This talk was given by Cameron Russell for TEDx. TED is a not for profit organization which, in its own words, makes ‘riveting talks by remarkable people’ available for free online. Cameron Russell, now 26, is a successful American model who started modeling when she was 16 years old and she powerfully speaks to us about her desire to change.
Cameron arrives on stage and almost immediately decides she’s wearing the wrong outfit. She is lucky: by changing her look, she can completely change the way we think about her in only 6 seconds, because while image is powerful it is also superficial.
She convincingly demonstrates this by comparing images from professional photo shoots with some from family albums taken around the same time: the differences are very striking.
There are many elements to this video but there are two which I would like to look at more closely and they reflect two sides of the same story. One is our response to the images presented by others and the other is about how and why we choose the image we project.
At the end of the video, Cameron Russell talks about her insecurity, and it is easy to see from the way she presents herself on stage that she is nervous about speaking in front of an audience. A quick internet search reveals many professional photos of a seemingly confident woman with an Ivy League education. However, as she herself says, once people know you have 10 years experience as an underwear model, you can never do anything else. Models do not get to have opinions and insight. In our eyes they may be little more than human coat hangers. We may envy or admire them for their beauty or glamorous lifestyle but we do not typically think of them as people who might have something (interesting) to say. The example of racial profiling in the video shows that some of the judgments we make, based on image, can have even more serious consequences.
And yet these things are all superficial. Skin, hair, clothes, make-up, even lifestyle and education are only the exterior of a human person. The question we really need to ask ourselves is ‘How does God see Cameron?’ and try to have that same vision, to look with the ‘eyes of faith’ at other people. God is far more interested in a person’s heart than what type of shoes they wear, and as Pope Francis constantly reminds us, he is merciful rather than judgmental. The Holy Father’s motto comes from a homily on the calling of the apostle Matthew, a less than honest tax-collector, whom Jesus looks at with mercy and chooses (see Mt 9:9). The story of the rich young man tells us that Jesus looked at him ‘and loved him’ (Mk 10:21). These are not the actions of someone who sees only the outside of a person.
The other side of the story is about choosing our own image. In the case of a model like Cameron, her image is used to sell things and therefore the product – from aftershave to socks – is made more appealing by association with something that we want: these socks will make you beautiful…
What is much more difficult than being aware of marketing strategies is recognizing that we too choose what image we would like to project or hide behind. We may have many reasons ranging from unconscious insecurity (I want people to like me so that I’ll have someone to sit with in class) to deliberate sinfulness (I want people to trust me so I can steal their money). There are many problems with masks. They can be so powerful that we can even start to lose sight of who we are as we begin to believe that the mask is our real face. Again we need to ask the question, ‘How does God see me?’ because while image may be powerful, God’s love and mercy are more powerful still. Masks can also make it very difficult for us to make real friends because if two people are both being inauthentic, then it will be very hard for them to have an authentic encounter with each other. Choosing to mask something good about myself could mean I end up losing it: maybe being kind to someone unpopular will make me unpopular, but by joining in with (practicing) the unkindness I might gradually become an unkind person. I might choose to hide my faith, my gifts and talents, or my friends and would therefore lose good things. On the other hand, if I choose to hide something bad which I am ashamed of, I may never deal with a problem I really need to face.
It is normal that there are things we would like to change about ourselves. It is part of recognizing that we are imperfect creatures who are called to be perfect, just as God is (see Mt 5:48). And we all have something that we need to change. The problem is when we become convinced that our happiness depends on changing something which actually has nothing to do with our closeness to God. These things, and our motivations in seeking them, can end up leading us even further away from God. A very simple example taken from the video would be if I spent all my time and energy in the pursuit of shinier hair, because I thought I would be happy if my hair was shiny, then I would have less time and energy for God and for other people. And, as we have seen, when I finally achieved the shiny look I wanted, I wouldn’t be happy. Focused on this whole process of getting shinier hair, I would also neglect the things I really do need to change, those things which separate me from God: my sins.
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