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Check Your Mirrors

Some thoughts on appearances vs. reality that originally appeared in 2014 on the blog Beauty In Belief

The other evening I was killing time viewing some music videos on youtube (actually, it was in aid of my daughter's assignment from her voice teacher---really!) I watched several, marveling at the musicality of the performers and the creativity of the art directors. The singers and performers were generally young, hip, stylish and attractive and I found myself, without thinking, wondering about their lifestyles and ideologies. And although I have little or no interest in celebrity gossip, I am generally one to judge books by their covers, so naturally I found myself assuming that these young women were probably promiscuous and pro-choice atheists. On a gut level, I felt that if I were to find myself in conversation with them, they'd be antagonistic towards me, my politics and my religion. I felt uncomfortable and defensive, until I realized what I was doing.

Labeling. Criticizing. Judging. Condemning, even. It was a total reflexive reaction, based on nothing other than the fact they were performing music that wasn't overtly religious. Or maybe because of how they were dressed? But since I have no problem listening to secular pop music and am somewhat bohemian in my own fashion sense, this reaction hardly made sense. And yet there it was, that weird little voice in my ear whispering: That girl's probably a slut. Or uses drugs. She's obviously not a good little Catholic like you....!

After I came to my senses, it got me thinking: How do I appear to other people? How do they judge me? Is there anything about my demeanor or general attitude that is a stumbling block to people who might otherwise want to come a bit closer and ask honest questions about how I live my life or what I believe? Conversely, what can I do to be a more attractive ambassador of God's message without compromising my own sense of integrity? I ask these things in all sincerity because I honestly have no idea when or if I am giving offense or sending a confusing message. Oh, sure I let it "all hang out" on social media---anyone who's "friended" me there knows where I stand on just about any issue---but I'm more concerned about my day-to-day personal interactions.

I'm sure we're all aware that much virtual ink is continually spilled and many heated conversations have taken place on the subject of modest dress---pants vs. skirts, chapel veils vs. uncovered hair, sleeves vs. elbows---you know the arguments, the scripture quotes, the recommended tape measured lengths. This post is not about to disappear down that rabbit hole of controversy but will instead go in a different direction entirely. I'll begin with a little anecdote from the mists of time---i.e., the early 1990's.

True story: In my university days, I manned a pro-life literature table in the park blocks on campus of Portland State University. One day I was confronted by an acquaintance from the Art Department who was stunned, almost speechless, to find that I was pro-life. "But----but----but the way you DRESS," she kept spluttering. Who knew that paint-covered, torn jeans and my brother's cast-off military jacket were the official uniform of baby-killers worldwide? Although I dressed as I did due to practicality and not from a desire to deceive, I realized that our subsequent respectful conversations on life issues and women's rights would never had happened if I had gone through my classes dressed in a denim jumper, head scarf and a rosary at my waist. Oh, I'm sure there would have been conversations, but they might not have been so cordial. And of course implicit in her reaction was the unspoken assumption that an ART STUDENT, being a citizen of the whole free-thinking, free-lovin', bohemian, counterculture, would OF COURSE be pro-choice. Talk about judging a book by its cover!

And conversely, how many of us have been pleasantly surprised to find that the tattooed and pierced teen waiting on us is actually quite sweet and well-spoken? Tattoos aren't cheap and a lot of thought goes into choosing them, so a few questions about body art can often lead to surprisingly deep conversations about the symbols that are important to some folks. The fact is that today's society is so tribalized and fractured, that folks wear or hide behind so many masks or layers of clothing and color that become like protective coloring, that outer appearance isn't always a reliable guide. We need to remind ourselves to look at individuals as complex and deep entities, not just units representing their particular group.

It's of course heartening to see priests and nuns dressing as recognizable religious ambassadors, and while it's assumed that intelligent and responsible Catholic lay women shouldn't embrace the overtly crass and revealing styles, it's still ultimately up to us to decide how we appear to the world. There are no magic formulas as to how we can appear at our best before society. There are stereotypes----ours of "them" and theirs of "us"---and there are personal preferences, body types and budgets.

(c) 2023 S. Kirk Pierzchala

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