From the annual sales of Easter dresses to the popularity of rhinestone crosses, religion has been marketed for the masses. Nevertheless, religion and the beauty industry have had a contradictory relationship, in part because religion has been both a source of inspiration as well as condemnation. As men and women have fashioned their own identities, they have embraced, rejected, and reinterpreted their spirituality along with official religious dictums that are also bound to a larger political economy. Whether it is gender conformity or moral implications, beauty and style seem to threaten and reaffirm that which is often assumed to be divine.
In the 20th century, women and girls remained trapped in a virgin/whore dichotomy that in many ways set a double standard that profoundly shaped the direction of the beauty industry. Everything from the use of nail polish to skirt lengths has been the basis for special prayers, sermons, and a sense of righteousness. More often than their male counterparts, women have been cast as the keepers of family and religious traditions. To be sure, religious edicts of style have not been limited to female behavior. Nevertheless, whether it is the food consumed or the clothes adorned, women who embrace or deviate from tradition have shaped much of the public’s discourse.
Hairstyles have often reflected religious conviction and dedication. Because of women’s submissive role to both men and God in traditional Christian religion, the hair is worn long and is occasionally covered to symbolize that submissiveness. These beliefs are based on 1 Corinthians 11:15 and 1 Timothy 2:9–15, which prescribe long hair for women and prohibit elaborate hairstyles. For Orthodox Jews, it is considered necessary for women to cover their hair at all times. For nonOrthodox Jewish women, it is sometimes necessary to cover the hair while in the synagogue or in other sacred/religious locations. Hairstyles for Muslims are determined based on the example of the Prophet. For example, the Prophet specifically forbade the shaving of only part of one’s scalp. In addition, it is forbidden to imitate the style of nonbelievers, especially those who shave only part of the hair.
The degree to which a larger political economy reinterprets the religious take on fashion is also evident in the debates over changing hairstyles. In the 1920s, hair products that promised to aid in the growth of long hair were praised by evangelical women in churches because of the biblical teaching that a woman’s hair is her glory. In African American congregations, however, ministers often opposed the emerging beauty industry that stressed standards of white beauty because they saw hair straightening or pressing as both unnatural and ungodly. The popularity of blondeness had for centuries been associated with purity and the fair sex. In the 20th century, being blonde and blue-eyed continued to suggest a hierarchy based on race and religion.
Perhaps no hairstyle captures the complexity of mixing religion and politics better than the popularity of Jesus hair against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. In the 1960s and ’70s, a young generation of men came to reject what they perceived as the more militaristic crew cuts so popular in the decades after World War II. Most closely identified with hippies and challenges to the status quo, the Jesus look touted androgynous hair, lengthy beards, and a peace-loving aesthetic that seemed to represent at the very least a resurrection in style. Nevertheless, longhaired men and boys were kicked out of schools, businesses, and homes, ultimately condemned as unpatriotic and, ironically, as a threat to Christian values.
Cosmetics and Complexions
Religious concerns have also been a reflection of the development of the cosmetics industry. In the 1920s, the cosmetics industry received a boost when it gradually became acceptable for respectable women to wear makeup. By the 1930s, makeup came to be seen as an indicator of mood or a way in which a woman defined herself, regardless of morality. In the 19th century, the division between the lady and the painted woman was clear. Cosmetics were a symbol of female vice and generally indicated some sort of moral deficiency. In fact, self-titled old-fashioned women of the ’20s and ’30s refused to adopt the use of paint and emphasized their moral objections to anything that changed one’s appearance. However, religious beliefs also urged women to embrace cosmetics. In the early 20th century, popular belief held that acne was a sign of some internal spiritual struggle or sexual immorality. This only fed the desire to cover up the blemishes with makeup and/or combat acne medically in the name of respectability.
Altering the hue of one’s complexion or adding color to one’s lips was not only an acceptance of artificiality and sensuality, but also an insult to one’s lineage. Cosmetics were also cast as an attack on one’s own family. For both Jewish and other immigrant girls in the 19th and early 20th centuries, participation in girl culture, including the emerging cosmetics industry, was a way in which they created an American identity and differentiated themselves from their parent’s generation. This participation was often kept concealed from parents due to the perception that cosmetics were sinful. Immigrant parents especially found the use of cosmetics disturbing, and saw it as just another breakdown in family life and culture.
Weight Loss, Dieting, and Fasting
Dieting has been impacted greatly by spiritual concerns. In Western philosophy, humans are thought to be ruled by two competing powers: the soul and the body.
While the soul is concerned with spiritual matters, the body is weak and must be controlled in an effort to protect the soul. Hunger and overindulgence, in addition to sexuality, are sins that the body commits. In the 1830s, Sylvester Graham began to preach that health problems, including spiritual concerns, could be solved by eating a basic vegetarian diet. In addition to the diet, he encouraged other behaviors that would safeguard morality, such as regular cold showers, sleeping on hard mattresses, drinking pure water, and sexual abstinence. Graham created and lent his name to the graham cracker; he emphasized the consumption of bland foods like the crackers to combat passionate emotions that may lead to immorality.
By linking sin with obesity, many diet programs have been able to find support and participants among mainstream Christian groups. Today, religious diet culture is marked by both a dependence on prayer and the Bible. Gwen Shamblin, the author of The Weigh Down Diet (1997), advises that spirituality can be used to avoid overeating. Sales have totaled more than 1.2 million copies. Shamblin identifies a physical need and an emotional need that make people want to eat. She recommends eating only when physical hunger strikes and to stop eating when full. Overeating betrays greediness. Shamblin contends that praying and reading the Bible fill emotional needs. Thus, the beauty industry has benefited from the association of physical beauty or thinness with self-control and sexual purity. Early 20th-century advertising for beauty products often had a religious tone and spoke of the religion of beauty or the sin of ugliness. This same religious language is used today in discussions of weight loss and dieting. Fasting, for example, is the process by which one intentionally refrains from consuming all food or some particular foods for spiritual purposes. In medieval Europe, prolonged fasting was considered a female miracle. Fasting girls have since been linked to spirituality. The symbolic diet of a fasting maiden supported her image of purity and innocence. The history of fasting has forever linked together the ideas of spirituality, purity, and consumption. Women, however, have typically replaced the spiritual aspect of fasting with the desire to be beautiful. Among some religious groups, it is thought that to be overweight indicates a failure of personal morality and shows a lack of self-control that fits with the message of an industrial work ethic, reflects the ebb and flow of economic woes, and helps make billions for the dieting industry.
Building a better body has never been simply a female concern. During the Victorian era, Christian activism in combination with the idea of vigorous masculinity was stressed in the Christian church. This movement promoted both physical strength and a masculine lifestyle for Christian men. Muscular Christianity influenced the development of organizations such as the Promise Keepers and extracurricular groups for teens like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. A renewed emphasis on muscular Christianity occurred during the evangelical resurgence of the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s and in response to the perceived feminization of the Christian church. The masculine Christian ideal in combination with the renewed idea that Christians had a moral obligation to participate in politics led to the emergence of the Christian Right and helped to propel conservative leaders like Ronald Reagan into the national spotlight. In this way, the ideal male body type captured the political ethos of unyielding strength, fueling the popularity of Arnold Schwarzenegger, bodybuilding facilities like Gold’s Gym, and a rich array of health supplements as well as the mainstream use of steroids, all of which has suggested that, once again, religion and the beauty industry would be fraught with contradiction.