A while back, an ordinary weekday began with a rare treat: FaceTime with my best friend of 18 years.
We live several states apart, and it had been an unusually long time since we’d talked, so I was grateful we could grab an hour early in the morning to catch up. She propped up her phone and I got to see her lovely face while she spooned cereal into her baby’s mouth and got ready for work. I also got to see glimpses of her house while we chatted — the new gallery wall in her living room … and piles of laundry strewn everywhere. The house “looking like a tornado went through here,” she said. I laughed and shrugged. It didn’t look much different than the piles of clutter and needing-to-be-vacuumed floors at my own house.
I’m glad she feels comfortable enough with me to let me see her mess. I’m glad she trusts me enough to be real, knowing that I’m delighted to get a glimpse of her beautiful life (and see the baby wave at me!), and couldn’t care less about the background mess.
It’s in that spirit that “keeping it real” is so popular on social media. Instagram and Facebook and Pinterest offer us a platform to present carefully curated pieces of our lives, and women who are tired of that standard of perfection — immaculate house, charming children, stylish wardrobe, gourmet meals — rebel by “pulling back the curtain” to reveal crayon on the walls, screaming toddlers, pants that won’t zip, and burnt cookies.
This is a good thing, right? A validating sigh of relief. It’s healthy and encouraging for us to see that those whose lives look perfect don’t actually have it all together! Solidarity!
Not so fast, some women protest. While the intent may be to promote authenticity and encourage others not to be fake, the accumulation of these “real” offerings depicting mess and failure can carry an underlying message that can be damaging and frustrating. The unspoken theme says, “To be messy is to be authentic” —or, more pointedly, “You’re only real and authentic if you’re a mess.”
This “messy is real” narrative contains seeds of truth. It’s a call to authenticity that says, “Let’s just be honest about our messes, instead of putting on a front and hiding our struggles.” In itself, that’s a positive sentiment. I don’t want my friend to clean frantically before she’s willing to FaceTime with me — or worse, refuse to turn on the camera. I want her to remember that I’m interested in seeing her, not her house! But so often, it doesn’t stop there. My healthy perspective morphs swiftly:
“I want your house to be messy because it will make me feel better about my own messy house.”
“If your house is clean, I feel threatened, inferior.”
“If your house is clean, I’m afraid you will judge me.”
“If your house is clean, I will preemptively judge you for being fake and trying too hard.”
In an article bluntly titled “No, You’re Not More of a ‘Real’ Mom Because Your House is Messy,” blogger Lauren Hartmann identifies the “messy = authentic” phenomenon as “a merry-go-round of comparisons”:
We all have our strengths and weaknesses, so when I see posts that say ‘this is what real life looks like,’ it doesn’t always ring true for me…. We all just want to know that we’re not alone and that other women and moms out there don’t have it all together either, but the thing is: there’s always going to be someone out there who does something better than we do. Some people’s houses really are as clean and tidy as they look on Instagram and some people really are that crafty.
Ungrind writer Danielle Ayers Jones, who brought this article to my attention, found it refreshing. “Being a mess emotionally or physically in your home becomes a badge of honor,” she said in response. “I just don’t accept that I need to prove my authenticity that way. Of course, our homes get messy and laundry piles up and dishes pile up in the sink. I get that, and I get that people try to show their lives aren’t picture perfect. Absolutely. It’s the underlying message I don’t like. Because beauty and order can be ‘real’ and authentic too.”
The glory of God is so multi-faceted and profound that one person can’t possibly reflect it accurately. We each bear His image, but it takes our collective image-bearing, in all our diversity, to even begin to depict His beauty. So instead of the constant comparing and competing, why can’t we look at someone’s clean house and affirm the image of God in her — her attention to order, her creativity, her diligent work ethic, her desire to serve her family and guests in her home? These are wonderful qualities that reflect God’s character!
Yet instead of seeing that and rejoicing at how she reveals different aspects of His beauty than we display, envy and insecurity lead us to assume the worst of her heart and motives. When we can’t stand seeing others’ strengths in the face of our own weaknesses, we prefer to pronounce them “fake” and applaud ourselves for being “authentic.”
Surprisingly, it turns out that the “messy is real” message is just as harmful as the standard of perfection it intends to counteract. We like the new standard of “messy = real” because it is a standard we can meet. We are enough for this. And therein lies the problem:
We want life to be measured by a standard we can meet.
We long to feel successful. We strive to find our identity in our achievements, our ability to satisfy the requirements — whether it’s our ability to be Martha Stewart, or our ability to shrug off that perceived pressure and be “real” about our mess.
It’s uncomfortable and painful to feel that you aren’t enough. But that’s the bad news that points us to the good news of the Gospel. We aren’t enough. We can’t meet the standard. (“Absolute holiness” is an infinitely taller order than “Pinterest-worthy”!) And we can only let go of our competing and comparing if we find our identity in our Savior. Unshakeable security comes in knowing we have been created in God’s image and redeemed to reflect His Son.
When we cling to the One who has named us and called us His daughters, instead of desperately, frantically trying to construct our own “I am awesome, I am enough because I can do XYZ” identities, then we can rest in His sufficiency where we are weak. Then we can affirm the parts of the body that don’t function or look as we do. We’re not all toes, we’re not all eyebrows, we’re not all spleens — and thank goodness!
I still don’t want you to clean your house before I come over. And I still don’t want you to judge me when you find my floors a disaster. But I’m working on not apologizing for my housekeeping weaknesses, instead trusting you to receive my imperfect hospitality. More importantly, I hope to affirm you if I find your house in tip-top shape. Instead of measuring myself against you, I want to train myself to recognize the image of God in you and celebrate how you’re reflecting Him in ways I cannot. Let’s find solidarity in the fact that we are all stamped with the indelible image of God, and let’s marvel together at how many different beautiful people it takes to put His beauty on full display.