You, Me and Mona

My fair skin has been ravaged by sun damage: I’m wrinkled beyond my years and scarred from removing multiple Basal Cell cancer lesions. My brown mop has enough gray hairs in it that nobody can mistake them for ‘highlights’ anymore. My teeth are anything but brilliant white. I’m over 40 and overweight.

And sometimes all of that undermines my confidence, when surrounded by the features of my slender, tanned or blond female peers. Our society values those physical attributes more than the ones God gave me genetically. In today’s American culture, the ones I posses are not regarded as beautiful. 

I recently crowded with throngs of other tourists for a brief, and oppressively hot, viewing of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris. This painting, now more than 500 years old, is one of the most well-known in the world: a masterpiece.We made our way to the front of a disorderly mob after about 15 minutes and were greeted by her proverbially enigmatic smile.

As I took in the painting, I reflected on the care given to this heralded work of art. She now sits in a humidity controlled environment, her frame braced from behind to prevent warping. A coat of varnish preserves the color, and on several occasions the painting has been cleaned. Otherwise, she remains exactly as Leonardo depicted her. The efforts of conservationists have been to preserve not improve.

Because they recognize the artist’s work as a masterpiece.  

However, this woman wouldn’t grace the runway in a fashion show or a magazine cover. By our societal norms, she wouldn’t even be considered pretty.

Imagine, for a moment, if someone tried to throw some foils in Mona Lisa’s hair, rendering her brown hair blond. Or if her smile was amended to contain teeth so white they clashed with her ivory-toned skin? Maybe her face should be less pale, and more brown. After all, she’d look prettier if she were tan, right? Heck, she might even look skinnier after a few hours of sun.

Then she’d really be a masterpiece.

Preposterous, isn’t it? And yet, is it so different than what many women today do? Aren’t the dollars and hours spent in hair salons, dental chairs and tanning booths all aimed at altering our looks to align with the cultural (or marital) edicts of beauty?

I’m thankful for a husband who makes frequent expression of his love for me and affirmation of my physical appearance. He has been a mainstay of security over the course of our 17 year marriage, despite the wrinkles, sags, pounds and grays. And yet even his opinion of me shouldn’t be the last word on how I feel about myself.

It’s God’s opinion that matters.

And He describes you and me as His workmanship (Ephesians 2:10). We are the only created beings that bear His image (Genesis 1). Each of us was fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14). We are His masterpiece.

Can the clay possibly improve upon the Potter’s work? Should the earthen vessel determine the color or size of its form? Should it complain of the stains from being used for His purpose?

The French name for this famous masterpiece is ‘La Joconde’, which is a pun on the subject’s name (Lisa del Giocondo), referring to the word ‘jocund’ which means ‘happy’ or ‘jovial.’

I wonder if we all might bear a greater internal likeness to this contended woman if we knew ourselves to be God’s masterpieces. Would we smile with the same mysterious peace if we ceased to enslave ourselves to the cultural standards? Would husbands be drawn to the inner confidence of a woman that stepped gracefully off the gerbil wheel of hair dye, tooth bleach and sunless tanner, and instead wore her graying crown of splendor (Proverbs 16:31) with her head held high? Would the unbelieving world be entreated to a God who is praised by His creations for making them a masterpiece, instead of perpetually trying to ‘improve’ upon His work?

I wonder.

Shall we give it a try?

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.
— Psalm 139:14 ESV 

Please share!
    • Susan Stilwell

      Ouch, Kirsten – that’s convicting! I love my highlights and wrinkle cream! And I’m SO thankful for the braces I wore as a young teenager, but those things are just adornments. Thank you for the reminder to focus on what really matters – a gracious, God-confidence.

    • Kirsten

      Your comment, Susan, begs the question of where the ‘line’ is on this topic. Is care-taking different than alteration? I suppose I think there is, though I’m unclear on where it really lies. Perhaps the line is only clear when we view ourselves through God’s eyes. Thanks for your input – and support.

      • Susan Stilwell

        I hear you, Kirsten. I love that old saying, “If the barn needs painting, PAINT it!”

        It IS a fine line with certain things and I personally think it’s one of liberty. I’m satisfied to let Him draw it for each of us individually.

    • Heidi Feichtinger via Facebook

      I think this is so appropriate to our society…such pressure to look younger, especially now that I am getting old enough to “see and feel” the difference…what ever happened to growing older gracefully, instead of trying to pretend we don’t get older at all?

    • Wendy Redal

      What a powerful and thought-provoking post. I agree with you, Kirsten, that we should continually ponder this notion of a “line,” even though it is fuzzy and perhaps shifting and may be slightly different for each woman. But there IS a difference between care-taking and altering, and mild altering can quickly turn into costly (both in terms of money and, potentially, health, if we’re talking surgery) artificial transformation. When American women are spending, literally, billions each year on surgically altering our appearances, driven by cultural pressures and naturally unattainable standards, I can’t help but think of what that much money could buy for women in Africa or elsewhere who are in need of clean water and electricity and healthy food and seed grants to start businesses to support themselves and their children. Our “needs” vary so markedly, don’t they?

      I don’t have qualms about the reasonably priced skin care cream I use, or, most of the time, about keeping up my blonde highlights, but I can’t embrace Juvederm, even though I don’t like the vertical lines framing my mouth, and I’m not going to opt for liposuction, even though it would be SO much easier than the work that is entailed in losing the 20 lbs. I want and need to drop.

      Those are my own lines. When someone asks me how hair color is really any different from Botox or breast augmentation, I don’t have a cut-and-dried answer. It’s all a “slippery slope,” though I have managed to keep a toe-hold near the top of the hill without sliding all the way down. It’s kind of how I regard gun control: I’m in favor of Second Amendment rights generally, but when we start legalizing civilian ownership of semi-automatic rifles and mega-rounds of ammunition, I think we have “gone too far.”

      When it comes to what’s normal and natural for aging women, we have also “gone too far” in what we expect women to do to remain attractive by a very externally defined standard. I like your challenge at the end: imagine what it would be like if we all collectively decided to just be who we really are? Men would just have to deal. :)

      Thanks for the invitation to converse!

      • Kirsten

        Well said, Wendy. It does fall on a slippery slope that I think we can all only discern independently. And, as Susan pointed out, should be left to liberty. I have the same hesitation about the fiscal costs because it doesn’t seem right to spend money ‘improving’ myself when so much of the world doesn’t even have the benefit of clean water. First world problems, eh?

        • Susan Stilwell

          First world problems, indeed. They’re embarrassing when you look at the big picture.
          Awesome post and great discussion, Kirsten!

    • Kirsten Holmberg 8|28 via Facebook

      Right, Heidi! Whatever we profess will be tested when age is upon us!

    • Hester Christensen

      Hi Kirsten,

      Good word sister! I appreciate your illustration and application from the word. I know I could share more but I’m afraid to get off on a real rabbit trail – this is a great topic. For me, the Lord has helped me embrace the beauty He gives (and move past gnosticism) – This is coming from someone who formerly questioned if it was wrong to paint her toenails! :)

      Bless you, Hester ;)

      • Kirsten

        Would love to hear more about that, Hester!

    • Chara Ramer

      Great blog post Kirsten. Definitely gives me something to think about. Especially since just yesterday I sat in the passenger seat of the car while my husband drove us to a BBQ and as we drove I sat trying to pull out gray hairs (futile) and kept commenting about “when did my face get so wrinkled!?” Since my two boys were in the back seat, this is definitely not the sort of behavior I want to model for them. I am sure that if I asked God whether he’d rather me spend time and money on a great hair cut and color, or have a solid quiet time and give to a charity I am passionate about, he’d probably choose the latter. With that said, I know that we live in a society where our confidence is so dependent on how we look on the outside. And confidence does help us go about our day with our head held up a little higher. Again, we have been taken in by the world’s definition of what makes us valuable. We are constantly comparing ourselves to other women around us, and that is definitely not something that brings out the gracious, holy or godly attitudes in any of us.
      For some reason, your post made me think of a conversation I had with my sister and my husband at brunch the other day. Bear with me…but we were eating yummy eggs and hashbrowns and enjoying a warm morning out on the back deck. As my sister and I sprinkled salt on our food, my husband put mounds of ketchup on his. We were teasing him…asking how in the world could he taste his food under all the ketchup–and didn’t that totally overpower all the natural yummy flavors of the eggs and hashbrowns. My sister and I are convinced that all he must taste is ketchup. By way of analogy, what if we took a “sprinkle salt” approach to outward adornment, instead of the ketchup approach. God did not make me skinny, or blond, or naturally prone to tan. But I can get dressed up in a cute skirt, put on pretty jewelry, even put on some make up. And I can do my best to take care of my body and be healthy, even though that is not going to put me on the cover of any magazine. Can we approach our God given characteristics as something that we can “bring out” or “highlight” with a little salt here and there, but not just pour ketchup all over his creation of each of ourselves. Maybe I’m just hungry, but for some reason this analogy makes sense to me. If we are tending to the physical appearance, should it be in such a way that enhances what God has given us, instead of working to alter the fundamentals he’s bestowed upon each of us individually?

      • Kirsten

        I love that analogy, Chara! Excellent ‘food for thought’ when I’m putting on my makeup daily. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

    • Pingback: Not just a bad thing. Anything. | Eight | Twenty-Eight()

    • Pingback: Put your money (and sunscreen) where your mouth is | Eight Twenty-Eight()