I love what it means to be a woman, and I love what the Bible says about women. God has certainly given me many opportunities or experiences to explore what this looks like in real life. For starters, I myself, of course, am a woman. I have a lovely sister, and I had a spit-fire of a mother. My best friends are women. I help coordinate a women’s ministry at our church. I frequently teach women about the early months of infant care. I work with an amazing group of hard working, caring women at a nursing facility. Then, above all, God blessed me with four amazing daughters. Because of my girls, a variety of young women have come across my path over the years. For example, through them I have developed a passion for the all-girls Christian camp that they have attended for the past eight years.
What have all these experiences with women shown me about what it’s like to be a woman in today’s society? Sadly, the picture is bleak. Everywhere I turn, in all these contexts in which I’ve worked with women, there seems to be an increasing push to minimize distinctions between men and women. This can be seen at all levels of society. To cite just one example, Target and other major stores are considering doing away with separate clothing departments for men and women.
Given current trends, this is not as crazy as it might sound to some. Recently, the Wall Street Journal carried an article about how men’s and women’s fashion trends are starting to be merged. This is obvious if you look at any recent fashion magazine — stunningly attractive women all too often are dressed like boys. But this isn’t the way it should be. As I look at all the beautiful women in my life, I hate the notion that their distinctive feminine qualities need to be neutralized. Why do we struggle to appreciate what it means to be a woman? After all, didn’t God design us male and female, two distinct sexes, each bearing His image? As men and women, we get to reflect God’s image in accord with our design. This is a privilege to be enjoyed and explored, not a burden to be diminished or hidden. I believe that this expression comes both in our heart and in our outward appearance.
My views on femininity were brought to light recently in a conversation with one of my daughters as we discussed how my parenting “enforced” the outward appearance of femininity. That’s her word, not mine. She used the word “enforced” as if my husband and I were militant in policing our daughters’ fashion choices and hair style. I told her I preferred the word “promoted” as opposed to “enforced.” Needless to say, a battle in semantics ensued over the phone. I was humbled to hear her perspective, but it also gave me reason to think further about the true nature of femininity, how we regard our appearance, and about God’s call on our lives as women. I hope that in my parenting and guidance of my girls, I have promoted femininity of the heart expressed in our appearance and our behavior.
I must say I feel passionately about the need to express our femininity outwardly by our appearance, and, according to my daughter, this came across loud and clear in my parenting of her and her sisters. In this day of increasing gender neutrality, of the promotion of same-sex relationships, and the increasing blurring of the lines of what it means to be a man or what it means to be a woman, the simple act of putting on a dress or putting on makeup or heels, or curling one’s hair takes on both a spiritual and a cultural significance. These activities highlight the fact that God did indeed create me female and are small ways of taking a stand against the secular world’s efforts to tell me that femininity is increasingly irrelevant. I want to express my God-given design as a way of bringing Him glory. I want to shout to the world: “God personally designed me biologically to be female! Male and female He created them in His image.” I choose to do that by adopting a culturally dependent feminine outward appearance.
Some girls are not particularly “gifted” in the area of feminine appearance. Should she try to look more in accordance with traditionally female characteristics? Most certainly, and I think she should make an effort to do so as an expression of God’s design. In our day where gender stereotypes continue to be increasingly blurred this is important. Every culture has a different concept of what constitutes “traditional” female dress and public image. For our culture those concepts include clean and tidy hair (often long, sometimes curled), jewelry, dresses, heels or flats, and make-up. Even certain colors are more characteristically feminine than others. Some women will be more successful with this than others. Regardless, it is an attempt to express our God-given biology outwardly in a way that communicates to our culture. But the braiding of hair, the jewelry, the make-up—these are to be merely an outward expression of our heart, not the essence of what it means to be a woman. Femininity, like beauty, must not be skin deep. A woman that is too concerned about keeping her nails pretty will never wash the feet of the saints, which is one of the clearest marks of a godly woman. In other words, the essence of femininity goes deep into the heart.
In Luke 11, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for only being concerned about outward appearances. He tells them that having washed up really well doesn’t make them acceptable to God. They paraded around enforcing rules of cleanness and burdening the people with unattainable standards and as a result, hindered the lost from understanding the ways of God. Jesus tells them that they made a good show of godliness, but neglected justice and the love of God. If we hold our girls to a meer standard of outward femininity, we are failing to teach them the heart of what it means to be a godly woman.
Putting on “pretty” things doesn’t make me, or anyone else, a female. That would mean that men dressed in female garb are therefore women. What makes a woman a woman is her God-given biology distinct from the biology of men. God created male and female, as His image bearers, each with a distinct design. This distinct design includes our biology, our emotions, our hearts, all of us, and leads us to understand that men and women have a distinct callings from God.
Eve was the mother of all the living. God has created women, designed us physically and emotionally to be life givers and helpers like our first mother, Eve. As Scripture says, our beauty is to come from the hidden beauty of the heart. Our life-giving, helping design, according to the Bible, is to be expressed through kindness, a nurturing heart, peacefulness, purity, joy, care for others, productivity, and love for the lost and the lonely. We are to have a passion for His Word, His Truth, and a desire to see the lost redeemed and healed by the Gospel. Our love for Christ’s Bride, the church, demands devotion to serving her so she may flourish. These are all at the heart of what it means to be a woman. I believe these attributes are of highest value for women—the ultimate definition of femininity. So what does this expression of femininity look like? For each woman, it will look different. My hope is that the hidden qualities of the heart will bring God glory in the world and extend the bounds of His kingdom. We bear His image as women to the world with our hearts first, then with our hands, with our speech, and then with our feet.
My daughter, in our conversation, told of a girl that she knows who is stereotypically feminine. “Mom, she puts on makeup and wears dresses. She’s crafty, she sews, and she’s a good cook.” To be honest, as I listened to her description of the “stereotypical female” I began to question my own femininity. I am not crafty or artistic. I often choose pants over dresses, because I just can’t stand to be cold, and I have a stubborn streak of pragmatism. I am a good, not fabulous cook. I can hardly sew a pillow, and every time I try to grow a plant it dies.
The essence of what it means to be a woman is a love for and obedience to our Heavenly Father. The most beautiful expressions of our femaleness are not when we don a flowery dress, but when we rock a crying child, or when we help a homeless woman find shelter. When we wrap our arm around our friend as she mourns the loss of a loved one, or when we write a poem about God’s love, we are displaying traits of God’s design for women. Our femaleness is expressed as we dig deep into God’s Word and when we diligently seek to find a church that is passionate for the Gospel and for sharing it with others.
I want to end where I began — by talking about my girls. I have given birth to four talented, kind, passionate, godly women. My heart overflows when I think about their love for Jesus and how they bear God’s image everywhere they go. My hope for them is that they will continue to embody what it means to be God’s women. But this “embodiment” takes shape both in terms of how they think and act, and in terms of what they wear. As old fashioned as it may seem to some, I am very happy that I “enforced” or “promoted” feminine dress in our home. With current popular culture telling them that being uniquely female doesn’t really matter, I wanted them to know that God says differently and therefore we should look the part. It is good to look the part, because “looking the part” means you are trying to bring glory to God’s creative design. But it’s so much more than looking the part. More, not less. I hope that my daughters didn’t just learn about outward femininity growing up in our home. I trust that they also got the message that their femininity, their true beauty, is not the braiding of their hair, but the hidden person of the heart, created by our gracious God to be a woman with a unique call to glorify Him here on earth.