Love Opens Our Eyes to Beauty

According to Jean Anouilh, “Things are beautiful if you love them.” Love opens our eyes to beauty. In our culture, consumerism, materialism, and superficiality have created an epidemic of insecurity and distorted notions of beauty and attractiveness. And racism is intertwined with these lenses that warp the perceptions of many.

I recently ran across a terrific speech by Lupita Nyong’o in which she spoke about being younger and feeling unbeautiful—being teased about the shade of her skin and praying to God to have lighter skin. Her mom provided her with the wisdom that beauty was not something that she could consume, but something she just had to be. And she came to identify beauty with compassion.

When famous black women like Lupita Nyong’o are held up as symbols of beauty, it can perhaps help to alleviate some of the insecurity that young women with dark skin might experience, but her own story points to the limits of this. And she herself recognizes this, which is why she counseled girls to “get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside.” This focus on compassion and character is an important, valuable message.

But even beyond this, there is a need to move past the artificial divide between external and internal beauty. When we love someone and recognize their beauty, we see the whole person. To divide them and focus on their internal or external nature is to depersonalize them, to strip them of their fundamental unity, their integral nature.

The reason Lupita Nyong’o’s mom could recognize her beauty was not because she looked at her internal beauty rather than her external appearance. It was because her mom had the ability to see her as she truly was, as one whole person. Love does not blind us to real beauty; it opens our eyes to it. The people who completely love the way their loved ones look are the ones who are right, not the ones with distorted vision. They become capable of seeing the beauty of this human person who has been made in the image of God—closer to seeing this person the way the God of Love sees each of us.

The way we see our loved ones should teach us about the worth and preciousness and beauty of each person. It should motivate us to dispense with notions of beauty and attractiveness that are inevitably dehumanizing, rooted in prejudice, and deeply harmful to others.

But if love cannot motivate us to do that, perhaps the desire to eradicate racism can. Even if the colorism and racism of aesthetic preferences that so many consciously and unconsciously accept feels uncontrollable or inevitable, it is not. There is a responsibility to dig deep into oneself and root out that bigotry, even if the majority of people casually accept it, and to view people as they are, as unique whole persons who are made in the image of God.

When I see little black girls express shame or disdain for their hair or the darkness of their skin, whether on the playground or in viral videos, this wounds me. I am physically sickened by the racism that generates deep insecurities and self-hatred. And my heart aches, not just because of the hurt experienced by these little girls and the pain their loved ones must experience when a precious child of God is blind to their own beauty, but also because of how casually our culture accepts this.

It’s time to start caring. It’s time to eradicate this bigotry. It is time to treat all human beings as whole persons.

One of the great champions of this type of personalism—of seeing and valuing people as they are—was Fred Rogers, the subject of the recent documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor. And in one of his most famous and beloved songs, Mr. Rogers expressed what it’s like to truly see someone and appreciate them:

It’s you I like,
It’s not the things you wear,
It’s not the way you do your hair–
But it’s you I like.
The way you are right now,
The way down deep inside you–
Not the things that hide you,
Not your toys–
They’re just beside you.

But it’s you I like–
Every part of you,
Your skin, your eyes, your feelings
Whether old or new.
I hope that you’ll remember
Even when you’re feeling blue
That it’s you I like,
It’s you yourself,
It’s you, it’s you I like.

A loving parent knows what it is like to love every part of a person, just as Mr. Rogers describes in the song.  A truly loving spouse does too. Once we see that we are perfectly capable of seeing people as whole persons, we can turn our backs on a culture of objectification. When we recognize that love opens our eyes to beauty, we can set aside those prejudices that we call preferences, and more and more people will feel comfortable recognizing their own worth and beauty.

Countering the Toxicity of Princess Culture

I used to ask my students what they wanted to be when they grew up and why. The answers were often very revelatory, illuminating what motivated them, what inspired their hopes, and not just what they wanted to be, but who they wanted to be. It often reflected their values or insecurities, sometimes both.

If you ask little girls what they want to be when they grow up, far too many would say “princess.” Peggy Orenstein, the author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, contrasts this with her childhood, when being called a princess “conjured up images of a spoiled, self-centered brat.” The defenders of “princess culture” contend that it is merely a phase that girls will outgrow, but the values this culture promotes are often enduring. And they are toxic.

As Orenstein explains, “What was the first thing that culture told her (daughter) about being a girl? Not that she was competent, strong, creative, or smart but that every girls wants—or should want—to be the Fairest of Them All.” She found this confusing, as “girl power” messages and success stories abound, but the push to make the physical appearance of girls the “epicenter of their identities” has intensified and extended to younger and younger girls. In a study of 3- to 6-year-old girls, nearly half said they worried about being fat, while a third wanted to change a physical attribute.

What are the costs of this connection between identity and physical appearance? Citing the American Psychological Association, Orenstein notes that the focus on appearance and ‘play-sexiness’ can make girls more vulnerable to depression, eating disorders, having a distorted body image, and risky sexual behavior. From a Catholic point of view, we see that these girls become detached from their authentic identity as a unique, invaluable child of God, who is made in God’s image, through a degrading process of self-objectification.

While our culture often celebrates authenticity and “being who you are,” this message is often distorted by consumerist, materialist, sexist, and individualist filters. The result is the glorification of narcissism and individual choice, rather than achieving worthy ends with that liberty. Expressing who you are then centers around the construction, maintenance, and manipulation of one’s superficial identity. Girls (and boys) become alienated from their authentic personalities and distracted from their potential as persons and how they can go about realizing that potential. They define themselves not by their character, but by their shoes, their hair, their popularity, or personal tastes that have little to do with who they are at their core.

Princess culture is the starting point in this process of self-alienation and depersonalization for millions of American girls. What traits do cartoon princesses have that contribute to this? Orenstein writes, “Princesses avoid female bonding. Their goals are to be a saved by a prince, get married, and be taken care of for the rest of their lives. Their value derives largely from their appearance. They are rabid materialists.” Are these the values that parents want to inculcate in their girls? Do they want to teach them that happiness is found in things or the way they look? Do they want them to aspire to a life of idleness? Do they want their girls to treat other girls like rivals rather than persons made in the image of God? Do they want them to believe that a handsome, charming man will suddenly appear and make everything perfect?

For those of us who care about human equality and the common good—who want to see all girls have the chance to reach their full intellectual, emotional, physical, and spiritual potential as persons—the answer to all of these questions is emphatically no. No to the materialism, no to the helpless mindset, no to the superficiality and self-objectification, and no to a life without meaning and purpose.

Now is it possible to totally inoculate your child from princess culture? No, it’s too endemic. She will be exposed to princesses at some point. But that’s not the end of the world; overzealousness might backfire anyway. The key is to minimize its influence by exposing her to different values and consistently reinforcing these alternative values in the way you treat her and how you talk her (and others). The key is to make sure princess stories remain just that—stories  (even stories that entertain her), rather than something that shapes her identity and her aspirations.

Since kids inevitably look to others for inspiration, it’s important to find better role models for girls than princesses. And it is important to find heroes that spark imaginations and fuel creativity. These role models should display the values you wish to impart.  From Doc McStuffins to Malala, there are hard-working, creative, passionate, generous, loving, thoughtful, kind, resilient, courageous, and joyful role models out there. And some are men. Girls are more than their sex or gender; they should have male role models, just as boys should admire and wish to emulate female role models.


Other steps can be taken to discourage a princess mentality. We can encourage girls to read and to read things that are worth their time. We can teach them the importance of community service. We can encourage them to play sports. Statistics show that participation in team sports is linked to lower pregnancy rates, higher self-esteem, and superior academic performance, among other benefits. Get them started early.

We can stop buying shirts that say “I’m pretty popular,” “the princess has arrived,” or “it’s all about me.” Even if they are supposed to be ironic, they undermine efforts to teach that narcissism and superficiality are unethical and lead to unhappiness. And if parents refuse to buy them for their girls, perhaps companies will make more “brave one” shirts for girls, like they do for boys.

It was great to see Mercy Academy’s anti-princess advertisements, which included the line: “Be more than just the fairest of them all.” Schools should be explicit about not only what girls can do to reach their potential and promote the common good, but also about the obstacles that stand in their way and can divert them from achieving what they hope to accomplish with their lives.


Finally, it’s critical to explain the connection between authentic beauty and genuine love and to dispel the myth of objective attractiveness. Vigilance is required to tear down the societal prejudices surrounding notions of attraction that she is likely to absorb and that are the foundation of incalculable miseries. We must teach our girls to reject these irrational prejudices and to understand the importance of character rather than fleeting standards of what is hot, sexy, cute, and trendy.

If we do things, each girl stands a better chance of recognizing her own infinite worth. She is more likely to reach her full potential as a person. And our society is more likely to move closer to real equality, greater human flourishing, and the realization of the common good. We all have a stake in overturning the poisonous effects of princess culture. Let’s make sure every girl knows she can be more than a princess.

More than a Day

This Mother’s Day, Americans will spend an estimated $21 billion to show their appreciation and love to the women who gave us the gift of life.  That breaks down to almost $170 for each consumer to say “Thank You!” in cards, flowers, brunch, and other gifts.

Moms certainly deserve the recognition, thanks, and praise.  But we should be better about doing this all year long.  And we should more consistently stand up for all the women in our lives, including others’ moms or  moms-to-be.

Robert and Sarah’s posts this past week highlight the denigrating images, messages, and pressures put on women today.  Robert cites the “real beauty” campaign by Dove.  And while Dove’s attempts to subvert dominant paradigms of unrealistic standards of beauty are laudable, Dove’s parent company, Unilever, runs ads with almost the opposite message for a different subsidiary, Axe (Axe soaps and scents seem to strip women of any brainpower or agency by depicting them as magnetically – and lustfully – drawn to any man who dons their product).  Ads like these make it hard to reverse trends that indicate women have one negative thought about their body every waking hour – and that as many as 97% of women have at least one negative body thought a day.

Maybe there’s more we can do for Mom – and other moms and moms-to-be – than send a card or some flowers once a year?

Cultural pressures and expectations are one thing.  When these degrading images start to shape us, they can lead to even worse objectification and exploitation.  Patriarchy of all kinds engenders a “rape culture” that stands idly by while pornography, domestic abuse, sexual assault, and human trafficking (including that of women and children trafficked for sex) impact an increasing number of lives.

These are not subjects that are easy to discuss.  Yet if we are going to honor Mom, we should move beyond words and gestures of gratitude.  We need to confront the realities of sin, both personal and social, that degrade moms and all other women and girls across our country and all over the globe.

This means addressing the fact that 40 million Americans watch porn regularly, including 70% of 18-24 males.  It requires that we acknowledge porn is so pervasive that it accounts for 35% of all internet downloads, is exposed to children on average by age 11, and that Sunday is the most popular day of the week for watching porn.  If ever there was a day to abstain, let’s hope it would be Mother’s Day.  Not only out of respect for Mom, or sisters and daughters who may one day become moms, but to girlfriends and spouses, since such widespread viewing is being linked to growing trends in sexual dissatisfaction, infidelity, and divorce.

It means confronting the fact that even if we vow never to raise a hand to a woman in our house, 1 in 4 women will still experience domestic abuse in their lifetime.  The same ratio of college women are sexually assaulted, and the numbers are also disturbingly high among high school girls, reaching almost one in five.  It’s not enough to refuse to be a perpetrator; we must be committed to being allies and advocates who are actively and steadfastly working to end violence against women.  One way to honor Mom is to end the culture of indifference that persists in our enlightened age that professes a commitment to liberty and equality.

It means standing with women and girls for human dignity and human rights.   It also means being more informed and responsible consumers, who refuse to buy clothing stitched by female garment workers in sweatshop factories like the one that collapsed and killed more than one thousand in Bangladesh a few weeks ago.  And boycotting produce picked by farmworker mothers that makes slavery a part of our food chain.

If we fail to acknowledge and atone for these sins, Mother’s Day risks becoming a Hallmark Holiday that ultimately rings hollow.  Moms and moms-to-be deserve better than that, especially since their love for us is anything but just-for-show.

Abercrombie’s America: White, Thin, and Wearing Overpriced Clothes

In the past, Abercrombie and Fitch has come under fire for profiting off of the sexualization of youth.  And on the issue of race, Abercrombie’s past is extraordinarily ugly.  Not only does it promote Aryan standards of beauty to sell its products, prior to facing a lawsuit, its hiring practices blatantly reflected racism as well.  Minority job candidates were not hired or forced into the back, pushed out of sight to promote the company’s ideal image of what’s cool and beautiful.

And now the company is coming under fire for not selling XL and XXL sizes of women’s clothing.  For A&F, to be cool and good looking, women need to be thin.  This is both amazingly irresponsible and idiotic, even more so because of the overt sexism of offering these sizes in men’s clothing.  So white, thin, and sexually active: this is the “All-American kid” Abercrombie holds up as an idol and wants all others to envy and emulate (if possible).  It’s an extremely un-American ideal for the 21st century, more aligned with the repugnant values of the early 20th century.

This manufacturing of beauty for profit is precisely what Robert addressed yesterday, and his solution, though quite radical,   is the only real answer.  The solution is not to encourage the objectification of more women or attack CEO Mike Jeffries as uncool or unattractive.  The only answer is to treat other people as persons, not objects.  When I first heard about this, I found this suggestion startling, as it challenged some culturally-inherited beliefs that I hadn’t seriously questioned.  But after really considering it, I couldn’t find a truly legitimate defense of objective beauty, or really any reason to hang on to my own subjective standards.  And these standards had just sort of fallen away organically by that point anyway.

It doesn’t matter whether you meet Abercrombie’s ideal or are the polar opposite, it’s time to leave this prejudice behind.  And it’s time to leave Abercrombie behind.  Neither will have a place in my life.  I encourage you to join me.

Why Notions of Attractiveness Poison Our Society

Photo by Volkan Olmez on Unsplash

Dove’s recent “Real Beauty Sketches” ad campaign has sparked strong praise from those who think it opens the eyes of women to the way their self-image regarding their physical appearance can become twisted and distorted (for a whole number of reasons).  Critics argue that the takeaway is that the women featured in the commercials really are closer to “beauty” than they realize, seemingly reinforcing an illegitimate standard of objective beauty or attractiveness.  My feelings are mixed, as it does both.

In all aspects of life we can magnify small or nonexistent shortcomings and stress over them, and this is particularly true for women and their physical appearance, as they live in a culture that glorifies the objectification of women.  At the same time, the Dove commercials do reinforce illegitimate stereotypes regarding attractiveness that negatively impact the perceptions of self-worth held by many women.

Yet the critics seem too tame when it comes to confronting the real menace.  It is not simply that common cultural standards of attractiveness at this moment in American history are wrong and harmful, but that any embrace of standards of attractiveness—the rating, sorting, and objectifying of human persons based on their physical appearance—is incompatible with respect for the dignity and worth of the human person and stands as a serious obstacle to the common good.

If we really want to cure or greatly reduce some of the most destructive ills in our society, including divorce, infidelity, suicide, bullying, sexual assault, the sexualization of children, sexual and street harassment, the pervasiveness of pornography, racism, colorism, materialism, greed, insecurity, superficiality, eating disorders, sexism, and human trafficking, our society needs to reexamine the way it views attraction and attractiveness.  Fundamentally irrational notions of attraction and attractiveness are widespread, and they lead to the dehumanization—or  the depersonalization—of others, opening the door for injustice, insecurity, hatred, and exploitation.  To be clear, these are all complex problems and they each require a myriad of responses in order to move toward the common good (far more than reducing the physical objectification of others), but what many consider frivolous and fun is actually a grave underlying problem.

Our society glorifies disconnecting people’s physical appearance from their spiritual, intellectual, and emotional natures in order to objectify them so that they can be used instrumentally as sexual objects or observed, classified, and rated like pieces of art or inanimate objects.

This fosters insecurity in millions of Americans.  Few things cause more widespread unhappiness in our society.  It can tear relationships apart with spouses looking outside of their marriage for affirmation of their worth as a person or spouses resenting the other based on whether or not each spouse is seemingly measuring up to standards of attractiveness.  The result: conflict, dysfunction, infidelity, and divorce.

It can lead to malicious bullying, which in turn can produce fear, self-hatred, eating disorders, self-harm, substance abuse, sexual promiscuity, reckless behavior, and even suicide.  And all of these can exist without bullying when people, especially young people, measure themselves against airbrushed models or even their best friend and find themselves lacking the traits that supposedly make one attractive.  They turn to these self-destructive behaviors to fill that void, to overcome insecurities, or perhaps just to escape the pain and unhappiness of the moment.

Irrational notions of attractiveness foster materialism and greed because attractiveness can be purchased if one has the financial resources for expensive cosmetics, clothes, stylists, and even surgeons.  It reinforces the individualism that permeates our society by inciting the person to treat him or herself like an object that can and must be improved, and this self-absorption—this obsession with the superficial—leads people to betray other values like authenticity, community, and justice.

On a societal level, the obsession with physical attractiveness and pressure to conform to the fleeting, capricious standards of the moment bear a heavier burden on girls and women.  Those women who refuse to conform are often faced with scorn, contempt, and mockery, particularly those in the public spotlight, those shattering glass ceilings.  And those women who do accept conformity as a necessity or by choice are nevertheless often punished, seen as less serious than their male counterparts.  This plays no small role in the inequalities that exist between men and women in the workplace.

And this obsession leads to violence against women.  Certainly the desire for power often plays a dominant role in sexual assault, but sexual desire based on physical attraction cannot be left out of the equation.  It is integral to rape culture.  It drives sex trafficking and forced prostitution.

Notions of attractiveness also reflect and fuel ugly forms of bigotry in our culture: racism and colorism.  The preference for lighter skin in American society is both pervasive and repulsive.  Unjust, indefensible prejudice is dismissed as preference and harmful effects are ignored.

All of this should lead to one conclusion: retaining superficial attraction to those toward whom we are not genuinely attracted (as persons not objects) and maintaining standards of attractiveness regarding members of the opposite sex, or even our own, are harmful practices and morally indefensible.  Human persons, equipped with reason and the capacity to recognize the dignity of others, can and should discard them.  They should stop objectifying themselves.  And they should take on social structures that reinforce and perpetuate these practices.  The result would be greater human flourishing for both those who objectify and those who are objectified.  Deconstructing these irrational prejudices would lead to a more widespread appreciation for the dignity and worth of each person and make evermore present the kingdom of God.

Legitimate Attraction

For one whose life is directed by the desire to reach their full potential as a human person, the purpose of physical and sexual attraction is to find joy through communion in a unified relationship with a spouse.  Our notions and understanding of both legitimate attraction and standards of attractiveness should flow from this reality.

For those who are married (or in relationships of that nature, as well as in relationships on the way to marriage), legitimate physical attraction is based on genuine love that manifests itself in the desire for physical unity and sexual expression with one other person. This legitimate attraction is based on love and truth, not prejudice and cultural programming.  It reflects a real desire to be with another person, to share one’s self with them in a unique and intimate way.  And it inspires sentiments and desires that correspond with this legitimate wish for unity.

It is among these couples where we are most likely to find people who have discarded the erroneous belief in the objective beauty of others and turned away from superficiality and the objectification of others.  And it is most often not the product of a conscious choice to reject these, but instead the result of experiencing unparalleled attraction to another person and intuitively comprehending the authentic nature and sources of beauty.  Past notions of what is and is not attractive then seem silly and absurd.  This type of authentic attraction to another person, the real desire to love that person and become one flesh, contrasts sharply with superficial attraction, which is in fact fleeting, arbitrary, and useless.

To try to discern the attractiveness of others for whom we lack this desire and these feelings is to irrationally cling to an artificial construct that generates destructive prejudice and helps no one.  It is fundamentally irrational and pointless, disconnected from the lived reality of genuine, authentic attraction.  There is therefore a responsibility to make one’s understanding of attractiveness align with this reality and to deprogram the prejudices we have inherited and invented regarding superficial attraction and attractiveness.

For those still seeking a spouse, it is better if physical attraction flows from a real connection that holds the possibility of future communion—grounded in some mixture of common values and personal chemistry—rather than acting as a tool to arbitrarily spark relationships with people whose physical appearance will change with time, but whose values may never allow for genuine communion. This is not to say that authentic one flesh relationships cannot be sparked by a superficial attraction shaped by one’s subjective understanding of attractiveness, merely that these relationships would be the fairly rare, exceptionally fortunate outcomes of an approach that tilts heavily toward failure.  The divorce rate may actually be surprisingly low rather than surprisingly high when we consider how many people choose to build their marriages on such a shaky foundation.  But again, real attraction can supplant arbitrary attraction so failure is not inevitable.

A better approach to finding a spouse would be to discard one’s superficial standards of attractiveness and personalize the search for one’s spouse—to base it on the future one would like to build with a spouse and that ineffable, intuitive attraction to the spirit of another person instead of on meaningless, capricious predilections.

It is not just sensible and rational to deconstruct these prejudices; it is a Christian duty.  We are called to treat each other as brothers and sisters.  Think about how ridiculous it is to try to objectively determine the attractiveness of your brother or sister, mom or dad, son or daughter.  Is your assessment distorted by your love for them?  How about the fact that you are familiar with their spiritual and emotional natures?  Are you failing to objectively see them as they are in reality?

In fact, once we realize the notion of objective beauty is a preposterous, fanciful delusion, we might come to see that we are seeing them as we should—as a unified, whole person with not just a physical, but also an emotional, intellectual, and spiritual nature—and that capricious standards of attractiveness are in fact distortions of reality.  Our vision is not distorted by the proximity of the relationship, but rather because we love the person and know the person, we see him or her as an integral whole, just as God sees persons, not as a collection of parts or features.  And the more we love someone, the more easily we can see their genuine beauty.

And it’s not a matter of seeing their so-called internal or inner beauty.  We have all heard the aphorism that “beauty is only skin deep,” but this is not true.  The internal vs. external beauty divide is fundamentally false, possible only when we fail to view the other person as they are, as an integral whole with a physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual nature.  To appreciate beauty is to see how it permeates another person’s entire being.

And if we can see that is the case with our close friends and loved ones, we should be able to see why this standard—viewing people as whole, integrated persons—aligns with Christian responsibility to treat all as brothers and sisters.

If we do this, we might be able to live up to the challenge Christ places before us—to eradicate lust in our hearts.  This is among his most radical teachings and to most contemporary Americans it must seem like an entirely unreasonable duty.  That is probably true unless effort is made to get to the very root of the problem by eliminating that prejudice that generates that lust.  A person is perfectly capable of leaving behind this prejudice.  And once they do, they will see their past celebrity crush or random object of desire as a human being, a person with dignity and emotions, someone to whom they are not actually attracted, rather than seeing them as an object.  They will then live in reality, where their perceptions match their authentic desires and values.  At this point, the everyday obsession with capricious standards of attractiveness will look just as silly as when Brent Musburger embarrassed himself on national television doing what millions of Americans do every day.

Beauty is Subjective

The science of attraction/beauty is heavily contested.  Some studies equate symmetry with attractiveness while others claim “averageness” is the key to beauty, findings that are irreconcilable.  And this is just the beginning of the contradictions.  These studies range from what we might generously call ‘inconclusive’ to those that can only be identified as outright pseudoscience.  And many of the results, which are supposed to transcend cultural prejudice, seem to resemble precisely what one would expect to see in a similar study from the 1930s by Nazi eugenicists. Can an actual scientist in this day and age actually believe in the aesthetic superiority of whites?  Sadly, yes.  From dubious variables to missing variables to the failure to isolate environmentally-constructed biases, these studies are rife with methodological errors and fail pathetically in their attempt to prove a universal standard of physical attractiveness.  Many reflect the humorous fact that people tend to rate more highly the attractiveness of others who share their own features, leading to results that are more likely to reflect simple narcissism than confirm the existence of some imagined innate ability connected to passing on genes.

Further, in seeking to find some evolutionary basis for objective standards of attractiveness, there is a tendency in these studies to ignore the impact of some of the most powerful forces shaping understandings of attractiveness—fashion, cosmetics, status, talent, fame, public personality, etc.  No person with even a modicum of common sense could deny that these heavily shape understandings of beauty.  Whole industries exist because of their success in shaping perceptions of attractiveness, fostering insecurity, and promoting their products as remedies.  The media is often complicit in this.  This is why people wear makeup, get dressed up, have their hair done a certain way, and engage in various other activities that they have learned will make them more likely to meet contemporary standards of attractiveness.

The reality is that beauty is fundamentally subjective.  Notions of attractiveness are overwhelmingly shaped by personal prejudice, whether inherited from mainstream society, formed by a subculture, influenced by personal experience, or consciously constructed.  Even those with disdain for mainstream culture’s standards of beauty often retain some level of illegitimate and irrational prejudice regarding the external appearance of others.  They might be drawn to those who dress like a hipster or attracted to those who look like their ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend.  And they may feel superior to those who accept popular notions of attractiveness because they have largely deconstructed these.  They have not, however, moved past the type of illegitimate discrimination that impedes the quest for authentic communion.

The alternatives to seeking a spouse based on how they fit momentary standards of attractiveness are often equally facile, whether one is using another’s status, wealth, innate intelligence, “winning personality”, confidence and charisma, or any other characteristic that is not intimately connected to the character of the potential romantic interest.  Certainly these could reflect character traits.  Wealth may signify wisdom or temperance, but not necessarily, making it an ineffective proxy for character (and those interested in wealth are probably more often interested in the wealth itself than in the character traits that may have helped generate it).  There is no correlation between having equally high innate intellectual abilities and achieving marital bliss.  The link is not there between sharing a socioeconomic status and having an increased capacity for communion.   The construction of “types” can only inhibit the quest to find a spouse with whom one can achieve real, enduring emotional, physical, intellectual, and spiritual unity.

The foolishness of those who claim to identify objective standards of beauty can be exposed by anyone familiar with history, art history, popular culture, anthropology, cross-cultural studies, or a variety of other fields.  The knowledge of other cultures and eras make it clear that notions of attraction are fleeting and capricious.  They change radically with time and across cultures, even in the era of globalization.  The idea that “beauty is in the eye of beholder” is a bit of ancient wisdom that remains just as true today.  This becomes clear when one reflects on the radically different notions, for instance, of what constituted an attractive woman in the Renaissance, Victorian England, the 1980s, and today.  Contrast the past appeal of bound feet in China with how repulsive someone in the United States would find them today.  The differences are so obvious that explaining them would simply belabor the point.

Preferences for certain body types would seem to be the most likely biases to reflect a survival of the fittest instinct, yet these four eras alone show that there is no objective standard wired into the human brain.  Even today, when we look across the globe we can find cultures that obsess over thinness combined with voluptuous breasts (like ours), but we can also find others where the mark of an attractive woman is large physical size (which can be seen as a reflection of health, wealth, fertility, or simply what a woman is supposed to look like).  The dominant traits of attractiveness in one place can be seen as thoroughly unattractive—repulsive even—in another.

One needs no special knowledge of science, history, or culture to see how subjective notions of beauty can be.  Personal experience can show us how notions of attractiveness can (and do) come and go, rather than merely reflect animalistic programing.  A sour experience with someone can make one less physically attracted to them.  Many have developed a strong physical attraction toward someone who they did not find physically attractive initially. As one ages, it is common to shift one’s perceptions of the attractiveness of people at various ages.  For instance, 14-year old girls and 40-year old women are likely to rate the attractiveness of various boys and men in radically different ways.  Dating someone new can dramatically change one’s type.  A change in mainstream culture can alter how one views past attractions, as those with an embarrassing celebrity teen crush can confirm.  Nearly everyone has experiences that confirm just how fleeting and superficial these are.

Reason over Instinct

Let us imagine that there is some inherited instinct to use the appearance of heath and youth and (if we are really willing to stretch it) body type and facial bone structure to find fertile mates to pass on our genes.  It would nevertheless be preposterous for a civilized human with free will and the capacity to use reason to instead rely on irrational prehistoric prejudice to find a suitable spouse.  Animal instincts that reflect a primitive mind are no excuse to fail to develop one’s intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and even physical capabilities.  Reason allows us to connect notions of attractiveness to actual attraction.  The idea that we should evaluate spouses by their external appearance because cavemen did it and we must be controlled by the same impulses is more than mildly absurd.  Perhaps instead we should select our spouses based on their ability to kill a wooly mammoth.

Others should not be treated based on the supposed natural instincts of the homo sapien.  If an unfaithful man tries to hide behind his natural instinct to spread his seed, this defense rightfully is typically seen as ridiculous and indefensible.  If a man gets into a dispute and turns immediately to violence and kills another man, does he get a free pass?  Not in any civilized society that values human reason, free will, morality, and justice.

We are free to pick a spouse based on our desire to be with someone who will be a good partner and parent, someone with whom we would enjoy building a life together, someone with whom we have a desire to become one flesh.  To do otherwise is to turn away from our highest capacities and embrace irrationality.  Human persons are not ethically permitted to act like irrational animals driven by extinct.  There is a moral duty to eliminate immoral prejudice.

And ultimately if one wants to pick a spouse based on his or her fertility, perhaps relying on their skin tone or the size of the bridge of their nose is not the most reasonable, reliable method.

Race and Attraction

This all ties in to a reality that receives far too little attention: racism has an intimate relationship with popular notions of attractiveness in the United States.  In numerous studies, ideal features eerily resemble Aryan standards of beauty based on notions of racial superiority.  The argument that people are genetically more attracted to others because of their facial bone structure, hair type, or skin color is simply a contemporary manifestation of eugenics.  The premise that attraction based on race, which is itself a social construct, could be driven by natural rather than environmental factors is patently ridiculous.

Yet such prejudice is pervasive.  Data culled from dating websites show an astonishing amount of racial discrimination by those seeking a romantic partner, even among those who claim to not care.  Look at Maxim’s Hot 100 List which is full of blonde white women, yet has only a handful of black women. Consider the fact that fewer than 4% of runway models are non-white.  And where black women are included in a catalogue of objects we are to admire, there is a strong tendency to include only or predominantly light-skinned black women, reflecting and reinforcing colorism.

In 1970, Toni Morrison wrote The Bluest Eye, which is about a young black girl, Pecola, who has internalized standards of beauty that reflect racial bigotry and longs to have blue eyes.  This poison persists in our culture.  On Race in America on CNN, they showed a little girl who was ashamed of her “ugly” black skin.  The real ugliness is the racism connected to the way our society commonly defines beauty.

There simply is no rational purpose for maintaining prejudice regarding facial features, skin color or tone, or other features of this nature.  One can try to hide the ugliness of prejudice behind the word preference but it does not change the basic reality of the situation.  Is it acceptable to refuse to be friends with someone because of the color of their skin?  Is that mere preference?  Then why do so many feel like it is acceptable to exclude those of a certain race from an even more important, more intimate, more potentially joy-inspiring relationship?  Why are we not indignant when we see SWM seeks SWF in a personal ad?  Why is this one area where racial prejudice largely gets a free pass?  There is no good excuse for this.

What the Church Should Teach

The Church should teach a personalist understanding of attraction and attractiveness.  This starts with the recognition that all people have dignity and worth as children of God and that each has an emotional, physical, intellectual, and spiritual nature.  The responsibility to love others as brothers and sisters demands treating them as integral wholes.  To isolate their physical nature and judge them based on this is to objectify them, to depersonalize them.  To truly appreciate the beauty of another person requires seeing their beauty as a person—undivided—and being animated by love for that person.  Appreciation for the beauty of another can become authentic attraction when it reflects a real desire to pursue the unique, intimate relationship shared by loving spouses.  Romantic, physical, and sexual attraction to others is fundamentally irrational and worthless, and looms as an obstacle to the full communion of spouses, their ability to become one flesh, which all married couples are called to become.  Persons can and should discard irrational notions of attractiveness and illegitimate attraction by deconstructing the prejudices that foster them.

It is not enough to work for individual conversion, it also essential to work for the breakdown of social sin embedded in social norms and structures that punish authenticity and promote the objectification of others.

The Church should work for a society that allows authentic spousal love to flourish.  It should stand against materialism, consumerism, and superficiality.  The idea that we can manipulate our physical appearance through conformity to fashion and cosmetic trends in order to find authentic, enduring love is absolutely senseless, and the Church should make that clear.  The responsibility is to be countercultural—to unapologetically promote a radical understanding of human dignity and love.

I once read a conservative Catholic periodical discuss how you can notice the cute waiter or waitress, but don’t flirt with him or her and embarrass your spouse and kids.  Others subscribe to the “you can look, but not touch” philosophy.  These are pathetic guidelines that reflect a weak, milquetoast faith that is infected by bourgeois values, particularly the supreme bourgeois value, individualism.  We live in a culture where relationships are often two people pursuing their own individual interests and desires, joined together by collective behavior designed to achieve these individual ends through enlightened self-interest.  Catholic marriage instead finds inspiration in the Trinity, seeking genuine communion based on selfless love.  This reality should permeate everything the Church teaches about human sexuality, including attraction and the recognition of beauty.  Sexuality without intimacy and exclusivity is beneath the dignity of the human person.

By opposing the objectification of others, the Church can provide a solid foundation for an assault on numerous forms of injustice and make a major contribution to the common good and human flourishing.  Only when we reject the legitimacy of capricious, fleeting standards of attractiveness can we really take on the insecurity epidemic present in our society and the evil that objectifying others can foster.

Otherwise, how can we tell teenage girls to focus on their character, academic performance, and the other things we value rather than their physical appearance when we fail to reject the legitimacy of their objectification and it has such a concrete impact on their everyday lives?  How can we convince spouses to feel secure and relish the joy of marriage when their spouse is attracted to others and disconnects the attractiveness of others from his or her actual feelings toward the person?  How can we fully utilize the gifts and talents of the female population when social norms often suppress their potential to serve the common good and create rivalry with other women?  How we can destroy rape culture without destroying the legitimacy of viewing other persons as objects to be consumed?   How can we eradicate racism when it is so deeply connected to the most important, intimate aspect of people’s lives?

We cannot get to the heart of any of these social ills unless this type of objectification is wholly and unambiguously rejected as illegitimate.  Given how pervasive notions of attraction and attractiveness are in our society, the promotion of these ideals represents a monumental challenge, but there is no alternative.  Truth, love, and justice demand it.

Keep It Real Revolution: Catholic Schools and Authentic, Secure Girls

There is an insecurity epidemic that is raging among teenage and preteen girls in our society.  Last year we saw it most vividly in the spread of “Am I hot or not?” and “Am I ugly?” videos on YouTube, which not surprisingly led to vicious, hateful comments by anonymous commenters.  This year, there will inevitably be a new trend that highlights the ubiquity of this societal problem.

For educators, parents, and other observers, these trends are unfortunately not surprising. Far too many girls are being stripped of their childhood and subjected to pressures and events that destroy their authenticity, sense of worth, and trust in others.  They are transformed from little girls who will speak their minds, dance and sing in public, act silly as they play blissfully, and eat whatever they feel like without hesitation to sullen, insecure adolescents, obsessed with their image, popularity, conformity, and physical appearance.

The most serious repercussions of this transformation are truly pernicious, including self-harm (cutting), eating disorders, depression, substance abuse, sexual promiscuity, and suicide.  In addition, academic performance often suffers.  The reality is that too many girls face a joyless childhood filled with anxiety, which tears at their souls and hinders their spiritual development.    The impact of these repercussions of unhappiness and insecurity do not stop with the end of adolescence, but unfortunately often have an enduring impact on the well-being of countless women.

A cultural revolution is needed to reverse these pernicious conditions.  Catholic schools should be the vanguard of this revolution.  And this week, Catholic Schools Week, is the perfect time to think about what steps we might take to achieve this goal.

Catholic schools are charged with creating conditions and fostering values that lead to the full intellectual, emotional, physical, and spiritual development of every child.  This demands creating safe communities that protect girls from indirect, covert forms of aggression that prey on their insecurities (and make them more insecure) and teaching values that are currently countercultural, particularly among teenage girls.

In Odd Girl Out, Rachel Simmons describes ‘girl bullying’, the use of “backbiting, exclusion, rumors, name-calling, and manipulation to inflict psychological pain on targeted victims.”  It involves relational aggression, using the closeness of one’s relationship to others as a weapon to inflict emotional pain.  It leaves many girls mired in uncertainty, anxiety, and insecurity.  This breakdown in trust can result in victims later becoming bullies themselves.

Schools often downplay girl bullying, treating it as a minor matter compared to physical violence.  Often it is seen as a natural part of girls’ development.  It is not, and its prevalence in no way indicates its acceptability.  Another unfortunate tendency is blaming the victim, something I witnessed as a teacher working for an incompetent principal.  It is already difficult for many girls to come forward and alert school authorities when they have been subjected to this type of aggression.  They are thinking: Did I bring this upon myself?  Did I do something wrong?  When the student actually does work up the courage to ask for help and it turns into an interrogation instead, she will likely be reluctant to speak up again and other students will likely be similarly deterred.

Because this problem is so pervasive, finding a solution requires a multidimensional approach.  Simmons offers some solutions that should be incorporated into Catholic schools.  Catholic schools should have policies that make it crystal clear that this behavior is unacceptable, and they must enforce these policies consistently.  Not only that, it is essential for schools to explain why this behavior is intolerable.  And students should play an active role in addressing non-physical aggression, for instance by helping to create class contracts that set community parameters on what behavior should not be tolerated.  In addition, in the 21st century, no approach can be complete without addressing cyberbullying, particularly bullying via social media.

The first step is to bring this issue into the light of day.  Students need to hear about the impact of this form of aggression from administrators, teachers, and other students.  There need to be safe forums where they feel comfortable expressing their experiences with insecurity and conflict.  This might be through journaling, counseling, class discussion, or simply by having a teacher act as a sounding board.  This can only happen if cultures of trust are developed, where teachers and administrators authentically love their students and students sense this commitment and love.

Second, teachers must model the behavior they wish to see.  It is essential to be positive, honest, and clear in communication.  School can be a grind, teachers are not immune from becoming frustrated and annoyed, many have their own insecurities, and sometimes psychological ploys can offer an easy shortcut, but teachers must avoid aggression, pettiness, bitterness, and manifestations of their own insecurities.  There is a responsibility to be kind, forgiving, and affirming, to recognize the value and uniqueness of others, and to show that life and the faith can be lived joyfully.  And this cannot just be an act, because students will sense the inauthenticity and grow cynical in reaction to the hypocrisy.  It has to be rooted in virtue, particularly love, or else it is bound to fail.  This is no small task.

Third, Catholic schools have the unique opportunity and responsibility to engage in religious instruction.  For Catholic schools to fulfill their responsibilities, they must offer students a different worldview than the one presented by the media, popular culture, advertisers who profit off of insecurity and superficiality, and insecure parents who attempt to live vicariously through their children.  This requires directly confronting the underlying causes of insecurity, indirect aggression, and inauthenticity.

One thing that can be done is to draw a sharp distinction between acting nice and being kind.  While being kind is an obligation rooted in love, acting nice may be right or wrong depending on the context.  “Acting nice” means abjuring from aggression, anger, and conflict, regardless of the context.  But conflict is sometimes necessary for ensuring justice and human flourishing, in addition to maintaining one’s integrity.  Even Jesus was known to flip a table or two.  Openness and honesty should not be discarded to preserve one’s image as a “nice girl” or “good girl.”  There are times when acting nice is perfectly ethical and suitable for a particular situation, but one’s authenticity should not be surrendered in order to put on a perpetual show.  To be kind, since it is a manifestation of love and directed by wisdom, one must be concerned with what is right and just rather than simply acquiescing to the desires of others simply to preserve one’s image of niceness and to avoid disagreement and conflict.

If girls avoid these to preserve a “good girl” image, as many do, it can hinder their emotional development by disconnecting their emotions and reasoning, which might very well reflect the reality of the situation, from their actions. They will not be able to trust how they feel.  They will feel compelled to hide their authentic views, beliefs, needs, and desires.  And they will be unable achieve unity in mind, heart, body, and soul.  Further, the aggression that they so desperately want to avoid will often occur anyway, but in covert forms, hidden behind the facade of niceness.

A second step might be confronting the adolescent obsession with popularity.  Simmons notes that “popularity changes girls, causes a great many of them to lie and cheat and steal.  They lie to be accepted, cheat their friends by using them, steal people’s secrets to resell at a higher social price.”  This race for popularity is “as dangerous an issue for girls as weight, appearance, or sexuality.”  A key step is to build authentic community in the classroom, something for which Catholic schools should be particularly well-suited.  Catholic classrooms should seek to build a family-like environment where caring about others is a shared norm, even if students will not always be able to live up to that standard.  Not everyone will be best friends with everyone else, but in this type of environment, friendships will be more likely to have a foundation in compatibility rather than being the product of social ambitions.

There needs to be a constant emphasis that the only close friends worth having are ones around whom each girl can be herself and who share her inclination to keep it real.  By developing real relationships, instead of ones where they use others or are used instrumentally, girls can see the benefits of friendship and trust, instead of losing their ability to trust those close them.

It should be stressed that Catholicism contains the important message that each person’s worth is innate, rooted in the fact that each person is made in the image of God, entirely unique and infinitely valuable.  This is a hard concept to grasp, but if this message is taught, constantly reinforced, and seen to shape the behavior of teachers, administrators, and others, girls will be able to increasingly disconnect their sense of self-worth from their popularity or coolness.  Given the type of behavior that is inspired by the quest to be cool or popular, this is a very worthy goal.

Another valuable message is to teach girls to be women for others, to seek excellence in pursuit of the common good.  Turning away from superficiality and the chase for popularity is much easier when girls have a strong sense of purpose, when they are determined to utilize the gifts they have been given.  Despite the shattering of numerous glass ceilings, women who are strong, confident, and driven are often viewed more warily than men in similar positions who have the same attributes.  Witness the recent, rather pathetic slandering of Susan Rice’s character.

This is not to say that Catholic schools should be teaching girls to be prideful about their innate abilities and developed talents or obsessed with achieving success in the workplace at the cost of everything else in life.  It means Catholic schools should be trying to remove the social barriers that deter girls from pursuing excellence by linking it to a transcendent cause, so that their ambition is rooted in a desire to do God’s will and advance the common good, regardless of the obstacles they face.  It means teaching girls to be comfortable with their gifts and successes, so that girls can focus more on how they will use these in a worthwhile way than on how these impact their image or popularity.  This will reduce the likelihood of girls developing self-defeating behavior, such as feigning humility, that inhibits their ability to reach their full potential as persons.

Finally, Catholic schools need to directly address insecurity by teaching their students that their joy, sense of security, and the way they feel about themselves should not be based on their natural intelligence, social status, wealth, or physical appearance, but on their character, their most authentic selves.  Each girl’s sense of self-worth should not be rooted in pride, which offers neither fulfillment nor joy and inevitably crumbles into insecurity, but recognition of the worth and dignity they have as children of God, made in God’s image.

The first step in eradicating insecurities is to expose them, to release them from the inner recesses of their hearts where they wreak havoc.  Exposing them is not enough, however.  Teachers must show students an authentic path to conquering these insecurities.

Perhaps no pervasive form of cultural prejudice merits a more forceful response than notions of superficial attraction and beauty.  Girls are bombarded by the message that they need to be pretty, beautiful, cute, hot, and sexy.  They are pressured to embrace superficiality and consumerism or risk alienation from those who conform to capricious societal standards.

The very act of judging someone’s external appearance against momentary standards of cultural or personal prejudice is itself a fundamentally dehumanizing act, one wholly incompatible with the Christian commitment to human dignity and love for others.  It is an attack on the unity of the human person, as the person is treated like an inanimate object, devoid of an emotional, spiritual, and intellectual nature.  Teachers must spell out that treating others in this way is unethical, irrational, and harmful.  Teachers must help students to internalize this message so that they will reject not only the objectification of others, but also judging themselves based on illegitimate, irrational notions of attractiveness.

In the end, Catholic schools have the unique opportunity to teach values that will make it easier for girls to be authentic, secure, and more likely to reach their full potentials as persons.  It is an opportunity that should not be wasted.

The Keep it Real Revolution: No Makeup

One of the things I like least about the beginning of the volleyball season, which coincides with the beginning of the school year, is seeing fresh-faced 7th grade girls come back to school as 8th graders caked in garish makeup.  What is disheartening is not the makeup per se, as much as I dislike it in and of itself, but the insecurity that the makeup is trying to cover.

Perhaps it is inevitable that many junior high and high school kids will struggle with insecurities.  This is a period of social development when adolescents are focused on their personal identity.  They are highly vulnerable to social pressures that can foster insecurity.  Parents and schools, however, should take steps to mitigate these insecurities rather than remaining indifferent and allowing them to become entrenched for life.

A few months ago, I saw a company in the mall giving free makeovers to girls.  One mother told her 9-year old that she was taking her to get a makeover so she could “look beautiful.”  The little girl looked delighted.  My indignation at that point could only have been greater if the mother had been taking her daughter to get free cigarettes so that she could look cool.

Having coached and taught teens and preteens, I have witnessed firsthand how a fixation on meeting transient, senseless standards of attractiveness can shatter the emotional and physical health of young people, especially girls, and the negative impact it often has on academic performance and spiritual well-being.

Part of this phenomenon is driven by corporations who are hoping to generate insecurity in order to maximize their profits from selling clothes, perfume, hair product, makeup, and other goods.  They can’t sell “I’m too pretty to do math” t-shirts without convincing girls that being cute or hot is more important than academic success.

The pressure to conform is intense.  Girls, including those who ideally would prefer to wear no makeup, have told me that they do not have a choice. They feel they must wear at least some makeup or risk committing social suicide.  The pressure to self-objectify comes from marketers, the media, peers, and frequently even parents.  Other girls act as mindguards who try to eradicate dissent.  They parrot and spread defenses like “I wear it for myself, not anyone else” or “it brings out my real face” along with other arguments that make little sense to the non-indoctrinated.  Those that break from the norm can be labeled weird, ugly, or moralistic by the defenders of the artificial.

We might recognize this problematic pressure to conform, but still ask, “So what?”  For both girls and women, however, the costs of conformity are high. Social norms regarding makeup are fundamentally unjust and stand as an obstacle to the achievement of real gender equality on a societal level.

Any time there are social pressures on women to adhere to certain norms that men do not face, it is essential to assess whether or not these norms and pressures are compatible with the fundamental equality of men and women and result in increased human flourishing.

Needless to say, there is no social pressure for men to wear makeup.  Men do not believe their professional success is bound to their use of cosmetics.  They do not believe it is essential to wear makeup to meet and retain a spouse.  Their sense of worth is not connected to putting paint on their face.

In addition, buying, applying, and removing makeup also takes valuable time and money away from girls and women.  They might forgo fun activities to maintain their look, or they might lose essential sleep in order to have extra time to get ready each morning.  Meanwhile, makeup does not even bring minor benefits like making skin smoother to the touch or more comfortable (or more hygienic), like shaving can.  This leaves aside arguments surrounding the necessity of selective consumerism—the ethical purchasing of products—and the unethical treatment of animals committed by some cosmetic companies.

In terms of achieving equality on a societal level, makeup certainly helps to generate or perpetuate the prejudice that women are more likely to be frivolous and superficial than men.  Implicit in this is that women should not be trusted with the most serious of professional tasks, creating another pane of glass in the ceiling for women to shatter.  Of course, many women who break from these social norms by rejecting makeup and superficiality are criticized and even punished for doing so.  This creates real obstacles for many women who are determined to pursue professional success, yet value their authenticity.  It should be noted of course that many women successfully maneuver around these obstacles and accomplish both.

Makeup is only one part of our cultural obsession with the appearance of women.  Some women are sexually objectified, while others are scrutinized like a painting or some other inanimate object.   When a phenomenal athlete like Gabby Douglas is on the brink of winning a gold medal, we have to read about her hair.  When Hillary Clinton gives a speech talking about protecting the basic rights of vulnerable human beings, my twitter feed is often full of references to her hair, makeup, or outfit.  Her decision to wear minimal makeup at an event in Bangladesh became a headline story.  Male politicians only seem to get this treatment when they wear suits designed for men 6 inches taller or 50 pounds heavier and, truthfully, not even then.  It is naïve to think that this focus on the external appearance of women does not lead many people to underestimate and underappreciate the seriousness, intelligence, knowledge, integrity, skills, and accomplishments of numerous women.  And it is foolish to think that this inevitable.

The sexualization of girls is another phenomenon connected to makeup.  Companies create thongs with provocative sayings for girls as young as seven.  They market dolls dressed in sexualized clothing to even younger girls.  And they push young girls to emulate older teens and adults in their use of makeup.  They teach girls to self-objectify so that girls will “internalize an observer’s perspective on their physical selves and learn to treat themselves as objects to be looked at and evaluated for their appearance.”  The objectification of girls undoubtedly leads to higher rates of insecurity, depression, self-harm, eating disorders, bullying, and even suicide.  Without any exaggeration, it can be said that this is one of the gravest threats that our society faces.

As mentioned, behind all of this is the manipulation of adolescent insecurity.  Girls need help in spending their time on actions that are worthwhile— that foster their development and result in happiness, satisfaction, and a secure sense of self.  They need authority figures who don’t tell them to wait a few years before objectifying themselves, but tell them to keep it real and help them to recognize their immeasurable worth and the infinite value of their unique personality.  They need people around them to point out the toxicity present in the culture and encourage them to reject it in favor of authenticity and virtue, especially courage.

Yet social norms surrounding the use of makeup and the quest for beauty are so widespread and insecurity runs rampant.  Is there any hope for Millennial girls?  Of course parents and educators play an important role, but larger cultural changes are also necessary.  Some small ripples in popular culture provide some grounds for optimism.

First, there is the rise of no makeup campaigns.  These campaigns invite women to give up makeup for a day or longer.  Celebrities have joined in, from Kim Kardashian to Lady Gaga, by doing photo shoots sans makeup.  The premise is to show that they are comfortable with their natural appearance and that their appearance does not define who they are “inside”.  These celebrity photos are great, but their impact is diminished by the celebrities’ more frequent embrace of superficiality.  Further, giving up makeup should not be about emphasizing the internal over the external, but refusing to divide oneself in that way.

Second, anti-bullying campaigns have grown in recent years, from Lady Gaga’s efforts to those of the WWE.  These can help to create a safer environment where the costs of being one’s self are diminished.  Many Catholic schools have done an excellent job of providing strong discipline to prevent bullying.  These efforts are commendable and it is essential that they continue, but greater efforts need to be taken to reduce more subtle forms of bullying that do not rely on physical violence.  Treating cruelty like it is inevitable is despicable and all schools have the responsibility to put proper mechanisms in place to minimize it, so that kids can grow up in safe environments where they can be authentic without being afraid.  The rest of us have a responsibility to make sure schools fulfill this responsibility and to stand up for those being bullied in any environment where bullying is witnessed.

Third, there is the recent viral video in which Jennifer Livingston, a news anchor, takes a stand against bullying.  She encourages us to spend a little more time being kind than critical and makes it clear that her weight and appearance do not define who she is as a person.  Reflecting on this, Rosemarie Coppola-Baldwin said, “It made me wonder for the umpteenth time, why do we as a community think it’s acceptable to judge females by their appearance?  Why don’t we judge men that way? And most importantly, what are we teaching our daughters (and sons) about their self-worth when we perpetuate and allow this unnecessary discourse to continue?”  These are good questions.  The answer is not to strip men of their dignity by objectifying them, creating an equality of insecurity and worthlessness, nor is to embrace being an object like some delusional lipstick feminist.  The answer is to leave superficiality behind, eliminate unjust, sexist expectations of women at the workplace, and when it comes to analyzing women professionally, to focus on actual job performance rather than external appearances.

Finally, some lyrics from popular songs directly target the use of makeup.  One Direction’s song What Makes You Beautiful includes the lyrics: “Don’t need makeup to cover up/Being the way that you are is enough.”  This is a great message that discourages the use of makeup to cover up one’s authentic self.  It encourages authenticity and having a sense of one’s true worth. Of course, within the context of the rest of the song, this message is perhaps a bit undercut.   It seems to imply that the girl is so hot or pretty (“You’re turning heads when you walk through the door”) that she does not need makeup.  This may limit how far that message resonates, as many girls that are struggling with insecurities about the way they look may think this message only applies to others (the same issue applies to the aforementioned makeup-free campaigns among celebrities).

In his song Best I Ever Had, Drake challenges the need for makeup with the lines: “Sweat pants, hair tied, chillin’ with no makeup on/That’s when you’re the prettiest, I hope that you don’t take it wrong.”  Drizzy is worried that she’ll take it the wrong way, because few women seem to realize that many men prefer women without makeup, even when this preference is directly expressed.  Of course for many other men, the opposite is true.  There is no shortage of superficial men who are seemingly lemming-Neanderthal hybrids.  Yet Drake is expressing a preference shared by many men, especially those familiar with authentic attraction, which is not based on the objectification of others, but on the actual desire to have a real, genuine relationship with that person.  The attraction is to other person in their entirety, a united and integrated whole.  In this scenario, makeup is superfluous at best, unnecessary and undesired.

A third example is Kendrick Lamar’s song No Makeup. He cautions that “when the makeup occur/I don’t see it [the beauty in her], all I see is a blur.”  He is describing how makeup covers up true beauty, and he is not talking about internal beauty, but her face, imperfections and all, which he describes as “from heaven.”  Covering up one’s face, given to us by God, becomes almost sacrilegious.  The most interesting part may be the line, which he repeats, “You ain’t gotta get drunk to have fun.”  The connection seems to be that this is simply another way to shed one’s authentic identity, an alternative means of covering one’s insecurities instead of addressing and eradicating them.  Overall, the song is a strong statement in favor of authenticity and recognizing one’s self worth.

Of course, we still need many more movies, TV shows, viral videos, and songs that praise authenticity and having a sense of self-worth.  Right now messages that promote the objectification of women and praise materialism and superficiality are far more common.  We need cultural changes that make it easier for girls and women who prefer their own face to one covered in makeup to live as they would like, so they are not subjected to unfair discrimination and pressure to conform.  What is needed is nothing less than a social revolution.  These recent developments in popular cultural may be few in number, but they do provide some hope that (to quote another Drake song) the real is on the rise.