The Accidents of Appearance

If you want to quit worrying about your looks, there are worse places to be than the Catholic Church.

That’s a broad statement — probably overbroad, and probably over-positive. Naomi Wolf once saluted Islamic dress as a liberator of women from the “intrusive, commodifying, basely sexualising Western gaze,” and from the tyranny of mass-media beauty standards. Her caveat, that “choice is everything” when it comes to the advantages of wearing hijab, appears as an afterthought. Wolf barely considers that family and societal pressures can stack the deck in favor of custom to the point where bucking it becomes as unrealistic an option as living in a tree.

So’s not to repeat her mistake, I’ll say up front — physical beauty and Catholic culture are in a complex relationship. I just happen to have shown up at the right time in my life to get the better end of the deal.

For me, beauty’s always been an add-on: I could look good if I put the time and money into it. At a couple of points in my life, when I was willing and able to observe the workout schedule of a convicted murderer (taking cigarette breaks between wide-grip pulldowns and bent-over rows), I sculpted myself into a midget adonis. One of those spells coincided with a financial rebound I enjoyed just after beginning my catechesis. After securing the L.A. Fitness membership, I frosted my tips and bought a fine collection of striped Oxfords. If I’d lived on the other side of Papago Park (and had had a much more sociable nature), I could have carried on a bromance with the title character of the Blobots’ “I’m a Big Douche (at the Scottsdale Bars).”

Most of the people most involved with the community were blissfully dowdy. These included many of the younger people. My initial home parish attracted many students, professors and administrators from the local unviersity who dressed according to the traditions of academia, that is, as though they chose their outfits in pitch blackness to give their incandescent light bulbs a break. For the most part, not even those who’d entered the professions preened themselves. Birks, khakis, perhaps a spare tire of bicycle width — these seemed the marks of a man with his eye on heaven.

The women were some of the palest — should I say fairest? — I’d ever seen in the state of Arizona. For a person of my particular ancestry, I’m very ignorant about jewelry, but they didn’t seem to wear much, apart from a crucifix or a wedding ring.

My mother tells me there used to be something called the Catholic Schoolgirl Slouch. “Once you grew a bosom, you were supposed to hide it,” she says, her choice of the word “bosom” giving the game away. “The easiest way to do that was to clutch your schoolbooks and pretend you had osteoperosis.” Whether the weight of Catholic culture was pressing any of these people — men or women — into a kind of psychological slouch, I couldn’t tell. It’s a difficult thing to winkle out in polite conversation. But, like Naomi Wolf skipping through the souk in hijab and abbaya, I found a kind of freedom in the company of low-maintenance people. When I lost the energy (and, perhaps more importantly, the car) to hit the weights obsessively, I sensed I’d found a place where all the disfiguring transfers of inches wouldn’t be such a big deal.

At least as far as my own particular niche — the Catholic media — is concerned, it really seems not to be. Yes, the founding father of Catholic televangelism was Fulton Sheen, with his head of wavy hair. But then, the founding mother was Mother Angelica, with her…well, bless her heart. Fathers Groeschel and Pacwa look like guys you might see behind the lectern in any university classroom. (The beards help.) From what I can tell, most of my closest blogosphere colleagues and I fall pretty close together on the great Beauty Curve. None of us needs to wear a bag on his head, but none of us is going to be posing for Praxiteles anytime soon. That’s a medium I can be happy with.

So bully for me. It’s not that simple, of course. The Catholic Schoolgirl Slouch is just the dwarf daughter of the cilice, the discipline, the extended fast and the monk’s pallet. That’s an unnerving tower of baggage. But then, the world outside the Church has baggage of its own. Deborah E. Rhode, Stanford’s Ernest W. MacFarland Professor of Law, writes that between 12 to 16 percent of workers believe that they have been discriminated against purely on the basis of their looks. That percentage, she says, “is in the same vicinity, or greater, than those reporting gender, racial, ethnic, age, or religious prejudice.”

Judging by the results of studies conducted by Biddle and Hammersch, this 12 to 16 percent may well know what it’s talking about. Government interviewers in Canda and the United States collected data on the incomes, occupations and backgrounds of a sample of working men, whose looks they then rated on a five-point scale. Those rated “homely” earned 9 percent less than the average; those rated “handsome” earned 32 percent more. In a longitudinal study published four years later, the same researchers found correlations between looks and income among graduates of a top (unnamed) law school.

It makes a kind of sense, then, that some segments of the Church seem to be promoting an unofficial Catholic aesthetic, a house style, so to speak. On its website,, which declares “The New Sexual Revolution is Here,” features photos of young people so perfect-looking, they might have gotten lost on their way to Brigham Young University. One of its chief spokespeople, former America’s Top Model contestant Leah Darrow, calls herself the “Faithful Fashionista.” Far from trivializing looks in relation to any other quality, Darrow affirms: “At times, clothes are the only visible clues to our personalities and even our beliefs. Today, clothes have become a means for one human to evaluate another.”

On the face of it, what Darrow’s selling is modesty; implicitly, she’s promoting a particular kind of name-brand, put-together modesty. She hasn’t said that beauty is next to godliness, and would surely deny believing it if asked. Still, human nature being what it is, I would be surprised if no one in her target audience conflated the two qualities. It would be a shame if doubles for Darrow (and now, for Mark Wahlberg) started rising to the top in Catholic ministries, social services agencies and universities. I’d hate to see the Slouch — or whatever the male equivalent might be — replaced with a strut. Lest anyone forget, on the road to Emmaus, they were walking.

  • jkm

    “A particular kind of name-brand, put-together modesty.” Yes. But while that may seem far removed from the slouching schoolgirls and their prescribed avoidance of patent leather shoes (because they “reflect up”), it’s still a way of restricting the conversation about modesty to how people look. How women and girls look, in particular, because male chastity is seen as entirely conditioned on female modesty. How attractive women and girls look, in even more particular, because chastity is not a virtue the unattractive get much opportunity to practice. The folks are playing rather brilliantly on the lamentable way of the world documented in the research you cite: Fashionable modesty marks you as cute, stylish, and popular, guaranteeing you a seat at the cool kids’ table.

    How refreshing it would be if the Church really were appearance-blind, as you thought it might be when you first stumbled into blissfully dowdy community. If it would present a real and fearless challenge to the way the world sees. If the way we shaped our souls in the practice of virtue were not still so limited by the ways our bodies are shaped. Bless you for expanding the conversation in that direction.

  • Sarah

    Part of the misogyny I find among some Catholics is the idea that women have to play down our appearances, or we aren’t nice, pure Catholic girls, and are further purposely (or at least, inconsiderately) “tempting” or “weak Catholic brethren.” Puh-leez.

    Natural physical beauty is one thing– we’re born with the skin we’re in. But as far as clothing and fashion are concerned, I’m glad Catholic girls might be allowed to look attractive (while practicing modesty) while also not being treated like vixens. In high school, my teachers just did not know what to do with my on-the-larger-sized bust and good posture. Usually a nun would timidly come to whisper in my ear that I ought to put a sweater on. I know a few men who think we should all be wearing ankle-length denim jumpers. Ugh.

  • Pearty

    Max Reede: My teacher tells me beauty is on the inside.
    Fletcher: That’s just something ugly people say.
    - Liar, Liar (1997)

  • The Crescat

    Speak for yourself. I’m a goddess.

  • Jedesto

    Would that be a cilice on Aphrodite’s left upper arm?

  • DWiss

    Well, I drop off my teen aged aged daughter at high school twice a week. Candidly, I’m glad I don’t have to spend much time there. It’s a regular hotbed of hotties, each one competing to show just enough but not too much. Actuall, sometimes too much. Yes, I know what I sound like, so shut up. But those girls know exactly what they’re doing. If the boys there didn’t have brains addled by video games or weed or beer, they’d be tearing through the female population of that school like Rudolph Valentino.

    My point? Modesty had a practical purpose, and it’s far underrated now. Also that the attention brought by immodesty draws our attention away from God and toward…ourselves. Precisely where it shouldn’t be. This isn’t mysogyny, it’s scripture.

  • Sarah

    We’re talking about two totally different issues, here, DWiss. I completely agree that women need to practicing modesty. Those girls you’re talking about at your sons school are not at all what I mean. I’m saying that it is misogynistic to say that women have to make efforts towards being /unattractive/ for the sake of their male counterparts. That it’s our duty to make ourselves scarce.

  • DWiss

    Sarah, point taken. Peace.

  • Fr. Frank

    Yes, there is a male equivalent to the Catholic Schoolgirl Slouch. It’s the Catholic Schoolboy Textbook-As-Fig-Leaf Crab Walk. Most of us developed it about a year or two after the girls developed their Slouch. Which is about the same time we busted out in zits overnight, and were promoted out of the weekday Funeral Mass Choir because our changing voices sounded like somebody skinning live cats. Nothing assists an adolescent Catholic male in developing the Fig-Leaf Crab Walk quite like Sister lecturing your PE class about wearing pants that are too tight. Just the thought that Sister might look, well . . . down there . . . . Yeesh!

  • Holly in Nebraska

    I always found it interesting that there are no real descriptions of people in the bible. What did Jesus look like? How tall was he? What color was his hair? His eyes? What did Mary look like? The apostles? The only description I can think of off hand is Zacharias, whose shortness was mentioned only because we needed to know why he was up in a tree. So I can’t imagine that it matters too much. Although, I suppose one could get touchy if found to be described as having the modern equivalent of a “face for radio.” Blogger’s face?

  • jkm

    Holly, it was Zacchaeus who was the vertically challenged tree climber. Zacharias was up another tree entirely. :) But you’re right, there’s little to satisfy our visual curiosity in either Testament, which turned out to be a godsend for artists through the centuries. Traditionally, Judas has red hair. Mary Magdalene is kind of a strawberry blond. But that’s all guesswork.

    There’s one notable exception. The poet of The Song of Songs lets the Lover and the Beloved get very, very specific. Teeth like a flock of sheep just up from shearing, and oh those twin gazelle fawns browsing among the lilies! No slouching for that Shulamite! :)

  • Gayle Miller

    I survived 11 years of Catholic school (skipped the 7th grade – lucky me) and I have to tell you, the nuns in elementary school were far less “with it” than those at my high school. It was during the late 50s and shaving off one’s eyebrows was the big thing. My mother persuaded me to avoid that pitfall and when the nuns became sick of a bunch of high school divas wearing way too much makeup (streetwalkers were telling them to tone it down), I was the only girl in my class who still looked halfway human! Lesson learned. I am well groomed but haven’t worn makeup in years and at 69, I still look reasonably decent for my age. I have cared for my skin and kept my hair healthy and well cut but other than that – no frills. It saves time, money and agita!

    And Max, from an older woman who can get away with saying these things, you are adorable! So if you were fishing for compliments, you’re getting what you want!

  • Jack

    In general, Mr. Lindeman, you, like many others, are conflating fashionable, good-looking, and appropriate in your post “The Accidents of Appearance.” This is a mistake. It is perfectly possible to dress appropriately and not fashionably, especially for men, and to be well-groomed but not good-looking or buff. Wearing a jacket and tie to church is appropriate: whether it is a second-hand jacket and thrift-store tie or an Armani suit is a question of budget, personal preference, and interest. And if the trousers are 48 waist, 30 inseam, that is a question of genes and choices and should probably be addressed for one’s health, more than looks. But I think as a society and as congregations we can be charitable about body shape, size, and physical attributes but expect appropriate attire no matter girth, size of nose, or acquaintence with a tailor. All body types can dress appropriately. I see plenty of examples at my church of men who wear the exact same suit and tie every Sunday and women who wear “their Sunday best”, which changes pretty much only by season. I respect them a great deal for their commitment to using their resources well and not being caught up in the fashionista trap. Their choices don’t produce a fashion show, and this is as it should be, but they always look like they set out to come to Mass with respect and purpose. And this is from someone most people would call a clothes horse. “Always be yourself” my grandmother used to say, ‘but be your best self.”

    [I'm not conflating those concepts, but I'm afraid other people will. Maybe I give people too little credit.]

  • Holly in Nebraska

    Thanks jkm! I was too lazy to look it up.