Girls, Body Image, and Theological Poetry: Lucy Hutchinson on the Beauty of the Human Body

Sometimes in an attempt to counter messages about self-esteem and body-shaming that ignore God we forget to acknowledge the beauty and goodness of the human body altogether. This kind of accidental Gnosticism can be especially harming for teenage girls who are constantly thinking about their bodies but are only taught two responses: one that makes them obsess even more about beauty by telling them to find meaning in themselves, and the other that makes them feel silly or sinful for struggling with body image in the first place but with no way to move forward other than trying to ignore their bad feelings and hope they go away.

Though it is wise to start and end with God when asking questions about life, we cannot skip the necessary step of also thinking about ourselves as God’s creation. Hutchinson, a female theologian who thought deeply about the Bible, wrote an entire section in her epic poem on Genesis about the human body. In her meditations we can find reasons to feel good about our bodies as the physical part of us that exhibits our beauty, complexity, and uniqueness, all of which are a result of God’s goodness, creativity, and power. Even for those of us who are not particularly pretty and never will be, or those of us who are sick or disabled and fight daily battles with our bodies, thinking more specifically about the beauty of the human body as God’s creation can at the very least help us find one thing about our bodies to be thankful for, and perhaps even find a whole new perspective to take about our bodies as a part of ourselves that reflects God’s glory. Below, part of Hutchinson’s Order and Disorder is quoted with interjected summaries in bold to guide you:

  1. A body is one part of a human being, and human beings are the best part of God’s created world

Thus was the noblest creature the last made,
As he in whom the rest perfection had,
In whom both parts of the great world were joined,
Earth in his members, Heaven in his mind;

  1. Our bodies enable us to visibly express a variety of emotions and audibly express a variety of sounds

He only hath a voice articulate,
Varied by joy, grief, anger, love and hate,
And every other motion of the mind
Which hereby doth apt expression find.
Hereby glad mirth in laughter alone
By man expressed; in a peculiar groan
His grief comes forth, accompanied with tears,
Peculiar shrieks utter his sudden fears.
Herein is music too, which sweetly charms
The sense, and the most savage heart disarms.

  1. Our faces are beautiful and unique

The gate of this God in the head did place,
The head which is the body’s chiefest grace,
The noble palace of the royal guest
Within by Fancy and Invention dressed,
With many pleasant useful ornaments
Which new Imagination still presents,
Adorned without by Majesty and Grace:
O who can tell the wonders of a face!
In none of all his fabrics more than here
Doth the Creator’s glorious power appear,
That of so many thousands which we see
All human creatures like, all different be.

  1. Our eyes light up our faces and express the emotions of love and desire

In the front be the glory of man’s frame,
Those lamps which in its upper windows flame
Illustrate it, and as the day’s radiant star
In the clear heaven of a bright face are.
Here Love takes stand, and here ardent Desire
Enters the soul, as fire drawn in by fire.

  1. Our noses and mouths enable us to breath and thus live

There is an arch i’the middle of the face
Of equal-necessary use and grace,
For there men suck up the life-feeding air,
And panting bosoms are discharged there.

6.    Our lips, teeth, and tongues enable us to laugh, speak, and taste

Beneath it is the chief and beauteous gate
About which various pleasant graces wait,
When smiles the ruby doors a little way
Unfold, or laughter doth them quite display,
And, opening the vermillion curtains, shows
The ivory piles set in two even rows
Before the portal as a double guard
By which the busy tongue is helped and barred;
Whose sweet sounds charm, when love doth it
inspire,
And when hate moves it, set the world on fire.
Within this portal’s inner vault is placed
The palate, where sense meets its joys in taste.

7.    Our cheeks, eyebrows, and hair frame our faces

On rising cheeks, beauty in white and red
Strives with itself, white on the forehead spread
Its undisputed glory there maintains,
And is illustrated with azure veins.
The brows Love’s bow and Beauty’s shadow are.
A thick-set grove of soft and shining hair
Adorns the head, and shows like crowning rays,
While th’air’s soft breath among the loose curls
plays.

8.    Our faces are symmetrical and so intricate that they elude even the finest painters who attempt to replicate this beauty in art

Besides the colours and the features, we
Admire their just and perfect symmetry,
Whose ravishing reluctance is that air
That graces all, and is not anywhere;
Whereof we cannot well say what it is,
Yet beauty’s chiefest excellence lies in this;
Which mocks the painters in their best designs,
And is not held by their exactest lines.

9.    When we reflect on the beauty of our bodies, we must always remember where they came from and where they are going

But while we gaze upon our own fair frame,
Let us remember too from whence we came,
And that, by sin corrupted now, it must
Return to its originary dust. [1]

These verses by Hutchinson make me think that when she saw herself or looked at others, she did not focus on flaws (whether perceived, as a product of social beauty norms, or real, caused by actual health problems) but noticed the ways they reflected God’s glory as Creator. Though that is a bit speculative, it is definitely not speculative to say that she thought theologically about the eyes, nose, mouth, lips, teeth, tongue, cheeks, and hair of human beings, since these meditations on them came out of her own mind.

If you’re a girl struggling with self-esteem or body-image, it might be a fun thought experiment to ask “what would Lucy the girl, and later a mother of daughters, say to me about my body?” You may find that if you have a godly mom, dad, sibling, or friend, it is not that different from what they’ve been telling you, and you just needed a new perspective from three-hundred years ago to see it for yourself.

 

[1] Lucy Hutchinson, Order and Disorder, ed. David Norbrook (Oxford: Blackwell Publications, 2001), 34-36.

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