, you have to say you like them too!” I deduce this was not about me in particular, since (1) the girl–or should I say, woman–was recently married, and (2) she participated in the lecture. If my opinion in the matter was especially important I don’t think either of the two would have been true. I’ve noticed, though, how widely this is practiced, so that women are always complementing each other on new looks, even if it is a matter of indifference to the commentator, or even distasteful, and even if the subject in question professes no love of the new look–and this is not done as an expedient lie, as I supposed in my male mind, but just to avoid crushing the sensitive self image of the woman with the new look. Where it looks to me like proactive dishonesty, it is undertaken by them as preventive caring.

Still not sure what I think of that. The best, most admirable women I know do not change their looks every few months, nor do they invest so much self-worth in the acceptance of such a change; and the social trivialty is such a near cousin of the little white-lie (who metamorphs so quickly to the Large Deception For Your Own Good) that I regard it suspiciously.

Leaving aside the ritual compliments and taking just the sensitivity about appearances that is common in the female psyche, I regard it as unnecessary for any woman to use makeup or jewelery to attain all-purpose good looks. Perhaps if someone had a certifiable deformity–that legendary “bearded woman” or some prounounced pockmark or whatnot–there could be a case made for remedial cosmetics, but your ordinarily lipstick and mascara I regard as nonessential. Unlike clothes, which everyone knows cover your natural body, makeup is at some level meant to appear to be the natural features. A shirt is not meant to be conflated with the actual torso–or then again, maybe it is, in a lot of contemporary female attire, but that is only to my real point–while the observer is not meant to distinguish between the lips and the lipstick. Woman was not created as a creature fundamentally lacking asthetically, and needing makeup.

Modern secularists who see woman as created by culture and not by God would disagree with me here. Most feminists, of course, would agree that women should not be obliged to wear makeup, but that’s opening a whole different topic. The average American female seems to believe that female beauty is a purchased commodity rather than a created attribute.

But when we have left behind the secular world, and supposedly moved to a God-centered way of thinking, it would seem obvious to me that we regard all purchasable aspects of female beauty to be accessory. Especially given the characteristic sensitivity about apperances that I already noted, I find it apalling and disgraceful that anyone with half a claim serious Christianity could say that “It’s not a sin for a woman to wear makeup–in fact it’s a sin for some women to go without it!” This is supposed to be a joke, so feel free to say Ha Ha at this time. I have laughed at many jokes that in all seriousness should not be considered funny, and I may have laughed the first time I heard this one. When I hear it in the context of anything that is supposed to remotely resemble a serious discussion about attire, it makes my stomach churn.

This kind of attitude is presented by people who will in the same conversation tell you how crucial it is that a husband tend to his wife’s emotions as well as her physical needs. Husbands need emotional care from their wives, as well, but husands usually don’t understand that a woman’s appearance is a matter of routine emotional maintenance. “You look good,” in those words or by implication, is for most women a matter of appreciation as routine as “good job” is for a man–or even “thank you.” Again, not always said explicitly, but somehow conveyed. This need is well communicated in commonplace Christian conseling these days. But thrown right in there with it is the completly contravailing, annulling, undermining credo that a wife ought to put on a bit of makeup and something nice before she expects her husband to appreciate her looks.

I have heard both men and women promulagate this idea, but the men especially must have no idea what kind of condemnation they place themselves under with this message. Bad enough what they do directly to the self-image of women, who will always sometimes have bad days and look frumpy–and so much the more if they are raising children, as I believe fully intended by God. But if you understand that we all are the Bride of Christ, and we say that our human brides are not worthy of affection without a little remedial work, than we have in a way unworthy of Christ’s love as we truly are, and only acceptable behind a veneer of beauty that cannot do anything at all to please the eyes of God.

Maybe we do try to apply the same principle to our lives. Maybe the good works we are exhorted to are supposed to be the remedial makeup, the which does not by itself make us loved by God, but makes it possible for Him to love us a whole lot more affectionately. Even if the ethos is equally applied it is still perverse and repugnant.

In another place where I worked, not the same as in the first incident, there was a young woman about my age who often came in without any makeup on, and frequently applied it during the day. Gradually I noticed than when she was in her natural appearance she looked more tired, depressed, and stressed than she looked once her makeup was on, and I realized that this is why women wear makeup. Then I further noticed that when she looked tired, depressed, and stressed out I was more concerned for her well being and would ask how she was doing and generally think of her as a person with problems as I myself had problems, but when she was all made up and somehow had more of a happy, contented, or clam look, that I tended to assume that she actually was happy even if her life circumstances did not change that much from day to day.

Then I realized, this is why men like makeup. There’s a whole range of makeup effects, some more sexually evocative than others, but in all cases the tendency of makeup is to reduce the naunced expression of a human face into a few accentuated facial signals that communicate some manner of pleasant thoughts to the obsever. Men’s appreciation for makeup is not strictly as a hypersexualizing device, but also as a simplifying device, to bury the concerns and feelings of women behind a filter that only lets Happy through.

Some time not too long before I moved away from home I began to notice that my Mom looked more worn out than other women her age. Many people today would say “Of course she looks a bit tired, since she was cruelly used to produce twelve kids, like some kind of farm animal.” But what bothered me about her appearance was not her appearance itself, it was actually the very fact that it could be construed as proof that she had lived and undesirable and disadvantagous life, when it seems to me her years of work as a mother are hugely admirable, and that somehow one should be able to tell just by looking at her that it would be good to live life much the way she has done.

I sometimes cringe when I hear women, real or fictionalized, speaking of the horrors of old age that they try to avoid, or that they imagine have befallen them, when sometimes those “horrors” seem to describe my mother aptly. But why are they afraid of these signs of aging? My mother has a husband who loves her deeply, and not in some loyal dog sense of deep love, but in every way and in every degree that a wife should be loved. And it is not that I love her any less myself, either.

There is something sad about age, yes. In my old room I had a picture of the family clan from twenty years ago, and I liked it for its melancholy because nobody looked that young any more. I know I am young but I don’t fancy myself as gloriously young; I consider it a prologue to age. There for a while it seemed particularly acute to me that everybody in the world was rushing headlong into old age, and worn-down, broken-down decripitude, along with everything else in the universe. Then I noticed that if I looked closely even women in their early twenties seemed to be past the blossom of their beauty, the majority of women seeming to reach the peak of their unblemished pristine features in mid to late teens.

Most women can and do extend the appearance of flawless features many years beyond their teens, but once you realize it is by artificial means a whole new paradigm opens up. The commonplace approach is to look for artificial means to extend that kind of beauty further and further, but the genuine truth-appreciating approach is to stop striving for an appearance that shows no sign of age, of use, of experience. Age and dying are facts of this life, and trying to hide them behind makeup is in a way the same sort of sin as nudity. You are not supposed to parade around in the raw and you are not supposed to look young forever.

I would be dishonest to say women shouldn’t wear makeup because it won’t effect how I think of them. People would not talk if they were not typically understood and women would not wear makeup if it did not typically influence how people react to them. I have observed myself reacting in a more immediately friendly way toward women with cultured apperances. But I have also observed it is because I see less of a person there. Being friends with real people is a lot of work. They carry all this baggage from their life experiences, and you never know at first if some of those experiences have made them unfriendly toward people with your personality. But the painted faces are always friendly and happy and glad to see you, and it always puzzles me when they say grumpy things.

Now that I have worked out that I have little esteem for the use of makeup, it brings me full circle to where I started. How much of the same kind of deliberate misrepresentation is involved in wearing fancy clothes? I do believe some women wear makeup because they like the way it looks on them, no more than I like a red shirt or new black shoes or eating brownies. Even more so with jewelery, because that is not an exageration of a physical feature but an obviously removable. Sometimes I think all jewelry is meant to call attention to the body itself, like certain styles of clothes, and sometimes I think that most jewelery, like most clothes, is intended to have an aesthetic appeal but is not meant to flaunt.

There are some Christians who think that women can eradicate sensuality by wearing “modest” clothes, usually simple dresses that in my taste are among the most flattering clothes women can wear. Certainly they are more attractive than some of the clothes other women wear that make them appear like barely contained blobs of flesh, like sausage–and I don’t even mean fat women in clothes that are too tight.

Nobody in my family ever did think that you could limit what men thought in their heads by controlling what women wore on their bodies. Likewise I don’t think we should let women wear whatever they want and shoot all the men; put another way, there certainly is such a thing as deliberately and wrongly provocative clothing. But where in between do the lines fall? I don’t really know.

You’re not supposed to write essays on subjects you aren’t convinced of, because it causes such lousy endings.

5 Comment on "Sin in the eye of the beholder"

  • But where in between do the lines fall? I don’t really know.

    I think part of your problem is that even while, perhaps, on one hand you deny law, on the other hand you are looking for lines (or law) with which to seperate and determine things.

    If it is not a matter of law you won’t find lines.

    If you would like to find something, I would suggest you search out why you have the view you have (or, more precisely, exactly what your view is and from what it flows). That is, gain a better understanding of your subjective understanding rather than trying to abstract it to the objective.

    A problem with trying to abstract things to other people is that we cannot judge the hearts of others. Two different people can do the same thing for two different reasons. One can do something as an expression of rebellion, the other as a demonstration of their lack of knowledge. And so on. There are many aspects of personal attire to which that observation can be applied.

    On beards . . . One of the problems with conversing with other people is that statements of opinion can so easily be taken as statements of dogma. As you and I know the NT says nothing on beards, neither of us would want to be seen as expressing dogma on the matter. And yet so often what comes out of your mouth is interpreted as dogma. “God made me with a beard so I am going to grow it” comes across to so many people as dogma rather than opinion.

    I suggest a more subtle response. Tell them, “I like it. It expresses who I am.” For me that is true, and it says much while saying little. And I think a person will understand more than they even realize they understand.

    As a historical note: I was always told that American Indians were not hairy like Europeans, but that they did have facial hair which they plucked out (much like modern women with their eye-brows). There are a few photos of old indians with beards, that give an idea how much of a beard they could grow. It always reminded me a bit of Asian beards.

  • If you would like to find something, I would suggest you search out why you have the view you have (or, more precisely, exactly what your view is and from what it flows). That is, gain a better understanding of your subjective understanding rather than trying to abstract it to the objective.

    Perhaps that statement was a little obtuse. The essence of what I was trying to say is that you might find it a little more enlightening to consider your own ethic of beauty in an attempt to understand what it is, and from what it flows. What do you find beautfiul in women and why?

    I have done that, and I found considering it helpful in clarifying my own thoughts about why I react the way I react, and why I think what I think.

  • Arlan Post author

    When I spoke of “lines” I meant my personal sense of appropriate boundaries.

    You suggest inductive reasoning, working from an example, and that can be useful. There is no sense coming up with a theory and then trying to believe it. Sometimes it is better to start with your gut reaction and then cross examine it a bit to see what it is based on, and where your intuition is getting sloppy.

    I was working with a few examples in my post. As I noted, I have no concrete application as pertains to myself. But we have at least one uncle who sometimes wears a beard and sometimes is clean shaven, and we all know of other men who do the same. I always wonder what their wives think of it, and how a wife’s opinion would influence me. It seems that it could fall under the principle of our bodies belonging to our spouses. But then you might say, “My beard represents me. I would never marry someone who would want it shaved because such a woman would not truly understand or appreciate who I am.”

    Really? I don’t doubt that a woman who really loved you could deal with your beard if you wanted it, but I can see that easily as making no comment on your beard because she did love and appreciate who you are, irregardless of hair.

    I suppose what you are saying is rather than getting some basic guidelines like Lipstick Is Of The Devil or Earrings Are Bad Because You Injure The Body To Wear Them, you consider where the heart is at in the actual man or woman, husband or wife.

    I guess it has seemed to me in my experience and observation that even in marriage people do not reach a nirvana of total agreement, and in matters that do not have a spiritual or moral consequence (if you follow my meaning), husbands sometimes defer their opinions for the happiness of their wives and wives sometimes submit their preferences to the opinions of their husbands.

    When a matter seems black and white to me I usually am able to force myself to stick with what is necessarily right, but in gray areas my reaction is “I don’t know, don’t ask me, I don’t want to decide, I might make a bad decision.”

    I suppose really the issue here then is not attire at all, but making real decisions–choices without conclusive data. I hate that, but it is necessary to life, and I would like to learn better how to do it.

  • Fuel For the Fire

    Why did Job name his youngest daughter “container of highly prized eye-shadow”, and why did the Bible record that, when it doesn’t even record the names of any of his sons?

    Why does the Bible comment on men (like David) and women (like Rebbecca) who are beautiful?

    Why does Genesis say that “And the Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food.”?

    Why is it that Jesus says that even if you are fasting, you should “put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting.” Doesn’t that sound sort of like some moisturizing routine many women follow, and about making your emotions less obvious to those around you?

    Many girls-turning-into-women are taught that things like shaving legs is a matter of personal hygiene and taking care of one’s body. Should they be faulted for trying to take care of the body God created and gave to them?

    Many women do exercise of any kind only to pursue beauty and a body with more “appeal” or “attraction”. Should they be faulted for this physical activity? After all, Paul writes to Timothy that physical training is of value.

    Why is it that so much of making-up is about not looking so old? Is it because after old-age comes death, and no one wants to think of dying, but of being young and healty forever?

    I am also reminded of something Rundy said once, about maybe people are trying to recover their lost glory, and showing how far they’ve fallen in the process. Because, yes, God did create these bodies, but it is a fallen creation. Maybe the human race is aware of it’s fall from glory, and like Adam and Eve, are trying to put on figleaves of glory—and how that glory pales in comparision to the glory humans were originally created with.

    More of a controlled thought. . .

    Whenever we start looking for answers to specific questions, be it “what is modest clothing?” or “is it more righteous to be self-employed than it is to serve some other guy?”, it really reveals a lot about our mindset.

    Usually, we want specific answers (or “laws”) so that we don’t have to do internal examination. Like the Israelites that Malachi was sent to rebuke, we want to say “How have we shown contempt for Your Name? We offered you sacrifices!”

    People continually fall back to saying all is right because they are circumsized outwardly, when what is important to God is that they are circumsized inwardly. Wanting to find specfic answers is in a way not wanting to be responsible—that way, one can always say “I’m modest, because I wear dresses,” regardless of ones behavior.

    Wanting specific answers is usually asking “What is just enough, that I can do it, and not think about?”

    I think the lack of specific answers is about seeking the inward heart that God desires, not the external observance. (Which, I suppose, is rather obvious in light that we are not under the law.) If we have answers we won’t ask, and if we won’t ask, we won’t be seeking to be more like Him—instead settling into complacency with who we are.

    That’s why the answer to “what is modesty?” is “that’s between you and God”. Are you trying to be “just modest enough”, even though in your heart you don’t want to be modest at all? Are you trying to be modest enough for man’s standards? If you really want to know what God wants, seek to know God.

    I think it’s very sad that that everyone focuses on the first half of what Peter says “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. . .” This makes people say things like “it’s wicked to braid your hair” or “only silver jewelry is godly” or “women should never wear jewelry” or “fine clothes is a sin, everyone should wear sack-cloth.” The verse doesn’t end by telling everyone that they ought to be wearing dresses of a solid color, no shorter than half an inch above the ankle, with gathers in the skirt not pleats.” It ends by saying “. . .Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit.”

    They take a verse that says “don’t worry about outward appearance; concern yourselves with that which is within” to justify being endlessly preoccupied with outward appearances!

    I think it is actually much like Paul’s admonishment to Timothy—“For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.” Or, to put it another way, “Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.”

    So my question to you would be “Why did you ask?” I suppose it’s technically possible that it was just idle curiousity, but in my experience idle curiousity rarely, rarely exists, and that the question one thinks one is asking is rarely the one they want answered.

    It maybe claim to be idle curiousity which askes “What is the significance of facial hair?” But it points to much less idle and much more than curiousity. Rather than such a sterilized, abstract question, how about—why do people ask you about your beard? Why do you feel compelled to give a theological answer? Why do you feel self-concious about it? Why would you want to get rid of it? Why would you want to keep it? Really, why do you care?

    Not that there is anything wrong with caring, but why do you care? One can care simply to justify what one is already doing; to find “godly” reasons for conforming to those around them; because they truly care what God desires in the matter; and a million other reasons. But it has been my experience that the specific questions, the where-do-the-lines-fall questions, never get answered. The deeper questions, the questions behind the “idle curiousity”—if they are acknowledged and the answer are sought for them—those questions He is faithful to answer.

    That’s my two cents. Any change? 😉

  • Arlan Post author

    I can always make change over pennies. I am pretty sure your change was waiting on the counter when you came up, in the end of my last post. If you don’t think that’s it then I have probably missed your point.

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