Does Christianity free women to be beautiful inside and out, or stifle and repress self-worth and self-expression? Chine Mbubaegbu is a writer, speaker and author. Her new book “Am I Beautiful?” has just been published by Authentic Media. Chine is Head of Media for the Evangelical Alliance and the editor of the EA’s “Idea” magazine and their communal blog “Threads”. I interviewed her about how she sees the relationship between Christianity, feminism and beauty.
VB: Hi Chine. Congratulations on the release of your new book “Am I Beautiful?”.
CM: Thanks so much.
VB: The positive relationship between beauty and Christianity is one that many might question. Those seeing the religion as patriarchal may view it as oppressing the true beauty of women’s equality and self-expression. Your book argues that in fact Christianity releases women into their true beauty and worth – could you explain your basis for that?
CM: Sure. I think those that would argue Christianity oppresses women within a patriarchal religion need to first take a look at society as a whole rather than Christianity specifically. Society is still very unequal. Just three women head FTSE 100 firms, 140 million women worldwide are affected by genital mutilation and women hold just 15 per cent of elected parliamentary seats in the world.
In so many instances around the world, women are made to feel inferior, inadequate and ‘less than’. Not only is this reflected in the stats above, but it also rears its ugly head as soon as we walk outside our doors and are bombarded with images and messages about what we should look like from the media, advertising and fashion industries.
It’s been claimed that we today see more images of outstandingly beautiful women in one day than our grandmothers did in their entire lifetimes. The constant bombardment – even though we might not be fully aware of it – chains us to this ideal of beauty; a standard we can never reach.
I do believe that Christianity has the power to release women into their true beauty and worth, but my book argues that we as Christian women don’t seem to actually believe that. We hear that we’re made in the image of God, that He looks at the inside and not the outward appearance but yet so many of us remain slaves to the beauty myth just like anyone else.
I think the first step is recognising that Christians have just the same issues as every other woman (just four per cent of women, according to Dove, would say that they are beautiful). And then it’s about working out how we can find freedom in the words and teaching of our faith. What does it mean to be made in the image of God? What does that mean when I can’t see past my love handles?
I think ultimately we find freedom in recognising that these standards of beauty we’re trying to meet are arbitrary and manmade. The essence of beauty is found in the creator of Beauty and He’s put some of that beauty in each of us.
VB: Do you like the term ‘feminist’ and do you identify as one?
CM: If feminism is about advocating equal rights for women, about refusing to accept that women are somehow inferior and that believing women have the right not to have their bodies controlled by men, then absolutely yes.
But I am not however a feminist who is pushing for a genderless society. I do believe that there are inherent differences between men and women. The trouble is deciphering which are the innate differences and which are the ones that we’ve been conditioned into.
VB: I’m curious – on what would you base your belief that certain differences between men and women are innate, rather than entirely socially constructed?
CM: Well there are obvious biological and hormonal differences. There are differences between the male and the female brain – a number of scientific and psychological studies have been done into these. And as a Christian, I believe that God made men and He made women. Neither is inferior to the other. Neither is better than the other. They’re just different. I don’t think however that the fact that there are differences means that women, for example, should be exploited or made to feel like they should be shoe-horned into a female stereotype. That’s when social construction and gender inequality come in.
VB: On the theme of beauty, how do you interpret Bible verses like 1 Timothy 2:9 where Paul writes “I want women to dress modestly with decency and propriety, not adorning themselves with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes”. Should Christian women not buy designer clothes or jewellery; doesn’t this mean Christianity is about rejecting interest in appearance altogether?
CM: When we’re looking at biblical texts and letters such as Paul’s to Timothy, we’ve always got to think about who the audience was and what those particular words meant at that particular time to that particular group of people. It’s too easy to use the 1 Timothy passage to suggest that God wants Christian women to be dowdy.
Ephesus at that time was heavily influenced by the worship of the goddess Artemis. Her priestesses would dress in elaborate styles, with extravagant hairstyles and clothing and jewellery. Paul’s instruction therefore is directed at those women who had become followers of Christ but who were still dressing as if they were still part of that cult.
The instruction against elaborate clothing etc would also have helped to foster equality between the rich and poor believers; poorer believers would clearly not have been able to afford such elaborate clothing. And that brings us on to today. I don’t think that Paul was talking to us today when he wrote the letter to Timothy. But there are of course things we can learn from it and ask ourselves.
Why do we buy designer clothing? Is it because we want to fit in or stand out? Is it because that’s a more important thing to spend our money on than anything else we might otherwise? Is it because we’re insecure, needing a boost, or because we’re in a way lusting after that designer object of our affections?
We need to look at the motives behind why we do these things. I’m all for a bit of adornment; I think God made us creative beings who are drawn towards aesthetic beauty, but it’s when we get obsessed with these things or give them space where we should be doing all those great things we’re called to do that they become a problem.
VB: Do you feel the “beauty-myth”, as you call it in your book, where women are bombarded by the media about how they should look, has also crept into the Christian church? Is there pressure for Christian women to look and dress a certain way within church communities?
CM: Sadly, yes. The Church isn’t much different. I’ve heard of pastors showing off their ‘hot wives’ to congregations; I’ve heard of well-known Christian leaders who imply that a woman should not ‘let herself go’ when she gets married so that she can keep her husband’s attention on her – otherwise he might be tempted to look elsewhere.
I interviewed one woman in my book who was morbidly obese and used to put up with comments about her weight from her fellow church members. Then she had a gastric bypass and as the weight began to drop off, people started to congratulate her and include her more. Until she piled the weight back on again and once again felt like an outsider – even within the church she had attended for many years.
I think we have to recognise that as Christians we are still very much fallible and judgmental human beings who judge people on their outward appearance. It takes real, concerted effort to renew our minds and try to think differently, to see people – including ourselves – as God sees us. A lot of the teaching in church about this – if there is any – is superficial and pat answers and stock Bible verses are given. I think that we need to have some honest, real and practical conversations.
VB: Your book is rooted in your personal journey with beauty – how would you summarise that journey?
CM: It’s definitely a journey I’m still on and will continue to be on for the rest of my life. But I start the book with a story of how when I was five years old in reception class – shortly after having moved from Nigeria to London with my family – our teacher asked us all to draw a self-portrait.
My childhood drawing ended up looking nothing like myself. I’d drawn myself with blonde hair and blue eyes because that’s what I saw around me and that’s what I considered beautiful. That’s where the journey, quest and struggle with beauty begins for many women – when they are young girls.
The years that followed have included countless amounts of money on hair products and clothes and make-up; just about every diet; ugly days and beautiful days.
VB: When women campaign for equality and change within the church, do you think this is ‘beautiful’ in God’s eyes? Some Christians argue that women are only reflecting true beauty when they fit the stereotype of being meek, gentle and quiet?
CM: I think there is a natural human instinct to ‘beautify’ and to adorn. There is perhaps something to be said about questioning ‘worldly’ things and rejecting them where necessary. We can opt for the plain and dowdy look, hoping that our meekness, gentleness and quietness will shine through. But I’m not sure what good that does. Sometimes it can take a great deal of effort in rejecting all of that to the point where dowdiness becomes an idol.
The Christian faith isn’t just about rejecting everything that the world offers, but I believe it’s about recognising the beauty inherent in all of God’s creation – that includes art and colours and fashion etc. In the book I use the example of having bought a newbuild flat last year – it was pretty much an empty box shell when I moved in. But I immediately set about decorating it, beautifying it, making it my own. Because doing all those things show that I value where I live.
It’s the same with our bodies. Beauty is what God is. Beauty is good. But it’s when we fail to see true beauty and limit our view of beauty to a very narrow, arbitrary and man-made definition that we cause a lot of pain to a lot of people, including ourselves. When I think of women in the Bible, I think of many brave, courageous and faithful women: Esther, Vashti, Deborah, Mary Magdalene, Ruth etc.
I don’t think God has made all of us to be warriors, but I do think that each of us has a part to play in bringing a bit of God’s kingdom – aka good stuff – to our bit of our world. That might mean you run a soup kitchen for the homeless in your area, that might mean you stand for parliament, that might mean you change the world. But none of those things can be achieved when we are utterly hung up with what we look like, crippled by the beauty myth. That’s why we need to get over it!
VB: What words of advice on beauty and self-acceptance do you think the Christian faith has to offer to women in today’s society, regardless of their beliefs?
CM: I think there’s something to be said about the dignity of all human beings. There’s something beautiful in each of us – regardless of what we look like on the outside. I think that’s true of us all – not just Christians. We just happen to believe that that beautiful thing is the imago dei – the image of God.
You can follow Chine on Twitter at @ChineMbubaegbu and @amibeautiful13. Find out more about Chine’s book in these three places: http://www.authenticmedia.co.uk/search/product/am-i-beautiful-chine-mbubaegbu/9781780780603.jhtml