This Old World’s Tawdry Voices

By David Mills

“That means they’re anorexic,”said a young woman I know when asked why the great majority of the girls at her elite college had declared themselves vegetarians or vegans. I thought she was being sarcastic, but she wasn’t.

She was being witty. The ideological self-description has become a code word for an illness the girls didn’t want to admit, she said. Being a vegetarian or vegan justified eating very little, and explained why you didn’t go to the dining hall or got only a small salad when you did.

The girls at this college are all high achievers, driven, type-A personalities who have succeeded at almost everything they’ve tried in life, capable of long hours of intense work and assured, as much as anyone in this world can be, of future success. And yet an astonishing number hate their bodies and try to starve them into an image of perfection they know is ridiculous and unnatural, not to mention culturally determined and commercially driven.

It is, at first sight, baffling. Girls who profess a Marxist contempt for large corporations want to look like the girls in the ads those corporations use to sell their dresses, shoes, perfume, luggage, vodka, cars. They take for their personal ideal an image created by people whose ability to tell the truth about the world they flatly (and rightly) deny.

You hear of a girl you know, an active, intelligent Christian, obviously successful, apparently discerning, apparently confident, who thinks she’s fat and ugly when she is quite beautiful. I have heard the explanations for this, and they all make perfect sense. Still, I cannot understand how such an obviously insane and self-destructive ideal has taken such a hold on so many young women.

I have been reflecting on this as a father of two daughters. But I have also been reflecting on this simply as a father. The world lies to my children, and I cannot always keep them from hearing the lies of the world and believing some of them. I have but one voice, and the world has many. It not only preaches with attractive confidence but seduces with flattery and false promises. It has vast resources for bribery.

Worse, it makes the wicked, the cheap, the mediocre, and the tawdry all feel normal. Recently I went to Barnes & Noble to look at the books being written for teenagers for a talk I was giving at a local parish. It was a mixed lot, as you could guess. Some offered lessons one could endorse, but even in these the lesson was usually mixed with some form of immorality: The teenager learns a painful lesson in telling the truth, perhaps, but only because she is caught lying to a boy she has been sleeping with and loses him. That sleeping with the boy is itself a form of lying is a moral insight far beyond the author.

Other books told stories of silly children, almost always girls, living the anxious but oddly chipper life of the teenage libertine, concerned with the acquisition of boys and things and the status derived from both. Pitched at younger children, these seem to be the better selling.

In either case, the books’ heroes (if there are any, as admirable males are rare in these stories) and heroines do not live the kind of life a Christian father wants his children to emulate. They do nothing very heroic or sacrificial or self-abnegating. They respond to no higher call or self-transcendent principles. In the better stories, they get by; in the worse, they get boys, designer clothes, and a place in the inner circle.

Ever since our children were very young we have read to them from the great books, immersed them in the life of the Church, shared with them the pleasures of good music and good art and good conversation, and pointed them to the saints and other heroes. We have shielded them from the worldly influence of television (we don’t watch it at all) and trivial magazines. We have showed them how to enjoy the world’s productions (we do watch movies on DVD) while discerning what they teach.

And still we see the world in them all, as I can still see it in myself. They have heard some of those worldly voices and believed what they said, probably without knowing it. There’s only so much a parent can do to keep out the world; you can’t keep it completely out of your own mind, much less theirs.

But even I, with an Augustinian realism about the ubiquity of the world, did not see how powerful it was. I think now that I relied too much on arranging our life the way we did — not that we ought to have done less, but that we should have done more to make obvious the love that drove us to live such a life.

You cannot keep your children pure by force of will and the application of techniques. You must love God so that they learn to love Him too, giving them at once the power to resist the seductive, relentless old world and the desire (with God’s help) to keep themselves free from its stain till the day they die.

David Mills is the author of Knowing the Real Jesus and Discovering Mary and writes a weblog for Patheos. He has served as the editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things. This column appeared on the Crisis website on September 25, 2008.