I was on the subway a few days ago and noticed an older man with an odd hairstyle. Long, graying brown strands were tied in a thin ponytail at the back of his neck. There was nothing strange about this, but the top two-thirds of his head was covered with a thick, medium brown crown of straight, perfectly combed hair. The point at which the graying, uneven strands met the brown cap was obvious to me, even from a quick glance halfway across the subway car. I looked at this aging man for a few minutes, wondering why he would wear such a badly matched wig and trying to discern if it really made him feel better about himself. I came to no conclusions about him, but did come up with some questions about my own habits.
We all do things to change our appearance slightly - for the better, we hope. I dye my hair, I wear make-up most days, I shave my legs (more often in summer than in winter), and I wear clothes that accent certain parts of my body and camouflage others. The goal is to have this slightly unnatural self be mistaken for the real natural self. Deceptive, if you think about it, but perhaps not as deceptive as we hope. People might very well be aware of our small efforts to appear better than we are, but simply not draw attention to it. Perhaps they assume that everyone is doing something to enhance their appearance and are willing to go along with the small deception because it is mutually beneficial: I won't mention yours if you don't mention mine. Children, of course, are notoriously bad at this game.
The questions I found myself thinking about were: If I lost all my hair, would I wear a wig or try to compensate in some other way? If I lost a breast to cancer or was disfigured by some accident, would I cover it up in order to appear more normal? Going beyond questions of why we do the things we do in our appearance-driven culture, what about emotional, intellectual, and relational normalcy? What do I wear in order to cover up my lack in these areas? A smile when I am awkwardly troubled, pained, or sad? A confident look when I don't know the answer? A busy schedule when I am lonely? What is my bad wig?
If the man in the subway had not been wearing the brown hair hat, I would never have noticed him. It was his very attempt to cover up what he didn't like about himself that drew my attention to him and pointed out his weakness. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with improving our appearances or trying to be pleasant in our social settings, but I think the problem comes when we don't know how to live without these add-ons. We get hooked on the deception, the supra-normal, and forget that being real, honest, and humble is the way God intended us to be with him and with each other. On occasion, I believe it is healthy to go without makeup, to let the graying and balding parts show, and to live humbly with my uncomfortable shortcomings.
If I feel that I always have to bring my "A-game," I need to remember that the real issue is not winning the game, but loving myself and my fellow players for God's sake. If I begin to sense a pressure to always put my best foot forward, I want to remember that leaps of faith only happen when both feet are involved (yes, even the weak one). And when that cultural standard of appearance threatens to force its unrealistic expectations on me, I must remember that humility is the most attractive trait I can ever exhibit.
These are some Mennonite women at the farmer's market. Good food, great smiles, and simple lifestyles.