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The Obsession with Beauty

By Dr. James Dobson

Is there a message here about our culture, which seems to worship youth and beauty? If so, should it be shared with your daughters? Without a doubt.

Consider another sad example from the life and death of a beauty queen. Her name was Anna Nicole Smith, and she was Playboy's Playmate of the Year in 1993 and a model for Guess jeans. She fantasized about becoming the next Marilyn Monroe and was compared to sultry actress Jean Harlow. Anna Nicole married an eighty-nine-year-old Texas oil tycoon when she was twenty-six. She died on February 8, 2007, after being found unconscious in her hotel room. The cause of death was a drug overdose from nine different types of medications. In that regard, Anna achieved her goal of being like Marilyn. They both died alone after overdosing.

Writer Marc Gellman wrote an insightful and disturbing article about Anna Nicole, published a week after her death. As you will see, he describes graphically the tragedy of beautiful women who are routinely treated like "pieces of meat."

What men consider beautiful about women changes over time. In 16th-century Antwerp, Peter Paul Rubens taught Dutch men to lust after pudgy brunettes. In 20th-century America, Hugh Hefner taught American men to lust after busty blondes, women just like Anna Nicole Smith. Any reflections on her death must first begin with deep sadness for yet another premature and needless death in our wounded world. Thirty-nine-year-old women should not die. We must also grieve for her infant daughter who, regardless of her possible fortune, is now consigned by fate to grow up without a mother—just as Anna Nicole had been forced by the same cruel fate to grow up without a father. Next we must force ourselves to remember that this front-page story is echoed by a thousand untold stories about unknown women who have died or been killed or driven to fatal addictions just because they were pretty. These women died because they were meat on the banquet table of predatory men. Their deaths must not be seen as merely tragic accidents, but as cautionary tales for us all, and particularly for men who are taught to see women as playthings and not as human beings made, as religious folk like me would say, in the image of God.

Treating women, particularly pretty women, as meat is not a new social pathology or a new sin. It is as old as women and men. I am sure that among the early hominoids there were women with rapturously beautiful body hair who were harassed and pursued. In the Bible the treating of women as meat is called harlotry. In Leviticus 19:29 we read this cautionary law: "Do not profane your daughter by making her a harlot, so that the land will not fall to harlotry and the land become full of lewdness." Read that and tell me you don't believe in prophecy!

Now the PC term for treating women as meat is "objectification." Whatever the label, the essence of this perversion of human dignity is unchanged over time. The idea that half of the human beings on planet earth only matter because of their physical appearance remains an outrageous assault on the human dignity of women.

Anna Nicole was stigmatized as poor white trash. However, it is a cruel illusion to believe that only poor, pretty women must become bimbos, strippers and gold diggers to get out of the trailer park. I see the bimbofication of young girls all the time in my affluent suburban synagogue. Sadly, some of the brightest adolescent girls around the age of 12 suddenly try to dumb themselves down so that they can attract a boy-friend who will not be scared off by their intelligence. I also see echoes of Anna Nicole in the successful twentysomethings and thirtysomethings, whose little black cocktail dresses are meant to both reveal their cleavage and conceal their desperation at the thought that pursuing a career means abandoning the pursuit of love and family. The feminist movement has won important victories for egalitarianism, but it has also surrendered women to predatory men who have taken women's new found freedom as the perfect opportunity to surrender all sexual responsibility, respect and gallantry. One can rejoice at new found freedoms without distorting their cost.

The problem with treating women as meat is that many of the solutions offered up are far worse than the problem. The Taliban had an easy and perverse solution, and that was to treat women as prisoners. Completely covering up the female form with a burqa and shutting women out of Afghani public and professional life is even worse than being forced to hear about the latest exploits of Paris, Lindsay and Britney. On the other hand, making the case that there is nothing wrong with women freely displaying their bodies and embracing their sexuality in any way they desire is equally perverse because it supports porn, which coarsens our culture, degrades women and led to the death of a woman whose infant daughter needs her now. We need to find a place between prudes and porn. The future of our culture and the dignity of both men and women depend upon us finding such a place now.

An important move in learning not to treat women as meat is to restore the sundered link between love and sex. Porn is not possible if sex is widely seen as a way to express love. If sex is nothing more than scratching an itch, it can- not be the physical consequence of love and trust. Love is never casual, and when sex becomes casual it cannot serve the needs of love. Some say that the best way to reestablish this link between love and sex is to teach that the only satisfying context for this linkage is marriage. I agree, but this need not be the first step in recovering a more modest culture. If men and women just decided to only have sex with people they deeply love and deeply trust, we as a culture would be miles down the right road.

In such a world Anna Nicole might still be alive.

Marc Gellman has illuminated a monumental truth here: our hyper-sexualized culture has made harlots out of beautiful women, and we must protect our daughters from its influence where possible.

For my part, I have not intended to condemn Farrah Fawcett, Anna Nicole Smith, Marilyn Monroe, or any of the other legendary goddesses who have walked a lonely road toward fame and fortune. I feel sadness for them. Rather, I mean to say again that perceptions of human worth should not depend inordinately on physical attractiveness. Furthermore, as we have seen, those who are born with striking beauty might not be better off than those who are more ordinary. To be judged as acceptable or not acceptable based on one's physical attributes is harmful to everyone. Even boys are being hit by the ricochet today.

Before closing, I simply must share another true story about the wife of one of my colleagues. Kim Davis is, by her own admission, not endowed with the beauty she has craved. How she learned to cope with and over- come her self-loathing is both inspiring and instructive. Perhaps her experience will be helpful as you seek to protect your little Cinderella from a culture that is often brutal to both the haves and have-nots. This is her testimony:

Femininity Begins with Self-Respect

I grew up in a solid Christian home. My father was an evangelist who traveled extensively, holding revival meetings. Our entire family traveled with him for four years full time. We lived in a twenty-eight-foot motor home (two adults, four children, and a dog!). I recall my father always seeking a deeper relationship with God. As God shared things with him, he would in turn share them with the family. We were all very close, and each of us knew we were loved without question.

In spite of this godly upbringing, I struggled. From my earliest memory I was thoroughly convinced that I was ugly and unlovable. These feelings shaped many of my choices and behaviors as I was growing up.

My crisis moment came when I entered a conservative Christian college. I recall walking by the boys' dormitory the first day or two after I arrived, and I heard laughter. I immediately felt in my heart, you see, even here they know who you are. You're laughable, Kim! Who would ever want you?

The reality is that the guys in that dorm room that day had no idea I was even there. They were laughing about who knows what. But the enemy of our souls is mean and a liar. I was too wounded to recognize him for who he was, and I believed every word.

My mother and sister who had brought me to college were ready to make the four-hour drive back home. In those last moments together I broke down. I had never shown my mother blatant disrespect, but my wounded spirit had reached its breaking point. I yelled at her, "Why did you ever let me be born? I never should have been allowed to live!"

I think God gave my mother an extra abundance of grace that day. She looked at me, and after a moment's pause said, "Kim, I don't know what to do. I have told you your whole life how valued and precious you are. God is going to have to show you now—I can't."

Now that I am a mother of a child in college, I can't imagine the pain [my mother] felt that day as she and my sister pulled away and drove those hours home. She has since told me she spent much time praying.

I went to my dorm room and fell on my face before God. I was broken and wounded. I cried out to God asking Him the same questions I had asked of my mother: "Why, God? Why? Why would You let me be born when You knew what a disappointment I would be? I'm ugly and not worth anything!" The words flowed from my heart; I had been afraid my entire life to be so honest with God. I lay on the floor, facedown, for hours. The room became dark as the sun set. It was then that I heard, Kim, you are beautifully and wonderfully made.

"No, I can't be," I responded.

He said without words, I knit you in your mother's womb. I knew your name. I loved you and you were mine.

God was so patient with me. He quietly, gently spoke my name, brought to mind Scripture as if He had written it just for me. My spirit began to quiet, and His spirit fell on that room in a beautiful way. God began healing me.

I truly believed I was unlovely, unlovable, and unworthy. Now I know what a lie that was. This is why I am such an advocate for girls to recognize their worth. If respect for ourselves doesn't take root in the heart, we can never realize the full potential of who God created us to be, and we can never really respect others. The more I see myself as God sees me, the more I can see others as God sees them. I've taught in schools off and on since 1984. Through the years I have seen a decline in the behavior of young ladies. My heart has been heavy for them as I see such wounds and pain. Seeing in them the same struggles I had experienced, I began to seek ways to address some of them.

While at a teachers' conference, I saw a rhinestone pin shaped like a crown. I immediately thought of my middle school students who didn't value themselves, who didn't know how to be ladies or respect themselves. I purchased the pin, knowing that the girls would be drawn to the "glitz."

The next day at school I wore it, and sure enough, the girls asked me about it. It was the invitation I was looking for. I began by stating in an offhanded way that it reminds me that if I want to be a princess, I need to act like one and expect to be treated like one. I was amazed by the response. The concept of being so highly valued was foreign. It became the focus of our girls' class (I taught in a single-gender classroom).

These girls had no idea that they could expect to be treated like ladies, let alone act like one. I have found that many of the girls I teach:

  • Are being raised by working or single mothers
  • Are being raised by parents who were themselves raised without a moral compass necessary for healthy behavior
  • Have no positive male influence in their lives

While many young ladies who come out of homes like these are strong and healthy individuals, I saw more pain and damage than anything else. The girls who didn't have the moral guidance of an involved parent habitually made poor choices. By God's grace, I found that engaging these young ladies helped many of them to realize they were worth more than they knew, and they began expecting others to treat them with healthy respect. And it goes way beyond expecting boys to be gentlemen. With these girls it was about respecting themselves, accepting who they were, and coming to the point of celebrating who they were created to be.

What started with a crown-shaped pin became a yearlong focus on femininity. I had many conversations with the girls as they brought up struggles they experienced that destroyed their self-respect. I've seen lives changed and have even prayed with students (in a public school, no less) as a result of this focus. Girls want to know who they are! They want to be accepted and loved. That's why so many of them make the poor choices that they do. I believe we women have been remiss in giving that guidance, thus the havoc that has been wreaked in our girls. These girls are too precious to lose.

Thank you, Kim, for this beautiful and candid message and for offering advice that parents can use. I appreciate your allowing me to share it with my readers.

I am reminded of a Scripture that places our society's attitudes toward women into proper perspective. It reads, "Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised" (Proverbs 31:30). Selling that concept to a girl who hates herself might be a tough assignment, but the case can and should be made nonetheless.

I am not the only writer to decry this false system of values, of course. I am pleased to report that since 2004, there has been an initiative called "The Real Truth about Beauty: A Global Report." Its purpose is to change the way women and children are perceived. It is sponsored by Unilever's Dove beauty brand, which reported that more than two-thirds of women around the world believe "the media and advertising set an unrealistic standard of beauty that most women can't ever achieve." Their research revealed that only 13 percent of women were very satisfied with their body weight and shape. Only 2 percent considered themselves to be beautiful, and more than half said their bodies disgusted them. This is the world in which your daughters are growing up!

Dr. Nancy Etcoff, a professor at Harvard University and director of the Program in Aesthetics and Well Being at the Massachusetts General Hospital Department of Psychiatry, said this about women and beauty: "When only a minority of women is satisfied with their body weight and shape in a society captivated by diet and makeover programs, it is time for a change." Yes, it is! That led Dove to launch the Campaign for Real Beauty in 2005, which included a national advertising program. The senior vice president, Silvia Lagnado, said:

By questioning the accepted definition of beauty, we hope to help women change the way they perceive their bodies and encourage them to feel beautiful every day.

Let's get that message across to our own daughters.



From Bringing Up Girls by Dr. James C. Dobson
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