Religion and Beauty

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.

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