Monday, September 18, 2006

The Era of Our Discontent, Part II: When Knowledge is a Double-Edged Sword

“…For I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need." – The Apostle Paul, Philippians 4:11-12.

I have to admit that every time I heard or read the above verse, I secretly thought – even if I never would have dared to admit it out loud – that Paul was, in essence, wimping out. After all, if you’re content in any situation, why would you ever reach for something more? It seemed a stagnant way of living.

Last week, however, when I was thinking about contentment and the seeming lack of it in our society, it finally dawned on me that not only was such a thought disrespectful to a great man, but I was most likely misunderstanding what he’d written all those centuries ago. I believe now that what Paul meant by contentment was not satisfaction, as I’d always interpreted the word, but peace of mind.

And what circumstances did he have to challenge his peace of mind! The above verse, after all, was written while he was jailed under appalling conditions. Just thinking about it makes me feel a bit guilty about that box of tooth-whitening strips in my bureau drawer – which box was purchased, of course, in a moment marked by lack of contentment.

Thinking about Paul brought to mind yet another of his sayings that always gave me a twinge:

“In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with braided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array; But (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works.”

Well! I used to say to myself. Paul was a man, and a single one, at that. He didn’t know how women think, or how most of them instinctively long to be found attractive by the opposite sex.

Yet light seemed to dawn again as this verse came back to me. What I had once simplistically viewed as a condemnation of female adornment now sounded more like an instruction to put our priorities in order…that beauty of character should be our primary concern.

I don’t know if my interpretation is correct, and this is not a religious blog. But for a moment it intrigued me to think of what the apostle might say if confronted with today’s mania for plastic surgery, natural “enhancement” products, and the like. And amusingly, what set off my remembering the verse that has probably caused countless women to secretly cringe was reading about hair: specifically, that of singer Beyoncé Knowles.

What does Beyoncé have to do with St. Paul? Not a thing, really. But there I was, fresh off TV programs about plastic surgery and male enhancement products the night before, just powered on to my PC and connected to the Internet, when I was confronted with the following advisories from AOL:

“Copy Kate Hudson’s Look for Less!” “Get Beyoncé’s Skin and Hair Secrets!”

Since I probably weigh about 100 pounds more than Kate Hudson, I didn’t think there was any hope of my looking like her no matter what I wore. As for Ms. Knowles, we are of different races and she is 21 years my junior. Nevertheless, I couldn’t resist a peek at her “secrets.” I suppose I was inwardly hoping that she might have some previously unheard of weapon that would aid my own occasionally troublesome complexion.

The “secrets” turned out to be a slideshow of different hairstyles the singer has worn during the past eight years. I had expected some advice on how she kept her locks healthy and shining. Instead, I learned from her hairstylist that she “likes the feeling of it being big, long and free-flowing,” while her makeup artist informed the reader that the singer has two sides, one of which is “the natural side, which is about her being real and not wearing much makeup. Then there’s her adventurous side, where I can put strong green shadows on her eyes and fuchsia or orange on her lips.”

Honey, I thought, if you put those colors on me, I’d look like a clown, not Beyoncé! And I suspect the same would be true of many a gal.

But after I had a bit of a laugh at myself, I couldn’t help wondering if a number of young black women were viewing the same slideshow and trying to copy the singer’s look – only to discover that what worked on her didn’t necessarily work on them? That they were still themselves?

By an interesting coincidence, this same week I had been reading a book set in Pennsylvania’s Amish country. At one point, after pondering the seemingly endless choices for lightening my teeth, reducing my weight, vanishing my cellulite, fading my age spots, and so on, I found myself momentarily wishing that I had been raised Amish, where everyone dressed alike and wore their hair alike and didn’t diet or wear makeup or contact lenses or pluck their gray hairs or get braces…but still managed to date and get married.

Hold on. I might be more content, but I would look awful.

And speaking of the Plain folk…

Channel-flipping once more, I came across an interesting story about a Mennonite man who had raised some eyebrows in his community when he opted to have a “body lift.” In my view, he had a valid reason: he had lost about 100 pounds or so and been left with a good deal of sagging skin. Yet this was not his only plastic surgery procedure, and apparently some of his fellow Mennonites viewed his decisions as evidence of vanity.

That got me thinking about knowledge, and when “a little” becomes “dangerous.” It was good for this Mennonite man’s self-esteem to know that such a procedure as a body lift is available. But was it good for his relationship with a community that puts such emphasis on conformity and self-denial? And at an average cost of $13,000, was it good for his finances – especially when it was not his only cosmetic procedure?

The woman I talked about last week, who elected for cosmetic surgery of a sexual nature, agreed with her husband that it had improved their romantic life as well as her self-esteem. In her case a little prior knowledge was evidently a good thing. But what about the woman who cannot afford to have such a procedure done, or the man who buys a “male enhancement” product to find that it doesn’t deliver the desired results? What about the person who buys a tooth whitener that says it will lighten teeth “up to six shades” but feels they’ve only gone up four shades? I found myself wondering if we were heading slowly but steadily into an era of “sexual eugenics,” in which only the most taut/pearly-white/cellulite-free/surgically enhanced would be considered contestants in the romance race.

Perhaps you think I’m being overly dramatic. Frankly, I would not be sorry if that was the case. After all, whenever I look at the people around me, whether in my own family, among my friends, or at the local shopping mall, I see bodies ranging the gamut from obese to Paris Hilton-thin. I see crooked teeth and bald spots and age spots. And I’m encouraged to see how many of these average-looking folks are accompanied by a significant other, although they would seem to be the dream target of many marketers. But then I recall the article describing how some men find themselves concerned about their growing inability to relate to “real” women after a surfeit of airbrushed images, or the statistics about the rapid increase in cosmetic procedures among teenage girls. I remember a former coworker who, when describing a potential date, said nothing of his character but noted that his teeth were straight and white, and another coworker who could not have been more than a size six yet habitually wore a blue denim Oxford shirt over her clothing at work, because she felt she had “a multitude of sins to cover.” And I’m left with more questions than answers.

One possible answer came to me, however, in the form of a fantasy…a dream of a world free of advertising. Would we find our ideas of beauty, our desires and “needs,” changing if we were not surrounded by diets and creams and pills and strips? Of cars and houses with more gadgets? Unless we all join the Amish, I doubt we’ll ever know. But for a moment, folks, it was fun to picture.

In these last two entries I’ve focused on contentment based on physical appearance. Obviously there are other aspects to this issue, but the subject could fill a book. How about you? How does contentment play a role in your life? If you’re willing to share, I’d love to hear from you.

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For the first time since I began writing this blog, I have no idea what I’ll be talking about next week. But whatever it is, I hope to see you there. So until we meet again...Keep on Treading!

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