Then the king’s personal attendants proposed, ‘Let a search be made for beautiful young virgins for the king. Let the king appoint commissioners in every province of his realm to bring all these beautiful young women into the harem at the citadel of Susa. Let them be placed under the care of Hegai, the king’s eunuch, who is in charge of the women; and let beauty treatments be given to them. Then let the young woman who pleases the king be queen instead of Vashti.’
In Philip Larkin’s poem, Born Yesterday, he lists his wishes for a baby just born – not the ‘usual stuff’ about being beautiful, but that she may be ordinary, ‘not ugly, not good-looking … nothing uncustomary’ to pull her off-balance. In the Old Testament story, Esther’s life was pulled off balance by her beauty.
Esther, brought up in a Jewish community in exile, is whisked into the harem of Xerxes to be taught the arts of lovemaking and then to wait to be summoned to the king’s bed. Only her beauty brought her to this – neither her religious and moral commitments nor her personality mattered at all. But Esther was an attractive person, brave and wily. She won the favour of the servants and of Xerxes himself and ended up his queen.
When Samuel went to find the future king of Israel amongst Jesse’s sons, the Lord told him that human beings look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7).
Today, looks are still important. We feel a nudge to conform to certain physical characteristics if we want to be appreciated – at work, in the classroom, even at church. We are encouraged to enhance our ‘average’ appearance: by diet, cosmetics, or clothing. For the ‘non-average’, being exceptionally good-looking can skew the way we are perceived, but being scarred or disabled, or even just ageing, can be a more difficult barrier to acceptance.
How much does it matter to you what you look like? How much does it matter what your colleagues, partner, or boss look like? We need to practise looking at the heart.