July 13, 2007

Twenty Something / Christina Capecchi

Wants, needs and coconut extracts

Somewhere along the line, advertisers convinced me that my skin is woefully inadequate. Dull. Porous. Trapped in dead cells.

They hurled one pejorative after another upon my twenty-something skin, and not once did I defend it. Instead, I cried “Uncle,” cowering to the cash register with some brightly packaged, overpriced remedy.

Cosmetic advertisers are creative in their diagnosis of problems: dry, brittle, rough, damaged, parched, distressed, impure.

They are equally creative in their proposal of solutions, infusing goop with a smorgasbord of extracts: rosemary, lemongrass, seaweed, cucumber, melon, mango, pomegranate, coconut, orchid.

I’m a sucker for the exotic: Swiss Glacial Water, Tahitian Palm Milk, Australian Guava. The more remote its origin, I figure, the stronger its power.

I’m also a sucker for the scientific: alpha and beta hydroxy, nutri-keratin, complexes and formulas, fruit micro-waxes. I don’t have the foggiest notion of what fruit micro-wax is, but if the back of the bottle pictures a string of magical microbeads, I’m sold.

Garnier sells face scrub containing dermatological nutrients, a phrase that’s enclosed in quotation marks and followed by two asterisks. In tiny type, wedged below the product barcode, we find the asterisks’ meaning: “Ingredient complexes developed exclusively by Garnier to work on the skin’s outer layer.”

It is a brand name, a marketer’s invention, not a scientific concept. The asterisks exist for liability’s sake because technically the product is not working below the skin as “dermatological” suggests.

Cosmetic advertisers are selling what we never knew we always needed. We buy it because our society puts a premium on appearance. We buy it because we don’t want a pressing need to go unmet, and every cosmetic cause is now packaged to seem pressing. Garnier makes it matter, insisting, “The beauty of your skin reflects your inner health and vitality.”

Catholicism works the opposite way—from the inside out. It does not come in citrus packaging, yet it renews our inner health and vitality. There is no fine print. There are no asterisks or rhetorical inventions. There is nothing trendy to it. That’s not the point.

“An adult faith does not follow the waves of fashion and the latest novelties,” Pope Benedict XVI said.

Our faith is ancient, steadfast and deeply satisfying. When we practice it, all the fanciful effects attributed to skin products work on our interior. Catholicism hydrates the soul, polishes the spirit and softens the heart. It regenerates morals, fortifies character, renews forgiveness and rejuvenates compassion.

Our faith offers an active virtue concentrate, infused with extracts from St. Peter, St. Paul and the Virgin Mary. And the benefits are long lasting; only change that begins on the inside stands the test of time.

Distinguishing between wants and needs is the task of today’s Catholic young adult. Products, promises and potions are constantly pitched to us, arriving in pretty packages with wiggly words.

We must be discerning. We must see through the hype so we don’t invest our greatest energies on causes that are skin deep.

God knows the desires of our heart, and he will grant them freely and generously if we delight ourselves in him.

Parched skin may elicit more attention, but parched spirituality matters much more. So when you tend to those sunburned shoulders this summer, don’t worry about coconut vs. cucumber. Lather yourself in his love.

(Christina Capecchi is a graduate student at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. E-mail her at christinacap@gmail.com.)†

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