Giving Up Clothes for Lent

Giving Up Clothes for Lent February 9, 2016

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No, I don’t mean that you should go naked. I mean, not unless you’re planning to spend Lent alone wandering around in the desert until your clothes rot and your skin is burned black.

Clothing is a basic necessity, but if we look at the gospel Christ seems to be suggesting pretty strongly that a disciple shouldn’t be spending all that much time on it. In Luke 9:3 he sends them out telling them to take nothing for the journey — not even an extra shirt. The idea in giving up clothes is not that you don’t wear anything but that you force yourself not to think about it by wearing the same thing day in, day out.

The advantages of this are pretty obvious. Vanity has the effect of constantly drawing our attention to ourselves, and it tells us the lie that our self-worth is to be found in the way that we appear — either the way that we appear to others or the way that we appear to ourselves. Flouting social convention and deliberately wearing clothes that will earn other people’s censure is often actually a form of vanity in itself: it’s a way of drawing attention and of establishing a kind of self-superiority based on the perception of oneself as a rebel or an outsider.

Of course what this kind of self-consciousness does in fact is to make us insecure. I remember, for example, that after I appeared on EWTN someone wrote to me and said that I was incredibly brave for going on TV without makeup. That word “brave” speaks volumes: for this woman, and indeed for many women, the idea of being seen in public without covering up their “flaws” is literally frightening.

I can kind of understand why this is. When I was in early high-school I made a brief attempt to achieve social success through fashion. It lasted about a year and a half, during which time I did, in fact, wear make up. The idea behind cosmetics was that they would cover up your flaws, accentuate your good points and make you feel confident, powerful, deserving and beautiful. Pretty much every single make-up ad on the planet appeals to this ideal.

In practice though, what I found, was that the more time I spent trying to improve my face with paint, the more flaws I became aware of. There were pores that were too visible, minor discolourations in my skin tone, bags under my eyes. My lashes were too thin. My cheeks were too full. My chin… let’s not even go there. The more that I tried to learn how to correct these faults, the more faults I discovered. Soon I had a litany of complaints about my face and I was convinced that other people were sure to notice the same glaring imperfections that mocked me from the mirror.

The same was true with clothing. Trying to dress fashionably made me constantly aware of imperfections in my figure, and again, it was a continual quest to try to find the right clothes. Clothes that would make me popular and cool. Clothes that would make me look attractive and thin. Clothes that would assure me the elusive peer acceptance that I craved.

All of this completely failed to make me feel confident or empowered. What it actually did was make me feel like my body was constantly on display before a panel of disapproving critics. I didn’t realize it at the time, but most of the criticism was actually coming from myself. The world was not actually full of people who were making continual judgments about my smallest physical imperfections. Most people weren’t paying much attention to my appearance at all. The sneering jury existed almost entirely in my own head.

When I gave up wearing make-up and stopped worrying about clothes, most of the hideous inadequacies of my appearance quickly faded back into the obscurity from which they had come. Nobody seemed to notice, or care, that I didn’t have full, lush, sumptuous lips or thick, beautiful lashes. And since I didn’t care either, the problem that I had spent so much money and time trying to correct turned out not to actually be a problem. At all.

The biggest benefit, then, of giving up fashion is that you actually end up becoming more confident in the long run because your sense of empowerment and worthiness is not something that you put on in the morning. It’s not a game of dress-up. You end up resituating your self-worth in qualities that are more interior, more permanent, and more proper to yourself rather than in an external mask.

There are other benefits as well, though. You save time. You save money. But more importantly, you have the opportunity to become less self-focused. If you start every morning in front of a mirror, scrutinizing your own body and thinking about how you appear to others, that sets the tone for the rest of the day. Basically, you’re activating the part of your brain that is devoted to self-scrutiny. When you apply make-up, do your hair and fuss with your clothes what you’re doing is ritually establishing a connection with your own appearance. If you just skip this step, then you can start your day by focusing on something more interesting than yourself.

But we still need to wear something. So how do you establish a Lenten discipline that allows you to get dressed in the morning without getting caught in the fashion trap? The easiest way is to choose a simple outfit — the ideal is something like jeans, a plain t-shirt and a pair of sneakers or, if you’re a professional, a button-down shirt and a pair of slacks. At the end of the day, hop in the shower, wash your clothes with a bar of laundry soap, put on your pjs and hang the clothes to dry. Put them back on in the morning. Or, if you have a family and have to run a laundry machine anyways, get two more or less identical outfits and switch back and forth between them.

You want to choose clothes that attract no attention to you — especially, clothes that don’t attract your own attention. You don’t want something that will make you feel self-consciously ugly, or self-consciously modest any more than you want clothes that will make you feel self-consciously attractive or self-consciously wealthy. The idea here is not to have your vanity constantly aggravated by the mortification of having to wear something you hate. The goal is to get to the point where you just don’t think about what you’re wearing at all.

The same discipline should be applied to other aspects of personal grooming as well. Choose a hairstyle that is really easy to maintain — whether it’s just your hair, brushed, or a simple ponytail — and wear that style every day. Don’t use hair care products apart from shampoo or a two-in-one. Don’t wear make-up. Wash your face with normal soap. If you’re finding it difficult, and the sight of yourself in the mirror is a source of anxiety, take the mirror down and put it in storage until after Easter. Maybe hang an image of Our Lady, or the Divine Mercy in its place.

Photo credit: Pixabay
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