I wore a red shirt with a starched collar to the family Christmas party.
From my upbringing I got the disposition to regard nice clothes as the first step of fivolity toward decadence. I am not sure how much of that was deliberate principle versus circumstance and personal preference, but my mental point of reference is the conception of unstained, unwrinkeled, unfaded clothing as superficial and heathen.
I wore the red shirt to the Christmas party because I get a kick out of wearing bold, dramatic clothes now and then. Any kind of clothing, worn constantly, registers as Just Clothes, but if I usually go around in jeans it feels somewhat like having desert to wear fancy clothes.
The dynamic between attire as just a pleasure of life and as heraldry of worldliness leaves me wondering about some other aspects of personal appearance. My dad is very negative about jewelry or makeup on women. When I first got to the point where I even thought about such things, I took it in stride as a cogent and necessary part of rejecting vain and sensual attitudes. The same unexamined continuum included not using deodorant and not shaving (faces, legs, armpits, whatever). As I got older, and got out around people who questioned my whiskery face, I realized that adherering to normal standards of personal grooming could have practical social effects. Just as your choice of language communicates your personality in obvious and subtle ways, so your choice of clothing is also a constant broadcast about yourself.
I can’t recall any significant questions about my clothes, but there are a few times I can recall where people asked me about my facial hair and I found I didn’t know exactly why I let it grow–other than it does happen to be the natural default state of affairs. In my home environment I never had cause to think about it, so when I started telling someone that I respected the way God naturally made me and they replied that he also made the hair on my head and my fingernails grow too, and I cut those. That is not any kind of air-tight argument; for one thing, I trim my nails because when they get long I peel them and that can get uncomfortable, and the hair on my head would never stop growing; for a while, I treated my beard like my arm hair. It didn’t get too long to be dealt with so I let it be.
But as far as bringing up principles to be questioned, they had a point. In some cultures long hair on a man is not the least out of the ordinary. If I say God uses beards in part of his chosen distinction between sexes, someone can point to males who are naturally hairless on their faces. I always think of American Indians, although I am not completely sure how many of them really were smooth faced and how often they are just portrayed that way. I can give all kinds of opinions on what I think looks appropriately masculine, but I can think of very little within the New Testament that constrains male grooming, and what is written about women is hotly contended and not completely clear to me.
It seems to me abundantly evident from the principles of Christ’s teaching that no material fact of personal attire is all by itself sin. To be seen naked, even, is not of itself sinful on the person beheld. It almost always is, because we are meant to be ashamed of our nakedness, to give us a physical and lifelong reminder of our debased state in sin–not, as some suppose, that reproduction is sinful. But God has chosen to appoint modesty to those parts of us, and reserve them as specially personal aspects of our bodies. Since this modesty is an image and witness of immaterial truth, and not the thing itself, exposure is not itself sin. Whether at the hands of evil men, or in natural need such as childbirth or other medical issue, in certain times and places nakedness does not have its usual connotation of shameless exposure, of willful rebellion to the intent of God’s creation.
Likewise, hair, whether purple or shaved or extra long, has of itself no sanctifying or corrupting property. I have trouble imagining a case of purple hair that is not at heart a rejection of God’s work, but neither can I blithely conclude that people with purple hair are consigned to hell. Even among those actively following after Him God allows some rebellions to go unchallenged–else every one of us would be in constant torment of His judgment, none of us yet being free from sin and waywardness.
From there I wonder how much of personal grooming should be deliberately conformed to cultural norms. It seems to me that if Paul had Timothy remove an irreplaceable piece of his flesh so as to cause no offense visiting the Jewish synagogues, it is a small thing for me to cut off my hair to avoid offending whatever people I might be among. That gets into the whole gray area of offenses, from what someone might considered tastless or ill-bred to the kind of sacrilege that it was to enter Jewish holy places uncircumcised.
I have opinions on this or that aspect of personal grooming, but derived from the above principles and not set in stone. My views are yet to the point where I feel any urgency in proclaiming or defending them. I have learned to be wary of resolving moral academic quandaries just for the sake of intellectual equilibrium; a problem that has not come to me is not necessarily a problem I am meant to solve.
If it is not necessary for me to propound on the proper treatment of male facial hair, it must seem even more spurious to mention anything about female attire. Yet such is the impetus for this post. While I have no qualms about my current mode of attire, it effects only me and can be changed by me on a whim. I get a little more conflicted when I feel I might be actually affecting other parties. When I went on a couple of business trips I felt I was representing my place of work and so got fussier and more concerned with my appearance. Then it occurred to me that I would not have even been asked to go on the trips if my general appearance was considered too outrageous. Then I realized that it was hypothetically possible I had missed some other kinds of opportunties for precisely that reason–which is a hypothetical always pointed out by harpies of class grooming. But again, the only party significantly involved in the trade off has been myself.
I am not presently in a situation where my opinions on attire make a difference to any female on earth. However I once accidentally influenced a young woman to stop wearing earrings. I had expressed my view at some point but I had not intentionally lobbied for any action, nor did I consider it my place to register any such kind of request.
Since that incident I have noticed that one’s opinions can have a much greater influence on women than intended, especially with regard to appearances. I remember remarking on a coworker’s new glasses (or was it new hair style? I can’t remember), and I said quite simply, “New glasses, I see.” The two girls in the office, the subject herself and another, happened to be so frank as to say, after my subsequent lapse to silence, “You can’t just say that or she’ll think you hate them and they make her look ugly, you have to say you like them too!” I deduce this was not about me in particular, since (1) the girl–or should I say, woman–was recently married, and (2) she participated in the lecture. If my opinion in the matter was especially important I don’t think either of the two would have been true. I’ve noticed, though, how widely this is practiced, so that women are always complementing each other on new looks, even if it is a matter of indifference to the commentator, or even distasteful, and even if the subject in question professes no love of the new look–and this is not done as an expedient lie, as I supposed in my male mind, but just to avoid crushing the sensitive self image of the woman with the new look. Where it looks to me like proactive dishonesty, it is undertaken by them as preventive caring.
Still not sure what I think of that. The best, most admirable women I know do not change their looks every few months, nor do they invest so much self-worth in the acceptance of such a change; and the social trivialty is such a near cousin of the little white-lie (who metamorphs so quickly to the Large Deception For Your Own Good) that I regard it suspiciously.
Leaving aside the ritual compliments and taking just the sensitivity about appearances that is common in the female psyche, I regard it as unnecessary for any woman to use makeup or jewelery to attain all-purpose good looks. Perhaps if someone had a certifiable deformity–that legendary “bearded woman” or some prounounced pockmark or whatnot–there could be a case made for remedial cosmetics, but your ordinarily lipstick and mascara I regard as nonessential. Unlike clothes, which everyone knows cover your natural body, makeup is at some level meant to appear to be the natural features. A shirt is not meant to be conflated with the actual torso–or then again, maybe it is, in a lot of contemporary female attire, but that is only to my real point–while the observer is not meant to distinguish between the lips and the lipstick. Woman was not created as a creature fundamentally lacking asthetically, and needing makeup.
Modern secularists who see woman as created by culture and not by God would disagree with me here. Most feminists, of course, would agree that women should not be obliged to wear makeup, but that’s opening a whole different topic. The average American female seems to believe that female beauty is a purchased commodity rather than a created attribute.
But when we have left behind the secular world, and supposedly moved to a God-centered way of thinking, it would seem obvious to me that we regard all purchasable aspects of female beauty to be accessory. Especially given the characteristic sensitivity about apperances that I already noted, I find it apalling and disgraceful that anyone with half a claim serious Christianity could say that “It’s not a sin for a woman to wear makeup–in fact it’s a sin for some women to go without it!” This is supposed to be a joke, so feel free to say Ha Ha at this time. I have laughed at many jokes that in all seriousness should not be considered funny, and I may have laughed the first time I heard this one. When I hear it in the context of anything that is supposed to remotely resemble a serious discussion about attire, it makes my stomach churn.
This kind of attitude is presented by people who will in the same conversation tell you how crucial it is that a husband tend to his wife’s emotions as well as her physical needs. Husbands need emotional care from their wives, as well, but husands usually don’t understand that a woman’s appearance is a matter of routine emotional maintenance. “You look good,” in those words or by implication, is for most women a matter of appreciation as routine as “good job” is for a man–or even “thank you.” Again, not always said explicitly, but somehow conveyed. This need is well communicated in commonplace Christian conseling these days. But thrown right in there with it is the completly contravailing, annulling, undermining credo that a wife ought to put on a bit of makeup and something nice before she expects her husband to appreciate her looks.
I have heard both men and women promulagate this idea, but the men especially must have no idea what kind of condemnation they place themselves under with this message. Bad enough what they do directly to the self-image of women, who will always sometimes have bad days and look frumpy–and so much the more if they are raising children, as I believe fully intended by God. But if you understand that we all are the Bride of Christ, and we say that our human brides are not worthy of affection without a little remedial work, than we have in a way unworthy of Christ’s love as we truly are, and only acceptable behind a veneer of beauty that cannot do anything at all to please the eyes of God.
Maybe we do try to apply the same principle to our lives. Maybe the good works we are exhorted to are supposed to be the remedial makeup, the which does not by itself make us loved by God, but makes it possible for Him to love us a whole lot more affectionately. Even if the ethos is equally applied it is still perverse and repugnant.
In another place where I worked, not the same as in the first incident, there was a young woman about my age who often came in without any makeup on, and frequently applied it during the day. Gradually I noticed than when she was in her natural appearance she looked more tired, depressed, and stressed than she looked once her makeup was on, and I realized that this is why women wear makeup. Then I further noticed that when she looked tired, depressed, and stressed out I was more concerned for her well being and would ask how she was doing and generally think of her as a person with problems as I myself had problems, but when she was all made up and somehow had more of a happy, contented, or clam look, that I tended to assume that she actually was happy even if her life circumstances did not change that much from day to day.
Then I realized, this is why men like makeup. There’s a whole range of makeup effects, some more sexually evocative than others, but in all cases the tendency of makeup is to reduce the naunced expression of a human face into a few accentuated facial signals that communicate some manner of pleasant thoughts to the obsever. Men’s appreciation for makeup is not strictly as a hypersexualizing device, but also as a simplifying device, to bury the concerns and feelings of women behind a filter that only lets Happy through.
Some time not too long before I moved away from home I began to notice that my Mom looked more worn out than other women her age. Many people today would say “Of course she looks a bit tired, since she was cruelly used to produce twelve kids, like some kind of farm animal.” But what bothered me about her appearance was not her appearance itself, it was actually the very fact that it could be construed as proof that she had lived and undesirable and disadvantagous life, when it seems to me her years of work as a mother are hugely admirable, and that somehow one should be able to tell just by looking at her that it would be good to live life much the way she has done.
I sometimes cringe when I hear women, real or fictionalized, speaking of the horrors of old age that they try to avoid, or that they imagine have befallen them, when sometimes those “horrors” seem to describe my mother aptly. But why are they afraid of these signs of aging? My mother has a husband who loves her deeply, and not in some loyal dog sense of deep love, but in every way and in every degree that a wife should be loved. And it is not that I love her any less myself, either.
There is something sad about age, yes. In my old room I had a picture of the family clan from twenty years ago, and I liked it for its melancholy because nobody looked that young any more. I know I am young but I don’t fancy myself as gloriously young; I consider it a prologue to age. There for a while it seemed particularly acute to me that everybody in the world was rushing headlong into old age, and worn-down, broken-down decripitude, along with everything else in the universe. Then I noticed that if I looked closely even women in their early twenties seemed to be past the blossom of their beauty, the majority of women seeming to reach the peak of their unblemished pristine features in mid to late teens.
Most women can and do extend the appearance of flawless features many years beyond their teens, but once you realize it is by artificial means a whole new paradigm opens up. The commonplace approach is to look for artificial means to extend that kind of beauty further and further, but the genuine truth-appreciating approach is to stop striving for an appearance that shows no sign of age, of use, of experience. Age and dying are facts of this life, and trying to hide them behind makeup is in a way the same sort of sin as nudity. You are not supposed to parade around in the raw and you are not supposed to look young forever.
I would be dishonest to say women shouldn’t wear makeup because it won’t effect how I think of them. People would not talk if they were not typically understood and women would not wear makeup if it did not typically influence how people react to them. I have observed myself reacting in a more immediately friendly way toward women with cultured apperances. But I have also observed it is because I see less of a person there. Being friends with real people is a lot of work. They carry all this baggage from their life experiences, and you never know at first if some of those experiences have made them unfriendly toward people with your personality. But the painted faces are always friendly and happy and glad to see you, and it always puzzles me when they say grumpy things.
Now that I have worked out that I have little esteem for the use of makeup, it brings me full circle to where I started. How much of the same kind of deliberate misrepresentation is involved in wearing fancy clothes? I do believe some women wear makeup because they like the way it looks on them, no more than I like a red shirt or new black shoes or eating brownies. Even more so with jewelery, because that is not an exageration of a physical feature but an obviously removable. Sometimes I think all jewelry is meant to call attention to the body itself, like certain styles of clothes, and sometimes I think that most jewelery, like most clothes, is intended to have an aesthetic appeal but is not meant to flaunt.
There are some Christians who think that women can eradicate sensuality by wearing “modest” clothes, usually simple dresses that in my taste are among the most flattering clothes women can wear. Certainly they are more attractive than some of the clothes other women wear that make them appear like barely contained blobs of flesh, like sausage–and I don’t even mean fat women in clothes that are too tight.
Nobody in my family ever did think that you could limit what men thought in their heads by controlling what women wore on their bodies. Likewise I don’t think we should let women wear whatever they want and shoot all the men; put another way, there certainly is such a thing as deliberately and wrongly provocative clothing. But where in between do the lines fall? I don’t really know.
You’re not supposed to write essays on subjects you aren’t convinced of, because it causes such lousy endings.