A few years ago, on “club picture day”, my good friend and colleague stood with me and the students in the after-school club that we jointly moderate to take our photo for the yearbook. Weeks later, the photos arrived and we were each given our copy. Later that day, when we were looking at the photo together, I truthfully remarked to my friend, “I’ll never wear that outfit again!” Her reply: “Me either, it’s going right in the Good Will bag when I get home!”
The morning of that photo, we reflected that we had each dressed with care, knowing we would be in several photos that day, documented for all eternity in the school yearbook, gazed at lovingly by our students for generations to come with fond remembrances of their time with us in our after-school clubs. (Okay, perhaps that is a bit of an exaggeration.)
The “truth” is that on that morning when we dressed for school and the photos, we thought we looked good. We felt good in those outfits; we felt as though we looked our best. The reality is that when I looked at the photograph I was appalled at how I looked. I didn’t look anything like I thought I did in that outfit; and certainly, I didn’t look anything like I felt in that outfit. I knew that I would never feel good in that outfit again after seeing that photo.
We learn about the truth in John’s Gospel. “If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (Jn 8:31-32). So, does the truth set you free? Does seeing a photograph of yourself in an unflattering outfit set you free? Is it the photo that is unflattering or is it the outfit? Or, more disconcerting, is it that you really look that way that is the most troublesome?
Recently on the popular TV show Shark Tank, the sharks were pitched on a new product called The Skinny Mirror. This is a mirror that has been designed to make you appear as flattering as possible. The theory behind this, as presented by its founder Belinda Jasmine, is that some mirrors are distorted in a way that make you look heavier and shorter, while others give us a more true representation of our image. She found an old mirror in the attic and used it for three years before coming to the reality that it was affecting her self-image. She discovered that she looked better in some other mirrors than how she looked in her own mirror at home. So, after some research and development, she came up with The Skinny Mirror, a mirror that will send you off looking your best each day, or at least it will make you feel as though you look your best. Things were going well and it appeared as though one of the sharks was going to bite; Shark Lori Greiner even came up and took a turn in front of the display model. But, then things turned murky. Jasmine disclosed that some of her sales were to retailers. Wait, what? Retailers were installing The Skinny Mirror in dressing rooms so we would look better in their clothes and buy them thinking we looked great? Were retailers trying to unduly influence their customers? This didn’t sit well with the sharks and they all passed on the deal.
Is it just how we look or is it how we sound as well? I am a lector at Mass, which means I read a passage of scripture during the part of the Mass known as the Liturgy of the Word. I have a degree in speech, something that my father always joked about, “You knew how to talk when you went to college, why did you need to get a degree in it?” I take this job seriously. I study the scripture before Mass and read it silently several times. Then I read it out loud several times. I listen to the audio recording of the same scripture reading which is posted on the USCCB website. I am fully prepared for performing this ministry when I go to church. I dress modestly, being careful not to wear too much jewelry or anything flashy so as not to distract the congregation from the Word of the Lord. Recently, a student gave me a CD with a recording of last year’s school play, which included my “welcome” speech before the curtain goes up. I was shocked at the sound of my voice. This is not how I thought I sounded. Sure, I’ve heard my voice on a recording before, on my voice mail message or in home movies, but I wasn’t doing “public speaking”, giving a speech before an audience. Do I really sound like that when I am reading scripture at Mass?
The truth is an interesting subject to study. There have been many famous quotes made by statesmen, religious leaders, authors, celebrities, motivational speakers, and others. In court, we “swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God”. On countless occasions we have watched politicians and politician wannabes tell us the “truth”, on live TV, only to find out later that it indeed was all a lie.
Recently, my husband’s childhood friend and high school football teammate was elected Governor of the State of Louisiana. A major factor in the outcome of the race was intense campaign advertisements of the “he said, he said” nature. In the end, it appears that the people (well, at least the 38% of the registered voters who actually voted that day) voted for the candidate they believed, if not the candidate they believed in. I don’t personally know the new governor-elect, but I will take my husband’s word for it that he is a decent, good man of high moral character. Certainly, at face value the facts appear to document that. He is a West Point graduate, served in the Army from 1988-1996, received a law degree from LSU, married his high school sweetheart (and is still married to her), and is the father of three handsome children. Has the nature of politics finally come around to this, a candidate winning an election because the voters were swayed by what was once considered normal and mainstream character and personality traits?
Mark Twain in particular wrote of the truth often. Each year when I teach my Mark Twain unit in 8th grade literature, I give the students a selection of Mark Twain quotes to choose from. I’m always struck by the high percentage of choices that have to do with truth. Truth for a young adolescent is difficult. They almost all want to tell the truth but it is often clouded by fear and expectations. One on one, when I speak to a student about a situation, I can usually tell if they are being honest with me: eye contact or lack thereof, nervous tics, hemming and hawing, and changes in the story as my “discussion” with them continues. Most of the time, I get what I am after, the truth, with the hopes that the important lesson is not about the situation itself, but about telling the truth, or as some say, “manning up”.
My father was a stickler for the truth. Once when I was a little girl, I came out of the bathroom in the hallway of our three bedroom home (the only full bathroom in the house), with toilet paper wrapped around the calf of my leg. My father was in his normal position, on the sofa-right hand side-reading the newspaper and watching the news on TV. He glanced up and spotted the trail of toilet paper dangling from my leg. “What happened?” he asked. I didn’t hesitate for a moment, “I got a paper cut”, and continued to walk through the living room. He stopped me and questioned me further. “A paper cut? How? Where? When? With what kind of paper? On your leg? In the bathroom?” I made my excuses and continued on my way. My father did what any good detective would do; inspect the scene of the crime. Yep, razor on edge of the bathtub with drops of blood on the floor near the toilet paper. I was called back to the living room. “Tell me the truth and you won’t get punished. Were you playing with my razor?” Hemming and hawing ensued, I was ushered to the crime scene, where the evidence was still on display. After he cleaned my leg and put a Band-Aid on it, I was sentenced to kneeling on the hardwood floor in the hall, in full view of his place on the sofa, not for playing with the razor as he told me repeatedly for days, but for lying to him about it.
Recently on Facebook someone posted an image that I shared so I could save it. Small children are notorious for telling the truth, even when we least expect it and most definitely don’t want it. Once when picking up my daughters from home day care, Nina, who had become a grandmother-figure to my two girls, brought me into her kitchen to give me a large shopping bag filled with the contents of a home-cooked meal: homemade chicken noodle soup (her specialty) and Mandarin Orange Jell-O Salad, another of her specialties. I thanked her profusely but was confused by the gesture. She had never given us dinner before. When I asked her what was the occasion, she said, “Don’t be embarrassed. It happens to everyone. I just thought a stress-free dinner would help.” Still confused, I loaded our dinner and my girls in the car. Immediately I asked the older daughter how was her day. Even at a young age, she was known for her keen observation and attention to detail. I figured she was my best bet at getting to the bottom of the mystery dinner. After hearing about who was on Oprah that day, and what was the afternoon snack, she finally said that she “may” have told Nina about the big fight. “The big fight?” I asked, horrified. She then went on to tell me that she had told Nina that her mom and dad had a big fight the night before and she was very upset and worried about it. Since neither my husband nor I could remember what the big fight was about, it couldn’t have been much of a fight. It was probably over the garbage or laundry or something forgotten from the grocery list. I tried to explain this to Nina the next day when I returned the dishes but she just smiled and patted my arm. The silver lining from this embarrassing episode: I got the homemade chicken noodle soup recipe and it is a family favorite to this day.
I also immediately shared this Facebook image with a friend. We often discuss the current trend, which indeed has grown legs of indeterminable length, of wearing leggings as pants. In full disclosure, I do not currently nor have I ever had the kind of body that could get away with wearing leggings as outerwear, and as a result some might say my feelings on this subject are sour grapes. But, I teach 8th grade boys and girls, in a Catholic school, with a strict uniform dress code, where we teach them to respect themselves and to respect each other. Yet, at out of school activities I see girls, on the cusp of womanhood, wearing nothing more than leggings and a sweatshirt, with every anatomical detail of their bodies from the waist down on view for the world to see, adolescent boys included. This is often accessorized with Ugg boots and the ubiquitous high ponytail swinging in the wind. I’ve also seen grown women, well beyond the “cusp” of anything, wearing leggings as pants, with only a brief nod at modesty by wearing a slightly longer tunic-style top.
Yes, leggings—as with small children and drunks—certainly tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Whether we look at ourselves in an unflattering photograph or in The Skinny Mirror, the harsh reality is that while we cherish and value the truth, often we see only what we want to see.