A Modest Proposal

“You can take off your mask now and check your hair and your lips,” the photographer says as I get ready to take my headshots for work. 

Check my lips? Oh, right. Women wear lipstick.

“My lips always look the same, so they should be fine,” I quip back.

As I glance in the mirror, I feel a familiar discomfort rise in my chest. I’ve never wanted to wear lipstick, and I barely wear makeup. Sometimes I’m afraid that I don’t do enough. I grew up during the era of Photoshop and social media. I started learning how to blend photos to hide the acne on my face in high-school. Now, phones have a portrait mode built into them to help me achieve model status. So many of the messages I’ve received as a female are to change my body to make it more acceptable and accessible. Each day I face the lie that power can be found in my conformity to the modern depiction of beauty.

Perhaps equally disquieting are the messages I’ve received in the church that have called me in Jesus’s name to control the amount of beauty I let the world see. In my early twenties I committed to spending one of my summers doing youth ministry. I first learned about Jesus in college and fell in love with a God who offered love and acceptance to me without requiring something of me. I remember being excited and humbled to have been chosen to spend my summer pouring into high school students.  

A week before I moved to a new city to start my job, I received an email sent to all women on youth staff mandating the clothes we could and could not wear that summer.  Before anyone met me in person, I was told that my choice of clothing could either bring honor to God or to myself. I also recall being told that my beauty was meant to be saved for my husband’s enjoyment. As a young, single woman, these messages were more confusing than the ones I had received in the world, and I started to question my acceptability. Something of my beauty and bright-eyed, fearless love for Jesus died amidst these messages. In the church, I have faced the lie that exposing my beauty is sinful unless I’m married.

If we long for women and daughters to believe in their inherent worth in Christ, how can these messages be true? How can a woman’s beauty be contingent upon any man other than Jesus Himself?  How can women live freely as God has created them while simultaneously making themselves smaller through their own misogyny, cultivated in Jesus’ name?  

The shame and contempt I’ve felt for being feminine was magnified in the church when fear and control was white-washed as “feminine modesty.” 

I fear a world in which girls grow up believing that something in their feminine essence is the root cause of sin rather than a unique glimpse of the beauty of God that is meant to be honored.

As I stand opposite the photographer, I feel vulnerable looking into her camera lens. I notice ambivalence mixed with fear in the current of my stomach. I’m not sure that I want to offer my beauty to this stranger and allow her to capture it.

“You look so uncomfortable. Drop your shoulder,” she says to me. I refrain from rolling my eyes.

When I get my headshots back, I can see my discomfort in many of the images; however, there are a few where I feel as though I let myself be seen. I look at my face and see some of the bright fearlessness that I thought was lost years ago captured in my eyes and smile. I am thankful for the redemption I see in these images, but those that reflect my discomfort offer a space for me to speak tenderness and kindness toward myself. The magnitude of discomfort I experience speaks to the war I feel in my feminine body, which has grown out of interactions I’ve had both in and out of the church. As I bless the uncomfortable woman I see staring back at me, I feel my body relax. It is in learning to rest as God has created me that I find my beauty freer to express.

Devan Grayson is passionate about contemplating the beauty of this world as she finds it in her own story and in the lives of others. She loves good conversations, ultimate Frisbee, the arts, and large cups of tea. She works as a Registered Mental Health Counselor Intern and is continually struck by the specific beauty woven into the seemingly ragged details of our lives. She counts it a privilege to wonder with clients about their own stories.