Tuesday 21 December 2021

Being Looked At

I got into a slight social media spat yesterday, for a social media star (and I have just found out there is such a thing) posed for a photo of herself in a white chapel veil and false eyelashes and, once it was enhanced (the star looks ten years younger than usual), posted it on social media. 

The photo was later reposted by one of my Facebook friends, who used it to illustrate that young converts are drawn to traditionalism. 

The sight of this photo on Facebook irritated me, and I had been awake since 4 AM, so I imprudently wrote an ironic remark, watched as it was misunderstood, and then made serious remarks about what a mantilla is meant to do. I was counselled to be more restrained, which I suspect meant to be silent, as in my opinion I had been restrained. 

We were not restrained when as Catholic schoolgirls we discovered a photo of a girl wearing our uniform kilt in an advertisement for feminine hygiene products. There was a rumour that the model was a student at our school who had cravenly and stupidly worn her own kilt to the shoot. The advert was in a Canadian magazine (probably Chatelaine), and so we thought we were in danger of having boys shout comments about feminine hygiene products at us in the street. 

I was not restrained a few years later when I discovered Canadian film director Atom Egoyan had kitted out a stripper in his film Exotica in a Catholic schoolgirl uniform. For one thing, men used to park outside my school and watch us walk past in our own Catholic schoolgirl uniforms. For another, I was horrified to discover that "Catholic schoolgirl" is a stock character, however ephebophiliac and grotesque, in male sexual fantasy

About twenty years later the Trad Catholic blogosphere was unrestrained about an odd blogger who enjoyed taking erotic photographs of women in chapel veils. This was probably inevitable, as there are men who could find erotic meaning in galoshes and umbrellas, bus transfers and sellotape, let alone scraps of lace. And, of course, there's a custom in which unmarried girls wear white chapel veils and married women wear black chapel veils, so white chapel veils = virginity and cue heavy breathing for that kind of man. 

The fetishising of Catholic clothing is why I was very cross with the married social media celeb's speedy appropriation of the white mantilla. She had apparently just been to her first TLM, but instead of saying "Wow, that was incomprehensible," or "There were so many kids," or "Nobody told me I had to bring a missal," like an honest trad-to-be, she posted a photo of herself attempting to look like a virginal teenager. 

She did this less than a month after becoming a Catholic (an event thoroughly discussed on a social media show) and one day after the Congregation of Divine Worship's ghastly Responsa put the TLM in the headlines. And the more I read about her famous-for-being-famous career, which involves being photographed with politically controversial objects and clothing, the more I believe I was right to be annoyed--and to say something.

Traditional Catholicism is neither a political movement nor a fashion statement. And like the vestments that blot out a priest's individuality so that he can put on Christ for his congregation, the chapel veil/mantilla/or hat is meant to blot out women's beautiful hair during Mass. It is also an ancient sign of modesty, and modesty includes not going out of your way to be looked at

Therefore posting a photograph of yourself in a chapel veil so that you can be looked at wearing a chapel veil is the exact opposite of what the chapel veil is for.   

"Cut her some slack," wrote someone in Italy, so I will remind myself that newcomers to the TLM often get it wrong, only in a different way. Some wear leggings. Some sing at the part where only the choir sings. Some get upset because nobody seems to notice them. Some hit on the first girl they see. Some begin a conversation about why all women must dress like the Blessed Mother. Because trads have a reputation for being mean, it is indeed important to cut newcomers some slack.

However, this was the first time I had ever seen a mantilla used in self-promotion. The normal progress of a young Catholic maid or matron is to show up bareheaded, and then the next week covered with a nice scarf of some sort, and then after a few weeks or years, with an actual mantilla or chapel veil or lace rectangle like most of the other women. 

But I was also chastised (on Facebook) for my sanctimoniousness and was asked WWJD, which is the most non-Trad question ever, since Trads are more concerned about what the Lord HAS done and what He WILL do on dies irae, dies illa.

And then I was asked whether anyone would become a Catholic reading my (mild, by the way) remarks, let alone visit a TLM. Sadly, my interlocutor erased this question before I could publish my answer, which is that anyone who would make a decision that important based on a few online comments by a complete stranger does not have the intellectual freedom to become a Catholic. 

But that said, I do know two people who became Catholics in part because they read my blog, so my interlocutor did have a point. Thus, I will now repeat that self-promotion is the opposite of traditional Catholicism, and that the ultimate thing to do, as a traditional Catholic, is to enter a convent or monastery, change your name, go through a symbolic death, and be rarely seen in public again. 

Naturally, if you're married or called to be married you can't do that although there is a lot of humility in putting aside your own surname to take your husband's and there is a lot of trust in giving your name to your wife. If you become the mother of children, especially many children, you will probably spend almost all your time at home, the Domestic Church.  

At any rate, I hope that anyone who reads these words will not be put off finding out about traditional Catholicism but discern my point, which is that the Faith is real, deep, profound, so real, deep, and profound that its true richness can only be transmitted through symbols, symbols like the chapel veil. Therefore, the chapel veil must not be abused. It is not a fashion statement. Catholicism is not a fashion statement. It is a slow dying to oneself in order to live fully.  

In short, Catholicism is not a costume. 


  1. A few counterpoints. 1) I haven't seen the white veil/unmarried, black veil/married thing practiced broadly at any parish I've attended. I think it's unfair to say this woman is posing as a virginal teen; lots of happy grandmas and even great grandmas at my TLM wear white veils. 2) Stocking up on Catholic stuff is part and parcel of converting, reverting, or completing your sacraments. It shouldn't be suspicious that a Catholic newbie has a veil when cradle Catholics take a while to warm up to them. 3) I got my veil years before attending a TLM. So did my friends who wear veils. The progression isn't universal. 4) The mantilla isn't a fashion statement, but it isn't a scapular either. It's an accessory with a purpose, but it's beautiful, decorative, and personally selected. I can't get upset with someone thinking she looks pretty in her new veil. 5) I can't stand false eyelashes on myself, but some women just put them in the way I brush my teeth every morning.

    All that said, selfie culture is tiresome. I credit you for paving the way for my TLM attendance, and I didn't see the photo. So maybe it was trashy, can't say. Just that I could see doing all that myself if I were 15 years younger and liked makeup and selfies.

  2. Me? Really? Gosh, I'm glad! Well, the virginal teen thing was not just because of the veil: it was the makeup and the airbrushing. St. Thomas Aquinas was rather down on cosmetics; I can only imagine what he would have to say about airbrushing!

    As I continued to debate people on Facebook, I realised the real issue is who are the appropriate spokespeople for a group of people undergoing difficulties.

    Meanwhile, it didn't occur to me that women who go to the TLM wear veils because they think they make them look pretty---which goes to show how demoralised I am, as I must have thought this myself at some point. Another issue, of course, is who gets to be Headcovering Police, which I am credibly informed is not me. :-D