Good Morning, Beautiful

52 EE beauty.jpg

She leans against the marble wall. It’s early. The morning light throws out streaks of gold against the archway’s white walls. The public park is quiet. We’re the only ones here. 

She smiles, but the smile doesn’t reach her eyes. Her shoulders are up, hugging her jawline. She’s nervous. I smile, wide and silly. I tell a joke so lame not even a dad would use it. 

The lameness works. She laughs. Her shoulders drop. She looks at the camera and smiles, a true smile that travels up from her lips and radiates through her eyes. She looks joyful, expressive, confident. That’s when I take the picture. 

Portraits of Us

I’m a relatively new portrait photographer. I’m still learning the poses, the how-tos: how to pose a guy so he looks strong and broad, how to accentuate curves, how to make high pitched chicken-like noises to get a toddler to look at the camera (sometimes, a photographer’s gotta sacrifice her dignity). But, for all the poses, the lighting techniques, the chicken noises, there is one thing that makes a portrait work. Without this one thing, there’s no art, no beauty. 

There is a moment during a photoshoot when your client relaxes. In that moment, they abandon caution, hesitancy, and fear. They laugh. They become their true self, without filters. Body and spirit connect. This is the secret to capturing gorgeous, engaging portraits.

It’s a secret I learned from my photography gurus, both the ones I’ve met and the ones I stalk – ahem, I mean, follow – on social media. I’ve recently discovered a new guru, one who understands that beauty begins when you stop running from who you are, who you were made to be.

Apostle Peter Teaches Photography 

We first meet Peter in the book of Matthew. He stinks. Literally. Fish slime covers his hands, his face, his clothes. He looks down, seeing water and nets. He counts bodies – dying fish flip-flopping in nets. But for one moment, he looks up. He sees the bringer of life and follows Him. 

Four gospels, a name change, several miracles, a crucifixion, and a resurrection later, we find Peter near Joppa in Israel. He’s sitting on a roof. He’s very, very hungry. He’s so hungry he hallucinates. God speaks to Peter in the hallucination, telling him not to judge people by their external features. God urges Peter to look beyond ethnicity, appearance, and cultural heritage, and to instead look at the spirit, the Holy Spirit given to everyone who seeks God through Christ.

It’s in this moment that Peter finds the secret truth behind every gorgeous portrait. You may know these verses; they’re quoted often, whenever Christ-followers talk about feminine beauty:

Your beauty should not be an external one, consisting of braided hair or the wearing of gold ornaments and dresses. Instead, it should be the inner disposition of the heart, consisting in the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which God values greatly.” (1 Peter 3:4–5, International Standard Version)

There’s a sadness in these verses. I’ve seen stunning, bubbly Christian women shrink and quiet when these two verses are quoted. If we read only the text, just the words piled up one after the other, they can bring self-doubt and shame (and an alarming disregard for the total awesomeness of braids). Ironically, this isn’t what Peter intended at all.

There’s Something about Aphrodite

Peter wrote to real people with real lives. With parchment and ink, he reached out to Christ-followers living in cities steeped in Greek culture and Roman rule. The Greco-Roman world tied physical beauty to the divine. Your outward appearance declared your social value, your morality, and whether you were loved by the gods. Men with the good looks of Ryan Gosling (or any of the other Hollywood Ryans) were praised for their moral virtue, their physical beauty considered a sign of divine favour. 

Greco-Roman women weren’t as lucky. Hesiod, an ancient Greek writer, thought that feminine beauty goes hand in hand with immorality. For the Romans, a woman’s appearance spoke of her husband’s place in society. Elaborate hairstyles fashioned by slaves, costly garments financed through exploitation, jewels plundered from the furthest reaches of empire – these turned women into monuments to their husband’s power. In the Greco-Roman world, physical beauty wasn’t necessarily a blessing. 

What Would Mary Do?

There’s a remarkable verse near the start of the gospels. We find it not long before we meet Peter. An angel came to a young woman. Poor, plainly dressed, unmarried, her beauty was a monument to no one. She had no social value. But God saw her. His angel proclaimed that she, this simple young girl, was beautiful:

Good morning! You’re beautiful with God’s beauty. Beautiful inside and out! God be with you. (Luke 1:28, The Message)  

If someone said this in a bar, it’d be the worst pickup line ever. But coming straight from God, it’s a powerful affirmation that women, that you, beautiful one, reading this now, are precious in God’s sight. It’s also proof that Peter, filled with God’s love and insight, would have made a great portrait photographer; we can use this verse as a lens through which to view 1 Peter 3:4–5.

Lucy vs the Mirror

Our spirits are quiet and gracious when we’re at peace. There’s a heart-breaking scene in C.S. Lewis’ Vogue of the Dawn Treader. Lucy, the youngest Pevensie girl, looks in a mirror and wishes she looked like her older sister. As Lewis says, she wishes herself away. Her spirit is not at peace. It is not quiet or gentle. It is restless, tormented by comparison and doubt. 

Like Mary, like you, like me, Lucy was beautiful. But she could not see it. She could not see it until her spirit quieted and she rejoiced in the good gift from her creator: her body, her mind, her spirit, her interests, herself.

We are beautiful when we let our spirit, God’s spirit, shine through. Beauty begins when we stop hiding, when we let God’s creation rejoice within us and through us. We find peace within our spirit when we look in a mirror, or stand before a camera as a photographer makes chicken-like noises, and smile, celebrating this wondrous thing called life. 

You are beautiful. Right now, just as you are. There is only one of you, and you are a work of art.