Friday, June 3, 2011

More than vanity

Catholic News Agency by Deacon Patrick Moynihan
“Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!
What profit has man from all the labor which he toils at under the sun?”
Only the first line of this commonly quoted couplet from "Ecclesiastes" was on the tip of my tongue when I had a tête-à-tête with my daughter the other day. But, I couldn’t ignore the second line, which I re-discovered when I looked up the chapter and verse in response to her dismissive snort that the reference was biblical. Ironically, I was trying to persuade her to give up burning her beautiful alabaster skin in the vain attempt to get a tan.

I am not sure it is fair to those who actually toil under the sun to suggest that working at getting a suntan is actually toiling; however, for my daughter it is most certainly a labor of love — and then, later, of hate. She knows the consequences, but without fail, she lies down at every chance she gets on a towel or deck chair to read a book, rotating to make sure her skin is evenly tortured. I think it’s fair to say that she works at it pretty hard.

Each summer starts with a recurrent battle. She fights to be able to go without sunscreen in order to get a “base;” we fight unsuccessfully for her to slather on SPF 50. Covertly, she puts on, at best, 15. And, by 6:00 p.m., we are telling her “We told you so!” as she asks, “Where’s the aloe?”

We usually seize this opportunity to remind our once again lobster-red defiant that tanning is not an Irish past-time. We banter around words like melanoma and wrinkles — the latter certainly scarier to a sixteen year-old. Preoccupied with trying to occupy a set of clothes without letting them touch her fire-red skin, she puts up little fight in the moment. But, her intellectual memory on the subject is as short as her skin memory; two days later she’s back at it, swearing bronze is the way.

This has not always been the case. There was a time when her particular variety of flawless, porcelain complexion was all the rage, but now it’s called pasty. People just do not think it’s healthy. The fact is that the only thing that is better tanned is leather — which is what a serial tanner ends up with for skin.

All kidding aside, overexposure to UV can lead to life threatening levels of cancer. While the cosmetically minded will attempt to find positives in tans, you will find the Skin Cancer Foundation does not mince words on its website:

“A tan, whether you get it on the beach, in a bed, or through incidental exposure, is bad news, any way you acquire it. Tans are caused by harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun or tanning lamps, and if you have one, you’ve sustained skin cell damage. No matter what you may hear at tanning salons, the cumulative damage caused by UV radiation can lead to premature skin aging (wrinkles, lax skin, brown spots, and more), as well as skin cancer.”

What is an Irish rose to do? It is just our human nature to want what we do not have. Is it bad to want to look our best? Well, yes it is if we are willing to do it at a significant cost to our health. Our bodies may be temples, but they are not for our worship. We need to steer away from the body cult mentality which tempts us to sacrifice good health for a supposedly healthy look.

The drive to change our looks permeates our lives, from a whole hair care industry based on making curly hair straight and vice-versa (and dumping chemicals into our water systems in the process), to the makeup and elective plastic surgery industry. You can even opt for an installment payment plan to make your liposuction less painful. But, unfortunately, the reality is that our inability to feel confident with how we look is more than mere vanity — it’s harmful and wasteful.

This summer, take a book and a shirt to the beach. And, if you see my daughter, tell her to cover up.

* Deacon Patrick Moynihan graduated Culver Military Academy in 1983, from Brown University with BA in Sanskrit and Classics in 1987, and from Providence College with an MA in Religious Studies [Theology] in 1999.

He taught Latin and English in a Catholic High School from 1987 to 1990, traded commodities, futures and options for an international trading company from 1990 to 1995 and directed a free Catholic mission school in Haiti for academically gifted children from the poorest areas around Port au Prince from 1996 to 2006.

Deacon Moynihan was ordained in October of 2001 as a permanent deacon for the Diocese of Rockford [IL] where he was the director of formation and later the Office for the Permanent Diaconate from 2001 to 2006. He has since gone back to Haiti and is currently the president of The Haitian Project.

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