The other day, I noticed a news article about one of the Kardashians: she was agonising about whether to publish a picture of herself without make-up or not, knowing that whatever picture she published would cause a flood of comments, both supporting and hostile, in the social media. The Kardashians may be an extreme example of this phenomenon, but surely this is partly true of millions of other people, too – people are desperate to look their best whenever they are in public, including in the social media.
Have you noticed any adverts for courses at colleges recently? Such adverts normally consist of a photograph of some attractive young people with a catchphrase such as ”You, too, can become an engineer”. No information about the course, just smiling faces. It is the same with adverts for jobs and many products – a pretty face sells. I, personally, would prefer a picture of the college in question, or perhaps some information about the course. But presumably this approach – of telling people something useful – does not work as well as the pretty face approach. Unfortunately, we live in a world obsessed by physical appearance.
Take another example. Years ago it did not really matter what a politician looked like. In the days before mass media, only a handful of people ever saw them in the flesh anyway. What mattered most was the ability to make an inspiring speech. Nowadays, more and more politicians have film-star good looks. What they say or think, or their oratorial skills, apparently matters less than what they look like.
This obsession with appearance is not really a major problem for adult men, but I believe it puts women and young people under tremendous pressure to look good. The social media has made the problem even worse: every other photograph is of a person smiling and trying to look their best, receiving positive comments from friends who want to compliment them, and negative comments from others, comments which can cause far more harm than the many compliments cause satisfaction. The results of this pressure can be deplorable – anxiety, anorexia, self-harm, depression, in younger and younger people.
When looking for a suitable partner for a relationship or marriage, appearance naturally plays an important part. Naturally? It used to play a much smaller part: in almost any pre-industrial society the criteria for a suitable partner for marriage were rather different. Did they come from a respectable family? Was the young man financially independent? Did the young woman appear to be healthy enough to bear children? Did they belong to the same clan, tribe, social class, religion or church denomination? Rich families wanted to know how big the young woman’s dowry would be. Appearance and personality were low on the list of priorities, although not without importance.
What does the Bible say about physical appearance? In the Old Testament a few people, such as King David, are described as good-looking; in the New testament I cannot recall any mention of anyone’s appearance. We have no idea what Jesus, Mary, Mary Magdalene, the apostles or John the Baptist looked like. Perhaps there is a reason for this. Perhaps our appearance is nowhere near as important as our values, beliefs, opinions or behaviour. The modern world seems to have forgotten this. Isn’t in time we reminded the world of this?