First, let’s consider something that can tempt older, single women—giving up. I remember talking years ago to an older woman who had decided that her man was going to pursue her only for her character. But looking at her, I wondered if she might do something to make it a little easier for that man to notice her character. She had that prematurely dowdy look going on. I kept thinking, “Give the brother a break! Try to make a little effort here.”

In a show aimed at single women, radio host Nancy Leigh DeMoss addressed this temptation with her listeners: “I've noticed that, frequently, women who are single for a long time become less feminine, at least in ways that are visible. Now, I'm not saying that's true of their heart, but I'm saying that in ways of appearance and manner, sometimes they become less feminine.”

I am not trying to be hard on anyone. Please don’t get discouraged. I know what it’s like to take on that “built for comfort, not for speed” look. I know what it’s like to get older and find your own body thwarting your efforts to exercise or your metabolism flat-lining. But men appreciate some effort being made. They notice a woman who takes the right kind of pride in her appearance, who wants to be womanly. You don’t have to be perfect, but feminine is good.

Philippians 2:4 tells us to look to the interests of others. Let’s consider our potential husbands for a moment. Men are wired to notice beauty in women, but our culture is steeped in a standard of beauty that isn’t even possible for the models themselves to have in real life—they are propped, styled, and digitized into otherworldly perfection. On top of that, godly men are negatively affected by the immorality of our culture. In real life and in the media, blatant sexuality and immorality are always but one averted gaze away. A godly man will do his best to avoid these pitfalls, of course, but consider how hard it must be for him not to be affected by our culture. In the midst of this barrage of flesh, we are asking Christian men to commit themselves to be faithful to one woman for the rest of their lives. Wouldn’t it bless them if we were the best we could be, both spiritually and physically? That perspective has propelled me to the gym many a time—and not just for reasons of vanity. I’m sure our future husbands would also appreciate healthy wives.

Let’s swing to the other side and consider vanity. It’s not wrong for a woman to adorn herself, but the Bible does warn against the excess that results in immodest or ostentatious displays, or becomes a life-consuming pursuit. The Hebrew word that is translated as vain in the phrase “beauty is vain” is hebel, which means “emptiness or vanity, something transitory and unsatisfactory.” This is the same word that permeates the book of Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes is an exploration of the meaning of life, but by the second chapter, the writer has concluded that pleasure, laughter, hard work, homes, gardens, herds, servants, gold and silver, and even wisdom are hebel! This overstatement is effective, because the writer goes on to call hebel “striving after the wind.” Many good things are called hebel because we can’t grasp true satisfaction from these items any more than we can grasp the wind. There’s nothing wrong with these activities, but they won’t provide the fulfillment we often seek to derive from them.

In the same way, beauty is hebel. There’s nothing inherently wrong with beauty, but the meaning and fulfillment we seek in it will elude us like the wind through our fingers.

The Power of Beauty

If this is true, then why do we care so much about being beautiful? Why aren’t we content with the measure of attractiveness that God has given us? For one reason, because beauty has an effect on men. “In every man's heart there is a secret nerve that answers to the vibrations of beauty,” wrote American journalist Christopher Morley. Men notice beauty. They fight for the favor of a beautiful woman. They memorialize beauty in art. They write lyrical poetry about beauty.