Look, it’s a model wearing size 24 jeans! And look, a shaving ad that doesn’t airbrush cellulite away, and a weight-loss ad that shows a woman smoothing her sweater over her stomach — a stomach that is clearly far smaller than it used to be, but is still striated with permanent stretch marks.
I absolutely love it. Welcome to the 21st century, when lumpy, imperfect people are starting to populate the media almost as much as they populate the actual country. As a fat person, I’m intensely grateful for ads that make it clear I can be both large and human, even both large and beautiful.
Representation is about so much more than just a happy jolt of recognition. It’s about feeling real, feeling fully a member of the human race.
There’s a similar movement going on in what I’ll call, for want of a less cringey phrase, the spiritual media. Less than 10 years ago, I pitched some book proposals to Catholic publishers. I strove to paint a picture showing how it really feels to be a Catholic wife and mother, with all the actual joys and sorrows, and without any of the literary airbrushing that was de rigour in books aimed at Catholic women.
To a one, the publishers responded that my work was unsuitable for Catholic readers. It was too dark, too negative, too harsh, not uplifting and joyful enough. In short, too honest.
Things have changed. In 2019, it’s commonplace to be both Catholic and honest in public. It’s no longer shocking or unacceptable, in most communities, for Catholics to speak openly about the messy, unresolved, unedifying aspects of their lives — depression, alcoholism, porn addiction, burnout, weirdness in general, or even sincerity itself — and for readers to respond with gratitude and recognition, rather than shock and condemnation.
But this new “warts and all” honesty is a double-edged sword. It’s undeniably healthy to be sincere, to courageously acknowledge the flaws we perceive as unusual and shameful. It can be immensely liberating and encouraging for others to see they’re not alone in their imperfections. We must correct the notion that, to deserve respect, we must be (or appear to be) flawless. We need to know that we’re not somehow less human just because we struggle.
But there’s such a short jump between “I am imperfect, but I still deserve respect” and “I am imperfect, and there’s no reason to change.”
I must reluctantly admit that, when I see fat models looking lovely, sometimes it’s good for me, and makes me feel more human; but sometimes it just gives me an excuse to skip exercising for two weeks and slap extra sour cream on my taco. It’s vital to know I deserve to be treated with dignity no matter what size I am. But it’s also vital that I keep my arteries from exploding. When my Facebook feed is populated by lush, queenly, opulent models even bigger than me, I could go either way. Sometimes honest representation is good for me; sometimes, not so much.
The same is true in our moral lives. When we surround ourselves with “warts and all” examples, we may feel encouraged and comforted, seeing clearly that it’s human to struggle, and not a cause for despair. If we look in the mirror and don’t like what we see, we may truly need a reminder that haven’t lost our right to dignity simply because we sin.
But there’s also a true risk of normalising sin. It’s one thing to know that it’s normal to struggle with chastity; it’s quite another when no one you know takes chastity seriously, or has any intention of changing their lives to pursue this virtue. It’s one thing to know that many decent people enjoy a cocktail on the regular; it’s quite another to accept that getting trashed every night is just how mommies cope.
It’s one thing to understand that everyone struggles; it’s quite another to conclude that struggle is therefore unnecessary.
Honesty is a double-edged sword. This movement is healthy if it leads us to treat ourselves and others with more respect. It’s unhealthy if it leads us into complacency and indifference. We are heavily influenced by who and what we surround ourselves with. We can fool ourselves that we’re strong enough to maintain independence, but that’s usually a fantasy. What is acceptable quickly becomes normal, and what is normal quickly becomes above reproach.
Some people, dismayed by the normalisation of sin, think the answer is to go back to a time when only loveliness and virtue (or the appearance of it) were portrayed in public. This approach is naive at best and always leads to cruelty, because those who inevitably fall short of the ideal will be crushed and hidden away. The appearance of virtue becomes more important than virtue itself, and real people suffer. That’s completely antithetical to what Christ did, and we can’t let ourselves indulge in it, whether we’re crushing someone else, or letting ourselves be crushed.
I never want to go back to a time when we’re required to put on a mask of perfection in order to be accepted. But I also know how vulnerable I am to sliding into smug complacency. What’s the corrective?
Diversity, for one thing — true diversity, which includes people who make us uncomfortable. If we only read things we agree with, only talk to people who resemble us, only approach ideas from a familiar point of view, then we’re looking to become entrenched in our flaws, no matter what that point of view is.
But when we actively, deliberately cultivate exposure to all sorts of people, and when we really listen to what they say and understand that even people who are wrong are still human, it gets harder and harder to fall into the trap of believing that there is one sort of good person, and that we can tell who they are by how they appear on the outside.
At the same time, when we expose ourselves to all different kinds of goodness, it gets harder and harder to retain the idea that everything about us is fine, even admirable, and doesn’t need adjusting or converting.
It’s not easy. It can be maddening. The temptation is always to revert to what makes us most comfortable, especially at a time when both conservatives and progressives are apt to call their own insularity courageous and just.
But insularity is deadening. Even an island has to be part of the larger world — not so exposed that it is overcome and subsumed, but not so isolated that it stagnates and dies. As I’ve had to learn over and over again and will continue to have to learn: the path to Christ is with and through other people.
It’s so difficult. But there really isn’t any other way.