• Maria Whittaker

Let's Talk About Aesthetic

Updated: Aug 13, 2021

Should I start by defining it? I almost feel like I shouldn't, because this is a targeted blog post, and it's targeting people who care about aesthetic, and being one of those people, I know we don't need it defined. It's in our blood. We live and breathe aesthetic. And I'm pretty possessive over "my people" because I know that not everyone cares about aesthetic and I've often felt like a weird outsider who is passionate about it. But for the sake of anyone else reading who is interested in understanding, aesthetic refers to...hm, how shall I put it? How things look. Not only how things look, but how the combination of how things look makes you feel, what emotions it gives rise to when you sit back and soak it in. The vibe you get.


If you're anything like me, aesthetic is something you can't get away from. I remember being probably three or four years old and caring a lot about how things looked. Even from that age, I was drawn to pretty things, especially jewelry (much to the chagrin of my parents, who didn't want me to use any). I would sit in the lap of various adults and touch their sparkling gold earrings with my little fingers. I would later hide in the bathroom and use a marker to draw black dots onto my earlobes. During nap times when I should have been sleeping, I would take my brightly colored braid bead scrunchies or metal hair clips and either hang or clip them to my ears. And one of my favorite, and probably the strangest, things to do was lick each fingernails ever so quickly so that for a split second before it dried, my nails could look like they had clear nail polish on them.


It wasn't just a fascination with jewelry though. I had strong preferences for clothing items based on their textures, patterns, and how they looked on my spindly body. Not only did I have favorite clothing items that I considered beautiful and wore again, and again (and again) but also, I had clothes I absolutely abhorred and dreaded wearing because I found them utterly, disgustingly ugly (as you can see, I had strong emotions/opinions early on). I remember that when I was about that same age, my mom painted my bedroom pink and blue and added white lace curtains to the windows. I have memories of lying in bed during naptimes with the afternoon sunlight filtering into the room, painting it in swaying ace, the leaves rustling gently and dappling the sidewalk below them. I remember just glorying in the beauty of a quiet, beautiful room. Though I couldn't put the word to it then, the emotions it created. The sheer peace.


If you care about aesthetic, you probably can't stop caring. I get it. Beautiful, orderly, shapely things give you surges of pleasure, whether you have noticed it or not. Ugly, garish, disordered things not only disgust you, but you can't stop noticing them, and they bother you. If you walk in to a place that you find ugly, your stress levels probably rise. You may be talking or doing various things and yet, in the ack of your mind, like a broken record, you are obsessing about how ugly something is. You just plain notice how things look. You notice it whether you want to or not. You are constantly gathering visual input and either appreciating or dis-appreciating it.


You are constantly gathering sensory input too - not just colors and shapes, but textures and tastes. You don't only notice if they are beautiful on their own, but in combination with other beautiful things. That's why you like taking pristine white sneakers and combining them with a floral dress (not just any floral dress - you must approve of the color palette, the print, and the cut of it), pairing the whole outfit with the perfect accessories, etc. That's why you like covering a beautiful couch with knit blankets and variously textured or printed pillows and complimenting it all with the perfect lamps - it's not just the things in themselves being beautiful, but you know how to combine the different types of beauty to create MORE beauty, higher beauty. You know how to do it, where other people don't, and the doing of it gives you pleasure. It's in your bones and in your blood because you were created to do it.


That's right. You were created to both enjoy beauty and create higher beauty for others to enjoy. It's part of who God made you to be. And that is GOOD.


Good To Be Me

This may not seem like a revelation for everyone, but it certainly took me a long time to come to the place where I could say that it is good to love and pursue beauty. For a long time, I felt like it was my secret weakness, my fleshly temptation, my frivolous side constantly taking over. You see, I have a predisposition to think that God is angry with me and that the way I naturally am is all wrong. I know not everyone is like this, but I do know some people are, and I know whoever is like me walks around feeling guilty for everything, all the time. In my formative years, I also was around some people who were very influential to me and yet who were very different from me - practical people, I call them, to whom the practical matters far more than how things look. In some cases it doesn't even matter at all, like literally it doesn't occur to them to even think about how things look. They just see the practical side of things. Through no fault of their own, just because they were such influential people in my life, I thought they were the standard, and that I didn't match up. I felt wrong, broken. I loved beauty in all things, irresistibly, often viewing it as the most important part of life, and I didn't understand how others couldn't help but see it the same way.


God Is Beauty

I'm here to tell you some things about yourself that may surprise you, or perhaps they are some things that you already know but need to be reminded of. First of all, when you pursue beauty in your life, you are doing what you were created to do. Of course, to a certain extent, we all pursue and appreciate beauty in one way or another. That's because God is the origin and the definition of Beauty, and when we pursue beauty, we are actually pursuing Him, in some way or another.


Of course, it could also be said that the whole world pursues beauty, and you can't say that the whole world pursues God. But in a way, the headlong pursuit of beauty and the pleasure that beauty gives is glorifying to God because it is a testimony not only to God's existence but to God's worth and glory. When the world runs after beautiful things, it is acknowledging that beauty exists and that it is worthful. It is acknowledging the existence of something outside of what can be touched or tasted - something metaphysical - that functions based on design and order.


The world is denying the God Who defines beauty but worshipping the stunning creation that comes from such a gloriously beautiful God.

As Christians who acknowledge that God is the origin of beauty and that all beauty comes from Him, we glorify God when we appreciate beauty, give Him glory for it, and beautify the things around us. I want to underline the value of that with this quote by Elisabeth Elliot in her book Let Me Be A Woman: "“The way you keep your house, the way you organize your time, the care you take in your personal appearance, the things you spend your money on, all speak loudly about what you believe. The beauty of thy peace shines forth in an ordered life. A disordered life speaks loudly of disorder in the soul.”


As Christians, we ARE called to beautify the things around us. The delightful part, for me, is that some are created and gifted to do this more than others. Because God, who is a God who delights in good combinations far more than the best of us, created people with different giftings as a combined body. He made the practicals, who make the world go round, and He made the aesthetics, who make the world livable. Both are valuable, both are important, both are created by Him, and therefore, both are GOOD.


One With The Beauty

I'm going to tell you something about yourself that you may not have realized but that I guarantee is absolutely true. You want more than to be surrounded by beauty. You want more than to create beauty. You want to be one with the beauty that you see. You want to BE the beauty.


Perfectly curated Instagram feed - tasteful and hand-picked wardrobe made of high-quality items - expensive floral arrangements with trendy flowers - healthy, organic, eye-catching food and prettily-packaged vitamins in your diet - stunning travel itinerary - unique and exotic eateries in your secret arsenal - luxurious skin-care with rare ingredients - and still, it's not enough. You crave more. You want the beauty to be a part of you. You want all of it to surround you, of course, but because of what it says about you. You want, at your core, to be a beautiful person from which the natural outflow is beauty. Though you never may have thought about it, what you want is that the beauty and quality you curate is just an outward expression of the beauty and quality inside of you. You want people to look at your life and think, That person has good taste. That person has a beautiful life. That person must hide a lot of beauty and worth inside of them because everything they love and gravitate towards is lovely. And you want this not necessarily because you care what other people think but because YOU care, about what you really are.


In his book The Weight of Glory, C. S. Lewis puts it this way, "We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words - to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it."

And that desire leads us to one of the big pitfalls that we aesthetic-loving beings can fall into. In our desire to BE a part of the beauty, we can begin to use beauty to define ourselves.

Your Aesthetic Does Define Your Identity

I'm going to rephrase that to be perfectly clear. You cannot create who you are by curating an aesthetic that represents you. It works backwards, but not forwards. What I mean to say is that you can be a clearly defined person that makes aesthetic choices that represent them. What you can't do is literally create and define "who you are" by your aesthetic choices.


We'll dig into that a little further, but first of all, I'd like to point out that current culture would have you think the opposite. Current culture would certainly have you think so. Let me explain. My personal belief is that every era is somewhat dominated by a personality type. People are always searching for answers, and other people are always providing their version of "answers." As eras pass, I believe one type of personality or belief-system speaks loudest and is adopted by the whole. It is explored to its uttermost, found wanting in several areas, and eventually discarded for another. I also believe that more than anything, our era is dominated by the aesthetically-minded. We've been listening to the voices saying "How things look matter most," because it's the loudest and most convincing one at this time. Sure, aesthetics were important throughout time. The 50s had an aesthetic, so did the 60s and the 70s, and on and on. But never before has aesthetic so dominated culture to the point that it is considered a core part of someone's identity.


In a Netflix documentary about minimalism, one of the narrators said something that stuck with me ever after. I paraphrase, "We buy a toaster wondering, what does this say about who I am?" And it's true. Times have changed, and more and more, what we buy and surround ourselves with is an expression of our selves. Random household items, down to the kind of cups and plates or toilet brushes we buy, are supposed to be a statement of who we are. While this is problematic on its own, it is expressive of the fact that, as a culture, we have lost the sense of who we are. We're not expressing ourselves, we're trying to literally find ourselves. And many of us are doing this primarily through the objects we buy, and how they look, or better said, through our aesthetic choices.


For example, some of us agonize over what our style is in the hopes of defining more clearly, in our heads, who we are as people. We feel confused and disoriented if we like several very different styles. Am I a color person? A neutrals person? Do I like luxe things or natural things? Am I into European edginess or hipster coziness? What does the fact that I like multiple styles say about me? We wonder how to combine the styles, how to how to create a streamlined picture of ourselves as human beings. Everything, from the car we drive, the phone we use, the shoes we walk God's earth on, the underwear we cover ourselves with - everything - and how it all comes together - is chosen with the intention of creating an image of ourselves - and a beautiful one at that. We think, this is me. This is my style. My aesthetic. We convince ourselves, this is who I am, squinting at our lives, trying to force the blurriness to subside and focus into a picture.


Trying desperately to actually see ourselves, for once in our lives, so we can know if we're worth anything after all.


Your Aesthetic Won't Cover Your Ugliness

We've talked about two motivations why we try to create an aesthetic or curate a style for ourselves and they both have to do with identity. First of all, we have a God-given desire to be one with the beauty and be inwardly beautiful ourselves, whether we are conscious of this or not. Secondly, we often don't have a clear picture of who we are and so we use our aesthetic choices to sketch out who we'd like to be, to color in the lines. To see ourselves and determine if we are one with the beauty, after all, because we feel that this would give us worth.


There's another thing, though. We have a secret, niggling fear in our mind that we've missed the mark. We know, deep, deep inside, the truth. That sin has left us scarred beyond belief and that should we go to the true Mirror of our souls - not our Instagram feed but the Word of God - we would see a being so unrecognizably defaced, so ugly beyond belief, it would take our breath away. Total depravity, it's called.


But the truth is hard to face. Avoidance comes easily and comfortably. We begin to use our aesthetic to cover up the ugliness of sin. We struggle with anxiety, so we become minimalists with perfectly controlled environments. I know an Instagram influencer who struggles with anxiety (often caused by lack of control) so badly that she literally built her family a house entirely of the purest, whitest concrete, almost totally empty except for a few lone, minimal pieces of furniture here and there. It's like an insane asylum, undeniably beautiful but bare as bones. And yet, paradoxically, it keeps her sane. It is controlled and perfect, unlike the rest of her life.


We struggle with feeling worthless, and so we buy incredibly expensive jewelry, Gucci belts, shoes worth hundreds of dollars, in order to feel that the human we are clothing is worth that much. I know saw someone going to an event once with, in my uneducated guess, over 2k, probably closer to 3k dollars worth of clothing on his or her body. And this isn't a wealthy person that I'm talking about, just an individual who puts a lot of their budget into what they wear, because he or she is actually buying something quite different than clothes - a feeling of worth.


We struggle with feeling unseen or not special, and so we strive to stand out, buying obscure brands and eating at special restaurants only people "in the know" would go to. We feel disorganized and at sea, and so we craft living spaces and Instagram feeds that are aesthetic and organizational perfection. We live in conflict, feel in bondage, or lack peace, and so we chase peace - pretty patches of light, sunsets on balconies and breeze-stroked terraces, freedom-filled days swimming in sunlit seas.


I can stop now, because I think you get the picture I'm trying to build. And just to clarify, most of those things are not inherently wrong, and in fact, the pursuit of them, when done correctly, glorifies God. But I'm here to tell you that your aesthetic won't clean your sins. It won't compensate for them. It won't counterbalance your ugliness. And tell yourself whatever stories you will, you're not hiding anything, not permanently anything. You may certainly deceive people who know you via social media or distantly, but anyone who truly matters in the sense that they love you and draw near to you and get to know the real YOU won't be fooled. The real you will come out, whatever it looks like.


Our souls have the quiet power to rise to the surface of anything we try to stifle them with. We can tie a rock to their heels and bury them under a sea of beautifying factors and still, you'll find them floating at the surface, exposed to the light.


How Can You Find Yourself, After All?

The quest to understand our own identity is a dominating factor in each and every one of our lives. Some of you, like me, may be extremely self-aware and be cognizant of your search for identity. Some of you may tune it out, may be insensitive to it, may never give it much thought. And yet it's there for every single person. We talked about how we try to create an identity by curating an aesthetic, or a style, and how it simply doesn't work this way.


What I mean to say is that you can use aesthetics to better understand yourself. For example, I used to love traditional things with a lot going on because I as a person I value abundance and luxury and fear lack. Lately, I am gravitating more and more towards clean lines and minimal style because it lends much-needed simplicity and stability to a life that seems more and more complex and out of control and I'm valuing contentment more. However, what comes first is not my style choices, but the inner changes taking place inside of me. I use aesthetics to understand what is happening inside of me, but not to create the changes. As such, my aesthetic can be an expression of me, but I can't use aesthetics to change myself.


To give another example, I've described a lot of physically beautiful things in my post so far. However, you can have everything I described above and still not BE any of those things. You can have everything I described and still be an anxious, disorganized, conflict-torn, sin-burdened person that is tortured by feelings of worthlessness, ignominy, and let's call it what it is, ugliness.

Furthermore, you can NOT have any of those things - for example, you can't afford them or you willingly choose to go spend time in ugly, dirty places so you can reach people who need it - you can be surrounded by ugliness, cheapness, garishness, etc, and still be a person literally leaking at the corners with beauty and peace. The outward beauty of things doesn't add or take away from you. It actually doesn't affect you at all.


That's because, let's say it together: our aesthetic does not define our identity.


In fact, not much can change our identity. It's pretty set in stone. We are exactly who God made us to be. The problem arises because not only is the beautiful design of God irreparably marred by sin, sin blinds us to seeing both who God meant us to be and what sin has made us. We're stuck in a grey zone of confusion and lostness.


I said not much can change our identity, because God made it. That means He's excluded from that powerlessness. He made it, so He has authority to change it. And He has, on the cross. On the Cross, in Christ, God condemned to eternal death the unfixable, totally depraved, sin-damaged selves and gave us a new identity in Christ. Because we are new creatures with the life of Christ IN us, we have all the worth, value, and beauty of God Himself living in us.


This beauty, in its most stunning form, is available in its entirety to transform our sin-scarred ugliness. God didn't just offer us some of His beauty. We have all of it at our disposal. However, it will only manifest itself in our inner being in proportion to how much we allow Him in. So let's talk about that.


Inner Beauty And Our Inverted Nature

Further on in the same chapter, C. S. Lewis writes, "At present we are outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in. When human souls have become as perfect in voluntary obedience as the inanimate creation is in its lifeless obedience, then they will put on its glory, or rather that greater glory of which Nature is only the first sketch."


C. S. Lewis is referring to our glorification, the finalization of the process of God working holiness in us here. When we stand before God's throne, when "human souls have become as perfect in voluntary obedience as the inanimate creation is in its lifeless obedience," we will have that same glory and beauty that we see creation has. But the process of sanctification holds the seed and the beginning of this beautiful end result. Some Christians are further along than others on their journey of sanctification, and so some Christians hold greater beauty inside themselves while others hold greater amounts of ugliness.


I've talked about this before, but a key aspect of our sinful nature is that it turns things upside down from the way God designed them. Unintentionally, without even thinking about it, in our flesh, we will turn God's created order on its head and actually live convinced that we have things the right side up. Part of the blindness of sin that is often talked about is just this - the inability to discern that things are not only not as they should be, but that they are totally and completely opposite to the way that they should be.


So it should come as no surprise that where God created us to care and focus on the beauty of the inward person, the one in relationship to God, first and foremost, we tend to leave that last and instead, focus on the least important part - the outward appearance of things.


I think this is partly the reason I felt wrong and broken as a young child. The Bible says in the second half of 1 Samuel 16:7 "For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” I knew that my focus was the outward appearance, that I was good at making things look good and that I valued how things looked above anything else. And I think that in my heart of hearts, I knew something was wrong about this.


It's not that I need to be more practical. I'm not created to be. I'm created to pursue beauty. But there exists an order of importance to beauty itself - there exists a hierarchy designed by God that needs to be followed.


Where I go wrong is when my priorities get mixed up and I pursue the outward appearance of things predominantly over the inward appearance of things.

The Bible talks about this in many ways and many different places, but I think this verse says it so plainly, so bluntly, that it always brings reality sharply back into focus.: "Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman without discretion" (Proverbs 11:22). That is to say, the outward beauty of someone is absolutely valueless and actually becomes disgusting if their inward beauty is lacking. I don't believe you have to think too hard to come up with someone, whether spouse, family member, friend (hopefully no one so close as those listed so far), personal acquaintance, YouTuber, influencer, celebrity, etc. who matches this description. Someone who may be beautiful or have a beautiful-looking life but that in reality you marginally despise because of who they are as a human being.


I'm also sure that, conversely, you know someone that may not have the "Instagram aesthetic," whether because they can't afford it or don't care or for whatever reason, really. Or you know someone, who may not have the best looks, who may not even be anyone you would ever really be close friends with, like maybe a retired senior or someone from a different country - someone who in some way or another is lacking outward beauty but that absolutely radiates beauty and peace. Someone that made you feel like crying around them because of their obvious closeness to God, the beauty of holiness and humility pouring out of them. I've met a very few people like this in my life, but I have met them, and it has sparked an undying desire in my heart to be like them. I guarantee that these people not only are beautiful, but feel beautiful. I guarantee that they feel a lot of peace and joy and I guarantee that if their hearts had a "feed" it would be stunning because God brings stunning beauty wherever He spends much time.


I read about the Proverbs 31 woman and she is one of my highest standards for womanhood. Not only because her life seems beautiful - if you read closely, she actually wears really nice clothes and has some high quality home goods - but because I can tell, she feels beautiful. She feels worthy. She feels valuable. She is clothed with strength and dignity. This comes because she is a woman who fears the Lord. She prioritizes inward beauty and puts her relationship with God FIRST.


Your Aesthetic Is Not More Important Than Your Relationship With God

Which brings me to my last point, because I'm going to call us out, friends. All of us, myself included and first of all. I'm not speaking to any one person in particular other than myself; I'm addressing a huge cultural problem I see. But don't let that be a reason to not seriously, honestly question whether or not this applies to you.


We don't put God first. We don't put our relationship with Him first. The truth is that we put far more time and effort into our makeup routine, our clothing choices, and even our food than our devotional time. Instagram is littered with pictures of coffee places and matcha places and avocado toast places and oils and vitamins and skincare and new brands and new trends. We pay way more attention to these posts than to whatever God may be trying to whisper (or shout) to us that day. We often spend all of our extra money - I'm talking money that doesn't go to bills and groceries and tithing - "our money" - the money we feel like we have a right to - on inordinately expensive clothes, skincare, trending lamps and totes, shoes that truly shouldn't cost as much as they do, etc. etc. etc. I could go on and on. We spend "our time" - our free time, when we aren't working, living as James puts it, in luxury and self-indulgence, treating ourselves to expensive foods, vacations, coffees and experiences.


Please, please don't get me wrong. None of those things are wrong inherently. I do think a portion of our money should go to things we enjoy and I'll be the first to get on the train of people who prefer to spend more to invest in better quality / more aesthetic things. BUT it's a question of our hearts, and as always, with heart matters, there are a lot of things to hide behind and a lot of grey areas. What are we prioritizing? Are we subordinating how things look to our relationship with God? To our calling? Are we picking our church based on its vibe or genuinely seeking where God has called us? Are we truly helping widows and orphans in their distress, and actively using our time, energy, and finances to build God's kingdom or are we prioritizing our aesthetic and pouring 90% of our resources there? I can't really define this for each of us, and again, I am speaking in generalizations, to a huge cultural problem I see, and not to individuals. But please, please don't tune me out if this applies to you. Because, after all, on it hinges your own happiness and ultimate good.


So, if it's a question of priorities, what should they look like? I struggled writing this conclusion because we hear this message so often, it seems that I'm just repeating Christianese we've all heard a million times. But if God has truly convicted you in this area, I trust that you are hearing this in a fresh way.


Our relationship with God comes before anything. That means time in prayer and in the Word. You can say it does, but does it? You can post about your faith, but has it made a real difference in how you live, including in how you invest yourself and what you delight in?


If our relationship with God is truly in first place, naturally, by the Spirit's working, this will rearrange all our other priorities, and in their correct order, we will be living sacrifices on the altar of God's kingdom. What I mean by that is that we will come to realize more and more that we are not our own. Our time, energy, and resources are not are own. They are God's to be used for God's purposes. God's beauty will slowly begin to imprint itself upon our character, and like I said before, the true soul of a person will rise. The beauty inside of you will begin to surface to the outside and as you beautify your surroundings, you won't be doing damage control for the ugliness coming out of you, you'll be naturally pouring out the beauty inside of you.


One of the most beautiful things about God's character is His humble love for people. TheHim and His purposes, we will realize that He cares about people. He cares for us, but He wants us to go out and care for the other people He cares about. So that will become our second priority: Spirit-led action to benefit other people. To point them to Christ, which often involves helping them in their physical lives, investing our time, energy, and money into them.


Last of all is the priority of self-care. God always takes care that we will have times of rest and enjoyment as well when we prioritize enriching others and deepening our relationship with God. When we are constantly emptying out our cup, He honors that and provides enough that we have overflow for ourselves as well.


"You yourself will be given light in exchange for pouring yourself out for the hungry; you yourself will get guidance, the satisfaction of your longings, and strength, when you 'pour yourself out,' when you make the satisfaction of somebody else's desire your own concern; you yourself will be a source of refreshment, a builder, a leader into healing and rest at a time when things around you seem to have crumbled."

Let Me Be A Woman // E L I Z A B E T H E L L I O T


The real prize, however, isn't finally getting to self-care. We think that way, we think that if we put God in the center and then help others, we'll finally get to the good part - to rest and enjoyment. The truth of the matter, and only lovers of true beauty will know this for themselves, is that God is so good, He left the good part at the beginning, not the end. He is the good part. Self-care will circle us back to God because He is what comforts, what rests, what delights. He is the Beauty we desire, no, need.


"Everybody needs beauty as well as bread."

J O H N M U I R


"Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth."

P S A L M 50:2







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