Some years back I taught a course on women’s spirituality at Fuller Theological Seminary that included a section on fashion and beauty. Although not a usual theological topic, it generated one of our best discussions. Women today, be they seminarians or business tycoons, are grappling with the relationship between body and soul. For too long, we have thought of our bodies as being here, our minds as being over there, and our spirits as being who-knows-where. Weary of the split, we yearn for integration.
Our earliest forbearers held no notion of a split between secular and sacred. We meet the integrated female in faceless, full-hipped statuettes shaped by Paleolithic peoples who gave form to her spirit over 20,000 years ago. We see her in the bare-breasted Minoan Crete snake goddess. Venus rose from the amniotic sea, full-bodied and oozing with sexuality.
Despite early Jewish/Christian abhorrence of idolatry and goddess worship, her presence could not be denied to people starved for an image of the sacred feminine. By the eighth century, Mary, the mother of Jesus, had become the mediator between humans and God. By the late Middle Ages the Madonna had pushed out the saints by being the second most important figure in Christian art. She found a welcome audience in the New World when the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared in 1531.
Today, however, St. Mary of the Middle Ages no longer holds full sway. Yet, the image of the perfect woman, the beautiful woman, the worshiped woman, the woman other women point out to their daughters as the model to follow remains alive and well.
Mary’s countenance beams from the covers of Elle. She populates the catwalks at fashion week in Paris, Milan, and New York and speaks to us from well-crafted ads that utilize her perfected image to that sell everything from beer to mutual funds.
How did we get from Mary of Nazareth to Heidi Klum? A good place to begin is a discussion of the split that rendered modern women’s bodies from their souls.
Although Mary was held up by the early Church as the epitome of womanly beauty, that beauty paid little reference to her appearance and denied her sexuality. Instead, it reinforced the notion that the “good” in a woman was limited to youthful chastity, maternal goodness, piety, self-sacrifice, serenity, and forbearance. Like Mary, godly women were expected to eschew physical beauty and sexuality in favor of things spiritual.
As the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance, however, commissioned artists began taking their models for Mary from among the fashionably clad women of the wealthy families. By the end of the 16th century, the incorporation of secular fashion and beauty had moved Mary’s portraits nearly out of the realm of the sacred. Instead of Mary inspiring the look that was appropriate for the pious woman, secular fashion came to dictate how Mary was portrayed.
This shift was mighty, and its implications are still being felt. When Mary, the chaste Mother of God, morphed into the ultimate in secular female beauty, she became an image of perfection that truly was unattainable for human women. For who, among living women, could match her piety and her beauty? We find in Mary the prototype for the beautiful woman who is worshiped for a secular beauty that is untouchable, unreachable—in other words, perfect.
Throughout the ensuing centuries the Catholic Church maintained an uneasy truce with femaleness by projecting it onto the virtuous Mary. However, Protestant reformers gave Mary no quarter, and they were left with no symbol of female transcendence and spirituality. The physically beautiful woman was cast as the Devil’s bride.
Yet, the primal understand of womanhood would not die. Something had to give, and that something was the rise of the 20th century secular beauty/fashion icon—the image of the perfect woman. The only difference between Mary and Cindy Crawford was that Mary represented the ‘beauty/spirit’ side of the coin and Cindy represented the ‘beauty/body’ side. In her role as the too-beautiful-to-be-true woman, the fashion model offers a type of transcendence through her perfected sexuality and materialism.
Inasmuch as my women seminarian students were grappling with wanting to be attractive in a society where attractiveness too often is equated as the antithesis of spirituality, millions of women are rekindling an interest in Mary. No longer being held to the role the of the silent, suffering servant, Mary is emerging as a strong woman who has a lot to say about accepting tough challenges, speaking out, and being an active participant in one’s own spiritual development. The same can be said for women of other faiths who are reevaluating the role of historical, foundational women and finding in them positive role models for spiritual growth.
While it is unlikely that a fully integrated female icon will emerge any time soon, for the first time in centuries, the door is open to the possibility. The old dictate that women should be rendered women body from soul is dying. A new understanding is emerging that demands a both/and rather than an either/or mindset about female beauty and spirituality.
As we delve into the issue of female beauty and spirituality, we’ll touch over and again on the artificial rift that has left too many of us feeling as though we’re living our lives on two different planes.