This post is in response to a guest post by Deanna Briody over at SpiritualFriendship.org, entitled “What’s a Body to Do? The Place of Beauty and the Body in Non-Sexual Loves“. Briody opens by recounting her experience of “noticing [herself] noticing women” and trying to find a way to understand that experience outside of the paradigm of sexual identity/orientation, which didn’t seem to apply. She writes,
I assumed for a year or two that this meant I was bisexual, but I admit the word never sat well with me. It tasted wrong in my mouth, not because I didn’t believe it was an authentic description of certain people’s experience, but because it felt inaccurate when applied to myself. I wasn’t sexually attracted to women. I was physically drawn to them. I didn’t want to sleep with them, but I did want to know them. There was no category for that.
This resonates with me. I also notice women; sometimes when I’m surrounded by women I feel like I can bask in their beauty as in sunshine. But I’ve never felt sexually attracted to another woman. In today’s culture of ever-more-nuanced definitions some might say that I’m a heterosexual bi-romantic. But that doesn’t fit the bill either. The attraction I can feel towards other women doesn’t feel romantic to me; I don’t want to date them, I don’t want to hold hands, I don’t feel any jealousy of their partners or have any desire to supplant them. And yet, there’s something there, something for which, as Briody points out, we don’t seem to have a category.
She concludes her piece by looking at beauty and the desire for beauty as a sort of signpost for us, pointing us back to the original, unfallen beauty of God’s creation, and ahead towards the redemption of all things:
I’m coming to think it is right and good to notice that someone is beautiful (whether female or male, both body and soul), and to be drawn to them because of their beauty. It is, I think, a sort of entranceway into the truth, for though our ancient rebellion has drastically marred the bright visage of humanity, it is not altogether destroyed. Human beings still are beautiful. We retain the faded memory of our created glory, imprinted in skin and soul alike. When I notice a person’s beauty, therefore, I’m recalling, in the very act of noticing, the most ancient truth about her or him. I’m acknowledging the rightness of God’s first declaration over humankind. I’m echoing his original “very good” over creation; desiring as a creature to join in communion with what remains of the “very good” around me, as I should; and coming alongside the saints and angels and all the earth, in longing for the full and final restoration of that first “very good.”
This is a helpful understanding. I would suggest, however, that there are other things that our attraction to beauty does in the context of non-sexual love. I believe that the things that attract us are clues for us as we think about the type of people we desire to be. In a non-sexual, non-romantic context, our longing to possess the beloved object — to somehow possess their beauty — is about wishing to possess their beautiful qualities for ourselves. A good example of this is in the common phenomenon of a young girl developing an “emotional crush” on a classmate, or perhaps more commonly, an older girl or woman.
The first crush on an older woman that I remember was on my third-grade teacher, Mademoiselle M, a young Québequoise who had given up figure skating for teaching after a bad accident on the ice. I don’t remember a lot about her now, except that she was beautiful and kind, and that I simply adored her. My friends knew not to look for me at recess on days that Mademoiselle M had yard duty, because I would be stuck to her side, too preoccupied with my lovely teacher to play. Another was Elissa, a woman who taught Broadway dance classes at the music camp my family went to for a few years when I was a pre-teen. Elissa was warm and funny and confident, and somehow managed to convince a room full of gawky adolescents that it was actually okay to engage our hips while dancing. I’m not sure if I also followed her around — I probably did — but I remember devoutly wishing that she and my single uncle would fall in love and get married, so that she could be in my family forever. (Spoiler alert: it didn’t happen.)
What was the common thread here? I was definitely drawn to both of these women in part because of their physical beauty — both of them possess the dark brown curls I have longed for ever since I can remember — but that isn’t the whole reason. Along with their physical graces, I believe I was responding to the beauty of their characters: to kindness, to humour, to confidence, to wisdom, to grace. The things that attracted me revealed something about me as well as about them: they pointed to qualities I desired for myself. When I saw and loved them, it was in part for their own sakes, but also because I too wanted to be kind, funny, confident, wise, and graceful.
Noticing the beauty of another invites us to introspection. What is it about that person that draws our attention? What do our attractions reveal about our personal goals and desires? What we love — what we value in another person — shows us what, and who, we desire to be.