Healing vanity and self-loathing through selfies

On Monday, I wrote about the pressure women feel to be aesthetically pleasing. It’s one thing to recognize it for what it is, and to reject it as unjust; it’s another to stop feeling that pressure. I can’t change what people expect of me, but I can change what I expect of myself.

I know this guy who used to be a gay porn star. Now he’s not, and he is trying very hard to lead a life that’s completely different from his old life. He constantly posts photos of himself on social media — so many that someone finally asked him why. He explained that there are countless photos of himself from his porn days, and that’s what people see if they search his name. He can’t get them taken down, but he can outnumber them out with these new photos that show him as he is now. He wants people to see him as he is now — which is more like who he wants to be, who he thinks he was made to be.

I realized I do something similar — not for the sake of other people, but for my own. It’s not vanity, exactly, and it’s definitely not confidence. Just the opposite: It’s because I’ve spent so many years terrified of looking bad, and I’m tired of it. 

Sometimes I look in the mirror and I see . . . nothing. I see nonsense, like a scrambled photo I can’t make heads or tails of. I literally can’t tell what I’m looking at, when I look at myself. Am I shapeless and obese? Am I shapely and strong? Do I look professional and tidy, or do I look like a rat that got into his mother’s makeup? I simply can’t tell. My self-image is too garbled. One time, I had been beating myself up for the ten pounds I had gained in the last few weeks because of my slovenly ways. Then I actually got on a scale, and it turned out I was actually down half a pound.

And immediately, the mirror obediently showed me someone who looked about half a pound prettier. 

This is how I know mirrors are garbage. There is no such thing as “half a pound prettier.” Yet that is what I saw. And I know this happens to other people, not just people who’ve been through the pregnancy olympics. 

In truth, mirrors can only tell you very specific, limited things, like, “Am I wearing pants right now?” or “Do I have jelly on my face or not?” They can’t tell you, “Do I look nice or terrible?” and they certainly can’t tell you, “Am I acceptable as a human being or not?” Just as it’s really your brain, and not your eyeballs, that see the world, it’s your idea of yourself, and not the mirror, that tells you what you look like.

Now, what we look like is not the most important thing about us. I protested mightily against the idea that a pleasing appearance should be the thing that earns us respect and a place of dignity in the world; and scripture is clear: The Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.  

But unless we’re babies or very elderly or in some other unusual circumstances, it’s not possible or even admirable to give no thought whatsoever to how we look. It’s okay to want to look nice! You want to be able to present yourself appropriately, so you can feel reasonably confident and secure, and can then go on to focus your time and attention on other things. 

So how do you learn that sense of proportion? How do you learn to care for yourself without being overcome with anxiety about yourself?

I’m fairly skeptical about advice to simply bellow, “I AM BEAUTIFUL! ALL WOMEN ARE BEAUTIFUL!” Maybe it works for some people, but for me, it just fosters hypocrisy. I don’t need to feel that I am stunning and gazelle-like and desirable to all mankind. I just need to have my self-imaged healed so it stops howling like a wounded dog. I need to have it retreat to normal proportions, rather than swelling up and throbbing grossly at unexpected times. I need, in short, to know more or less how I look, and to be more or less okay with it, so I can forget it and think about something more interesting. 

That, by the way, is the aesthetic aspect of what Christians mean by humility. It doesn’t mean thinking you’re a useless, worthless worm. It means knowing who you are, accepting it, and getting on with what’s important. 

I don’t have gay porn photos of myself that need outnumbering, but I do have weird fears and fantasies about how I look and who I am; and it doesn’t help when internet trolls gleefully join in to point out my undeniable physical flaws.

That’s where the selfies come in. I show myself how I look. I plaster my Facebook wall with photos of myself that I will come across when I’m not expecting it, when I’m not preparing myself to see myself. I share flattering photos, but also less-flattering ones, with my stomach bulging or my teeth sticking out. Do you know what happens then?

I do not die.

The more photos I share, the easier it gets to see them, and the less I worry about how I look in real life. It used to be that someone could ruin my day or even my week by posting a bad photo of me. The week I got my wedding photos back was hellish. I felt like my handsome husband had made his vows to a walking double chin and overbite. It sounds funny, but it was crushingly painful. I was that vulnerable; and it only got worse over the years.

But now I’ve seen overwhelming evidence that sometimes I look bad and sometimes I look nice; and now the stakes simply aren’t that high. Even if I see that I look crummy in real life some day, if my skin is broken out and my hair is weird and I remembered too late why I never wear this shirt in public, it’s … like … not the end of the world. Not because I can look at pretty photos and reassure myself that those are more accurate, but because I have a more comprehensive understanding of what I look like overall, and of who I am. Bad days are just bad days, and no longer feel like a revelation of what I truly am inside.

When I see photo after photo of myself all with my unavoidable flaws, I don’t zero in on those flaws, but I see myself as just another person. I’m not a supermodel, and that’s okay. Most people aren’t. I have a pleasant smile. I dress okay. I don’t demand that everyone else be flawless before I consider them worth my time, and I’m learning to stop demanding it of myself (and to stop being crushed when I can’t deliver).

So many women, and men, too, have a self-image that’s been skewed and distorted literally past recognition. So many live in genuine fear of finding out what they look like — and that fear shows that it’s about more than aesthetics, but it’s about self-worth. We need many kinds of healing from this kind of wound, but healing of our physical self-image is not an insignificant one. No one should feel fear at the idea of showing their face.

Selfie culture can be poisonous, and can foster narcissism, envy, and crippling anxiety. But if you use it intentionally, it can help you heal from self-loathing and the anxious vanity that goes along with it.

Why are women so angry?

The other day I heard about a man who beat the hell out of his pregnant girlfriend. When she escaped out into the street, he chased her with his car, slammed into a light pole, found a piece of bent metal, and started beating her with that. She somehow survived, but the child in her belly died from the trauma.

They did arrest the man. Later, in court, she gave her testimony. She hadn’t yet birthed her dead baby. Then it was time for her boyfriend’s lawyer to make his case. He asked for leniency, for his client to be released on personal recognizance rather than held in jail. “Your honor,” he argued, “My client is a young man with a bright future ahead of him. He has a fiancee, and the young lady is expecting their first child. . . ”

Happily, the judge wasn’t buying it. But imagine that lawyer’s thought process as he prepared his argument: Hey, maybe that bitch can come in handy one last time. 

My husband calls our society “Titanic in reverse.” Women and children are sacrificed first, tossed into the waves as men scramble to warmth and safety. He has been a reporter for decade and a half, and he’s been at crime scenes, seen evidence, interviewed victims and victims’ families, heard court testimony, and seen the sentencing process, and this is what he knows: Women and children are expendable. Their suffering, their torture, their rape, their murder is acceptable to society. 

I asked him if he thought it had ever been any other way, and he said no. 

We’ll convulse with horror when a man throws a dog out of a window. Precious little pupper! People who hurt animals should be executed in public! But if in that same night he also throws his wife down a flight of stairs, guess which victim makes the headlines?

Well, domestic disturbances are private things. Two sides to every story. 

Sometimes it’s not a matter of turning our heads when women are abused. Sometimes we’re right behind her, shoving her toward danger. Remember last time the country was so very tired of hearing about priests molesting kids? The thinking public came up with an easy solution to the problem: Just throw women at it. Just let priests marry, and never again will we deal with widespread clerical abuse.

It sounded so simple and obvious: Single men are doing pervy things, so let’s make them not be single anymore. Of course the mechanism of it was a little uglier. It meant that we know there are countless men willing to subjugate, humiliate, and abuse people who are weaker then they are. We hate it when they do this to children. So instead, let’s let them do it to women. Because that’s what women are for. 

Don’t let yourself believe that this is a Catholic problem, that only Catholics see women as the universal solution to male complaint. Last time an incel shot up a crowd, the progressive edgelords of social media instantly put up a cry for publicly-funded prostitutes. That’s all these dudes need! When they don’t get enough sexytime, they get mad and they kill people! So let’s make sure they can do it to women; and then real people won’t get hurt. 

Women are the corks for every leak, the excess ballast to be chucked off every sinking ship, the red meat to distract every wild dog, the kindling to brighten up every smoldering fire, the universal salve to spread on any festering wound. You have a problem, any problem at all? Try using women. You can always use women. That’s what women are for

We see this sense of entitlement everywhere, and not only in obvious examples like abduction and rape, murder and abuse. It’s more pervasive and more accepted than you may realize. Most men would never say, “Women only exist for my consumption.” They would never even think it in so many words. And yet when they walk down the street and see an unattractive women, their response is not simply a lack of interest, but irritation, even anger. Anger, as if the woman who doesn’t appeal to him has personally wounded him, or refused to give him something he deserves. 

Why should this be? Why should they feel, in any part of themselves, that they can expect to be pleased by women?

I don’t know why. I do know the one recorded statement we have from Adam is Adam using Eve as an excuse to get out of trouble with God. And ever since then, many, many men have assumed that, since a woman is there, she’s there for him to use.

Most men don’t act out when they feel this way. Only a noisy minority of men would allow themselves to shout something nasty at a passing fat jogger, or take the trouble tell some random lesbian he doesn’t approve of her haircut. Only a noisy minority sends hate mail to an actress who goes out in public with a dreaded “fupa” after giving birth. 

But when you’re a lone women being jeered at by a handful of strange men, or even by one man, it doesn’t feel like minority. It feels heavy and scary and big. It feels dangerous, and it is dangerous. It’s easier, in many ways, to simply agree: Yes, I am here for men to use. I must try as hard as I can to be pleasing to as many of them as possible, so I will be valued and safe. This is what many women do, without even realizing it. Mousy trad women do it by submitting and obeying and never making their own needs known, and raunchy progressive feminists do it by thrusting themselves headlong into porn culture.

And women in the middle of these two extremes do it by constantly accusing themselves, gently or harshly, of being unworthy. We tell ourselves we are unworthy to take up space, to put on weight, to get old, to slow down, to be tired, to be ugly, to be unavailable, to be loud, to be unproductive, to be charmless, to be sick, to be alone. To be angry. We feel that we are endlessly on trial, that our lives are one long audition, and we’re constantly in danger of being rejected and replaced by someone who knows how to do her job better. So many women have spent their whole lives floundering in a bottomless pool of fear that, if we aren’t pleasing men, we’re nothing.

I used to think that all that feminist talk about “the male gaze” was liberal garbage, and women simply didn’t understand how pleasant it could be to be desired by men. But now I am older and I can see that all my life, I have lived with this terrible fear of not being pleasing enough. Even women who know better know this fear. And that’s why there’s so much anger out there: Because it’s not right that we should live that way. 

I said as much on Facebook yesterday.

Yes, I was angry. I have eight daughters, and I see them growing up in this world that still hasn’t changed. And so I cursed at men who feel entitled to an aesthetically pleasing experience from every woman they meet. I felt the weight of that entitlement, and I was angry. 

And what do you think happened? My post was reported and removed. Men told me I was being strident and offensive, and that maybe they would listen if I watched my language and spoke more gently. Maybe if I changed myself just a little bit, so I was more to their liking, then they would listen to what I had to say. 

And there it is. Maybe I just need to be more pleasing to men, and then I’ll be allowed to talk. 

I don’t want to be angry all the time. I certainly don’t want to respond in kind, and become permanently enraged at a whole populace just because of the sins of some. But every once in a while, I feel the whole weight of that crushing, grinding, everlasting entitlement to be pleased, and I feel it even more heavily when I realize how I’ve been complicit in it.

I am asking men to be better. I am asking women not to be complicit. And I am asking men to hold each other accountable when they behave as if they are entitled to be pleased by women. I am tired of feeling inadequate, so instead I am angry. I have a right to be angry. 

 

***
Image: Bathsheba with King David’s Letter, by Rembrandt. Public Domain (Wikimedia Commons)

 

Savor some beauty for yourself; don’t put it all on display

They remind me constantly that there is still loveliness in the world, still resilience, still freshness, still time to grow. Silly little impatiens with their simple petal faces, and they bloom all season long. They don’t mind the shade. Some of them look directly into the window, nodding and smiling at me in the breeze.

The other day, I checked to see how well they show up from the road, and the answer is: Not at all. What do you know about that!

This does not detract from my enjoyment of them. If anything, it increases it, since it’s a tiny little reminder that “just because I like them” is a perfectly good reason to have them. I am not less important than strangers passing by. Beauty is important, and so am I.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image via Maxpixel (public domain)

The prime directive: Make something beautiful. An interview with Jim Janknegt

One of my favorite living artists is James Janknegt. In 2017, he kindly gave me an interview for Aleteia about his life and work. Janknegt, 66, who lives in Texas, is currently working on a commission for five paintings for a book on the meaning of baptism. You can find more of James Janknegt’s art and purchase his book on Lenten Meditations at bcartfarm.com.

Jim Janknegt via Facebook

Here’s our interview:

You converted to Catholicism in 2005. What led up to that?

James Janknegt: When I was a teenager back in the 70s, there was a nationwide charismatic movement. I was Presbyterian at the time. There was a transdenominational coffee house at University of Texas, with the typical youth band playing Jesus songs. There was a frat house we had taken over. We had 20 people sleeping on the floor; it was crazy. A super intense time.

What kind of art education did you have?

I went to public high school, and they didn’t teach much about art history. I would look at books at book stores, and that was my exposure to art. We had a rinky-dink art museum at University of Texas, not much to speak of. After I had this deepening of my faith as a teenager, and really wanted to follow Jesus 100 percent, I was really questioning whether it was legit to become an artist. I didn’t know any artist who were Christians, or Christians who were artists.

Thumbing through the bookstore, I found Salvador Dali. The book was cracked open at “Christ of St. John of the Cross.”

Wikipedia/fair use

That still, small voice that’s not audible, but you know it’s authentically God speaking to you — it felt affirmed. Yes, go forward to be an artist and be a Christian. Those are not incompatible.

Crucifixion at Barton Creek Mall – James Janknegt

Your pieces move from dark and lonely to radiant after your remarriage and conversion to Catholicism — that shift that you define as going from “diagnostic to celebratory.” But even in the “celebratory” stage, there is drama, even agony, along with ecstasy in your pieces.

Foxes Have Holes/James Janknegt

When I was involved in that youth group, they were very super-spiritual, filled with the Holy Spirit, thinking, “Now we can do everything!”

Summer Still Life/James Janknegt

But we never looked internally to see if there are psychological problems alongside your spiritual life. My dad was bipolar and manic depressive, in and out of mental institutions and jail. I met a woman at that Jesus freak outfit, and we got married. I carried a lot of baggage into my first marriage, that I hadn’t dealt with at all. I went to grad school and my marriage fell apart.

Breakdown/James Janknegt

Getting divorced ripped the lid off. All this stuff I had repressed was all bubbling up and coming to the fore. Questioning not my faith, but my ability to be faithful. Can I hear Him and be obedient to Him and do His will? It was a very dark time.

Jet Station/James Janknegt

When we look at your paintings chronologically, it very obviously mirrors different stages in your life. Is it strange to have your whole life on display?

You take that on when you become an artist. It’s very self-revelatory. It’s part of the deal, if you’re gonna be an artist, to be as honest as you can. I think that’s the downfall of a lot of bad religious art: It’s not technically bad, but it’s just not honest. We live in a fallen world. Bad things happen.

Sudden and Tragic Death/James Janknegt

That’s part of life, and that has to be in your painting. You can’t paint sanitized, Sunday school art.

But you do seem to create art that has very specific meanings in mind. Do you worry about limiting what the viewer can get out of a piece?

There’s a painting I did of Easter morning zinnias. They look like firecrackers; Jonah’s on the vase; in the corner, there’s an airplane.

Easter Morning/James Janknegt

I just needed something in the corner to make your eye move into that corner! People were trying to figure out what it meant, but sometimes an airplane is just an airplane.

To me, the role of art is to make something beautiful. Very simple, that’s the prime directive: Make something beautiful.

James Janknegt – supplied
Bug Tools and Beyond/James Janknegt

It doesn’t have to be figurative or narrative or decorative. But my feeling is: The history of our salvation, starting with Genesis to Revelation, is indeed the greatest story ever told. What’s better? As an artist, why wouldn’t I want to tell that?

James Janknegt – supplied
Nativity Christmas Card/James Janknegt

How does the secular world respond to your works? They are full of parables and Bible stories, but also unfamiliar imagery.

A painting is different from a sentence or a paragraph. Paintings deal with visual symbols. I’m trying to take something that was conceptualized 2,000 years ago in a different culture, keeping the content, in a different context.

James Janknegt – supplied
Two Sons/James Janknegt

It’s almost like translating a language, but with visual symbols.

I have a definite idea of what I’m trying to get across. But you [the viewer] bring with yourself a completely different set of assumptions and experiences, and I have no control over that. I don’t want to.

 

James Janknegt – supplied
Holy Family/James Janknegt

When I look at a painting, it’s a conversation. I’m talking into the painting, and the painting is talking to you.

James Janknegt – supplied
Grain and Weeds/James Janknegt

Part of the problem today is that we do not have the same visual symbolic language. In the Renaissance or the Middle Ages, the culture was homogeneous, and symbols were used for hundreds and hundreds of years. If I put a pelican pecking its breast, no one [today] knows what that means. We’ve lost the language. So it’s challenging.

Are you inventing your own modern symbolic language? I see birds, dogs…

You kind of have to. It’s a balancing act. In art school, they say, “Just express yourself! You’re painting for yourself; it doesn’t matter what everyone else gets out of it.” I’m not doing that. I’m trying to communicate with people.

 

The Wise Bridesmaids/Janknegt – supplied
The Wise Bridesmaids/James Janknegt

Tell me about the state of religious art right now.

People complain about how there’s no good religious art.  But there’s a lot of good art out there; you just have to search for it. I feel like I’m hidden away, in this weird place between two cultures, but they are out there.

Saint John the Evangelist/James Janknegt
Saint John the Evangelist/James Janknegt

In our time, people who collect art aren’t religious, and people who are religious don’t collect art. And for an artist, in the Venn diagram, you’re in the place where it says “no money.”

If you could just find an artist you really like and ask them if you could buy a piece for your home shrine.

The Visitation/James Janknegt-supplied
The Visitation/James Janknegt

If every Catholic could buy a piece of art from a living artist, think how that would impact your life, and the life of the artist. You could give them a living.

James Janknegt-supplied
Divine Mercy/James Janknegt

Your farm is called “Brilliant Corners Art Farm.” Is that name a reference to Thelonious Monk?

It is! But it also has a hidden spiritual meaning. Honesty is the light. If you’ve got brilliant corners, then the whole room is lit up.

I Will Make All Things New/James Janknegt-supplied
I Will Make All Things New/James Janknegt

You can find more of James Janknegt’s art and purchase his Lenten Meditations book of 40 paintings based on the parables of Jesus Lenten Meditations at bcartfarm.com.

It’s a great loss when we train ourselves to stop receiving beauty

I can learn to decipher what their calls might mean, but it would be a great loss, a bizarre and ungrateful act, to deliberately train myself to stop hearing their music as music.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

The hard way

We could have done without a multitude of categories of clouds, without birds that migrate, bugs that pollinate, mint and milkweed that battle, and little girls who know something about flying. We could have been moved by fear and panic and compulsion, rather than by beauty and longing. Why is there beauty? Why is there life that delights in life?

The world gleams. But it is so untidy.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image by Colin Poellot via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Something to say to God

“I like praying the Liturgy of the Hours,” says Leah Libresco

because, at a bare minimum, it gives me something to say to God.  Not just the words of the prayers but, basically, “I’m really grateful for prayer traditions because I’d pretty much suck at having to make all this up on my own.”  Instead of just being grateful for language period, it’s kind of like being grateful for slang — the shared set of references that characterize a relationship or a community.

Jennifer Fulwiler addresses a related phenomenon when she speaks of praying the Liturgy of the Hours:  She realizes that, when the words don’t apply to her life, that’s a good thing, because she is praying as part of the Body of Christ.  She says,

I found myself saying “we” and “our” more often than “I” and “mine.”

We all need the discipline of praying about things that are not immediately relevant to our needs.  She says,

 It all finally clicked. For the first time, I think I really understood the power of the Liturgy of the Hours as the universal prayer of the Church …

As my heart swelled to think of the great drama playing out all over the world that morning of which I was only a small part, I thought back to my words at the beginning of the office — “But this Psalm doesn’t have anything to do with me!” — and realized that I had learned something critically important about prayer: It’s not all about me.”

This is not to say that we can never pray about things that do concern us.  But in my experience, the formal, selfless, ritualized prayer comes first, before there can be any depth of sincerity in individual prayer.

We can, for instance, try to flog our hearts into a sensation of awe during the consecration, but we probably won’t get anywhere.  But if we simply humbly accept what is being offered, and obediently participate in the ritual of thanksgiving, that is what lays the groundwork for heartfelt awe and wonder.

So both kinds of prayer are necessary for us and pleasing to God — both the formal, “ready-made” prayers that we participate in as an act of will, and the personal, immediate outpourings of our own soul.

Praying only in own language is limiting and inadequate — but so, I believe, is only ever praying in the formalized language of the Church, because it’s all too easy to keep it formulaic, and to forget that prayer is conversation, and conversation implies a relationship.

We ought to pray, at least some of the time, in our “native tongue.”  Leah has already discovered this:

When I think of immaterial things, I tend to think of Morality, which might not be that bad as a focus of prayer, even if I need to expand it out a little.  The trouble is I also think of Math, and since it’s much easier to think about clearly and distinctly, I was running into a problem.  I certainly wasn’t intending to pray to the Pythagorean theorem (which would make me a very strange sort of pagan), but I was drifting away from trying to talk to a Person and over to just thinking about immaterial ideas.

And kudos to her for noticing the problem!

So, basically, instead of fighting these thoughts, I kept thinking about whatever math concepts popped into my mind.  I thought about when I’d learned them, how exciting they were, and the way I got to share that joy with my friends.  Then I basically reminded myself, “God is Truth, so he totally shares your delight in these things.  In fact, he delights in your delight and would love to draw you further up and further in to contemplate and be changed by higher truths in math and in everything else.”

And that meant I was basically thinking about a person and a relationship again.  In my own weird little way.

Brilliant.  Leah is drawn to truth; it’s her native tongue. For others, it’s goodness; for me, it’s beauty.  Pythagoras doesn’t do much for me, but corn on the cob bubbling away in my blue enamel pot as the steam sifts through a shaft of evening light? This is something I invariably hold up to God, so we can delight in it together.

The saints all found different ways of praising God according to who they are, according to the native language He gave to them.  And so we have St. Francis in his tattered robe, and also Josemaria Escriva with his precisely groomed hair; King David with his wild dancing, and Mother Theresa washing wounds.  All of them related to God with some combination of formal language inherited from the Church, and spontaneous outpourings of their particular kinds of heart. These individual orientations are not something to struggle against; they are languages which God gives us so we can sing love songs to Him.

Do you speak to God in your native tongue?  Or do you hide your personality from Him?  Do you compartmentalize your spiritual life from your daily experience?  Or can you remember that everything that is good comes from God?

This is the main thing to remember when we pray, and when we live our daily lives:  “He the source, the Ending He.”  Both root of idea and flower of expression.  Here’s Hopkins:

the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

This is how we become more like Christ:  by allowing God to refine who we already are. We become more like Him by speaking to Him in our native tongue. If, like Leah Libresco, we are looking for “something to say to God,” we could hardly do better than, “Here is what I am, Lord. Make me more like You.”

***

This post originally ran in a slightly different form in the National Catholic Register in 2012.

Image: The Astronomer by Johannes Vermeer [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Selfie culture, the male gaze, and other moral panics

Lots to unpack in this meme:

The thing about this is that sculptures like this in art history were for the male gaze. Photoshop a phone to it and suddenly she’s seen as vain and conceited. That’s why I’m 100% for selfie culture because apparently men can gawk at women but when we realize how beautiful we are we’re suddenly full of ourselves . . . .

“You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting ‘Vanity,’ thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.” — John Berger, Ways of Seeing

The second quote has a lot more on its mind than the first. I haven’t seen or read Berger’s Ways of Seeing, but this short excerpt raises a topic worth exploring. Women are depicted, and men and women are trained to see women, in a way that says that women’s bodies exist purely for consumption by others. If anything, the phenomenon has gotten worse since the 1970’s, when Berger recorded his series.

The first comment, though, about being “100% for selfie culture,” is deadly nonsense.

The first thought that occurred to me was: Anyone who’s set foot in a museum (or a European city) knows that manflesh is just as much on display as womenflesh, if not more; and all these nakeymen would look just as “vain and conceited” with a phone photoshopped into their marble hands. Thus the limits of education via Meme University.

I’ve already talked at length about the difference between naked and nude in art — a distinction which has flown blithely over the commenter’s head. But let’s put art history aside and look at the more basic idea of the gazer and the gazed-upon, and the question of what physical beauty is for.

I saw a comment on social media grousing about pop songs that praise a girl who doesn’t know she’s beautiful. The commenter scoffed at men who apparently need their love interest to lack confidence or self-awareness, and she encouraged young girls to recognize, celebrate, and flaunt their own beauty, because they are valuable and attractive in themselves, and do not need to be affirmed by a male admirer to become worthy.

Which is true enough, as far as it goes. But, like the author of the first quote about selfie culture, she implies that there is something inherently wrong with enjoying someone else’s beauty — specifically, men enjoying women’s beauty; and she implies and that it’s inherently healthy or empowering to independently enjoy one’s own beauty and to ignore the effect that it has on men.

(I must warn you that this post will be entirely heteronormative. I am heterosexual and so is most of the world, so that’s how I write.)

Beauty is different from the other transcendentals. At least among humans, goodness and truth are objective (they can be categorized as either good or true, or as bad or false); and they exist whether anyone perceives them or not. Not so beauty — at least among humans. Is there such a thing as objective beauty? Can a face be beautiful if everyone in the world is blind? I don’t know. Let’s ask an easier question: Is it possible to enjoy one’s own beauty without considering or being aware of how it affects other people?

I don’t think so; and I don’t think that’s only so because we’ve all internalized the male gaze and have been trained for millennia only to claim our worth when we are being appreciated by someone who is comfortable with objectifying us.

Instead, I think we are made to be in relation to each other, and physical beauty is a normal and healthy way for us to share ourselves with each other.

Like every other normal and healthy human experience, beauty and the appreciation of beauty can be exploited and perverted. But it does not follow that we can cure this perversion by “being 100% for selfie culture.” Narcissism is not the remedy for exploitation. It simply misses the mark in a different way; and it drains us just as dry.

Listen here. You can go ahead and tell me what kind of bigot I am and what kind of misogynistic diseases I’ve welcomed into my soul. I’m just telling you what I have noticed in relationships that are full of love, respect, regard, and fruitfulness of every kind:

A good many heterosexual girls pass through what they may perceive to be a lesbian phase, because they see the female form as beautiful and desirable. As they get older and their sexuality matures, they usually find themselves more attracted to male bodies and male presences; but the appeal of the female body lingers. When things go well and relationships are healthy, this appeal a woman experiences manifests itself as a desire to show herself to a man she loves, so that both can delight in a woman’s beauty.

This isn’t a problem. It doesn’t need correcting. This is just beauty at work. Beauty is one of the things that makes life worth living. It is a healthy response to love, a normal expression of love. Beauty is there to be enjoyed.

Beauty — specifically, the beauty of a woman’s body — goes wrong when it becomes a tool used to control. Women are capable of using their beauty to manipulate men, and men are capable of using women’s beauty to manipulate women. And women, as the quotes in the meme suggest, very often allow their own beauty to manipulate themselves, and eventually they don’t know how to function unless they are in the midst of some kind of struggle for power, with their faces and bodies as weapons.

That’s a sickness. But again: Narcissism is not the cure for perversion or abuse; and self-celebration very quickly becomes narcissism. Self-marriage is not yet as prevalent as breathless lifestyle magazines would have us believe, but it does exist. And it makes perfect sense if your only encounter with, well, being encountered has been exploitative. If love has always felt like exploitation, why not contain the damage, exploit oneself, and call it empowering? People might give you presents . . .

The real truth is that selfie culture isn’t as self-contained as it imagines. The folks I know who take the most selfies, and who are noisiest about how confident and powerful and fierce they are, seem to need constant affirmation from everyone that no, they don’t need anyone. Selfies feed this hunger, rather than satisfying it.

As a culture, we do need healing from the hellish habit of using and consuming each other. But selfie culture heals nothing. Selfie culture — a sense of self that is based entirely on self-regard — simply grooms us to abuse ourselves. A bad lover will grow tired of your beauty as you age and fall apart. A good lover will deepen his love even as your physical appeal lessens, and he will find beauty that you can’t see yourself. But when you are your own lover, that well is doomed to run dry. Love replenishes itself. Narcissism ravishes.

In the ancient myth from which the clinical diagnosis draws its name, the extraordinarily beautiful Narcissus falls in love with his own reflection, and refuses to respond to the infatuated nymph Echo, who then languishes until nothing remains of her but her voice. In punishment for his coldheartedness, Narcissus is driven to suicide once he realizes that his own reflection can never love him in the way he loves it.

So, pretty much everyone is miserable and dies, because that is what happens when love and desire are turned entirely inward. It simply doesn’t work. That’s not what beauty is for. We can enjoy and appreciate our own beauty and still be willing and eager to share it with a beloved. But when we attempt to make beauty serve and delight only ourselves, it’s like building a machine where all the gears engage, but there is no outlet. Left to run, it will eventually burn itself out without ever having produced any action.

I’ve seen the face of someone who is delighted entirely with her own appeal; and I’ve seen the face of someone who’s delighted with someone she loves. There is beauty, and there is beauty. If it’s wrong for a man to be attracted to a woman who delights in her beloved, then turn out the lights and lock the door, because the human race is doomed.

Beauty, at its heart, is for others. Selfie culture, as a way of life, leads to death. You can judge for yourself whether death is better than allowing yourself to ever be subject to a male gaze.

 

It was a beautiful confession

On Saturday, we went to confession. Mine was a pretty standard operation: “Bless me, father, for I have sinned. It has been two months since my last confession. I did that thing I always do, and that other thing I always do. I also did that other thing I always do, except more so than usual. And I stopped doing that thing I usually do, but then I started again.  And I was mean on the internet. For these and all my sins, I am truly sorry.”

And the priest said what this particular priest always says: “Thank you for that beautiful confession.” He says this when I have a long and sordid list, or a short and sordid list, or when he can barely understand me because my nose is running from the sordidness of it all. The point is, I am not aware of ever having made a confession that any normal human being would consider “beautiful.”

But the confessional is not a normal place. It’s the one place that no one would ever go for normal, worldly reasons. No penitent goes to confession to get ahead in life, or to make money, or to get a full belly, or to impress anyone; and no priest goes to confession to be amused or entertained. It’s where we go to unload our miseries, to show our wounds and our infections, to take off the disguises that make us appear palatable to each other.

So, not beautiful. No, not especially.

Or is it? If the ugliness, the squalor, the sordidness, and the running nose were all that happened inside a confessional, then it really would be an ugly place — just a latrine, a ditch, a sewer. But of course, the part where we lay out our sins is only the first part.

What happens afterward is more obviously beautiful. The priest reaches out and picks up the ugly little load you’ve laid in front of him. And right then and there, he pours the living water over it until the parts that are worth saving are healthy and whole again, and the parts that cannot be salvaged have been washed away entirely. What is useless is gone; what was dead is alive again.

This is beautiful!

And the beauty of absolution does one of those neat Catholic tricks where eternal things reach back in time and impart beauty wherever they want, regardless of chronology. The beauty of absolution makes the confession itself beautiful. Even though my sins are ugly, the very fact that I’m bringing them into the confessional has something beautiful in it: the beauty of trust that I will be forgiven; the beauty of believing that something real and life-changing will happen; the beauty of being willing to accept forgiveness even though I know that I don’t deserve it; and the beauty of knowing that, whoever’s turn it is to sit behind the screen, it is really Christ who is waiting to meet me.

If that isn’t beautiful, then nothing is.

***
This post originally ran in the National Catholic Register in 2014.

Naked vs. Nude: Do you have issues with ESPN’s Body Issue?

An artist once told me he was sitting there, deep in a sketch of a woman who was posing nude, when he found himself idly wondering whether she had any tattoos. Then he realized: she’s posing nude. If she had any tattoos, he would already know.

But he wasn’t thinking of her body parts. He was thinking of the lines and shadows and textures and angles of her loveliness, using the part of his brain that accepts beauty for what it is, rather than running her through the mincing machine of lust.

I thought of that artist (full interview here) when I saw Catholic social media has discovered ESPN’s annual “Body Issue,” which came out in July and which features photos and videos of nude athletes. Before you click over, I should warn you: this collection of photos of naked people is a collection of photos of naked people.

Or is it?

When I spent a college semester in Rome, one of the first things our professors asked us to ponder was the difference between “naked” and “nude.”

When we are naked, the primary thing about us is that we are lacking something; we have had something stripped away from us. When we are nude, we just . . . are what we are, and then some. We are not so much exposed as revealed. We are not isolated; we are in our element. These distinctions account for how much skin you can see if you look up at the Sistene Chapel.

Naked vs. nude. Think on this: A healthy young man at the beach sees a woman frolic through the waves in a skimpy bikini, and what does he do? He skips over her bared flesh and stares only at the very small parts of her that are covered with cloth. What a gentleman! Heh heh. But you see, that’s the point: nakedness, or near-nakedness, is intended to titillate (and can we just take a moment and praise the god of linguistics that there is such a word?) by making us focus on bits and parts. Nakedness is a gimmick, and it works very well, because we are fallen.

Nudity, on the other hand, like any good work of art, takes our eyes for a ride, and doesn’t allow us the easy comfort of landing on one thing and saying, “Oh, that’s what this is a picture of.” In the visual arts, a good composition doesn’t force the eye to zoom in on The Main Part, The End. In good composition, one part of the work does its work by leading you to another part, because of how they’re put together, how they’re balanced, how the individual parts relate to each other, how they echo and answer each other. Light, texture, the flow of the lines, the interruption of the flow of the lines — all of these things ought to be dynamic, not static, and it ought to be unimaginable that they be in any other spot than where they are. That’s what good art looks like, including good art that depicts the unclothed human form.

In a bad piece of art, as in a photograph meant to show nakedness, all that matters is that The Thing — you know, That Thing you like to look at — is somewhere you can see it.

The Body Issue achieves the goal of showing nudity, not nakedness. It is decent (albeit not high) art, and not gimmickry. When I look at the naked athletes’ bodies in the photos, I don’t have much trouble helping my childish eye get past the naughty bits, because they’re presented in such a way that they’re indisputably part of a whole — part of the whole body, which is a thing of harmony and dynamism; and they’re also part of the whole composition of the photo, including the lighting, the background, and so on.

Did ESPN have purely artistic motives in putting out The Body Issue, or was it attempting to affirm an incarnational view of the world? N-nnno. They’re not going to say, “Before you buy this magazine, please ask yourself if you might be inclined to objectify the human form. If so, we’d rather not have your money.” Nope. They called the 2016 collection “The Bodies We Want,” probably aiming for a mild pun: we want to have these bodies as our own, and maybe we also want to have these bodies for our own use. Either way: fifteen bucks, please.

Can we look at The Body Issue and lust after the unclothed people in it? Sure. People who are prone to lust and objectification shouldn’t look, because it’s not worth it. There are other forms of beauty to enjoy, thank God. (It’s also worth noting that people who are prisoners of lust will lust after anything. They’ll lust after an exposed ankle or a pair of lips, if that’s all that shows.)

Whatever ESPN’s motivations, and whatever its readers’ responses, The Body Issue is completely different in character from Sports Illustrated‘s annual “Swimsuit Issue,” which I will not link to, because it is pornography. The “Swimsuit Issue” does something terrible, to its models and to us: it tells us, “Here’s a person, sure, but she’s made out of parts. Look at those parts. Here’s one where she doesn’t even have a head, just parts!”  It takes the human person out of context of her surroundings, and takes her bits and pieces out of the context of the rest of her body.  This is what nakedness does: it narrows our vision.

Nudity, on the other hand, broadens our vision, and helps us see something we hadn’t seen before. It helps us past seeing just parts, and (whether it knows it or not) it helps restore us to something like what Adam and Eve experienced before the Fall, before they knew they were naked. When we successfully present the human form as something to be admired, and not consumed, then we have won back a little piece of Eden. It’s not simply allowable despite our fallen natures, it’s a correction to our fallenness.

Did ESPN mean to make a pun when it chose the name “The Body Issue?” I have no idea; but boy, do we have issues with the human body. But, as John Paul II pleaded with us to understand, we won’t get past those issues by fleeing from them. We’ll never repair the harm that was done through original sin if we shun, shame, fear, and loathe our bodies. That’s not chastity; that’s just another form of dysfunction.

***

Image: By Michelangelo, Public Domain,  one of twenty “ignudi” shamelessly scattered about the Sistene Chapel ceiling