When I was eleven, I caught my sister smoking in her bedroom with her friends. We already knew she smoked, and my parents had leveled creative punishments in an effort to make her stop. I knew if I told my mom, the house would be filled with big stormy arguments and my sister would be in big, big trouble.
"Please don't tell on me, Veronica," she said, her eyes wide and pleading. "Please?"
My sister has beautiful eyes. Big and melting brown. I remember thinking, as I promised not to tell, that I would find it easier to reject her plea if she had beady little snake eyes.
Beauty is persuasive. It appeals to us. It moves us.
It has become normal in our culture to speak of beauty strictly in sexual terms (it's a greater compliment, apparently, to call someone "hot" than to call them beautiful), but, as significant as sex is, portraying beauty only in sexual terms trivializes its power. Beauty moves us in many ways that are not sexual.
I remember coming home from seminary once and catching my breath when I saw my mother. She and my dad had raised four kids, and seen the youngest leave for college and then get married. For the first time in twenty years, my mother could buy clothes for herself before she bought them for someone else. She wore a neatly tailored red dress that showed off her long, lean frame and short, dark hair, and she looked beautiful. I felt proud of how she looked. In its own way, that dress reflected well on us kids: it meant we had grown up and learned independence and mom was free to take care of herself instead.
"My beauty is for my husband, " I have heard conservative women say, usually as explanation for a shapeless dress and unstyled hair. (And why the unstyled hair? Even if their sect teaches that women should not cut their hair - is lankness also a religious duty? I don't understand.) But they are wrong. They have accepted a sexualization that assumes the only response to beauty is desire. They are rejecting the way my sister's beauty moved me to pity (even if misplaced), or the way my mother's beauty moved me to gratitude.
The reality is that beauty is for everyone who looks on it. My children are beautiful, and the joy I take in their strong limbs and sparkling eyes has nothing to do with desire. Beauty is profligate; she offers herself to everyone who can see (and the blind too, who, I am sure, find beauty in the sounds and scents and touch of the people around them). I have prayed for a lonely friend, and been rewarded with the blush on her face after she has fallen in love. I have agonized with a sick friend, and been refreshed by the glow of good health in her skin after a successful round of treatment. Our eyes hunger for beauty, and few things bring us more joy than finding it.