I am getting old enough that now I have noticeable wrinkles. My skin is more crepe-like, and my eyelids droop. My body shape is slowly shifting downward, and it’s harder to keep weight off. My hair is relentlessly turning grey.
Our society, including many of my own colleagues, tell me that I ought to fix these things. They speak with admiration and envy of celebrities in their 70’s and 80’s with the appearance of someone half their age. Some refer to cosmetic procedures as job security or empowerment, referencing the valid research which reports differences in the way store clerks, doctors, professional businesspeople, potential employers, and even folks on the street treat those who appear more attractive and younger. Besides, they tell me, if some dye, product, or surgical procedure makes you feel more beautiful, sexier, or marketable, then who cares? It hurts nothing but your pocketbook. Go for it!
I dare not judge them. After all, I paint my nails, wear makeup and jewelry, and get my hair cut at a salon. Why? For the same reason people have more drastic procedures – I feel like I look better when I do these things and I like that feeling. In a matter of degrees, where do we draw the line?
Yet there is something unsettling about this whole issue. We’ve succeeded in building extremely lucrative industries around changing our appearance in order to “fit in” or be more acceptable to others. I can’t help but wonder whether we are worshipping a golden calf molded out of youth and a narrowly defined beauty standard. I think we need to more critically examine the real message we proclaim.
- We negate the natural diversity of the human population as God created us. Instead of allowing the wonder of each person’s unique appearance, we push everyone into a mold for how a nose should look, how much of an eye slant is acceptable, or how big a woman’s “assets” should be.
- We blind ourselves to the wisdom, courage, and depth of people who are older, and we deny the weathered beauty of a wrinkled face or naturally greyed hair.
- We teach that one’s lovability and respect are dependent on outer appearance, and the key to becoming more lovable lies in enhancing that appearance in every way possible.
- We assert that we hurt nothing but our pocketbooks. Yet what are all those chemicals and dyes doing to our bodies over time, and what effect are they having on our environment? Do we know? In addition, no surgical procedure comes without risk. If something does go wrong, it affects everyone in the patient’s inner circle. Indeed, some people have been scarred for life after botched plastic surgery, or have ended up as a caricature of themselves.
- Finally, what of the opportunity cost? What if all the money spent on liposuction, botox, dyes and polishes, collagen injections, teeth whitening, and elective cosmetic surgical procedures was instead spent on helping those in need, building schools, caring for the sick and dying, or other pressing needs?
Does facing such issues squarely mean I have to stop painting my nails? I don’t know the answers, but I think we have to raise the questions and I think each of us needs to examine our attitudes and practices. What golden calves are we building? How do we contribute to their worship? And what can we do to start changing it for the better?
Perhaps we can start with stepping stones. As a daily Lenten practice, consider:
- Consciously looking for someone who is considered less attractive by our society’s standards, and giving them extra attention. Take time to consciously look them in the eye and give a genuine smile. Say thank you. Open the door for them. In some small way, let people know they are valued for who they are, regardless of their appearance.
- Also consider raising money for medical professionals who offer free cleft palate surgeries, free prosthetic limbs, and other procedures that allow the poorest of the poor to live a normal life.
- Consider washing your hair one less time a week.
- Maybe donate lotions, deodorant, toothpaste, toothbrushes, shampoo, and similar items to homeless shelters.
- Do something to combat bullying based on appearance.
- Continue considering the expenditure of time and money on your own outward appearance and decide how much of it is truly important.
None of this will change society. It won’t take down the fashion or cosmetic industries, or bankrupt plastic surgeons. And the issues are complex, evading easy solutions. But maybe this Lent we can break a little chip out of the golden calf’s shiny plating. Maybe together we can be living witnesses to the value, lovability, and God-given dignity of the human person just as we are.
Amy Florian is a teacher and consultant working in Chicago. For many years she has partnered with the Passionists. Visit Amy’s website: http://www.corgenius.com/.