Focus on your image, because image is everything! Those words or at least words to that effect, were the caption of a famous ad several years ago. I remember being taken aback by its crass and shallow message, but not many people reacted, perhaps because the caption is so true to our time.
We are a people obsessed with appearance, with image, with looking good, with being good-looking. For us today, by and large, it is more important to look good than to be good, to look healthy than to be healthy, to say the right things than to do the right things, to be connected to the right persons than to be the right persons, and to be perceived as having character than to actually have character.
This is evident in our obsession with physical appearance, in the hagiography we accord to our celebrities, in the importance we give to style and fashion, and in our efforts to be perceived as connected to the right things. Image really is everything!
We see this, for example, in politics: In public life today image trumps substance. Invariably we are care less about someone’s policies than about his or her appearance and we elect people to public offices more on the basis of persona than on intellect and character. In politics today it is more important to have the right image, to be able to surround yourself with the right energy, than it is to have substance and character.
The academic world follows suit: For example, more and more of our universities are giving honorary degrees to celebrities and justice advocates. There’s nothing wrong with that, especially in recognizing and honoring men and women who have given their lives for justice, except that I doubt that the universities handing out those degrees actually care much about the poor or that they intellectually endorse what the entertainment and sports industries (who produce most of these celebrities) are doing. But the face of a celebrity, a Nelson Mandela, an Angelina Jolie, a Meryl Streep, a Michael Jordan, or a Derek Jeter looks really good on the public face of the university giving that degree: Just look at how caring, energetic, and beautiful we are!
Unfortunately many of those same universities are not exactly models of care and justice when dealing with their own students and employees, but they are very caring in how they are perceived from the outside. Giving a doctorate to someone who has given his or her life in the struggle for justice doesn’t in fact do much for the poor, but it does do a something for the institution that is honoring him or her.
But before we judge this too harshly, we should admit that what is happening in the public sphere is also happening in our private lives. More and more, in our lives, appearance is what we are most concerned about. For many of us, how we look is the first thing, the whole thing, and the only thing. It’s not so important that we be good, only that we look good. It is no small irony that we are so outraged and indignant about how much money our governments spend on their defense budgets, even as we live in a certain blissful ignorance of what each of us, personally, spend on our personal defense budgets, cosmetics and fashion.
Sadly we are paying a high price for this. Our concern to look good is crucifying us. We are growing ever more dissatisfied with our own bodies, even when they are healthy and serving us well. A healthy self-image today is more contingent upon looking good than on actually being healthy. The prevalence of anorexia, among other things, is a symptom of this and, too often, our dieting and exercise have less to do with health than with appearance.
Granted, not all of this is bad. To be concerned about physical appearance is healthy, as are (most times at least) dieting and exercise. We are meant to look good and, in fact, we feel better about ourselves when we do look good. It is a healthy thing to feel good about your body and your health. A healthy concern about how we look should never be denigrated in the name of depth or sanctity. Indeed one of the first signs of clinical depression is lack of concern about appearance.
The same holds true for how we are perceived from the outside. A good reputation is thing to be guarded and defended. It is important to look good.
But appearance and reputation should never replace character, depth, and integrity, just as the claim of substance and character is never an excuse for a shoddy and sloppy appearance. Today, however, I suggest that we have lost the proper balance and stand in a certain peril. Of what?
When image is everything, gradually, without us noticing, appearance begins to look like character, celebrity begins to look like nobility of soul, and looking good becomes more important than being good.