Set-Apart Femininity Review #2: The beauty problem

Greetings, dear followers,

Today we are back for our book study and are looking at Set-Apart Femininity’s first chapter: “Sacred Intent.” Honestly, I struggled with knowing where to begin, as these 22 pages work like an overture for later chapters. As such, it felt a little hodge-podgey, and this post will probably feel hodge-podgey, too. In this chapter, we get the basic thesis for the book, as well as the definition of “set-apart femininity,” a new path women can take for guaranteed beauty.

The basic framework

Boiled down to very (very) broad points, the flow of the first chapter (and presumably the book’s thesis) goes something like this:

  1. Women and girls desire to be beautiful
  2. The beauty industry does not solve that desire
  3. Saying “just love yourself” is a trope that doesn’t help
  4. Come to Jesus and you will be the beautiful woman you’ve always wanted to be

And in a very broad sense, I can get behind those statements. I think to some extent, everyone does want to feel attractive, and the industry standards in our country don’t help any of us in that matter. But is there really a surefire fix for those with a lifetime of struggle and insecurity?

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Leslie Ludy’s experience with the big, bad beauty problem

Ludy begins the book by reminiscing on her own teen years and the deep struggles she had with feeling unattractive, obsessions with pop culture, and infatuation with boys. Her examples will certainly make some people cringe in recognition:

Back in sixth grade, I had been informed–rather rudely–by Sean Wyatt, the unofficial kingpin of Crestview Elementary, that I was (and I quote) “the sickest, most disgusting-looking girl I’ve ever seen!” . . . . His mocking words–along with the disdain of many other guys growing up–convinced me that I was ugly and worthless. And it created a pain inside of me that was almost too intense to bear (p. 8).

The more I listened to the incessant voice of pop culture, the more I pursued their standard for feminine beauty and appeal. . . .I obsessed over my hair, skin, body, and wardrobe like all the TV commercials urged me to. And yet the more I tried to make myself appealing, the farther away from perfection I felt (p. 10).

Now, I could go on a whole long rant about bullying and the beauty industry and how both are awful and can wreak havoc on people for a long time. But there are people who can do that a lot more deeply and eloquently than I can. I think a reform of the beauty industry is desperately needed, but it also won’t cure every last girl who feels insecure. Insecurity from deeper places than just advertising and pop culture exposure, and it won’t be fixed by messages that essentially say “just get over it,” as Ludy mentions here:

No matter how many times we told ourselves “I am beautiful the way I am!” we were still entrenched in a world that relentlessly declared otherwise. And our desperate need to be appealing to the world was still there, no matter how many times we tried to ignore it (p. 14).

There is no catchphrase that can cure deep-seeded hurt, anxiety, and insecurity. The human mind is not good at paying attention to tidbits it doesn’t believe are true. Whether from developmental age, socialization, or peer pressure, insecurity in girls still exists. However, Ludy found a solution to her issues and goes on to give her cure for all this insecurity:

Set-apart femininity

The definition of set-apart femininity spans many paragraphs, so I’ll give you a few tidbits:

Set-apart femininity blends the classic womanly grace and dignity of an Audrey Hepburn with the sacrificial, poured-out-for-Christ lifestyle of an Amy Carmichael. It’s true feminine beauty merged with absolute abandonment to Jesus Christ. It’s the sparkling, vibrant, world-altering, Christlike version of femininity that your King created you to exude (p. 18).

The spectacular sparkle of set-apart femininity is found through absolute abandonment to the Author of all true beauty. It’s found by exchanging a life consumed with self for a life consumed with Jesus Christ, by trading the desire to be attractive to this world for the longing to be attractive to Him alone (p. 19).

Gently, patiently, and lovingly, He [God] began to open my eyes to see how far from being His princess of purity I really was. And He began to show me a glorious new pattern for my life–His pattern. It’s a pattern that is continually being built and shaped within my life, even to this day. It’s the pattern of set-apart femininity, and it’s God’s sacred intent for each of our lives (p. 24).

There are a lot of things I appreciate about Leslie Ludy. I love the candor with which she approaches these topics and her resistance to rely on platitudes to make people feel better quick. I genuinely appreciate her hope that even big problems like insecurity and beauty issues can get better.

At the same time, I think “set-apart femininity” is where Leslie Ludy and I begin to part ways. I don’t think all of it is bad (though using an actress/model as part of the definition is a little goofy). Rather, the solution she’s presenting seems to use her personal experiences as prescriptive for every young woman in the world, even saying it’s God’s intent for all women’s lives. And it seems to be exchanging one method insecure girls can use to purchase beauty (the beauty industry) with another method to acquire beauty (this book).

I’ve been around church groups where leaders take their personal experiences and turn them into prescriptions for everyone in the congregation. However common his habit, I find it quite unhealthy in how it breeds legalism. A question I’ve been keeping in the back of my mind as I read this book: Is the idea of set-apart femininity what God used to speak to Ludy in her personal circumstances, given her specific issues, or is it really His intent for every young woman, revealed only to the world in 2008? Yes, my internal monologues can be a bit cheeky. But from some not-so-good church experiences, I’ve learned the grain-of-salt questions are better, in the long run, than taking everything you read at face value.

Also, does anyone else think it odd to convert to a religion for the promise of becoming attractive? Sure, someone could start there and have their spirituality grow and deepen after; but seeing Christ and Christian service as a means to the goal of sparkling femininity rubs me the wrong way, and is certainly not orthodox Christianity. I hope she’ll clarify this in future chapters, and define more what she means by “beauty” and “attractive,” but without that, paragraphs like the ones above seem like rather strange concepts.

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Christianity does not automatically solve beauty issues

There are many amazing and strong practicing Christians who still struggle deeply with insecurity and not feeling beautiful. Women who I love and trust from the depths of my being. So to be honest, reading a book that seems to suggest that these women would struggle less if they were better Christians makes me feel, well, kinda irritated.

And I think that’s the problem when Christians begin adding to the Gospel. When the gospel stops being “Christ” and becomes “Christ plus ____________” (in this case, “Christ plus beauty”) the logic proceeds that a problem with femininity/beauty must really be a problem with your relationship with Christ. And since Christians don’t always see the promised results of the Christ plus gospel, the Christ plus gospel almost always comes with an epistle of You’re not trying hard enough, since someone has to be to blame for those lack of results (we’ll discuss this much more in future sessions).

A friend of mine has struggled with beauty and self-image, and when I asked her about this, she stressed that despite what some Christian books promise, there is no silver bullet solution to make these messy issues evaporate:

God really has worked with me on this issue. However, it’s not because I had 80 consecutive quiet times, or poured myself so deeply into others that I had no time to process. I have been on the healing road simply because I asked God to heal me, and He has begun that process. That’s what faith is, right? I simply asked Him, and waited.

I didn’t memorize verses on healing. I didn’t join additional Bible studies. I simply asked God to heal me in His own time. And in many ways, he has.

In His own time. I feel like that’s the piece that’s missing so far in this discussion is patience and grace. Some things, especially the deep things, take time. Despite messages from the Christian world that say “work harder, try harder, be the best in 30 days,” those whose faiths impressed Jesus were not those who were preoccupied with becoming the holiest of the bunch. Rather, it was people like the Roman soldier and the Canaanaite woman, who like my friend, simply asked for healing and believed it would happen. They didn’t try to prove anything to Jesus. Weren’t jumping through hoops to make it happen. They simply asked, and Jesus was amazed.

If I were writing this book to teen girls, I would simply say this: ask in faith. Have patience. Have hope. Find grace. Let God work in His own way and own time.

Because isn’t that what we hurting souls need: a little less striving and a lot more grace? A little less comparison and a lot more love?

 

 

 

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5 thoughts on “Set-Apart Femininity Review #2: The beauty problem

  1. I can sort of understand the point she’s trying to make, but I question whether God created all of us to exude Audrey Hepburn-ness…. How does this work for women in southeast Asia, or north Africa, or the mountains of South America (i.e., basically anywhere that doesn’t share our cultural icons)? And, what in the world had God created women for before Audrey Hepburn was born?? 😉

    I so agree that the answer (inasmuch as we can call it “an answer”) to so many of the ills that plague us is to ask God to heal us in His way, in His time. Unfortunately, we probably aren’t going to hear much of an emphasis on this from Christian book authors — the “do more, try harder!” message sells more books and makes more money!

    1. Yes, definitely this! Choosing a thin, white, affluent actress as part of the definition of female godliness is hugely problematic, and excludes so many cultures, time periods, and people groups. Come to think of it, a lot of this book (and the larger Christian women’s industry) assumes a certain amount of wealth and leisure that a lot of women do not possess. Thanks for sharing!

  2. As you can probably imagine, this post spoke very loudly to me & my personal experiences. I’ve had church groups tell me that self-image struggles are clearly the result of a faith issue, and that my lack of prayer/quiet times was the direct cause of my struggles or “vanity,” as they liked to call it. But it’s simply not true. God has worked in me because that is His character. Our God heals. Our God saves. But it’s because of who He is – not because of what we do.

    I also agree with your apprehension of labeling all women as self-conscious or struggling with their image. While I definitely had my struggles with body image, I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a struggle all women are doomed to have. In our society, maybe. Maybe. But that’s a very bold statement to assume of the world’s entire population of every culture and every society.

    1. I’m so sad to hear you were told that, and that your struggles were labeled as vanity. That’s…awful. Really. But I’m also glad that you are able to see through that and not believe that you had a faith/vanity issue on top of everything else. Keep the faith ❤

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