At church this morning our adult sunday school was discussing various approaches to the Lenten fast (the practice of either “giving something up” or committing to some new discipline for the 40 days of Lent). I won’t rehearse the whole rich discussion here, but one particular idea struck a chord with me.
It was the story of a mother with two young daughters who gave up looking in the mirror.
I think some of our group members found this idea a bit strange as a way of preparing one’s heart for Holy Week, but I immediately knew this was a profound thing to do, as both a woman and as a mother.
First, as a woman:
One of the major implications of this decision immediately struck even the men in the group. “How would she put on her make-up?” I think all the women probably knew the answer to that question: she couldn’t. To say nothing of the likelihood of serious eye injuries from wildly waving mascara wands, there would be no point in the effort. Without a mirror, any make-up application would be virtually guaranteed to be disastrous. Better to go bare than to risk lopsided cheekbones, wobbly lip color, and the dreaded poorly blended foundation line along the jawbone. Obviously, the woman in question is going without make-up for these seven weeks.
This drew my mind to the no-make-up internet trend of the past few months. It’s a theme that suddenly started popping up in my Facebook feed around early February. First there was the cancer awareness challenge. The idea was to invite (i.e. challenge) friends to post a no-make-up selfie to their own FB wall and then make a donation to help fund cancer fighting research. Unfortunately, the donation part got a bit scrambled (I had to do a bit of research off of Facebook about the point of the whole thing to even hear about the donation element), but there were sure a lot of bare faces in the newsfeed. I supposed that even with the missed opportunity, the effort was still positive since it came with a general celebration of embracing one’s inner beauty without the façade.
Then, there was the frighteningly powerful Sacred Scared series on Momastery, which hosted 10 guest bloggers sharing, in short but compelling confessions, the deepest fears that they had to face in doing work they feel called to do. As if the stories weren’t exposing enough, they also had to post a make-up free picture of themselves. The idea was the kind of vulnerability that strips fear and self-doubt of its power and encourages us all to be real and carry on even when we are a mess. I’ll be real and admit that many of the posts had me in tears (even in awkward public places like restaurants).
Finally, I clicked on a link to a hysterical Tedx talk by Tracey Spicer, who catalogued all the crazy things women do to enhance our appearance, cited statistics on the thousands of hours this steals from our lives, and then proceeded to “strip-off” the make-up, the bouffant hair, the figure-flattering dress, and the three-inch heels to encourage a new wave of feminism that will reject society’s unfair expectations for women’s appearances.
I nodded my head, and laughed at the absurdity, and for about a day and a half I was feeling pretty proud of myself for the simple reason that I’m not addicted to make-up. I spend far less than the reported average of 27 minutes a day on personal grooming, and at least half the pictures taken of me in recent years have been make-up free since most days I never put any on. Time for a little gentle pat on the back, Serena. Wow – You’re so liberated from societal pressures! You avoid so much wasted time! You’re so much more honest about how you really look than the average Western woman…
Then, I realized two things:
- The fact that I wear make-up only infrequently has not been an intentional moral decision, nor has it marked an effort to reject repressive social pressures. Instead, it has resulted from a combination of historical forces and competing priorities. Historically, I never developed the make-up habit because a) I like my sleep, and b) I had good enough genes (at least through my 20s) that I could get away with leaving with house with the same face I rolled out of bed with. Then, with my thirties came motherhood, and while that took care of the roll-out-of-bed-looking-decent condition it also sapped any motivation or time I might have had to suddenly introduce a beauty regime. What woman in her right mind is going to suddenly start devoting 27 minutes a day to moisturizing/exfoliating/ manicuring/straightening/applying/etc., when her sleep is suddenly cut by 30% and is coming in 2-3 hour chunks if she’s lucky, and her days offer the glamorous merry-go-round of diapers, and temper tantrums, and mealtime arbitration, and sometimes precious cuddle time reading Frog and Toad is the fort made of couch pillows and dubiously clean sheets? Sorry – the chances are that my sweater will have child-snot stains and my hair will have pudgy (and, very likely, sticky) fingers tangled in it before we leave the house, so fancy make-up all seems a bit pointless to me.
- I went ahead and took the Facebook selfie… and was horrified! Toward the end of the campaign, a friend challenged “all her friends” to post their all natural photo and I figured why not? It won’t be that different from all my other photos, but for that very reason there’s no reason to avoid it, right? Wrong! I thought I’d take the picture under the bathroom mirror light, since so many of these “no make-up” photos seem to be so poorly lit….I quickly realized why. By the seventh take I also realized that my eyebrows are bizarrely unbalanced (i.e. call for professional help IMMEDIATELY), that my skin is BOTH dry and shiny, that those laugh lines I’ve been glimpsing are actually deep canyons running from the edges of my nose to my jaw line, and that I REALLY CANNOT GO OUT OF THE HOUSE ONE MORE TIME WITHOUT MAKE-UP!!!!!
In other words, my self-satisfaction is completely unearned. My blasé attitude toward make-up is not a reflection of my acceptance about how I look or my deliberate decision to reject societal expectations. It’s just a reflection of laziness and inattentiveness to just how far I have drifted from those expectations in the last 10 years or so.
Which gets to the real point behind all this clamor for exposure of make-up free selves, doesn’t it? The point is not just to get real, but to accept real. To not require BB creme perfection and thick eyelashes and sleekly styled hair as the minimum standard of beauty. To know that we do not look like the movie stars and supermodels, and that we never will, and to be OK with that. To reject the fear that we will be found deficient by society, or friends, or even ourselves. To look in the mirror and see not every little imperfection, but rather the perfect capacity to be the child of God we were created to be.
If that is really the goal, then giving up the mirror would not actually be very helpful for me, at least not at the moment. Giving up the mirror while still trapped by my desire for physical beauty would just be a way of hiding from my fears about how far I fall short. I need to deal with this demon of expectation because it is eating up my self-worth. It is obsessing about every pound of “moving weight” that I am not shedding. It is dragging down the corners of my mouth as my eyes follow the so-called laugh lines. It is pondering what wastes of time and money might help me reverse the clock. It is a dark, heavy, weight that is pulling me down. If I am going to be the woman I want to be, I desperately need to deal with my own fear of unpretty.
I also need to deal with it as a mother:
Perhaps the most poignant moment in Tracey Spicer’s Ted Talk is her recollection of a question her seven-year old daughter frequently asks her: “Why do women wear make-up, but men don’t?”
Reportedly, her daughter asks her this as she is standing watching Spicer don the required mask for televised appearances. It’s an inevitable question, because daughters watch their mothers. They watch them when they are going through their beauty regimes. They also watch them when they just frown at the reflection, or give their face a momentary lift with a finger tugging up beside the eyes. They watch and they learn that a woman’s appearance matters.
I have an amazing and beautiful daughter. She is six years old and most of the time she is blissfully unaware of how she looks and how other people react to this.
But, even at six, this is starting to change. She has begun to stand in front of the bathroom mirror, posing and trying out different hairstyles. She has begun to anxiously ask me for fashion advice, although she has always had a fiercely independent sense of style. A friend gave her a cheap set of make-up and she has begun experimenting with enthusiastic, if unappealing, results. She wants to make herself pretty.
What kills me about this is not just that she feels like any intervention is needed in order to be more pretty, and it is not even that she is starting to waste all those thousands of hours that American women throw away on beautifying efforts. What gets to me, what terrifies me, is the suspicion that she has already accepted the lie that being pretty is what makes her valuable.
I don’t want to be an anti-society shrew who prohibits my daughter from playing with make-up or sentences her to hair cuts at the Mommy Salon until she’s old enough to pay for them herself. I know that all the pretty-play is part of the fun of being a little girl, and I’m OK with that. Really, I am.
I just want her to know that her value has absolutely nothing to do with what she looks like. I want her to know that it is the sweetness of her soul that draws people to her and that it is her identity as God’s beloved, chosen creation that gives her all the worth she will ever need.
And I’m worried that I am teaching her that with my words only, but not by my example. Because, when I look in the mirror, I see someone who cares far too much about the image looking back at me.
I’m not entirely sure what to do about this, but I know I must do something. And I know that this something will need to last a whole lot longer than the 40 days of lent. But I have a hunch that lent might still have something to offer me in this challenge.
One of the most important realizations our group came to this morning was that “giving up” was pretty meaningless on its own. Simply removing something from our lives for the requisite 40 days is not transformative in and of itself, unless it that vacuum is replaced with something else. I have tried this before in other contexts. I have “given up” chocolate, or Facebook, or complaining, and instead committed to replacing the time I would have given to those things to prayer.
Prayer actually sounds like a pretty good place to remember the source of my worth and identity.
Lord, have mercy.