Betty Duffy

(Amateur)

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Turn Your Frown Upside Down

On our way home from Big South Fork we stopped at Smokey’s Bar-B-Q for lunch. It was noon on Sunday in Tennessee, and everyone in the restaurant had on their church clothes. Most of the women were in long skirts with long hair and no make-up—Pentecostal Country.

Everyone was dressed up save the Duffys, with their five Catholic kids in the clothes in which they slept, hair sticking up in a thousand different directions. We couldn’t find a Catholic Church anywhere near our campground, so we planned to catch a ‘booze and snooze’ Mass when we got back to Indiana.

Before we left camp, I’d gone to the trouble of laying out a loaf of bread and spreading each slice with what was left of the peanut butter and jelly. But my husband felt that our trip called for Bar-B-Q, being as we were in the foothills of the Smokey Mountains, and Smokey’s Bar-B-Q being as it was, on our route home.

So after we ate a bunch of macaroni and cheese, stewed apples, and sticky sweet ribs (not my favorite pork, but it will do) I took the kids to the bathroom, where I encountered yet another woman dressed in her Sunday best. She looked good, with her hair blown out straight to her shoulder blades, an a-line dress with a cute cropped shrug. She washed her hands and looked at me in the mirror where I stood against the wall waiting for one of the kids to let me know they were “done.”

I was wearing some unfortunate yoga pants, and the woman smiled at me, the kind of smile that is actually a frown with dimples.

I say, I’ve been guilty of the frown-smile before. I used to lector at my Church in high school, when I was a very good and pious teenager compared to my heathen friends. The old people would come up to me after Church and tell me what a good job I had done, that they could hear every word, and that I had such good enunciation.

After all my post-Mass congratulations one day as we shuffled out of our pews, my little brother whispered in my ear, “You look especially smug today.” And he was right. I went home and tried out my frown-smile in the mirror, and it said so clearly: “I am trying really hard to be humble, but please, tell me something I don’t already know.”

I was tempted to think that the frown-smile now aimed at me in the mirror reflected an assumption that we were a family of heathens, who could not be bothered to get dressed on a Sunday morning, much less go to church. And even if it didn’t, there was nothing else to do but offer a frown smile back, because regardless of how one is dressed, smiling in the bathroom is difficult business.


ADDENDUM: To this post, Marie writes the following comment which is too good to miss:

I was walking my toddler around the bathroom at church a few years ago (we retreat even farther than the cry room when squiggling gets fierce) and in walked two teens, not together. One wore a long skirt and a scarf on her head. She came with a family that regularly attended daily Mass and all the women covered their heads. The other was punked out. The one with the scarf looked very, very shy and awkward. She left first. The punk kid turned to me and said something to the effect of, "That's a lot of nerve of her, judging me for the way I look." I think she really meant it. I was amazed. There's not a chance anyone at that church was judging black fingernails as harshly as a head covering, and the scarf girl never looked at anything but her hands and feet the whole time she was in the room.

Not suggesting you were wrong about the smug smile, I'm sure you weren't [Actually, I'm pretty sure I was], but you just reminded me about bathrooms and self-image. Maybe it's all the mirrors. Definitely something different about looking at someone with your reflection than looking at her straight on.

18 comments:

Marie said...

I was walking my toddler around the bathroom at church a few years ago (we retreat even farther than the cry room when squiggling gets fierce) and in walked two teens, not together. One wore a long skirt and a scarf on her head. She came with a family that regularly attended daily Mass and all the women covered their heads. The other was punked out. The one with the scarf looked very, very shy and awkward. She left first. The punk kid turned to me and said something to the affect of, "That's a lot of nerve of her, judging me for the way I look." I think she really meant it. I was amazed. There's not a chance anyone at that church was judging black fingernails as harshly as a head covering, and the scarf girl never looked at anything but her hands and feet the whole time she was in the room.
Not suggesting you were wrong about the smug smile, I'm sure you weren't, but you just reminded me about bathrooms and self-image. Maybe it's all the mirrors. Definitely something different about looking at someone with your reflection than looking at her straight on.

wifemotherexpletive said...

woah, to that comment! excellent and part of why i like to come visit here...

BettyDuffy said...

Marie, YES.

Your comment makes my judgment of other people's alleged judgmentalism worth it.

If you don't mind, I'm going to see if I can work it into the body of the post.

You've just reminded me of how we tend to project our doubts about ourselves into other people's minds--probably so we can be annoyed without indicting ourselves.

Anna B said...

I have a quick question as it relates to Marie's comment: "There's not a chance anyone at that church was judging black fingernails as harshly as a head covering"

Why is head covering harshly judged?

Dymphna said...

Or maybe it's all in your mind.

BettyDuffy said...

Anna,
The practice of wearing head coverings in Catholic Churches diminished after Vatican II. Some traditional Catholics who often favor Latin Rite or Tridentine Masses still wear head coverings, or veils, as a sign of modesty and respect for the Eucharist.

Dymphna, yes.

Sally Thomas said...

Yeesh, head coverings. Right up there with pants as a conversation-starter. It's so hard to parse out just how much truth there is in the perception, on the part of people not covering their heads, that people who do cover their heads feel that they're being more righteous, and by covering their heads implicitly judging those who do not.

Likewise, it's hard to tell how much truth there is in the perception on the part of head-coverers that other people think they're being smug and self-righteous.

On the subject of judgment and misreadings, my teenaged daughter happened across a Facebook message from a friend of mine, whose daughter is a friend of my daughter's, to me. The happening-across was accidental: daughter was on my computer and assumed my Facebook account was hers -- we do have a lot of the same friends, so I can see how she would.

Anyway, this mother was explaining to me why she hadn't let her daughter come to our house the other day -- had to do with difficulties in their family, and difficulties they're having with this particular child, some of which I was aware of. My daughter hadn't been, and she read this message as a slam of *herself.* She called me up to her room, first of all to apologize for reading my message, then said she was upset because Mrs. X had said some "things about me that were really hurtful." I read the message and saw NOWHERE anything that I would have construed as anything other than a basic explanation. The other mom had said, "We love E., and she's the kind of friend we want J to have . . . "

So I reassured my daughter that, really, that meant exactly what it said, and nobody had said anything to diss her, and things go on in other families that we don't always get to understand, and blah blah blah.

All that to say: a teenager's totally misconstruing the very presence of another girl, differently dressed, in the same room as herself, seems so plausible to me that I can't even begin to express it.

Anonymous said...

I have a 4 yr old, adopted from an orphanage in India a year ago. She's a tough cookie at all times and definitely at Mass. We spend most Sundays in the cry room, but often log time out in the church vestibule when her antics are too much even for cry room standards. We were out there last week, me holding her while she struggled and fought, listening to the closing prayer. An older lady, oh so well dressed, came out to get an early jump on exiting traffic. Looked at me. Gave me the dimple frown. Said "We have a cry room, you know."

Christopher Milton said...

I was just in Big South Fork this spring, we had the same fun looking for a Mass.

There is a Catholic mission, St. Christopher, in Jamestown, and a Catholic church in Helenwood, St. Jude.

non-frown-smile

BettyDuffy said...

Sally, I've been noticing lately how the debate on pants and veils, etc, doesn't really come up anywhere else other than the internet. And I had a situation recently where I interpreted an email as fighting words when a fight was not intended at all. Then there's the case of the status updates, where you can like someone in person, but the things they write on facebook drive you nuts. Misperceptions are powerful things in real life, but they seem to accelerate even more quickly when they're committed to print.

Anon, I have never heard the cry-room suggestion phrased in a helpful way (and the frown/smile certainly doesn't soften anything). I've definitely been in your position, where a well-meaning parishioner points me in the cry-room's direction, and chances are, their intentions are good, but I am incapable of interpreting the suggestion in a positive light. This weekend, when we had some friends in town (with two two-year-olds, and a couple more kids as well), I thought maybe the mom would be glad to know where it was. I couldn't figure out a way to let her know, though without implying that I wanted her to go there. It didn't matter to me one way or the other, and since I didn't see how I could point it out without offending her, I let it go.

Christopher, Next time we're there, we'll look further. We were near Oneida, where the only Church offered an 8 oclock, and it was nine when we checked for masstimes.
We ended up at the 5 o'clock at the Cathedral in Covington KY, which was absolutely beautiful.

karyn said...

I always think I'm getting the frown-smile --- because I'm too frumpy, or I'm surrounded by a gaggle of kids, or because my son is out and about during school hours, whatever. I think a lot of it is my own self-consciousness. Doesn't mean that I don't get frown-smiles, just means I probably don't get as many as I think.

Young Mom said...

I used to see the frown-smiles everywhere. Lately, I've been noticing them less and less, I'm not sure if it's because I am trying not to judge people myself? Or because I just don't care as much what other people think of me?

JMB said...

I think that when you are surrounded by lots of children, you tend to get the "frown smiles" more than when you have one or two, or none.
You may be just tired and not thinking right, or too wrapped up in your own issues to see what's really going on. I don't know.

I knew a woman once who wanted to be the best Catholic around. Her husband worked 80 hrs a week, she had baby after baby and homeschooled her older ones and never ever ever smiled. So we would approach her, kind of scared, or worried that maybe she really did need some help. I'm not saying that this is your situation at all, but sometimes people really do look like they need something, like help or a kind word, or a break of some sort and you can't quite tell them that, but just "frown smile".

BettyDuffy said...

Funny thing since I posted this, I've walked around today realizing how much I'm actually giving the frown/smile, mostly to my kids--especially when we're out in public and I want to convey to spectators that I realize they're acting naughty. It's a way of evading discipline in public, to give my kids a look that says, "I disapprove, but I still love you."

Anyway, JMB, I do need help--for my face. I don't know if it's awareness that I'm aging, or if I really feel perplexed all the time, but I've been making some stupid faces that I didn't used to make. My forehead is getting creases, my mouth is always sort of open--I catch myself doing this in the rearview and I have to open my mouth really wide to shake off the dumb look. I would not be at all surprised if I'm conveying to other people the message that I need something.

Marie said...

Oh, no, I *really* didn't mean to say you were probably taking the frown-smile the wrong way. You don't seem to be as riddled with insecurity as I am, I'm guessing you read it right. I have two friends with five kids each, good kids each, and neither is overly-sensitive, and both have tons of stories of the I'm-going-to-disapprove-of-you-without-letting-myself-feel-like-I-am-acting-like-my-disapproving-mom kinds of looks.

It just reminded me the story, probably because of the head covering mention.

As for the head covering, I think I saw head scarves worn by maybe three people/families ever in that parish. But I did see plenty of shorts, cut-offs, advertising t-shirts (and those were just on my husband!), belly-shirts, short skirts, dark camisoles under light camisoles, form-fitting dresses, massive cleavage, all manner of everything.

I'm an absolute slob and I don't think I've been to Mass with dry hair once in ten years. But I found it funny that even in a parish with such disregard for anything like a dress code, the goth/punk girl genuinely felt disapproved of by the girl in modest/traditional dress.

Flattered to be included, by the way, thanks.

JMB said...

Betty,
What I do for my aging face is I buy the biggest sunglasses I can find. You sound like you are young and pretty! Don't worry about aging, my face actually thinned out over the past 10 years - who knew I had such rocking cheekbones! Anyway, I'm pushing 44...

priest's wife said...

"booze and snooze Mass"- I used to call it the 'last chance Mass'

Melanie B said...

Sometimes I suspect I'm guilty of giving people what looks like a frown-smile when I don't really mean anything but a smile. Just because I'm socially awkward and uncomfortable smiling at strangers.