I’m 33 years old and married, and like a lot of other American families, my partner and I are looking at our budget and trying to rethink our spending habits. I don’t think I spend a lot on personal grooming products, but I do wear make-up most days. I get professional haircuts a few times a year. My only salon hair-coloring experience was when I studied abroad in college and went to London’s Vidal Sassoon training school for an afternoon of adventure. It was fun! But on a typical day I don’t spend a lot of time fixing my hair. A couple of years ago, when I started to notice more gray hairs, I started to wonder if I should do anything about it.
Some of you are probably rolling your eyes as you read this. I fully admit that this is not a major moral issue. The Catechism doesn’t have a section explaining official Catholic teaching on use of salon products, and for good reason. But I do believe that every decision we make is a moral decision, and that as Christians we should think about our patterns of behavior and about how our behaviors shape our character. As a feminist I am concerned with the messages women and girls hear—through culture, relationships, religion—about our bodies and about what it means to be “good” and “beautiful.” And as an American my moral formation has occurred in a culture dominated by consumerism.
But do my grooming habits really shape my character? Does the Christian moral tradition have any wisdom to offer when I walk through the Target aisle and consider whether I should purchase deodorant, shaving cream, razors, teeth whitening strips, nail polish, or anti-acne face wash? These products are not exactly “basic goods necessary for human flourishing.” But most Americans wouldn’t see these items as luxury products either (although I’m sure the companies who sell and market these products don’t want me to challenge the assumption that these aren’t necessary for “the good life”).
One feminist voice says, “Coloring your hair is not necessary, but if you can afford it and if it doesn’t hurt anyone else, and it gives you some self-confidence and helps you feel pretty, what’s the big deal? This is not exactly one of those fundamental option-kind of discernments. Lighten up.” Another feminist voice says, “Self-love is not about liking your hair color when you look in the mirror. It is about accepting yourself for who you really are, gray hair and all. Thinning and graying hair is a natural process of aging. What you need to do is simply accept this, and accept yourself. Resist the cultural and marketing messages that tell you to reject the natural aging process by coloring your hair.” The American consumerist in me says, “Go ahead! You deserve to be pampered! You work hard, and you’ll look great when you cover those grays.” The social ethicist in me says, “How can you even think of paying for something so silly when children are starving in Somalia?” Ok, good point Ms. Social Ethicist. That does help to put things in perspective a bit.
When I think about the major questions I should ask myself in any kind of discernment, I think of questions like: Will this make me a more loving person? How does this action influence my relationship with God? Whom else will be affected by my decision?
In general, I want to avoid the slippery slope of scrupulosity, which can sap a person’s moral energy and lead you to fret over the small questions so much that you lose sight of the big issues. While my current discernment is about hair dye it could just as easily be about fashion, shaving my legs, applying nail polish, eating fast food, buying fair trade coffee, or upgrading my cell phone. All of these are moral choices, and yet there is some wisdom to the idea that the most important questions are about that fundamental “yes” to God and a loving response to my neighbor. But as my family trims our spending, can we hold on to some of those unnecessary-but-fun products without landing in a state of sin?
So, if you’re read this far, and you want to help me discern this very small moral question that I’m pondering today- please chime in. I’d love to hear your thoughts.