The supermodel Paulina Porizkova gave abuzzy interview for The Times of London last year. I confess, as a young millennial, I had to google who she was. Porizkova is my mother’s age exactly. Her interview is powerful—she describes the stark divide between age and beauty. Throughout the interview, she describes how being an object of desire is reserved for young women. Physical beauty, it turns out, is something you age out of.
For many women, aging feels like death. To experience changing mating preferences over the course of a woman’s lifetime can be devastating. As Porizkova aged, she realized she “was invisible to the population at large. It made me feel really terrible about myself.”
Beauty has boundaries, Porizkova warns. The dance of heterosexual desirability unfortunately has preferences and parameters. Men’s desiresare narrow. As women mature, we are attracted to men in a similar age range. The average fifty-something woman typically sets her sights on middle-aged men. Meanwhile, men’s most desired age in women remains topped out attwenty-two according to a study on dating-app users. A study out of Finland supports this data, reinforcing men’s sexual preference for younger women, which maps onto peak fertility years. Another study highlights that as men age, their preference for younger women becomes more dramatic. As Porizkova illustrates, “I try to flirt with guys and they will just walk away from me mid-sentence to pursue someone 20 years younger. I’m very single, I’m dressed up, I’ve made an effort–nothing.”
Modern life lures women into a losing gamble—that if we waste our beautiful, youthful years serving the market rather than a family, we can pick back up where we left off once we reach forty, with plenty of men for the taking. Too many millennial women feeling the sting of aging are sleeping alone tonight.
One could argue that Porizkova misses the point—she shouldn’t have desired attention from men in the first place.
Culture pushes the message that desiring attention from men is toxic, internalized sexism while cashing in on the painful fact that attraction and desire create an unequal playing field as women age. Current narratives punish women for wanting men’s attention while simultaneously feeding off women’s fear of aging to bloat an ever-expanding beauty and wellness market.
Most women actually enjoy being desired–experiencing the male gaze, if you will–when the man doing the desiring is himself desirable to her. This is why aging is uniquely painful for women who have unrealized dreams for a traditional family life.
Our culture seduces women to keep themselves forever young through purchasing endless physical improvements, while denying how and why beauty was ever valuable in the first place. The promises of feminism have left many women lonely, as we’ve pitted career success against settling down with a marriageable man, just when the power of our beauty is at its height. This same culture hooks men too, through cheap, constantly available sexual images endlessly enhanced to meet an unachievable ideal. The images addicting men and shaming women are not real, in the truest sense. These images are housed on a platform instead of in a body, and create lonely fetishists instead of producing children.
Loss of beauty with aging is an undeniable part of womanhood. This reality can either bring terrible grief, as we mourn the loss of our fertility and the change in our looks, or our beauty can be something fondly remembered–its power well spent.
But what is female beauty, and what is it for?
This cannot be answered without understanding the most powerful interpersonal dynamic humans experience: sexual attraction culminating in procreation. Beauty has a function when placed in a relational context, and that use is not permanent, but gives way to something greater than itself. Beauty matures–it grows. Beauty, when used rightly, multiplies. Asking the question “what is beauty for” forces us to answer the question, “what is a woman?”
Definitions like “adult human female” miss the mark. What is a female? And more foundationally, what is a human? Questions about gender and humanity are fundamentally relational. Humanity cannot understand itself without relation to our Creator, and women and men cannot understand ourselves without each other.
When beauty is simply a commodity to be bought and sold, a chasm grows between the sexes. We are pitted against each other to win the upper hand on the mating market. But beauty was meant as a road between us—a point of access, a door that leads to something greater than itself.
Beauty changes from being the catalyst for a consumptive act–whether in women purchasing products or men gorging themselves on pornography–into the initiation of a generative act. Beauty is the power women wield with men to create the next generation. Gender is by definition generative.
Beauty is a grace gifted for women to use responsibly and properly to fulfill our purpose as womankind: generating and mothering the human race. Our beauty–our youngest, and strongest years–should be spent carrying out our unique vocation as women. And for most of us, that will be making a marriage and welcoming children. Do not awaken love until the time is right, the poet warns. There is a time to awaken love, and perhaps beauty is the key.
But what about those who aren’t beautiful? What about women who don’t become wives or mothers? Has beauty not fulfilled its telos for those women? Are they not beautiful?
A resounding no. For Christians, female physical beauty points to a greater, more fundamental, reality. In God’s kingdom, true beauty is not physical but spiritual. I used to find that idea trite, until I started the slow descent of aging myself. While I fade away in some sense on the outside as I age, on the inside, through the power of the Spirit, I am becoming more “myself” than I was before. God makes all things beautiful in its time.
A woman is beautiful to God, because he loves her. Love turns us beautiful. We are beautiful because the Beautiful One laid down his very life for us, and made us his bride.
We are lovely in his sight because we are loved. Beauty is in the eye of our Husband and our Beholder. His beauty is for us, and ours for him.