The Accidents of Appearance

The Accidents of Appearance January 12, 2012

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.

"Saint Joseph of Cupertino.'Nuff said."

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