My husband and I accidentally went to the parish school’s mass for Ash Wednesday this morning. It was the most convenient for us, and it is open to the public. It’s just full of lots of squirmy children from kindergarten to 8th grade wearing uniforms that look strikingly similar to the ones I wore in elementary school at a different Catholic school. It wasn’t just the uniforms that reminded me of my own elementary school masses, but the sermon that was geared towards children, the students participating in the mass by acting as lectors and bringing up the gifts, the audible sound of children shifting in their seats.
But there was one noticeable difference. The girls sitting near me in the 8th grade class were wearing makeup. Not all of them, but a good number. It was visible makeup: eye shadow, lip gloss, sparkly eye liner, heavy mascara. I saw at least one girl wearing bright blue eye shadow. (Let’s be honest, ladies: blue eyeshadow is a sin unto itself. No one at any age should wear it.)
The girl with the bright blue eye shadow caught my attention the most. That alone is a problem. If she caught my eye, surely she caught others’ eyes. The blue eyeshadow was a shade of blueberry I don’t think has been seen since the 80’s, accented with blue sparkly eyeliner. She had on heavy mascara, and her lashes were likely curled that morning with a device that has always frightened me. Her hair was perfectly smoothed back into a pony tail, errant hair clipped in place with barrettes. She was a very pretty girl, although I think she would have been prettier with a less severe hair style and a bare face. The makeup, which surely was used to garner attention to her looks, ended up hiding what was naturally a pretty face. It’s hard to look past blue eyeshadow and see the pretty brown eyes underneath.
Worse, it’s hard to look past the war paint and see the girl underneath. My first impression of her was that she looked like a tramp. A tramp in a Catholic school uniform. Modern times have scripted Catholic school girls as being naughty, sexy, with a repressed sexuality just under the surface of the plaid skirt and cardigan sweater, desperate to be unleashed. Most actual Catholic school girls don’t fit that bill, and it’s a shame that it exists at all. Unfortunately, this girl was promoting that, and degrading not only herself but the rest of her peers in the process. I don’t know if she’s even aware of what she’s saying by wearing all that makeup. She’s young and hopefully innocent. That’s what the adults around her ought to be doing: providing boundaries so she doesn’t send a message she doesn’t intend to, just because she’s too young to understand what she’s saying.
Surely this wasn’t a case of a girl pushing boundaries, or an unobservant teacher not noticing. They wouldn’t be that bold with their makeup, nor would there be that many of them, if they were highly likely to get in trouble for it. When I was in Catholic elementary school, only 11 years ago, even the hint of mascara or clear nail polish would have earned me a demerit and some face wash or nail polish remover. Here is where I feel like I should have a rake and be shouting about IN MY DAY. But I’ll spare you.
Regardless of my own Catholic school experience, I don’t think that makeup on a 12 or 13 year old girl is appropriate, especially not in public, especially not in school, and especially especially not at mass. 12 year olds have no wrinkles, no under-eye circles, nothing that needs to be covered up except for maybe some acne. Any dermatologist worth anything will tell you that putting makeup on acne is the opposite thing to do to get it to clear up. Those girls have no business wearing makeup. They are little girls, even if they are pretending not to be.
On Ash Wednesday, Catholics (and others) wear ashes as a sign of our own sinfulness. However, we also wear stuff on our faces and bodies the rest of the year to communicate information about ourselves. A priest wears the clerical collar as a sign of his vocation. The same goes for the nun and her habit (assuming it’s still identifiable as such). Many Christians wear necklaces with crosses on them as a sign of our faith, and I know Jews who wear Stars of David for the same purpose.
But how we adorn ourselves goes beyond just signs of our faith. We wear the clothes we do not just because nudity is frowned upon, or because winters get awfully cold in Western Pennsylvania, but because we are communicating something about ourselves: our tastes, our preferences in color, our favorite bands, etc. We wear our hair a certain way because we think it’s flattering, or stylish, or practical. A man with a crew cut is viewed as no-nonsense and practical. One might even assume he is in the military. A man with dreadlocks is not seen as those things.
We women adorn their faces with makeup to cover up our flaws, to enhance our features, – in short, to feel pretty. I don’t wear it very often because I’m lazy, but when I do, I always wear cover-up under my eyes to mask the permanent, purple circles that make me look far more tired than I really am, and mascara to make my almost blonde eyelashes visible. We wear makeup to put a better face on, to make ourselves more attractive to the outside world. We wear it as a mask, but also as a way of getting attention. I’m sure many Women’s Studies graduate students have expounded ad nauseum on this topic, so I’ll stop there and get to my point.
In school, children are there to learn and grow up to become strong, intelligent, free-thinking, Catholic adults. Girls putting makeup on to attract boys is distracting everyone from the task at hand: an education. It’s inappropriate. Wearing it to church is even worse. At Mass our eyes ought not be anywhere but on the altar, our thoughts on Christ, the Word, and the Eucharist. I am not saying that we ought not look our best to attend Mass, as I think we should. But there is a difference between wearing our nice clothes, making sure our hair is orderly and our bodies clean, and dressing ourselves up to attract the attention of others. One is appropriate, the other is not, for any age, but particularly for middle schoolers.
I am not criticizing makeup as a whole in this case. I just think the parents and the school need to determine what is appropriate use of makeup and what isn’t. An adult woman wearing makeup, even in church, is different than a 12 year old wearing it. A 12 year old ought to be experimenting with make up at home, as a form of play if she wants. It’s fun! But there’s a difference between wearing it for fun on a Saturday afternoon at home, and wearing it to school, let alone Mass.
All I know is that if there isn’t any prohibition against wearing makeup at that Catholic school, or worse, the principal and teachers allow the girls to get away with breaking those rules so blatantly, I’m not sure that there’s any benefit to me spending thousands of dollars to send my children there instead of a public school. I’d like to think that a Catholic school would be teaching girls better standards than that, particularly on Ash Wednesday. I’d like to think they would be guiding girls in the correct way to present themselves to the world, and how to send the best message they can. Of all days that we should be remembering that our bodies will not last, but the salvation of our souls is forever, today is that day.