Stacy and Clinton versus Descartes

Used to be, one of my guilty pleasures was the TV show
What Not to Wear. In case you haven't seen the show, it features "fashion consultants" Stacy London and Clinton Kelly. They ambush some unsuspecting sloppy-dressing person (almost always female), who has been nominated by her so-called friends, who love her but just can't bear to look at her shabby clothes any more. After persuading the victim/guest of honor to sign on to the What Not to Wear program, they then go through her wardrobe item-by-item and throw everything into the trash. They crush her self-esteem (or at least her pride in her wardrobe), and then pay for an all-new wardrobe, which the victim buys in accordance with principles learned from Stacy and Clinton. Further, the guest gets a new hairdo from stylist Nick Arroyo, and make-up lessons from make-up artist Carmindy. (Fortunately, the make-over always requires shorter hair, not longer.) At the end of the show, the victim returns in triumph to her friends and family to reveal her new, stylish figure.

I say this "used to be" a guilty pleasure, not because I no longer take pleasure in it, but because I quit feeling guilty about it. I've decided Stacy and Clinton, while their fashion recommendations are a little too "safe" for my taste, are waging a battle over a deep philosophical principle (and, better yet, on the side of goodness and light, which is to say the same side as me). What is striking about What Not to Wear is how many of the guests, having undergone the process, say not, "Hey, look--I got some neat clothes," but rather, "I feel like a totally different person." This raises the question: what connection is there between the clothes a person wears and the state of his or her soul?

The philosophical position of mind-body dualism asserts that the mind and body are two distinct and separable entities. If you've ever seen a cartoon in which the mad scientists causes a cat and a mouse to switch personalities, an assumption underlying the story is that the personality can be separated from the body. It also is an important factor in theories of reincarnation and resurrection (although not necessarily--some who believe in resurrection insist that the body is resurrected along with the soul). One of the foremost proponents of mind-body dualism was Descartes.

There is some reason to think that mind-body dualism is an inborn belief. Think of the forementioned cartoon--very young children watch such stories and have no difficulty understanding what's going on. Moreover, if one thinks of the brain as a computer, then the personality would be like software, which can easily be transferred from one computer to another. But inborn beliefs often turn out to be false--consider how nonintuitive are the concepts of curved space-time, Schrodinger's cat, or even the motion of the Earth.

I personally don't hold with dualism; I believe the person is an integrated whole, and that one cannot make one part of the person stronger by making another part weaker. If you want the best for yourself, then demand the best of yourself in all aspects: mental, physical, moral--and yes, your clothes as well. Dressing well does not necessarily mean dressing formally; a T-shirt and jeans, depending on various subtle details, can either make you a slob, or project elegant, timeless simplicity.

Occasionally Stacy and Clinton get a guest who resists on the basis that clothes are merely superficiality, and people should be focusing on their inner beauty instead. I hope one day to hear them retort: "So you claim to be a philosophical dualist, do you?"

No comments: