Does Pretty=Holy? And Is Having a Bad Hair Day a Spiritual Failing?

by | May 12, 2023 | Faith | 28 comments

Does Pretty = Holy according to Dannah Gresh
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I really liked what she wrote last week about that Dannah Gresh submission quiz and handout, and I thought I’d share it here today, along with some of your comments about that handout.

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Have you ever noticed how much of Christian advice to women is centered on looks?

I (Rebecca) can’t help but see it everywhere we look now. This week I’m thinking about it because we all re-read the Secret Keeper Girl handout on Dannah Gresh’s website. You can see it here, but look at page 4–look at the things she’s supposed to judge about herself in this mother-daughter devotional series.

There are FIVE questions about looks. Not even vanity–but flat-out looks. And the implication is that if you take care of yourself well, look put-together and attractive, then you’re a “priceless china teacup” and not “styrofoam” trash.

So we’re teaching 8-12 year olds that if they don’t look put together all the time, they’re slipping into trashable territory.

But then look at the very next section. Remember, this is a curriculum that is promoted as a devotional set for moms and daughters and is supposed to help girls grow closer to God. This is not promoted as a beauty course, from what I can see. This is promoted as a CHRISTIAN FAITH curriculum. When my mom bought it when I was 11, she thought it was a devotional.

The next section is “real physical beauty” and although I can get behind a devotional teaching girls that they are made special and unique and God designed them just how he wants them to be, that’s not actually where this goes. Instead, the girls are asked to describe various aspects of their appearance and then Dannah says this:

“Okay, let’s be real. We all have things about us that make us feel more bashful than beautiful. What’s yours?”

She gives the 8-12 year-olds a whole page to write out all their flaws. 

I don’t know about you, but when I was 9 I didn’t have many areas of self-consciousness yet and I’d like to not introduce that concept to my daughter as a spiritual issue before she’s even put away her dollies.

But then, a few pages later in the curriculum, girls are warned to not spend too much time on their hair and makeup and beauty things, but to make sure they’re spending more time with God.

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But Dannah--I want to scream–at the beginning, FIVE questions were explicitly about appearances and only ONE was about God. YOU are the one who is elevating beauty over actual spiritual formation. You’re the one who wrote a whole curriculum on teaching girls how to look cute but not immodest and called it a devotional.

(And, as one of our patrons pointed out, think about the ramifications of this theology for black girls with how society views their hair, and with the time their hair takes.)

So the book says you have to look put together. You have to spend all this time to make sure you’re not some styrofoam garbage by making sure your hair looks good, your clothes are cute but not too cute, your skin is clear because you’re taking care of it–all of this has to be done but you have to make sure you don’t do it too much but if you don’t do it well enough you’re now styrofoam and no longer a priceless china cup.

But then if you do it too much, or not as much as you read your Bible, you’re styrofoam and a spiritual failure anyway.


I am not someone who is naturally put together. I do not ever say, “Oh I woke up like this” because there would be no need to say it because it would be so incredibly obvious that I had just gotten out of bed.

I never wake up with cute bedhead and sleepy doe-eyes. I wake up like a lake monster lurching towards the swampy shore, in about as good of a mood as you would expect from a lake monster. My skin has never been perfect in my life except for a few months nursing Alex (hormones can be great sometimes), and I’ve never been particularly stylish. I’m just not good at it, I don’t have an eye for it, and I’ll be honest it can make me self-conscious.

But when I was eighteen, I had an epiphany. I realized that it was OK if I wasn’t the prettiest version of myself all of the time. See, I had been raised to see perfection as good because of reading articles from people like Dannah Gresh for so many of my formative teenage years. I believed that my job as a girl was to always look perfect, and I just couldn’t do it, and it was starting to really take its toll on me.

But then I realized–what if beauty and looks actually aren’t that important overall?

(I know, it sounds so basic!) 

What if we, as women, have permission to just kind of show up? And just look how we look?

And yes, let’s maintain good hygiene and look professional and presentable but what if it’s not a spiritual thing? What if it’s just… life? Like how I learned how to meal prep, I can just treat my hygiene and appearance like that? Like maintenance tasks, rather than identity ones?

What if we have the freedom to separate our appearance from our worth?

Because all of this emphasis on beauty as a part of spiritual discipleship really screwed me up for a while there (and I’m still working through the ramifications of it today). Pairing attractiveness, style, and beauty with spiritual development innately teaches girls that our looks are a part of our walk with God, implying that prettier girls are closer to God. At least, I know that’s what I internalized.

Pair all of this with the modesty message that, in essence, tells girls that unless you are so skinny your clothes barely touch your body, you are going to have to wear XL men’s clothes to be modest, and it’s not hard to understand how so many of us ended up with body image issues even when we were not people who naturally would have cared all that much.

I promise I’ll get off this soapbox eventually, but let me just say this one more time:

  • Attractiveness is not an indicator of how close to God you are. 
  • Your body is not a spiritual measuring stick 
  • Girls deserve a faith that is not centred around how hot people find them 

We all deserve so much better than to be told that unless we know how to style our hair perfectly, we’re disappointing God. 

It’s time we separated women’s faith from their fashion. And I hope that She Deserves Better helps the next generation do just that.

She Deserves Better!

Because we all deserve a big faith.

Your daughter deserves better than what you likely grew up with in church.

What would it look like to prepare the next generation without toxic teachings about modesty, sex, or consent, and instead set her up for a big faith?

Sheila back again! Remember, you can sign up to receive our emails right here so you don’t miss any of Rebecca’s thoughts!

I’d like to share some of your thoughts today, too. After posting the handout from Dannah Gresh’s True Girl curriculum, here’s what some of you said on social media:

“What I found the most troubling about this (aside from telling girls to think about what their grandpa would think of seeing their underwear lines, this is so disturbing) is that it mentions how we as girls/women spend too much time on our appearance and we should be focused on our inward person…then it proceeds to obsess over outward appearances.

Also, I attended an SKG conference when I was a preteen. I don’t think I realized how much this kind of mindset affected me until I became an adult, having mild panic attacks over what I would wear to church on Sunday morning.”

“That was a disturbing read! Pretend that your grandpa is looking at your crotch to see if your shorts/skirts are too short???? And why are they teaching submission to little girls who aren’t even married? (Not to mention the fact that the Bible actually teaches mutual submission!) It feels very cringey to read.”

“Gag. Just. No. 

I couldn’t even make it past the cup question.  Are you disposable, standard or easily broken in the wrong hands?! 


I’m not a cup. 

I am the image and likeness of God. And so are my daughters (and my son.)

This is disgusting.”

“I am mortified this book suggests a mom put her hands between her childs chest to see if her shirt springs back! If it does, this books says you are immodest and “Giving it away”, How sick! I would have failed this no matter how baggy my shirt was. How about helping your child understand the changes her body is going through and how to find clothing the makes her feel comfortable in her own skin!”

“I had to stop reading at the whole “punish yourself if you spend more time on your hair than with reading your Bible…” Way to self-cultivate legalistic religious anxiety!”

How did a woman write this and think this was good and of Christ? How can mothers take their daughters to these retreats, hear the craziness that is spewed talking about minors with intoxicating bellies, grandpa in the mirror, and dads telling their daughters about their lust and not think woah what is happening here, this is wrong?

This is still happening today, these retreats are still going on. This is so awful it’s beyond words. Girls are being told they are objects for some man some day and to be pleasing to him and do his bidding, and until then hide themselves, their thoughts, their bodies because they are dirty jezebels in the making and needs to live in a constant state of shame and submission.”

Let’s speak up and stop this toxicity

I was so surprised with how many of you actually looked up the curriculum–and glad with how many of you saw the deep, deep problems with it.

The big message? If you hear something that sounds “off”, please know you’re not alone. Speak up. Likely others see it too. The reason this curriculum did so well is that people didn’t speak up.

We can do it. I know it’s scary. But we deserved better, and now our daughters (and sons) need us to speak for them!

What do you think? Have you ever felt like evangelicalism makes it so that pretty=holy? What can we do about this? Let’s talk in the comments!

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. Cynthia

    I learned modesty lessons in a different faith, but a lot of it was very similar.

    There were constant mixed messages. Modesty was supposed to get us to focus on our inner beauty instead of externals, according to one book. Great, but that book then goes on to talk about how very important it is to dress a certain way and how we can make assumptions about someone’s character and intentions from how they dress.

    Similarly, lots of the books aimed at women would say to be “attractive but not attracting”, or give other contradictory advice. Eventually, I realized that it was forcing women into an impossibly narrow standard. Worse, the standard shifts from one group to another, so there is literally no neutral look. According to someone, we are going to be wrong. To repeat: there is no universally accepted outfit that won’t cause a woman to face legal restrictions, or cause people to assume she has horrible motivations, or make her a target of sometimes deadly violence.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Exactly! The problem is not the specific rules; the problem is the entire approach to the female body and to male lust.

      We talk about this in She Deserves Better. In her newest version of her book, Gresh took out the modesty rules. But everything else, including how intoxicating your body is and how the way you dress invites men to finish the picture of your body, is still there.

      If you tell people to “dress to represent the gospel”, is that any better? What does that even mean? It’s still so subjective. It doesn’t help. Let’s just get back to being appropriate, and leave the lust issue to the one who is doing the lusting.

        • Angharad

          What a brilliant article. Succinctly summed up in just one line: “…whatever new thing your inexplicably respected local pervert warns has recently made him horny.” Pure gold!

        • Bernadette

          Good read. So many good quotes. She hits the nail on the head when saying the rule makes the fetish.

        • Taylor

          Loved this article.

  2. sonya

    i just re-read the secret keepers. oh man that stuff is so creepy.
    and the submission thing, when her friend group is doing a thing she doesn’t want to do and the “right” answer is to keep quiet and do it anyway? so….submit to peer pressure??

    wow. just wow.
    it’s like that book was written by a pedo and painted pink and sold to little girls. i just can’t even.
    and this nonsense was drilled into me as a child, no wonder i felt so damaged. i carried around so much shame after being sexually abused by my mom’s second husband and even my mom blamed me for it (at the time! and i was 8!!)
    the weird obsess over your looks but also wear frumpy clothes thing had me so confused as a teenager. i remember being at Teenserve and being told that a bathingsuit (that covered everything??) was “not modest” and crying for an hour because i thought i was damaging the boys around me.
    oh my gosh the toxic messages. and younger me had no idea just how much it was really hurting me because i thought i had to look/act/be a certain way to be acceptable to God. i developed anxiety and an eating disorder that followed me all the way into adulthood.
    i’m now 40 and finally unlearning the toxic messages. i’m so glad i didn’t pass these things down to my daughters who were born *after* i started learning how toxic messages had hurt me. unfortunately i did pass the toxic messages to my nieces when they were small. although it was their reaction to it that made me start questioning what i had been taught.

    THANK YOU for the work you are doing here.

  3. Jen

    One question: When is the lake monster merch coming? I need that on a t-shirt – especially the lurching towards the shore part. That’s me! I’d wear that proudly!!

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire


    • Meghan

      OMG put it on a sleep mask!!! I’d buy that in a heartbeat!

      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        HAHAHA! That’s not a bad idea….

  4. Jen

    Great stuff. Again, this is people rubber stamping the world’s view with God’s name. This is no different from what the world teaches. I learned these ideas before I came to the Evangelical church. It was just horrifying to then “learn” that God approved of these ideas, that He made men to want to devour me., that He too thought I was a non person. Yuck.

    One question: When is the lake monster merch coming? I need that on a t-shirt – especially the lurching towards the swampy shore part. That’s me! I’d wear that proudly!!

  5. Jo R

    It’s incredibly easy to tell if people are following rules that circumscribe behavior, appearance, speech, and other external manifestations. As an added bonus, it gives the rule makers lots and lots of ego boost to be the ones laying down the law and controlling everyone else.

    But it’s much harder to control attitudes, thoughts, opinions and other internal manifestations, and that’s where following Christ really happens. I’m vaguely remembering some dude long ago talking about the “overflow of the heart” that I think touches on this dichotomy.

    If people don’t have to follow all those external rules, how will we know who’s in and who’s out, who’s really a Christian and who isn’t? I think that same dude from long ago said something about the Son truly setting us free, but I might be mixing things up.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Who said that again? I think I heard something about that….. 😉

      • Phil

        Yeah me too.

    • Taryn

      This is such a big part of the issue, I think! People will always try to bring up women’s motivations during a modesty debate. But it’s a red herring b/c no one knows another individual’s internal thoughts & motivations. They are judging women based on the clothing & pretending they know their hearts.

      I think this the reason we are constanly told how it affects a guy to see skin, too. So they can then blame us. “She knew what she was doing.” They want to tell pre-teens that if you dress a certain way, men will be intoxicated so that if a teen girl says she was just trying to look cute, she won’t have an excuse. Like, they tell us what might be an outcome of our dress so that they can then say we desired the outcome just b/c we were aware of the possibility.

      This whole thing was very apparent w/the latest yoga pants guy on Twitter. He was saying what yoga pants communicate, while women were telling him that’s not what we are trying to say & he kept insisting on what he would hear instead of listening to what women were actually communicating. He’s setting all the rules & parameters so he can blame women for their clothes while pretending to know their motivations.

  6. Phil

    Good to read again with added content…

    I half wonder if these messages and curriculums did so well not only because they didnt speak up but also because what else was there to offer? Ya know – thinking back at least here in the US – talking about sex publicly was always taboo growing up in the 70’s and 80’s. And forget it being talked about in the church as far as I was aware….Sheila has touched on this before. Look at the resources we had. That creepy dude book from the 70’s – I can see his face cant recall the name. But people who took a chance and started talking about sex publicly – well – people took to it because there was ‘t much out there To compete with. I guess I am curios like who was the founder of this modesty thing anyway? Was there a particular person that created it or was it just a spin off someones book – I know Josh Harris wrote a book that was like an “original” to the concept…but was he like the mastermind? Well that went off topic but – until now apparently – we just haven’t had a ton of healthy resources to use to get good sexual messages not only in the church but in public in general. To me…we (THE CHURCH) should be leading the public with our message not following.

    Have a great Friday and wonderful weekend ALL.

  7. CMT

    You know, I glanced at that handout when you first linked it. I was struck by how, on the very first page, it asked girls how much time they spent on “quiet time” and how well they took care of their skin and stuff like that, IN THE SAME QUIZ. Even in if you think it’s a good idea to have kids quantify their spirituality by how many minutes they read their Bible every day, your personal grooming doesn’t belong in the same category. Encouraging little girls to scrutinize their appearance like this is awful. And the doublespeak! It’s just preparing little girls for the contradictory messages they’ll get as adolescents and women. Be pretty but not too pretty, don’t be “vain” about your appearance but make sure you never ever “let yourself go,” be feminine but not the wrong kind of feminine, and on and on. No thanks!

    • Angharad

      The contradictory messages are deliberate – it’s much easier to control someone if they are cowed, crushed and hopeless. And the easiest way of making them like this is to constantly move the goalposts so that they give up on ever getting it ‘right’ and accept that they are useless failures. That’s why these teachings are one minute telling a girl that she needs to look pretty because it’s a good testimony, the next minute telling her that thinking about her appearance is vain, the next minute telling her that NOT thinking about her appearance will make her immodest so that she ‘makes’ men sin…

      • CMT

        “The contradictory messages are deliberate – it’s much easier to control someone if they are cowed, crushed and hopeless.”

        Or if you keep them busy wasting tremendous amounts of energy trying to measure up and be “good enough.” I mean, you can’t have girls and women thinking grace means they already ARE enough. How would you keep them in line then? **eyeroll**

        As I’m typing this I’m thinking about all the prison and enslavement metaphors the NT writers use to talk about sin, and wow do they hit different now than ten years ago.

      • Taylor

        “The contradictory messages are deliberate.” Woah … that connection makes so many things make sense. They’re contradictory because the HAVE to be contradictory–that’s a part of why they’re effective. Because they dislodge the mind.

        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          Yep. They make it so you can never actually feel like you’re not wrong. You’ll always feel shame, and that’s the point. Because women who feel shame are easier to control.

  8. Megan

    As someone about Joanna’s age, who committed the worst sin at the time for modesty (being in possession of sizable breasts) I have all the stories. I also had the problem of clothes were not going to be modest enough on my curvy body so I wore huge shirts to make up for it (so it wouldn’t spring back as others have mentioned). For my senior t shirt I was feeling rebellious and tired of the modesty stuff, so I went down a size then modesty rules would have had me pick. Guys, that shirt worked great for me as a pj shirt…when I was 9 months pregnant! Those rules were insane, especially if you weren’t stick thin

  9. Kay

    Shaunti Feldhan’s chapter in For Women Only about keeping up appearances (aka not letting yourself go) as a courtesy to your husband was so damaging to me, especially as I had very difficult pregnancies and postpartum depression. I constantly did my makeup despite not leaving the house, and one day I finally asked my husband if he cared whether I’m wearing makeup or not.

    He looked like a deer in headlights. Not only did he not care, he did not even notice. I was spending all this money and effort and stress for absolutely no reason because that’s what the book told me to do.

  10. Taryn

    I don’t know what “the gospel” means b/c honestly if you ask a member of any denom. it will be different & the phrasing around “obey the gospel” “gospel issue”, etc. has always been confusing for me. Like, how am I supposed to dress as if Jesus died on the cross & was raised on the 3rd day!?! What does that even mean?

    However, I think I dress more like the gospel is here now than I ever did when I was worried about dress codes & causing boys to lust. If Jesus brought good news that we are now free from sin & the church is his kingdom shouldn’t we all be naked & unashamed again? (Not a nudist) But I’m not sure why the gospel should have us *more* self-conscious, restricted and concerned w/our appearance. I’m free to dress how I want understanding that I am no one’s savior & my worth comes from w/in. I have a clear conscience. Any man that has impure thoughts can take their conscience to their Lord & the good news is: they can be forgiven!

    So much “Christian morality” is actually white middle class values. When it comes down to hairstyle, neat dress, clear skin, so much of that is culturally & socio-economically determined. As a bi-racial, curly haired girl growing up on a farm, but attending an upper-middle class church “in town”, I never fit in, but at least I didn’t hear that my walk w/God was determined by access to a dermatologist or whatever!

  11. Lucie_09

    There were so many conflicting messages regarding women’s outer appearances, modesty, and inner beauty.
    In Joshua Harris’ ‘Boy Meets Girl: Say Hello To Courtship’ under the heading ‘Cultivate godliness and inward beauty in your life’:

    “If you want godly men to respect and cherish you as a woman, refuse to buy into our culture’s obsession with being physically beautiful and sexually alluring. This is an attitude that springs from the motives of your heart and extends to the way you dress and act around men.
    Is your wardrobe an expression of your love for God? Shannon often says to women “There’s a big difference between dressing attractively and dressing to attract.” What’s your motive? Have you ever asked your father or another Christian woman to honestly evaluate your clothing? Are you willing to sacrifice fashion to be obedient to God?
    During our courtship, Shannon honored me by always acting and dressing modestly. A few times that meant getting rid of outfits that she didn’t think would cause a problem…Once when I told her that a particular pair of shorts were a little too short and were causing me to struggle, she quickly replaced them.”

    JH then winds up by quoting John Stott, and how women should be adorning themselves with good deeds, and concludes “Grace will make you beautiful and will attract truly godly men to you. Make godliness and inward beauty your priority.”

    So, if we’re to make godliness and inward beauty our priority, why this obsession with our outer appearance and modest dressing? Why can’t we just wear what we feel like wearing? What would a wardrobe that reflected our love for God look like? Why didn’t JH include a ‘modest dressing fashion guide for girls’? And is there really a ‘big difference’ between ‘dressing attractively and dressing to attract’?? After all, if you look attractive, won’t men look at you, and if they look at you and find you attractive, won’t they go on to have lustful thoughts? What happens AFTER you get married? Do you still have to dress modestly, or can you throw away the rules and wear whatever you want now?
    I find it extremely telling that further on in the book, JH admits that in spite of the extensive list of rules limiting physical contact with his bride-to-be Shannon, guarding their conversations (and more), AND in spite of her always dressing in ‘modest’, ‘appropriate’ outfits to honour him, and even getting rid of some outfits, (I would be interested to know what those were!) Josh ‘sinned more in (his) heart without kissing Shannon than many guys who kiss their girlfriends.’ I wouldn’t want to label him as having a lust problem though. Maybe it was a result of being in a conservative repressed environment that sexualized women to the 9th degree. It could have been that what he was feeling was attraction, not lust, and he was confusing the 2 because he didn’t know the difference. But basically, no matter how much women try to ‘cover up’ to ‘protect’ and ‘honour’ Christian men, it’s never going to work, and it will never be enough in the end, when the guy is the one with the problem.

  12. EOF

    Be pretty and attractive, but not TOO pretty and attractive. Got it. 🙄


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