Wiggle room

In her book, Eve's Revenge: Women and a Spirituality of the Body, Lillian Calles Barger writes:

"Throughout great classic works of literature the beautiful woman inspires, but this beauty remains largely undefined. It has no particularity. Its content is not fixed, and its attributes are of a transcendent quality. In the Iliad, Helen of Troy is never described except as beautiful. There is no image of her except what our imagination brings to the text. In William Wordsworth's poem 'She Was a Phantom of Delight' the beloved is described as 'a moment's ornament, / Her eyes as stars of Twilight fair; / Like Twilight's, too, her dusky hair.' Likewise in the biblical Song of Songs the beloved is described through metaphors: 'Behold, you are fair! You have dove's eyes' (Songs 1:15)."

What our imagination brings to the text. I like that. But Barger then asks: "What happens when what it means to be 'the beloved' is no longer articulated with words but communicated by explicit images?"

I spoke with a group of college students about the effects of advertising on body image. In our discussion on the way beauty is defined, one woman said, "There's no wiggle room."

The print ad above for Olay affirms her comment. It highlights Barger's word "explicit," as in: spelled out, given definitive parameters, narrowly prescribed.

Nothing short of a miracle could transform the beauty industry into a comprehensive reflection of the Kingdom of God, but is it possible, in the meantime, to add some wiggle room? How would you do it as an advertiser, or a graphic designer, or a photographer, or a parent?


This post was first published in early 2008 when I was my only reader. Because it's still valid and because I care about voices who cover these important advertising topics, I'm bringing it back for your consideration.


Melissa,  November 7, 2011 at 1:59 AM  

As we have recently had to discuss "True Beauty " with our 4 year old daughter, once again your topic is timely Sam. We thought we had been good about shielding her from the world's definition of beauty as the measuring stick she would use to evaluate herself, but realized just how tough that is when she said she wanted to wear make up to be "perfect". I immediately stopped what I was doing, explained she was beautiful without make up, nothing in this world is perfect, and asked her what God wanted to be beautiful. Thankfully she answered "my soul", but I realized that message is probably hard to believe when mom is putting on make up in the morning.

So I don't have an answer to your question about wiggle room, except to say as a parent I am going to do my best to point out godly qualities such as patience and kindness as demonstrations of beauty, to remind my daughter God's opinion is the one that matters, and his standards aren't always changing with the latest styles or beauty products available. And we'll keep watching Veggie Tales Sweet Pea Beauty to help drive that home. :-)

(And obviously to be convincing to her I must be honest with myself about why I am putting on that is make up in the morning!)

Sam Van Eman November 7, 2011 at 10:10 AM  

You're a good mom, Melissa, and she's an astute kid. In time I bet she'll be able to discern your definition of beauty regardless of what you say or how you put yourself together in the morning. This can turn out poorly for a lot of moms (and dads) who say and do one thing but actually believe another. I don't see you in that camp. Fortunate for her!

Colin P. Fagan November 8, 2011 at 6:46 PM  

My wife is a huge fan of Barger. I can remember the late night conversations we would have as she read through her book. It was cool to see her get fired up about some of the stuff. It equally inspired my own inward reflection into how, as a man, I might challenge these wrong images of women in my own life and with my friends. It is so easy to chuckle and make comments but much harder to change but I am glad that we have women like Ms. Barger to reveal the sort of darkside to our physically saturated culture.

Yet, I wonder if men need to be more vocal about creating boundaries as well. As a 20-something man, I've had to struggle with the influence of these veneers of beauty. It has not been easy, but going through the process has been a catalyst for wonderful transformation in my life and marriage. However, it is not a process I would place upon my eventual children. I guess my wife and I will have to learn how to create those healthy boundaries that assist our children in understanding the dark side dynamics Barger discusses but also help them to see beyond that thin veneer into what is really beautiful.

Sam Van Eman November 14, 2011 at 7:42 PM  

Colin, I just wrote a long response and it disappeared. Ah!

The point was this: This is as tough for us as it is for our kids. I'm susceptible to veneer like all of the other people I usually blame for being so insecure and vain.

I'm glad you've been thoughtful about this aspect of your life, and especially glad you tackle it alongside your wife.

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