I have to begin this column by confessing to a guilty pleasure: when I am shopping for groceries, I really enjoy looking over the magazine displays. If the displays are good enough, I don’t even get disgruntled when the person ahead of me takes forever to decide about each item; it gives me more time to scan the headlines about Will and Kate, Brad and Angelina, kitchen improvements, yoga, seductive chocolate recipes, and exotic travel. Those magazine covers are escapism in its purest form: they promise a life of beautifully prepared food, beautiful settings, and beautiful bodies.
In fact, it doesn’t take more than three minutes to realize that we have become obsessed with our bodies, specifically, with sexy bodies. Food magazines, exercise magazines, women’s magazines, men’s magazines, travel magazines, fashion magazines, maternity magazines — even political pieces — all obsess about sexiness. Will this regime give you flat abs? Is Chris Christie too fat for a politician? Aren’t Michelle Obama’s arms amazing? Which swimsuit/business suit/hairstyle/flirtation techniques will show you at your best so you can get your man/ get your woman/ get ahead in the world? (In fact, I bet this post will be opened by more people than last week’s which did not have “sexy” in the title.)
It did not used to be this way. If you look into older media, there were still articles on beauty, but there were also articles on character — in fact, far more of them than there were on appearance. It was taken for granted that a man needed to cultivate certain personal characteristics to be trusted and to succeed in business; that a woman needed a certain strength of mind and heart to be a good mother and home-maker; that this world was a difficult place, and that the person who wanted to live well in it needed to be deliberate in cultivating integrity and honor and courage and kindness and wisdom.
The cultivation of character permeated people’s interior lives as well. When in the sixteenth century pastors began to advise people to keep journals, both men and women filled their pages with accounts of their struggles to respond with grace to the challenges of their everyday lives. They wrote prayers, begged for divine aid in managing the demands of poverty, or of a difficult spouse, or of their children. They would scan their hearts and the events of their lives with care, striving to see signs that they were growing in wisdom, maturity, patience, and charity. Diaries continued to show those as primary concerns well into the 20th century.
Today, much of that energy has been deflected into cultivating sexiness. In many places, it is far more admirable to go to the gym than it is to go to church or synagogue. It is taken for granted that a person needs sexiness to attract a partner, to succeed in business, to have a fulfilling life. The implication is that success is more about manipulation than about substance, about being able to manage the image of what you’re providing rather than about the work you do or the use you have made of your gifts.
This is disturbing on a number of levels, not least that it deflects our understanding of what matters in this life from something that we can all strive to attain (good character) to something that is an accident of birth. Even with the best fitness routine and stylists in the world, there are people who will just never be very physically attractive, but anyone, with grace and effort, can improve the way they relate to others. They can learn to be more gentle, more respectful, more honest, more courageous, more tender.
So, take a few minutes to look at these pictures.
Whom do we want our heroes to be? How can you cultivate yourself to become the person you long to be? What would it mean to ask God to help you?