Clothes don’t make the man, but…

Among the many articles currently published about Veterans Day was one about a rather winsome homeless vet, and a time-lapse video of his makeover. See the three-minute video here:

After the makeover, he looks great! But he’s the same guy with the same hopes and dreams and abilities and experiences; he just looks different.

Does his appearance matter in any profound way?

I have written about the topic of grooming and the material world before, particularly in relation to my reaction to someone who took me to be a laundress and my reconsideration of my harsh response.

Indeed I did tell the historical anecdote of a man who, claiming to be humble, was told by a monk that he should shave off half his mustache, go about his daily business, and see if he were really humble.

The spiritual truth of that excellent story is that it is much harder to be humble than we often imagine, that we might be less humble than we might think we are, and that we should not think we are better than we are just because of our grooming. All true.

But which applicant would you hire for a job, the man who looked homeless at the start of the video, or the nicely groomed man in the suit and tie at the end of the video?

The video implies that the makeover actually turned around the man’s life, so that he started to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and so on. And anecdotally, makeovers can change people by showing them the possibilities of what they could be. Thus, it seems that grooming really can be a catalyst of positive life change. And this only makes sense, because we are physical beings as well as mind and spirit. What affects one aspect of us affects the other aspects.

We would like to imagine that the material world doesn’t matter. We scoff (justifiably) at the ostentatious rich with their designer clothing and fancy cars, because as materialists, they imagine that their externals make them better than lesser mortals. We are horrified (justifiably) at people who disrespect waiters and other service personnel due to a belief that a lesser job makes a person of lesser value. We would like to believe that appearances don’t matter — but if that were the case, there would be no mirrors in bathrooms, or anywhere else.

Most people we encounter are actually exquisitely sensitive to their and our place in the social hierarchy. Find someone who denies that, and usually they are also in denial about having reverse prejudice, and they have something unkind to say about people who sincerely enjoy wearing neckties or high heels.

Most of us like to see people who are at least neatly groomed and dressed, and we feel more at ease around them. Some people are also ill at ease around obese people because they think of body size as a part of grooming. (“You should be an ascetic shopper about what you eat,” said a friend of mine bluntly a few days ago.) Brutally unfair as it is, many people are uncomfortable around people with dramatic physical traits such as mobility impairments. And we may not be impressed by the size of people’s homes, but we may be discomfited by the way they keep their abodes, particularly if they are hoarders.

I know from personal experience that shopping modestly on a very limited budget, it is surprisingly expensive and effortful to be neatly groomed and dressed. And on the other end, when one is drowning in stuff, it is also mentally and emotionally exhausting to deal with the physical objects one hoards. Like it or not, the material world matters, both our bodies and our possessions. It can give us great joy and it can be incredibly burdensome. And it also affects how we interact with others.

We are not ghosts in machines, we are not spirits inhabiting seashells. It is deluded to think that in our essence we are non-physical beings. We own our unique bodies; we interact with the material world in our own unique ways; we mate with people not just spiritually and psychologically compatible but whose appearance and grooming we like; our emotions are called “feelings” because we feel them in our bodies. It is not a coincidence that “junk” refers both to objects that we own and also to genitals. Our bodies, and the material objects we keep around us, are part of who we are.

Just as we should not be “respecters of persons” who denigrate the poor and honor the rich, so too we should not pretend that our bodies are mere shells or machines inhabited by the real us. We are not only mind and spirit; we are body, as well. And so, what we do with our bodies and our physical possessions is of real importance. Matter matters.

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