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September 27, 2013
A simple suggestion: cosmetic asceticism
By Alice von Hildebrand *

By Alice von Hildebrand *

Pope Francis – this great lover of poverty – keeps reminding his sheep that penance should play an important role in Christian life. This advice should be taken very seriously. Modern man seems to be allergic to the very word. The “American dream” is to succeed in making life easier, more pleasant and more comfortable.

Pain killers (sold by the billions) aim at controlling the slightest discomfort, be it a mild headache or the drilling of a tooth for sixty seconds. Gadgets are daily invented to make our lives more enjoyable, and come closer to “self-fulfillment.” Fast food restaurants guarantee that the slightest craving for food and drink can be instantly satisfied. Why suffer hunger and thirst? 
One’s physical appearance seems to be, for many people (not only teenage girls), a top priority. Numerous flyers keep singing the virtues of a “wonder cream,” a new make-up product, an amazing eyeliner pencil, etc. These “miracle” products guarantee that winkles will disappear and that one’s face will be rejuvenated. The traces of shameful “old age” will magically disappear. Anyone can finally have the face he would have chosen had he been asked.

We are psychologically trained to forget that this body of ours – even though an essential part of our being a human person – will one day be eaten by worms which, we can  assume, do not care whether this now rotting corpse used cosmetics or not. All ashes have the same taste. 

Innumerable products promise their users a “perfect” figure. “Eat all you want and lose weight” is likely to win many customers. These “miracle” products are advertised all over. Cleverly they promise a free sample to the first hundred callers. Advertising techniques inspired by “famous psychologists,” are not only a science; they are an art specializing in catching customers, and thereby guaranteeing rich profits.

Television anchors never wear the same outfit twice. No one (except those living in a palace) would have enough closet space to keep hundreds of dresses and suits. How is Mother Angelica’s popularity to be explained, she who, for very good reasons, keeps wearing the same habit?

Clearly she has something special to offer than fashion cannot provide.     
Far be it from me to claim that we should not make the best of the physical appearance that God Himself has chosen for us.  It was, I believe, St. Francis de Sales who claimed that pious women should also be “well dressed,” but by that he is clearly referring to clothing of good taste that respects the dignity, beauty and mystery of the “fairer sex.” The way a woman dresses tells us much about her “philosophy” of life.

To go back to our Holy Father: it is crucial, as His Holiness Pope Francis keeps reminding us, that penance should be re introduced in Christian life, but many of us assume that this refers exclusively to food, drink and sleep, which are necessities in human life: except when privileged by a miracle, we need some food, some liquid, some rest.  But “penance” should also be extended to things which are in no way needed to satisfy the legitimate cravings of Brother Ass. Maybe our decadent world should urgently be reminded that one cannot constantly lament over “social injustices” (a fearful reality), adopt extreme leftist views, and simultaneously – proud of being socially minded – spend millions of dollars on beauty products. Before buying expensive make up, it might be a good idea to calculate briefly how many people could be fed by giving the corresponding amount to the Missionaries of Charity – to mention but one of the very many organizations dedicating themselves to feeding the hungry.

Our “brave new world” is daily tempting us to buy things we do not need (“It’s a one life time chance!”)  or to spend much of our hard-earned money on products which promise much, but rarely live up to their promise. As a matter of fact, sometimes they make us look worse. These products are outrageously expensive: a small amount of “miracle cream” can easily cost more than several days of groceries for a whole family.

Moreover, the use of cosmetics is “addictive”.  One notices that TV stars inevitably keep increasing the amount of make-up they use in order to obtain the same effect over and over.

We all know that more and more pain killers are needed in order to control the same degree of pain – the same applies to all addiction – and it certainly is true of cosmetics.

Am I right in suspecting that if Pope Francis gently but “daringly” invited Christian women to practice “cosmetic asceticism” – that is, to the amount of money spent monthly on beauty products, and then give half of this amount to starving people in Sudan – his budding popularity as a disciple of the beloved St. Francis, would be severely damaged? 

I recall that a student of mine – a refugee from Cuba at the time of the Castro revolution – who had  for years been totally cut off from her beloved sister was finally was her able to contact her. The student’s first question was, “What do you most urgently need?”

Knowing that there was a serious food shortage in the “paradise for workers” that Castro was supposed to have created; she assumed that her sister would request cereals and other non perishables. To her amazement, the latter begged her to send her beauty products. My student was stunned and so was I when she shared this information with me.  It is a tragic misreading of the words of Christ to Satan; “Man does not live from bread alone.”

The conclusion we can draw is that the sanity of a society is to be judged according to its proper hierarchy of values. If priority is given to lipstick, creams and powders over bread and water, we have good reasons to be concerned about our mental sanity.

Alice von Hildebrand is a lecturer and an author, whose works include: The Privilege of Being a Woman (2002) and The Soul of a Lion: The Life of Dietrich von Hildebrand (2000), a biography of her late husband. She was made a Dame Grand Cross of the Equestrian Order of St. Gregory by Pope Francis in 2013.
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