"Captivating" Review: 34-43, "Why Beauty Matters"

beauty standards

[unrelated author’s note: my cat, Elsa, has eaten 1-2 feet of yarn sometime early this morning, so I spent the last few hours at the vet. My hope is that she chewed it up into sections so it could pass safely– if not, we’re facing some pretty steep costs for emergency surgery. Posts may be a little sporadic over the next few weeks as I’m watching her like a hawk now, and might be taking care of a recovering kitten next week. Positive thoughts and prayers appreciated.]

Up until this point while I was reading Captivating, I was staying pretty optimistic. John and Stasi were saying some problematic things, some things I disagree with, but there were things happening to balance some of them out.

This is where my marginalia changes from “I wonder if they’ve thought about ____” to “GAH” and “WTF. NO, SERIOUSLY, WTF JOHN.”

I start off this section essentially agreeing with John; he spends the first few pages talking about beauty in general terms, in nature, as part of God’s creativity, and as something that feeds the human soul– beauty, according to his argument, is a vital part of all God’s creations. As someone who grew up in a hideously ugly fundamentalist church that started going to liturgical Presbyterian and Episcopalian services almost entirely because the beauty of those churches took my breath away, I agree that American evangelical culture has a tendency to overlook beauty as inconsequential and supercilious instead of something that feeds a soul craving. But then . . .

But in order to make the matter perfectly clear, God has given us Eve. The crowning touch of creation. Beauty is the essence of a woman. We want to be perfectly clear that we mean both a physical beauty and a soulful/spiritual beauty. The one depends upon and flows out of the other. Yes, the world cheapens and prostitutes beauty, making it all about a perfect figure few women can attain. But Christians minimize it, too, or overspiritualize it, making it all about “character.” We must recover the prize of Beauty. The church must take it back. Beauty is too vital to use.

Long, dramatic sigh.

This note is a bit of an aside, but I don’t like how he uses the word prostitute here. I’ve learned a lot from listening to sex workers of all types, and I’ve learned how important it is to listen to these people instead of talking over them and assuming we know more about their lives then they do.

But moving on: Beauty is the essence of a woman.

I… am having difficult responding to that. I understand where John is trying to go with this argument, but the reality he’s trying to ignore is that words mean things, and when you say something like “beauty is the essence of a woman,” you can’t escape how a very specific definition of beauty has been ingrained into Americans practically since birth. When he says this, he is also saying thinness is essential to a woman, and so is whiteness, and so is subjectively large breasts and clear skin and red lips. I’m positive John and Stasi would never openly endorse these sentiments, but they do absolutely nothing to recognize these shortcomings in using a phrase like “physical beauty.”

He goes on to support this by showcasing how Western art has supposedly chosen the cisgender female form to represent beauty. I’d ask how familiar John is with the Renaissance, but the most irritating part of page 37 is that John goes to Santa Fe, sees women represented in art, and uses this to support his conclusion that beauty is essential to womanhood. I don’t think it would have ever occurred to him to ask the question why he might have seen women overwhelmingly represented; aside from how women are sexual objects in our culture, there’s also a lot of homophobia spinning around, even in the “liberated” art world– anything that might appear homoerotic (which is basically anything that doesn’t center the straight male gaze, and ignores the existence of bisexual and lesbian women) makes some people uncomfortable. Ergo, using the cisgender male form to represent beauty isn’t going to happen that often.

There’s a bit of that homophobia happening here:

For one thing, men look ridiculous lying on a bed buck naked, half-covered with a sheet. It doesn’t fit the essence of masculinity. Something in you wants to say, “Get up already and get a job. Cut the grass. Get to work.”

Two things: John needs to get out more. Go look at the Sistine Chapel ceiling, maybe. And when I see my partner lying on a bed buck-naked, half-covered with a sheet, I am most definitely not thinking “Go cut the grass you look ridiculous.”

Second: John can’t get away from how our culture identifies beauty. Women are portrayed as passive, and that is part of what makes them “beautiful.” They are depicted as languid, as restful, as reclining, and ultimately, as receptacles. Portraying women as “doers” would acknowledge that we actually are capable of action, and that would upset the gender narrative. He even already knows this:

[A woman at rest] is enjoyable to be with. She is lovely. In her presence your heart stops holding its breath. You relax and believe once again that all will be well. And this is also why a woman who is striving is so disturbing. (emphasis added)

However, John blatantly insists that “There is no agenda here; no social stigmatizing or cultural pressure. This is true across all cultures and down through time.”

Really. All cultures through all time. No exceptions. Ever.

And then he just really takes the Samantha-has-no-time-for-this cake.

There’s a touching story told from the hospitals of WWII, where a young and badly wounded soldier was brought in from a hellish week of fighting. After doing what she could for him, the nurse asked if there was anything else she could do. “Yes,” he said. “Could you just put on some lipstick while I watch?”

That was the second time I threw the book across the room. I started shouting, and it inspired a twitter rant.

That is sexual objectification.

That is the female body limited to male consumption and the male gaze.

Also, that soldier is creepy as ever-living fuck. And sexist. That John thinks of this story as “touching” is … horrifying. This is the moment when I could no longer mentally engage with John with respect. Not only is he ignorant, not only does he rely on confirmation bias out the whazoo, I cannot trust him to understand basic human interactions and what “creepy” and “sexist” looks like.

But, oh no, it doesn’t end with that. It gets worse.

One of the deepest ways a woman bears the image of God is in her mystery . . . God yearns to be known. But he wants to be sought after by those who would know him . . . There is a dignity here; God does not throw himself at any passerby. He is no harlot.

God dammit.


Third time the book flew across the room. I almost hit my cat.

This isn’t just ignorance now, or confirmation bias, or not understanding sexism. This is him either not reading or completely ignoring huge portions of Scripture.

John 3:16 is in there. So is the Parable of the Lost Sheep. And “I am come to seek and to save.” And I dunno, the whole God is love part, and that bit seems mighty important.

Apparently that makes Jesus a slut.


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  • Comparing his words and the hypocrisy regarding The Sistine Chapel…so perceptive.

  • Melody

    “And this is also why a woman who is striving is so disturbing.”

    Hmm, just checked the woman in Proverbs 31… If she isn’t striving I don’t know who is, working all through the night and during bad weather… Oh, and leading too as she manages her (presumably large) household.

    “her husband also, and he praises her:
    29 “Many women do noble things,
    but you surpass them all.”
    30 Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;”

    looks like her husband is more ‘modern’ than he is, he doesn’t seem to mind that she does most of the work as he is dabbling in politics (might be something wrong with that picture too 😉 )

  • Obviously he hasn’t spent much time around women who are either working class or have a house full of kids and pets. Especially when I was growing up in a logger’s household. Mom cooked, sewed, cleaned, ran the garden, canned the produce and made sure we knew how to do it too. ( you might have been bored but you never admitted it, she had a cure for that) Woman never “reclined’ in her life. She’s 88, still chasing weeds and the most beautiful person I’ve ever met in my life.

  • Lizzy L

    If you are reading this book so we don’t have to, you can stop now. There’s no way I would EVAH read this clueless book. Of course, that was true after your first post.

    Go be with your cat.

  • wbgl0

    Hi, long time lurker.

    I just wanted to thank you for this post. I’m a cishet female who’s been reading a lot of feminist stuff. But I still agreed with John that the anecdote about the soldier was touching. I thought it was sweet that he wanted to see a woman put on lipstick and wonderful that she was trying to comfort someone with her beauty.

    But You Are Right. The story is creepy and an example of objectification-esp. the idea that a woman owes a man her beauty just because he’s been “brave.” It’s amazing how deeply ingrained in our culture these assumptions are. This is why I love your blog.

  • As the mommy of a former streetling furbaby (Yorkie) I feel your worry and concern for Elsa. She needs you far more than this toxic book needs deconstructing right now. You and your baby have my prayers. Health to both of you.

    • Day 2, and she seems to be doing ok so far. Playing, eating, drinking– none of the signs the vet told us to watch out for. Yet. She said it could take a week or more, but I’m staying hopeful that she won’t need surgery.

  • God yearns to be known. But he wants to be sought after by those who would know him . . . There is a dignity here; God does not throw himself at any passerby. He is no harlot.

    It’s really kind of amazing how self-serving this is. For a writer of a Christian self-help book to say that “God wants to know you, but He won’t just let anyone get to know him…” you’re basically self-justifying your own existence, because the implied end of that sentence is “but I can show you how!”. That’s exceptionally sleazy. If you tell everyone that you’re speaking for God, but God is a mystery so you need me to unlock it, so buy my book…I just don’t have words for how conniving that is.

  • My favorite parts:

    Has he never heard of the Renaissance?

    “[W]hen I see my partner lying on a bed buck-naked, half-covered with a sheet, I am most definitely not thinking “Go cut the grass you look ridiculous.””

    And, of course, the ridiculous notion that a striving woman is disturbing. If I was writing the book, I might have said, “Inspiring.” “Awesome.” “Thrilling.” I love the look of taut muscles on a woman in motion. (Well, particularly my wife. The advantage of running behind her…)

    But, I guess I have always been attracted to strong, confident women.

  • I think that soldier story can be read another way, too: this man just wants a vision of normalcy. He’s just been fighting for a week, life is hell, war is hell, and all he wants is some sort of glimpse that somewhere, things are somehow normal, that women still put on lipstick and children still play games and apples still grow. (At least, that was my first thought, and that’s how I imagine I’d feel after a week of war…)

    But of course I also think you’re absolutely right–asking a woman to perform for him by applying makeup is 100% male gaze and sexual objectification. And I think it could be both–the solider wants a bit of normalcy because he’s been through hell, and that normalcy is chock-full of male gaziness. Both of these things are heartbreaking.

    So I think it’s disturbing that John doesn’t acknowledge either of these possible interpretations and focuses instead on how nice it is to want to watch a woman put on lipstick. Talk about missing the point of a sad, sad story.

    • This is spot on– it’s far more likely that someone is being sexist because that seems totally normal as opposed to someone being sexist because they’re a horrible ass.

  • Hattie

    I actually would’ve thought it’d be the other way round- that “lazy” women are what guys like this author dread. But now “striving” is wrong too?

    Maybe the point is to keep us off balance, always hopelessly trying to please.

    How stupid.

  • When I was struggling with my faith, someone gave me Wild At Heart by John Eldredge, and it made me utterly miserable. I didn’t identify with the type of masculinity he preached, so his book told me that I was broken and not a real man. And worse, he told me that the only cure for my brokenness was God. I wasn’t sure at that time if I even believed in God, which left me believing that I was broken and there was no cure. It preached all the same gender essentialism and sexism you’re describing here. Part of me wants to read that book again so I can see it for what it is, a bit like when you turn on the bedroom light and realise that the monster in the wardrobe is just a creased shirt. But I don’t want to pay for it, or put money in the pocket of anyone who’s promoting that piece of work. It sounds like this book is more of the same.

    • You should look on ebay for someone selling a copy so at least you’re not paying the publisher. I follow your blog as well as Sam’s and I’d love to hear your review of Wild at Heart, because I’m much more familiar with the effects of gender essential-ism on women than I am on men. It would be interesting!

    • I found Wild at Heart incredibly…obscene. Like, he had a whole section that was *clearly* about sex, but he just wouldn’t come out and say the word “sex” which just made it worse. Instead he kept talking about a man must “rise” and *nothing* can happen unless a man “rises” (though if he thinks that the only thing sex needs is a cis dude being hard, he’s probably having terrible sex…) and then talking about “swelling” and “spilling” and how it is “death, but a sweet death” and it just reads like incredibly bad porn.

      • The_L

        Not even bad porn–it sounds like one of those self-righteous “girl has sex and it ruins her life because SEX. IS. EVIL.” sort of novels that were appallingly popular during Victorian times.

        Relevant YouTube link. There is still a class of people who feel that sex is, simultaneously, necessary, something women hate, something women tempt man into doing, and a Thing That Makes Babies. It’s rather a confused sort of sexual ethos, IMO.

  • Amanda

    Just happened upon your blog and this review series. I am glad to have found it; I also read the overwhelmingly positive reviews in several places and considering my own experience, I couldn’t help but suspect the less-than positive ones were censored out. I read Captivating 7 years ago on recommendation of a close male Christian friend. He was passing on a recommendation from our pastor and said that our pastor really liked Wild at Heart. I asked said friend if our pastor had read “Captivating”, the book he was recommending. He said no, and I asked why. “It would be a waste of his time.” I should have known then that a book which was so essential for women, but was so beneath men that it was a waste of their time, would end up being very damaging mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. It took me YEARS to recover.

    As that was the case, I can’t read along with you. But I will come back to this blog and read your thoughts, as I’m glad to have found someone who doesn’t think everything the Eldreges say is necessarily Gospel. I think I blocked out large portions, but some of what you’ve written has jogged my memory a bit. Some of the things I found the most offensive were the passive woman in art being normal, active woman looking weird… the OBSESSION with Disney, princesses, and how every woman wants to be one, and if you don’t have an overinflated opinion of your rightful status in life, you’re denying that part of yourself or are not a woman… (sorry if this starts to sound less than coherent as emotion is starting to creep up)… resorting more to Disney, Braveheart, LOTR, and other entertainment in pop culture to preach than to Scripture… but the thing that sticks the most is the very premise of it all. We all have these childhood longings in us, supposedly, which have been unfulfilled and we will never be happy until we fulfill our childhood longings. Boys grow up and become men………….but women are still children, characterized as being held back from growing up (and possibly controlled by) by our five-year-old desires (which would be inextricably linked to five-year-old mental/emotional maturity and intelligence).

    It killed me. I screamed and threw the book across the room on multiple occasions. No cats, though. 🙂 As a five-year-old I lived on a farm. I was outside from the time I was awake until I had to go to bed. I spent my days with lots of cats and two collies, played with rocks and bricks, and helped/got in the way in the garden and barn. I don’t think I ever heard of a princess and I didn’t have any thought that I deserved to be one. The only movie I ever saw was Bambi. What I remember wanting to be as a child was a rainforest explorer who would discover new plants and make medicines out of the plants I discovered. Since no position like that was available… I’m a microbiologist. 🙂 Goll, this is getting long and wordy… sorry… anyway, I’m still a Christian believer, one who has struggled hugely to divorce “Captivating” from my view of myself as I am, as I should be, and as God sees me. I am blessed with a supportive husband who has no problem seeing me as his partner rather than over-grown child. Gahh Captivating…. read at your own risk.

    • Thanks a lot for sharing your experience!

    • Hattie

      Your childhood sounds awesome! I wish we had been friends. Anyways, thank you for this synopsis here:

      “We all have these childhood longings in us, supposedly, which have been unfulfilled, and we will never be happy until we fulfill our childhood longings. Boys grow up and become men… but women are still children, characterized as being held back from growing up (and possibly controlled by) our five-year-old desires (which would be inextricably linked to five-year-old mental/emotional maturity and intelligence.”

      I think this is part of why my sister and I are “taking a break”, after so many years of being close. She’s so certain I need “healing” of this sort.. whereas I would settle for “not-being-condescended-to”. It gets old.

      But, no doubt my frustration with this just lands me in “Bitter Woman” category. /*Heaves exasperated sigh*/

      Honestly- I think you are on to something here. The crux of the problem I have with the way women were treated in my (uber-religious, Captivating-reading) culture, is that it is infantilizing.

      I don’t think there’s anything particularly moral about it, either. The Christian Bible has a parable about “burying one’s talents”.

      I wish the book would address how women need to not bury their talents. And no, for an adult to artificially manufacture a five-year-old’s “longings” does not count.

      • Amanda

        aww, thanks! I’m always open to new friends. Awesome connection to the Parable of the Talents, and I totally agree with you. God has given everybody gifts and talents… our time would be far, far better spent figuring out what they are… as opposed to dwelling on childish, Disney-fueled fantasies, which serve to distract from having any real, practical affect on anything. In my Eldredge fury I was unable to conjure up the word “infantilizing”, or draw the wonderful connection to the parable. Thanks for your thoughts on that! Family schisms suck… I hope one day things between you and your sister improve. I wish you the best with that.

  • For one thing, men look ridiculous lying on a bed buck naked, half-covered with a sheet. It doesn’t fit the essence of masculinity. Something in you wants to say, “Get up already and get a job. Cut the grass. Get to work.”

    This man really needs to stay away from our house on a Saturday night. I’d be afraid of the damage it would do to his worldview and psyche.

    I hope your cat recovers from the close encounter. That’s the depths of frustration right there.

  • Wow, usually people try to wait more than 40 pages before they shoot for some kind of stupidity crescendo. Definitely seeing the “this escalated fast” meme in my head right now.

  • “Apparently that makes Jesus a slut.”

    BOOM. Do John and Stasi even live in the real world??

  • “He goes on to support this by showcasing how Western art has supposedly chosen the cisgender female form to represent beauty.”

    “Go look at the Sistine Chapel ceiling, maybe.”

    And then head to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and see Michaelangelo’s David, considered one of the prime examples of representing beauty and perfection (the Renaissance ideal) in the male form.

    And he isn’t even wearing a sheet, I think though that they made some ?bronze fig leaves for the sculpture, which have now been removed as it should be.

    (As far as David is concerned I prefer Bernini’s version more action oriented – but I bet John would say well he’s all teh manly and stuff)

  • beckycastlemiller

    I prayed for your Elsa.

  • I read Captivating years ago and don’t remember this part. Glad I’d forgotten, because this makes flinch. That bit with the soldier…euw. When I read Wild At Heart, I remember him commenting on how a woman seduces a man and mentioning makeup, perfume, and sexy clothes, and that bothered me. What’s the point of putting makeup on right before sex? was going through my head. So lovely to see that he just carries on with the idea that a woman not only has to meet some standard of beauty, she also has to enhance herself because she’s not beautiful enough as is.

  • Lulu

    One of my all-time favorite women in art: http://www.artchive.com/artchive/g/gentileschi/gent_holofernes.jpg

    Though I wonder if John would say this is a perfect example of why men shouldn’t be reclining half-naked on beds and women shouldn’t be striving so hard 🙂

  • Abby Normal

    The story of the soldier and the nurse with the lipstick sounds like a bunch of malarkey to me. This takes place in a field hospital near the front somewhere, and supposedly this nurse just happens to still have lipstick on her person? Wasn’t makeup kinda hard to get a hold of during the war? Much less out in the South Pacific, or whatever. And this nurse, who is probably being run ragged doing little tasks like KEEPING PEOPLE FROM DYING carries around her lipstick so that she’s always ready for a touch up?

    I call shenanigans. Dude’s probably seen “Pearl Harbor” too many times.

    • Actually, if she was in the American military, she might have been required to wear a specific shade of lipstick as part of her uniform. The Marine version was “patriotic red,” I believe.

  • One of the complaints I have about this book and Wild at Heart and actually most of the Christian gender/sexuality books I’ve read is that they all seem to believe that “Look at the movies!” is a legitimate source. The amount of times a movie is referenced as being proof of some aspect of universal gender trait that *proves* it’s innate and god-given is infuriating. It’s like they recognize that they don’t really have any proof *or* any scripture to back-up their gender claim so they just think “Well I saw it in the movies and you know how we all loved this movie and thought it was right!” means something.

    • Amanda

      yes. yes yes yes!

  • This whole thing reminds me of something I read in the book The Fifties by David Halberstam. To put it briefly, there was this attitude prevalent at that time, which Eggers seem to be fully participating in to this day: “I am a straight, white, middle-class American male. Therefore, whatever I think is what everyone else thinks too; the way I see things is how every normal person sees things; what I want is what everyone wants.”

    The sheer blindness of saying a naked man on a bed half-draped in a sheet is ridiculous! Apparently he hasn’t even considered how his wife might look at it!

  • Beroli

    I hope your cat’s okay!

  • sivandra

    Sooo… I’m not a cisgender male. I’m a lesbian. I think that watching a lovely woman put on her lipstick would be a really lovely thing. Very much in the same way that my cisgender female friends seem to really enjoy watching a masculine guy shovel rocks with his shirt off. Now, would I ask a woman to do this thing for me, while I watched? Hmm. I don’t think so? Would I be objectifying, if I watched her do it covertly and found it pleasing? I don’t think so?

    I feel really confused about this. I don’t think human beings should be reduced to objects to be enjoyed for their appearance only. However I cannot help that I take great delight in seeing a lovely woman laugh, or dive into a pool, or run down the street. I don’t put a lot of effort into trying, any more than I try not to freak out over the glory of a sunset or the brilliance of a bluebird or a horse galloping in a field… I just revel. I do try to maintain respect and not allow myself to covet… I don’t know.

    Is it always wrong to take delight in beauty that one is wired to find delightful? Each of us is naturally drawn toward beauty, unless it is spoiled in us or underdeveloped; each of us is also drawn toward specific kinds of beauty MORE than others–myself, feminine beauty, which I find takes incredibly diverse forms from a muscular female athlete running a marathon to a restful mother caressing her child’s head to an older woman laughing freely and un-self-consciously… sometimes I find it to be a sexual turn on and sometimes it’s just the beauty of femininity.

    My straight female friends feel very much the same about men doing ‘masculine’ stuff… which really just means doing anything in a way that makes their masculinity shine… from petting kittens to shoveling rocks.

    How can it be wrong to enjoy these things? This is a huge part of sexual attraction, romance, delight in opposites…

    I think the rest of the stuff John said is BS, about female striving being ‘disturbing’ LOL and about femininity being THE ULTIMATE PERSONIFICATION of beauty, and about God… it was all just stupid. But I don’t see the soldier asking a nurse to put on lipstick as creepy and sexist and objectifying without qualification. I think it COULD be… or it could not be.

    A lot of it depends on the nurse, on the soldier, on the dynamic there, and on the motivation.

    I don’t think loving to see something lovely for loveliness sake is always wrong.

    I don’t think enjoying the attractiveness of the sex one is attracted to because it is SO feminine or SO masculine and therefore sexy as hell, is wrong.

    If it is, then I am a sexist chauvinistic… woman. Aaaaaaaand… I actually don’t think I am. I don’t want to be appreciated ONLY for my appearance, or my ‘femininity’, nor do I want to be appreciated PRIMARILY for them, or even MOSTLY for them. But do I NEVER want anyone to appreciate my “sexiness factor” unless they know me very well? No. I actually don’t mind being thought lovely, or sexy, by others. I don’t want to be ogled disrespectfully
    but I don’t mind being noticed appreciatively. I don’t want to be categorized as only beautiful because of my ‘feminine’ qualities. But I don’t mind if some people find my feminine qualities attractive.

    I guess what I’m saying is there ought to be a balance. Room for some enjoyment of physical beauty, even sexually appealing beauty, even based on gender differences. I honestly find more ‘masculine’ women more gorgeous, in part I suppose because I’m super femme and I like the difference factor.

    I don’t think people should reduce other humans to mere objects for their viewing consumption, or value other people largely on appearance. But I also don’t think normal human beings should be shamed for taking pleasure in the sexual/physical appeal of those they are naturally wired to find appealing. God made us this way.

    Thoughts? Anybody?

  • Baffled

    In my one and only relationship I was once placed in the fascinating position of explaining to my boyfriend why it made sense that I, a cishet woman, found men physically attractive.

    Let me repeat that. My boyfriend thought it made no sense that I, his girlfriend, was attracted to men.

    I’ve been out of that relationship for just over fifteen years, and to this day, I am still utterly, utterly baffled. I understand him wanting me to find women sexually attractive. I understand him not getting that men can be aesthetically pleasing. But why on earth would he try to talk me out of finding men attractive?

    • The_L


      So…he wanted you to date him, but he didn’t want you to be attracted to him? How did he not see that he was kinda shooting himself in the foot?

  • I love your review, except for your continued use of woman-hating language. It’s really unnecessary and mars what is otherwise a top-notch feminist analysis.

    • I am an intersectional feminist. If you have a problem with that, leave. If you’re reacting to my use of “slut” in this post, you could explain why instead of accusing me of using “woman-hating language.” Please read my comment policy before you comment again.

  • “God does not throw himself at any passerby.”

    Oh really? Then how does he interpret the fact that the very Second Person of the Trinity threw himself at the entire world by becoming human and dying on the cross? You’re right – Jesus must be a slut.