Whenever an iconic actress passes away, obituary writers traditionally get to the subject of her physical features only after making deferential nods to her acting talent. With the death of Elizabeth Taylor this week at the age of 79, however, they didn’t bother and instead got right to the point: Here was a star whose greatest gift was her astonishing beauty.
Perusing the various write-ups of the past few days, it was striking how many film historians and movie critics unabashedly came out and emphasized this. It’s no surprise that Hollywood celebrates good looks, of course, but it’s mostly considered impolite to make that the focus of an obituary. For Taylor, the usual decorum was set aside and people paused in collective awe to remember what a gorgeous figure she once was. The late Richard Burton, who married Taylor twice, perhaps said it best when he recounted first seeing her: “She was so extraordinarily beautiful that I nearly laughed out loud.”
There’s another reason why I was taken aback by this focus on Taylor’s appearance. As a lifelong Christian, I wonder if I’ve been somewhat trained to undervalue human beauty. Too often, Christians see it not as a blessing from God, but as a dangerous thing.
I can understand why. Human beauty, after all, flirts with some of the deadliest sins: pride, envy, lust.
Consider pride first. We obsess over our looks (even if we’re not very good-looking). And as pastor Jeff Klein notes in this Walk the Way video, if we are pleased with what we see in the mirror, we often consider it an accomplishment of our own rather than a gift from God.
Envy is the flip side to this coin. Celebrity magazines play this out in supermarket aisles: the first 10 pages or so feature glamorous photos that feed our jealousy, then the last 10 try to make us feel better by zooming in on the cellulite that dares appear on a starlet’s thigh.
As for lust, it represents the tragedy of true beauty in this fallen world. The line between appreciating a person’s God-ordained design and lusting after it has become horribly, perhaps irretrievably, blurred.
Because of all this, human beauty is often talked about as a curse (though only by the beautiful people, of course). Yes, it’s hard to feel sorry for someone with Taylor’s looks, but there is a sad truth to one of her more familiar quotes: “I have the emotions of a child in the body of a woman. I was rushed into womanhood for the movies. It caused me long moments of unhappiness and doubt.”
So there are reasons to be wary of human beauty, but not all of them are sound. Sometimes, intellectual elitism comes into play. There’s something within most of us that ranks physical beauty well behind intelligence. We rationalize this by thinking in terms of cartoons – what is more of an accomplishment, becoming valedictorian or homecoming queen? – but I think that’s a reductive approach. When Genesis says that we’ve been created in God’s image, I do believe that includes our intellectual capabilities. But isn’t there something to the fact that “image” is the term the Bible uses?
I wish human beauty didn’t make us uncomfortable in these and other ways. I wonder if there is a way to appreciate it without twisting that appreciation into something that looks like narcissism, jealousy or wayward desire. Is this possible in our broken world? Or will we have to wait for the next?