What Makes a Woman Beautiful? A Guide for Young Men

Some call it “the beauty bias.” Others prefer “lookism.” Either way, several studies over the last couple of decades establish the point apparently beyond dispute: It pays to be beautiful. Literally.

The more physically attractive you are, the more likely you will get interviews and job offers, receive raises, and obtain loan approvals, even if others alongside you are just as qualified. On some subconscious level (that hazy realm where bias lurks), we lean toward the beautiful. We favor the fair. We show partiality to the pretty and the handsome — financially, yes, and also in many other ways.

But we didn’t really need studies to tell us that, did we? From ancient times, the wise have warned against our proneness to get stuck on the surface, to prize skin over substance. The danger may be more acute for men, and particularly younger men, single or married. We are visual creatures, we younger men, with many of us still learning just how deceitful charm can be, and just how vain its beauty (Proverbs 31:30). Wisdom adds depth to a man’s vision, but wisdom also takes time.

To help speed the process, the book of Proverbs comes alongside young men and makes a daring move. Consider, it says, “a beautiful woman without discretion” (Proverbs 11:22). Fair outwardly, foolish inwardly, she has caught many a man’s eyes — and kept most eyes on the surface. She shines like silver, glitters like gold.

But now, Proverbs says, step back and take a better look. Notice that her golden beauty is part of something bigger: “Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman without discretion.”

Gold Rings and Monstrous Pigs

If such an image startles you, good. It’s meant to. The pig’s nose ring is supposed to disturb us into a different way of seeing. Whereas we might typically call a foolish beauty “a little disappointing,” Derek Kidner goes so far as to say, “Scripture sees her as a monstrosity” (Proverbs, 88). As long as physical beauty masks inward folly, it amounts to a swinish jewel, a piggish pearl, a golden snout decoration.

The image startles, in part, because God really did wire us to see and appreciate outward loveliness. In itself, beauty is no evil. God created a world of splendor, after all, and human attractiveness often taps into created principles of harmony, symmetry, and balance we can’t help but notice.

Nor does Scripture hesitate to mention the beauty of the beautiful — to note that “Rachel was beautiful in form and appearance” (Genesis 29:17), or that Abigail “was discerning and beautiful” (1 Samuel 25:3), or that David “was ruddy and had beautiful eyes and was handsome” (1 Samuel 16:12). These beauties, and so many more, glimmer with the glory of their Maker, whom Augustine called the “Beauty of all things beautiful” (Confessions, 3.6.10; see Psalm 27:4; Isaiah 33:17).

In God’s ideal design, outward beauty illustrates inward dignity — and in many cases, beauty today still functions that way. And yet, in this fallen age, where “the lust of the eyes” often governs our vision (1 John 2:16 NASB), and where outward splendor often hides a heart opposed to God, Scripture warns against trusting our vision too quickly. Some of the brightest beauty tells a lie; some gold rings hang from pig snouts. And alternatively, some of the deepest beauty hides from men of superficial sight. As a wise mother tells us later in Proverbs,

Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,
     but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. (Proverbs 31:30)

The verse holds a world of wisdom for young men. Here, single men learn to discern the kind of woman worth pursuing (and the kind of woman to hide their eyes from) — and married men learn to see their wives with a depth only wisdom can give.

Vain, Deceitful Beauty

On the surface, Proverbs 31:30 puzzles a little. “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain” — the judgment against outward attractiveness seems sweeping. But Scripture appreciates outward beauty elsewhere (as we’ve seen), and even in Proverbs our young man is told to rejoice in his “graceful” wife (Proverbs 5:19), which translates the same word for “charm” in Proverbs 31:30. So, what kind of charm deceives, and what kind should we rejoice over? What kind of beauty is vain, and what kind should we admire?

First, Proverbs would have us beware of any supposed charm, and any vaunted beauty, that does not fear the Lord. If a woman’s charm doesn’t submit to Christ, and if her beauty doesn’t quietly boast in God, then her highest attractions become hollow. They draw eyes downward, not upward. They betray the God who gave them.

More specifically, charm becomes “deceitful” without godly fear. The word often refers to verbal lies. In this case, the deceit is visual rather than audible: men who chase mere charm, without caring whether it leads toward God or away, are in the grip of a lie. Likewise, beauty becomes “vain” without godly fear. The same word blows through Ecclesiastes like a swift wind, suggesting that beauty’s vanity lies largely in its brevity. “All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field” (Isaiah 40:6): here today, gone tomorrow; smooth today, wrinkled tomorrow; blond today, gray tomorrow. Those who grasp for beauty, without loving beauty’s God, are trying to bottle the breeze.

Second, although Proverbs 31:30 contrasts charm and beauty with “a woman who fears the Lord,” such a woman will not be charmless, at least not to a godly man. Not only is a God-fearing young man meant to find his wife charming (Proverbs 5:19), but even the Proverbs 31 woman has a kind of radiance. “Strength and dignity are her clothing,” we read (Proverbs 31:25), with the word for “dignity” often rendered as “splendor” or “majesty” elsewhere (Psalm 21:5; Isaiah 2:10; 35:2).

The godly woman’s charm and beauty differ, however, from what worldly eyes expect. Whereas discretion-less beauty often dresses to be seen, godly beauty is often a secret splendor, a quiet glory. It may not immediately catch eyes. But the more our vision becomes like God’s, the more we will turn away from the flaunted beauty of this fallen age and prize the beauty that cannot wrinkle, shrivel, or gray.

Beauty Soul Deep

If foolish men fix their gaze only on the surface, the path to wisdom begins by looking deeper, past a woman’s skin to her soul. Here, in the soul, lies the true excellence of “an excellent” woman (Proverbs 31:10). Here is a jewel that age cannot tarnish, a crown that time cannot take, a splendor the grave cannot steal.

Of course, seeing soul beauty takes time and attention; it does not shine as obviously as fair skin. But shine it does for men patient enough to observe. The Proverbs 31 woman is beautiful, but her beauty shows best in what she does, not how she looks. While the gold-ring-pig-snout woman agonizes over her appearance, this woman works hard, even sacrificing perfect nails in the process (verses 13, 16). She applies godly skill to both her household and the marketplace (verses 18, 21, 24). She hands gifts to the poor and wisdom to her children (verses 20, 26). She fears the Lord (verse 30).

Perhaps, like Abigail, she both fears the Lord and attracts the eye (1 Samuel 25:3). Or perhaps her physical beauty is muted. Either way, the godly man who watches her sees a splendor slowly rising, beauty deep as a well and strong as an underground river. Fools pass by her quickly, chasing gold-ring glitter (and missing the pig). But to a man with eyes to see her, she will seem like “a lovely deer, a graceful doe” (Proverbs 5:19).

I don’t mean to imply that a godly man should find any and every godly woman romantically attractive. Holiness does not make us blind to physical beauty, and physical beauty plays a real (if complex) role in our attractions. But if we belong to Jesus, we know what it feels like to find beauty where others see none. “He had . . . no beauty that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2), but oh, how beautiful he was (Isaiah 52:7)! How sad, then, if we who have been captured by the unexpected glory of Christ should look no deeper than the surface.

Greater beauty lies beneath. And surprisingly, wonderfully, those who behold such beauty often find that it casts a glow on everything else.

Skin Transfigured

The more a godly husband knows his godly wife, the more he realizes that her outward appearance doesn’t remain fixed, nor does her inward beauty stay inward. Over time, the splendor of her soul spills through the cracks of her skin like the light of a lantern. And the two beauties, the inner and the outer, begin to merge and play.

Proverbs leads us to expect as much. How else can we understand the father’s command to “rejoice in the wife of your youth,” delighting in her body “at all times” and “always” (Proverbs 5:18–19)? When the wife of your youth is no longer youthful, her heart still holds its beauty, and her body still holds her heart. Decades past the marriage vows, her gray hair is no garland of ashes, the burnt remains of her former beauty. Rather, her gray hair sits upon her head as “a crown of glory” (Proverbs 16:31), at least to the man who knows her as queen. Her soul transfigures her skin.

This attentive, patient vision, this gaze that dives into a woman’s depths and brings treasures back to the surface, is nothing less than a participation in God’s own sight. “The Lord sees not as man sees” (1 Samuel 16:7). “The hidden person of the heart” is his pleasure; “the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit” his delight (1 Peter 3:4). And we men — husbands and fathers, brothers and sons — have the privilege of telling the true story of beauty in this age obsessed with skin.

The world tells women a lie about beauty. Our wives and daughters, sisters and mothers hear in a thousand ways that true beauty rests on the surface. They are told to become gold rings and not to care whether a pig wears them or not. And we men can either endorse that lie or renounce it. We can show partiality to the pretty among us. We can refuse to consider as a marriage partner any woman who doesn’t fit our precise type (assuming, along the way, that our desires are fixed rather than flexible). We can hint a subtle displeasure in a wife’s changing appearance. Or we can rise up with the Proverbs 31 man and praise not charm, not mere outward beauty, but the kind of “woman who fears the Lord” (Proverbs 31:30).

Such a man becomes a herald of the coming age, a forerunner who anticipates the day when every righteous woman “will shine like the sun in the kingdom of [her] Father” (Matthew 13:43) — and when her body will perfectly match the Christlike splendor of her heart.