When I was 11, my baby sister got into just about everything that wasn’t locked up. Each afternoon I would go around the house and pick up all her messes and straighten up before Dad got home from work. One of her favorite messes to make was to pull open my mother’s dresser drawers and toss all her nightgowns into the air (or strategically place them on her head or get tangled up in them around her waist). She loved to sit and roll around in the pile of silk gowns, and this ritual happened every single day with her yelling, “Look at me! Look at me!” (I can’t wait until her own children mortify her in this same manner. HA!)
Come 4pm, I would gently pick them all up and place them reverently back in the drawer. Sometimes I would feel the silk or satin and touch the embroidered flowers as if they were something precious and then fold them carefully and lovingly back into the drawer. Some days I would hold them up to me in front of the mirror and gaze and smile. Looking back on it now, those nightgowns were pretty faded. But in my 11 year old eyes, they were some of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. Why? Because they were soft and gentle, beautiful and inviting, delicate and comforting, feminine and classy, peaceful and easy, and when I wrapped them around me I felt special… All the same characteristics I loved about my mother but was unable to articulate at such a young age.
As an adult, I look back and know my mother struggled with so many of the same insecurities, pressures, disillusionment, and fears that all women do. Society assaults women relentlessly every day with ridiculous unrealistic expectations of what women should be. But as a child, all I saw was the most beautiful woman in the world. I wanted to be just like her. I held her nightgowns up to me and imagined myself to be exactly like her when I grew up. Then I would put them back in the drawer and return to the carefree childhood that she sheltered me in under her peaceful, inviting, comforting presence. She wasn’t Grace Kelly or Audrey Hepburn. She had no money for pedicures or expensive hairstyles or new clothes. She barely wore any makeup. Her grace didn’t come from external beautification. It came from her nature within, and it shined so brightly out of her that I could see nothing else.
I’m a mother myself now. I often think about my role as a woman, a wife, a mother, and a friend. More often than not I know in my head what true beauty is, but I still continue struggling beneath the oppressive expectation of a society who wants me to live up to their standard of womanhood. It’s a paltry standard really… not even true beauty, and yet despite knowing it’s so fake and superficial and…. (What’s a better word?)… EMPTY, I along with millions of other women strive and fail and obsess and beat ourselves down in a lifetime pursuit of something FAR less than a more glorious definition of beauty that we were created to be. We sell ourselves short and waste countless years, money, resources, and internal peace to try to be something we’re not… something that isn’t even worth becoming.
My children hug me and tell me I’m so pretty. I think they see me the way I saw my mother. But why can’t I see what they see? My youngest daughter was stroking my nightgown the other night. She put her head on my shoulder, and sat there in complete peace while I held her. It sent me to my knees in prayer… begging God to let me see myself the way my family sees me… the way God sees me… and to help me embrace a true definition of beauty. Don’t ask God for a revelation like that without expecting Him to flood you with the truth. Ask, and you shall receive.
Many years ago, I read the book “Captivating: Unveiling The Mystery Of A Woman’s Soul” by John and Stasi Eldredge. God nudged me to revisit it last week. If I could quote the entire book right here, I would. But you might not appreciate a 208 page quote so I’ll try to briefly explain the point of the book in my own words. (All quotes below are from this book)
When creating men and women, God placed attributes of himself into each. He created men to be warriors… protectors… providers… the essence of male strength that comes directly from Him. He created woman to be beautiful, relational, sensitive nurturers, life bringers…. A feminine mysterious strength equally powerful to male strength that also comes directly from God. Two equal yet very different pieces of Himself placed into men and women.
“The essence of a woman is beauty. She is meant to be the incarnation- our experience in human form- of a Captivating God. A God who invites us.”
“Beauty overwhelms us, enchants us, fascinates us, and calls us.” –FR. Andrew Greeley
Beauty is transcendent
Beauty draws us to God
Beauty desires to be enjoyed. It desires to be sought after and revealed. It desires to be in relationship. It desires to make an impact. But our souls are fractured. We are broken humans, and we’ve warped our definition of beauty, so we try to force these things to happen for us through a physical beauty. We walk around with the incredible potential of staggering beauty within us that could change our worlds, and instead of embracing it and becoming who we were meant to be, we reject it and chase after a plastic image. We say, “No! Beauty from within is not what I want!” We point our desperate fingers at the photoshopped women on the magazine covers and say we want THAT even though it eventually fades. We know our thinking is flawed, but we don’t care. We want to be beautiful, and we let the father of lies distract us and tell us the standards we’ll never achieve as he beats us down with the fear of ugliness. He fills us with a terror that there is nothing attractive in us. All the while, we are the very essence of a heavenly beauty, and we don’t even recognize it.
“What if you have a genuine and captivating beauty that is marred only by your striving?”
“The only thing standing in the way of our true beauty is our striving. True beauty flows from a heart at rest.”
My female friends are like a rainbow array of personalities. Extroverts, introverts, comedians, tender sensitive types, shy, loud, meticulous planners, and disorganized wild childs. There isn’t one particular personality that is MOST beautiful. They all are. Their beauty shines best when they embrace who they are and encourage who I am. I have a friend who is demure and dainty and another who is a firecracker. I read this quote and thought of both of them… “Her soul is ALIVE. And we are drawn to her.” So if it’s not physical appearance, and it’s not personality, then what is it?
“A woman who is striving invites others to strive. The message is ‘Get your act together. Life is uncertain. There is no time for your heart here. Shape up. Get busy. That’s what is important.’ She does not say, ‘All is well. All shall be well.’ Her fear doesn’t allow it. She is withholding the very things her world needs.”
“So the choice a woman needs to make is not to conjure beauty, but to let her defenses down. She knows in her quiet center. She exudes a sense of calm, rest, and invites those around her to rest as well. She speaks comfort. A woman of true beauty offers others the grace to be and the room to become.”
I was on a date with my husband last night and I asked him, as a man, what is it about a wife that made him desire to have one in the first place. Among his many answers were 2 that stood out to me. The first was that a wife is a place to belong. One safe and constant place in this world to call home. The second was that a wife takes an interest, encourages, engages in relationship, builds him up, and partners with him so he doesn’t travel alone.
A woman breathes life, nourishes it, and sustains it with her beauty. She invites everyone into her world and is a sheltering tree for all who enter. God placed that gift of Himself into each woman.
“When God creates Eve, he calls her an ezer kenegdo. “It is not good for the man to be alone, I shall make him [an ezer kenegdo]” (Gen 2:18 Alter). Hebrew scholar Robert Alter, who has spent years translating the book of Genesis, says that this phrase is “notoriously difficult to translate”. The various attempts we have in English are “helper” or “companion” or the notorious “help meet”. Why are these translations so incredibly wimpy, boring, flat… disappointing? What is a help meet, anyway? What little girl dances through the house singing “One day I shall be a help meet?” Companion? A dog can be a companion. Helper? Sounds like Hamburger Helper. Alter is getting close when he translates it “sustainer beside him.” The word ezer is used only twenty other places in the entire Old Testament. And in every other instance the person being described is God himself, when you need him to come through for you desperately. Most of the contexts are life and death, by the way, and God is your only hope. Your ezer. If he were not there beside you… you are dead. A better translation of ezer would be “lifesaver”. Kenegdo means alongside, or opposite to, a counterpart.”
After reading this quote to my husband, I posed the question to him… “during the times that I am not drowning in insecurity, living in fear and obsessing over whether I’m beautiful or not, do I actually fit this description?” His answer…. “YES!”
It dawned on me as I sat across from him on our date and stared down at my dinner plate… true beauty comes naturally to me if I am honest with myself. It pours out of me and influences others powerfully. When I’m not striving and getting in my own way or hiding in fear, I am a captivating presence. I am most alive when I am loving others and giving them “grace to be and the room to become.” I have a beauty all my own to unveil and share with the world. Why haven’t I been able to see it all this time?? Because I’ve been looking in the wrong mirror. I have blinders and stare at an image in the mirror by my sink or obsess over the mirror of the bathroom scale or despair at the mirror in the dressing room or feel disappointed by the mirror at the salon. I’m looking in all the wrong mirrors. All the while, my daughters, my husband, my friends, my co-workers… they see something beautiful.
Why did my daughter patting my nightgown and laying her head on my shoulder provoke such a reaction out of me? Because I know exactly what I saw in my mother at that age, and I wanted so badly to be as beautiful as her. My 8 year old made me realize I already am. My beauty was an influencial power given to me by God the moment I was conceived as a female, and I have the great privilege of using that beauty to bring life wherever I go. I can be a safe and lovely harbor of rest and enjoyment for everyone in my path, or I can continue striving endlessly, creating an atmosphere of unease, being constantly inward focused and self obsessed, lashing out in fear and insecurity, and eventually becoming what my female heart fears the most… ugly.
“Your feminine heart has been created with the greatest of all possible dignities- as a reflection of God’s own heart……the story of Eve… We clearly haven’t learned its lessons- for if we had, men would treat women much much differently, and women would view themselves in a far better light…
Adam steps forth, the image of God. Nothing in creation even comes close. Picture Michelangelo’s David. He is… magnificent. Truly the masterpiece seems complete. And yet, the Master says that something is not good, not right. Something in missing… and that something is Eve…
She is the crescendo, the final astonishing work of God. Woman. In one last flourish creation comes to a finish not with Adam, but with Eve. She is the Master’s finishing touch… His piece de resistance. She fills a place in the world nothing and no one else can fill…
And she, too, bears the image of God but in a way that only the feminine can speak. What can we learn from her? God wanted to reveal something about Himself, so he gave us Eve… Eve is created because things were not right without her. Something was not good. …Something is missing? What could it possibly be? Eve. Woman. Femininity. Wow. Talk about significance.”
There was a lesson hiding for me in my mother’s drawer full of nightgowns. It just took me 24 years to realize it. If you are a female, I hope you will see the enchanting beauty in yourself and not take as long to figure it out as it took me. The strength of your beauty is something God gave you to push back the dark in your world.
“God has set within you a femininity that is powerful and tender, fierce and alluring. No doubt it has been misunderstood. Surely it has been assaulted. But it is there, your true heart, and it is worth recovering. You are captivating.”