Last week, my girls got their first non-baby dolls. They’re some Disney Princess toddler dolls they fell in love with Sam’s Club, and I’ve already roped their grandmother into sewing some clothes for the dolls by oh-so-helpfully sending her some links to some patterns. I foresee many hours of doll-playing in our future, and I know that soon enough, when they are a little bit older, it will be Barbie time.
This may surprise people who know me, a person who has been known to actually walk around in a tee-shirt that says FEMINIST across the chest, but I’m absolutely going to let my girls play with Barbies. Yes, I agree that Barbie presents a certain impossible beauty standard that is problematic and should be discussed and maybe even changed (hey Mattel, is fixing Barbie’s waist-to-hip ratio too much to ask?!), but I also think Barbie offers girls something no other toy does: the ability to imagine and enact narratives about adult life. Baby dolls facilitate one kind of play: parenting, which is wonderful and valuable, and all kids should get the opportunity to pretend-nurture and act like their parents, but it’s still limited. But Barbie? Barbie is a blank canvas. Barbie can be anything, and by extension, so can the child bringing her to life.
I really believe that I’m a writer today in part because I played with Barbie. She allowed me to create stories and dramas, to write dialog before I ever knew that was what I was doing, and to participate in what sci-fi types might call world building. I even did literal building, constructing furniture and houses for my dolls out of things around the house. I can still remember exactly how we made a Barbie couch out of rolled kitchen towels. Through Barbie, I imagined and enacted conflicts and their resolutions. Through Barbie, I imagined all sorts of jobs beyond just a dolly’s mommy. I look forward to my girls one day doing the same, and I think maybe when they’re 4 or 5, they’ll get some Barbies, including many of my own that my family saved for me.
All of these memories were stirred up when I saw Barbie’s new ad campaign, and it seems they’ve realized and decided to highlight what I always thought about Barbie: she is a vehicle through which children can explore the possibilities of the adult world. The ad is pretty breathtaking:
What about you? Did you play with Barbie? Will you let your kids play with her?
*Note, this is not sponsored by Barbie. I just have fond memories of the toy, and had been thinking about my girls and dolls when I saw the video shared on Twitter.
The other day, I started noticing a phrase in people’s tweets. “Dadbod.” At first I just thought it was some sort of inside joke among some of the writers that I follow, like the physical embodiment of dad jeans, or something. But I soon realized that they must be getting this dadbod thing from somewhere. So I did what I usually do (read, used Twitter as my own personal Google) and tweeted something like, “I’m going to need a dadbod origin story. What the heck are you guys all talking about?” I mean, when childless hipster friends on Facebook have started to mention their “dadbods,” there’s some kind of Thing going on. Helpful folks on Twitter led me to this piece from The Cut, which was apparently riffing on something a student at Clemson named Mackenzie Pearson wrote. Basically, “dadbod” is what frat boys with beer guts are now calling their physique. Like, I’m not ripped because I’m too busy having fun, please enjoy my dadbod.
The gist I got from The Cut is that dadbod is something some folks are into. Like folks who really dig Seth Rogen and Jason Segel. I’ve been known to say a dude looks like “a cute dad,” and I happen to be married to a pretty hot dad, so I guess I might fall into the dadbod fandom. Dadbod is apparently just a funny hip coinage for an average, healthy male body that doesn’t spend a ton of time on like, Crossfit or something. If you were to call it what it really is though, you’d probably call it average.
At the end of the piece, though, one of The Cut’s editors says “I can’t stop thinking about how offended I would be if men were talking about the ‘Mombod.'” Except PLENTY of people have made it clear that “mombod” is an actual thing, yes, but also a thing to be avoided like the plague. No one writes appreciation pieces about the mombod and how “doughier tummy areas are good at sex — better, even — than, say, a ripped-abbed [person].” Because obviously, we doughy-tummied mommies are not sexual beings but rather sad sacks who need to GET THAT BODY BACK, RETURN TO OUR PRE BABY BODIES, GET A BEACH BODY, ROCK THAT BIKINI POST BABY, ETC.
Dudes are allowed to have “dadbods” and be seen as cute for it precisely because their worth isn’t as intrinsically tied to their appearance the way women’s worth is.
Here’s the thing though: mombod is real. Some women get “back” to tight abs and perky boobs after they become moms, but I’d venture that most of us are changed in at least some way by the experience, and there isn’t really any going back. Even if you “lose that baby weight,” stuff just isn’t the same anymore. We can see our bodies as damaged goods, or we can embrace the transformation. Growing twins may have left my midsection softer and my belly button unrecognizable, but it also made me feel more deeply connected to my body. And you know what that is, really? A sensual experience. An empowering experience. And sensuality and power and even softness are sexy.
So. If “dadbod” gets to have a moment, if we get to admit that “imperfect” male bodies are desirable, let’s do the same for “mombod” too. Whatever body you have, mombod, dadbod, rippedbod, fatbod, YOU are what make your body sexy, not the other way around.
Being pregnant is a very strange experience. I would say “out of body” but it’s really the opposite: it’s deeply embodied. The physical reality of gestating two humans inside of my rapidly changing body radically and forever altered my relationship to myself. When we saw that second blob on an ultrasound screen and learned we were having twins, my husband’s oh-so-charming first words, with tears of joy in his eyes, were “you’re gonna get SO BIG.” He squeezed my hand supportively. I did not murder him because I was in too much shock.
Thus began a 9 month funhouse of physicality. There was never a moment in all that time that my body, my physical self, wasn’t somehow on my mind. I watched my belly and boobs expand, smeared my stretching, itchy skin with lotion, and wondered if I’d get stretch marks. I saw my belly button pop out, never to go back to its innie state. I felt surges of hormones and nausea. In my sleep, I snored like a chainsaw and drooled like a fountain. I discovered that restless leg syndrome wasn’t invented by a drug company but is in fact a very real thing that makes you contemplate DIY-amputation in the middle of the night just to get some relief and rest. I felt my sciatic nerve like never before. I had some of the best hair days of my life. I discovered two babies is enough to make a uterus officially, diagnostically “irritable.” I was constantly aware of the fullness of my bladder and its relationship to my insatiable thirst. I discovered that literally everything caused heartburn.
Strangers noticed my physicality, too, and decided I was an object fit for comment. By mid-pregnancy, everywhere I went, people looked at me like a baby might just FALL OUT at any moment. Sometimes they stopped in their tracks and just said “WHOA” as I waddled by.
But this experience, as mortal as it made me feel, was also deeply liberating. I was both bound by my oh-so-human frame and completely freed from many of my previous hangups. I focused on my diet more than ever before, not in an effort to lose weight, but because I was worried about preterm labor and wanted to grow my twins as big as I could before they would arrive, however soon that might be. I largely relinquished control over my looks and just reveled in my midsection’s seemingly unstoppable growth. I actively tried to gain a pound a week, which felt downright radical in a culture that seems to think women should constantly and forever be working to lose weight.
And then when my babies did come, I was far too busy and too tired to give a flying fig about “losing the baby weight” or “getting my body back.” Thank God.
All of which to say, screw the idea that “pregnancy abs” are something any gestating human should be worrying about. There is now literally no point in a woman’s life where she’s given a break from cultural expectations about her appearance. I went from “too tiny to be having twins” to “so big I must be about to deliver any minute” without a single “acceptable” moment in between. But most of the time, I didn’t even care, because I was enjoying a hiatus from listening to or caring about those voices. I got to experience my body as a body, just doing its bodily thing in a way that was life-changing. I am now more in touch with my physical self, and more admiring of its ability to do what it has to do to keep me and others alive and growing, and I feel downright ragey at the idea that any other woman needs to spend a single precious second of her pregnancy (or any of the rest of her life) worrying about her ABS.
If you’re one of those women who can run races while massively pregnant because that is what you love to do and it makes you feel good in your body? More power to ya. If you’re like me and pregnancy is hugely exhausting and physically draining and just managing to walk feels like winning an Olympic gold medal? More power to you, too. Our bodies are unique, amazing, and OURS. How they should look isn’t anyone else’s business.
Wow. What a question. But it’s been a Salon headline, thanks to an excerpt from a new book about Femivores, and as a result, has been re-blogged in several places. And now I’m asking too. Only I’m also going to answer the question.
To recap, what I said then is true now: yes, it’s sexist and inaccurate when food writers express nostalgia for a Good Old Days that never existed. As Emily Matchar makes clear in the excerpt of her book that Salon posted, and as is clear to anyone who watches Mad Men, it’s simply not true that our grandmothers ate better, more wholesome food than we did. My grandmother’s most famous recipe involves a jar of Cheese Wiz, for example. You’d have to go back to my great grandmother on the farm to get to something close to “slow food,” and then you’d also have to consider that she was living a life of drudgery during the Great Depression with many many mouths to feed. So yes, it’s absolutely a valid criticism of folks like Michael Pollan to ask that they please lay off the pre-feminist nostalgia.
It’s also one thing to note that feminism led many women out of the kitchen and into the workplace, and another to blame all our current food woes on that fact. Sometimes, it has seemed that Pollan has done this, but in a rather large body of writing I must charitably point out that overall, I do not get the feeling that he’s truly a sexist who thinks cooking is women’s work, as he himself is a man who cooks. Still, we need to consider that the lack of home cooking in this country might be precisely because FEMINISM ISN’T FINISHED YET, and true equality would have as many men getting into cooking as women getting out of it.
This brings me to my frustration with the “Is Michael Pollan a sexist pig” chapter/article heading. It’s like Jay Smooth’s awesome video about racism: you need to keep the conversation about what the person said/did, rather than on who/what they are as a person. Absolutely Michael Pollan has written some sexist things. But calling him, as a person, a sexist pig, even in a semi-joking headline, really goes too far, especially when there are so many actual sexist pigs out there not doing good work and fighting the good fight, save for a few statements.
I guess, as a bread-baking, yogurt-making, pastured-egg eating, feminist, stay at home mom, I wonder what people think is exactly the problem in this movement, one in which people who have other options are choosing something based upon important values and beliefs. I don’t want to fall too far into the choice feminist camp, because I believe even feminists can make problematic choices, and that the personal is political, and the choices we make perpetuate a system larger than ourselves, etc. etc. etc. BUT. There are a lot of us, women and men, for whom food and other seemingly small choices are deeply important, even spiritual. We may find joy in a system of farming, cooking, and eating that is healthier for ourselves, for the workers who make/grow/produce our food, and for the planet.
Matchar writes, “As should be obvious to anyone who’s peeked at a cookbook from the late 1940s or early 1950s that promotes ingredients like sliced hot dogs and canned tomato soup, we’ve been eating processed crap since long before feminism. Yet the idea of the feminist abandoning her children to TV dinners while she rushes off to a consciousness-raising group is unshakable.”
But in a way, Matchar seems to echo this early criticism of feminists, and seems to think we’re choosing these domestic pursuits to the exclusion of other, worthier causes:
“Many smart, educated, progressive-minded people, people who in other eras would have been marching for abortion rights or against apartheid, are now immersed in grassroots food organizing, planting community gardens and turning their own homes into minifarms complete with chicken coops.”
But you know, we’re the people who have time to show up to the pro-choice rally with homemade muffins in tow. It’s like when you show interest in supporting a charity for say, animal welfare, and someone reminds you that there are starving people in the world who matter more. Well, it’s amazing how boundless my interests and passions can be. I can care deeply about the food I feed myself and my family and also about social justice and politics. And I can be part of a slow food movement while still recognizing that it has major problems with privilege, a lot of the time.
And you know, I have a feeling Matchar feels the same way, too. She mentions in her piece that she’s “been learning to can jam, bake bread from scratch in my Dutch oven (though my husband is better at it), and make my own tomato sauce from a bushel of ugly tomatoes I bought at the farmer’s market.” It’s entirely possible her book reflects my tone of largely admiration for the work of slow-foodies while also seeing a few shortcomings. It’s just unfortunate that she (or an editor?) are (even jokingly) calling one of the “good guys” a “sexist pig” in order to sell a few more copies.
While driving home from school today, I was thinking to myself about all of the stuff I’ve been reading this semester. I’m taking a women’s lit seminar and a “literature of the Americas” seminar (Latin American and Native American) and really enjoying the readings for both, which has stirred up a lot of thoughts. I realized, in a sort of meta way, that I tend to think almost in essay form. I’m not sure if it’s because of all the school I’ve had, or if I like all this school precisely because I’m constantly composing essays in my head, but my musings tend to become thesis statements and paragraphs in my mind. Of course, the problem is, I rarely get a chance to write them down, what with actual assignments to do and something about two babies to take care of….
But, I do have a blog, and I can at least get down these essay embryos and maybe one day return to them and turn them into something if I want.
One of my most striking realizations stems from re-reading The Awakening by Kate Chopin. It’s the story of an 1800s wife and mother experiencing a literal awakening to herself and her place in the world and her realization of her profound unhappiness the more she gets to know herself. When I read this novel for the first time, I believe I was a college freshman. I was 18, and it was a purely academic exercise. Now, I’m reading it nearly 10 years later as a wife and mother, and I’m practically a completely different person reading a completely different book.
Upon first reading, I vaguely remember feeling sad for Edna Pontellier, but I didn’t really understand her in any meaningful way. She wasn’t a very sympathetic character to me, and I found her largely selfish and annoying. She has a live-in nanny, for crying out loud, and she’s supposedly stifled by her role as a mother?! Of course, she’s still a little annoying, with her privileged white girl problems, and I think even Chopin would admit her protagonist is selfish (though how hilarious is it that Edna reads Emerson, perhaps the paragon of selfish male introspection, and he doesn’t get such criticisms). However, now I have a much greater personal window into Edna’s frustrations, even as I realize that maybe it’s precisely because I read The Awakening and other books like it before I became a wife and mother that I largely do not share her pain.
It is precisely because of characters like Edna Pontellier that my greatest fear before becoming a mother was that I would somehow lose myself. Edna argues with the great mother-figure of the book, her friend Adele, about what she would be willing to give up for the sake of her children, baffling Adele with her insistence that while she would give up her life for her children, she would not give up her self. Adele does not understand the difference. And of course, Edna does not understand Adele’s happiness, either, unable to comprehend that a woman who sees almost no distinction between herself and her role as a mother could be truly happy and fulfilled.
The problem for Edna is not that there is something inherently wrong with being a wife and a mother, or that no woman can be fulfilled in those roles, but that not all women are, and for Edna, there were few other options. She is not an Adele Ratignolle, joyfully consumed by her children, but neither is she content to remain a single woman like musician Mademoiselle Reisz. For all her supposed failings as a mother, the Edna we see in the novel is a woman who deeply loves and is very tender with her children. One scene that stands out is her tender rocking of her child to sleep when “the quadroon” is unable to get him to bed. She misses them when they are absent at their grandmother’s house. She would miss them were they not in her life at all.
She is a woman of privilege, even has the much-coveted “room of one’s own” in which to paint, and the childcare to give her time to do so and to think and wander the city as well, and yet she has no meaningful activity outside of her home, and no one in her life who truly understands her. She is a woman who favors the relationship of motherhood but is not well suited to the jobs of motherhood, a distinction made in this very compelling post from Ask Moxie.
Unlike Edna, perhaps because of Edna, I have remained determined to finish my graduate education and continue pursuing my dream of being an English professor. Because of Edna, I know how crucial it is that I get time away from my girls to tend to my other interests, because it makes me a better person and therefore a better mother. Because of Edna, I am grateful for a marriage to a partner who knows me deeply and loves me as a person, not for any prescribed roles I might fill. Unlike Edna, I got to go to college and get to know myself, to become an adult on my own terms before I became a wife and mom, and to discern what it is I want to do with my life and how to define my place in this world. Unlike Edna, I have options.
Somewhere between reading The Awakening for the first time and reading it for the second, I have had many, many awakenings that have made this experience of Edna’s story completely different from my experience the first time around. And in that difference, and in the difference between her life and mine, there is much much gratitude.
I spend a lot of time hanging out in my university library between classes. Usually I’m busy looking over materials for class, or checking in with my internet world, but sometimes I let my eyes wander over the shelves wherever I’ve settled, just to see what catches my eye. Recently, a tall book caught my eye, its title visible over the tops of all the other books: Women are Here to Stay. “Of course we are!” I said to myself, “Where else could we go? Who could manage without us?” I pulled the book off the shelf and read the subtitle: “The Durable Sex in its Infinite Variety Through Half a Century of American Life.”
Intrigued by this strange title, I opened the book, and realized it was a book of pictures. Often, hilarious pictures.
But it turns out, published in the 1940s, this book had a feminist mission. One which is sadly still necessary today. Check out the introduction and see if you can relate:
The American woman today must be an expert housekeeper…She must be a wise, conscientious, and loving mother, always there when her children need her, but standing aside when her presence might threaten the full development of their individuality. She must be a delightful, helpful, thrifty wife, ready to administer comfort or to share in gay adventure. She must be a useful member of the community, informed on broad political trends as well as possible danger spots in the local school boards. She is also a citizen of the world and should be able to name the current President of France, have constructive ideas on what to do with the atom bomb, and say what’s wrong with our foreign policy.
That isn’t all. She is expected to read, look at, listen to the important new books, pictures, music, for women are the traditional guardians of culture. If she’s young, she should be cultivating some interest against the time when the children don’t need her. If she’s old, she should be happily occupied in some moderately useful, unspectacular fashion, keeping herself decently to herself, and not interfering with her juniors and betters.
And at all times, and at all ages, she should be, if not actually beautiful, as good-looking as perfect grooming, a disciplined figure, and good clothes can make her. (This part is very easy. The advertisements tell you how.)
It would not be surprising if women gave up entirely, crushed by the barrage of abuse and advice, and paralyzed by the impossible goals set for them. They don’t though. They keep on living–longer than men, as a matter of fact. It is indeed a durable sex.
Now, in nearly all books about women, the authors assume that women think and act first of all as women, not as individuals, and this assumption leads into the habit of thinking that they’re all pretty much alike. It is my intention to demonstrate that there are a great many different kinds of women (just as there are a great many different kinds of men) and that it is impossible to generalize about them– tempting though this may be, and very good fun as a pastime. (1)
On the one hand, this is laughable– of COURSE women are all special snowflakes, individuals, whose allegiance is first to ourselves and then to our sex. But is this not still our struggle? To be our individual selves, despite the monolithic mold that seems determined to bend us into some sort of ideal woman?
So, by now you’ve probably heard the story of Weiner-gate, and if not, by all means, Google is your friend. Basically, a US Representative (edited because I previously called him a Senator) who happens to be named Weiner (it could only be this funny if it had happened to him or John Boehner), may or may not have* tweeted a picture of his boxer-brief-clad crotch. And, much like the time Brett Farve texted some pics of his crotch, the event has sparked a conversation around the very concept of sexting, particularly the sending of pictures of crotches to women.
I’m so glad a few randomly polled women quoted in a national publication are enough to declare, once and for all, that certain parts of men’s bodies, the parts most associated with sex, are universally not sexy. How problematic is this? Let me count the ways:
1. Women. We are many and varied like so many special snowflakes. Just because 5 ladies in the Washington Post say something isn’t sexy TO THEM doesn’t mean that it isn’t sexy to many many other women. While I am very sure that there are some ladies who would find a photo of a man cleaning their gutters sexier than a picture of a penis, I’m sure there are also some ladies who would find a picture of a man in high heels or wearing a dog collar sexier than a picture of a man cleaning gutters. If there is anything the internet has to teach us, it’s that for any given thing, there are lots of people who find that thing sexy. And lots of people who don’t. So perhaps the number one takeaway could be: know what your partner thinks is sexy. Maybe ask him or her and talk about it. Send him or her pictures of things that person thinks is sexy. Because you know what IS pretty much universally sexy? When someone gets to know you and wants to make you happy in ways that actually make you happy. Personally? I would not be happy to receive photos of any body part on my cell phone. But that’s just me. It might be right up your alley.
2. “Porn for Women” when defined only as photos of men doing household chores like making beds, folding laundry, or organizing a refrigerator, is a very damaging idea. The fact that women are supposed to find photos of men doing housework hot suggests that housework is women’s job, and if men do it, it is a super special favor that should be rewarded with sex. It also suggests that sex isn’t something women actively desire, pursue, and enjoy, but rather something they begrudgingly consent to in order to please and/or reward men. This is what leads to damaging ideas like grey rape– the idea that sex is, at best, something women must be convinced or coerced into having, and that a “no” is negotiable. I know it might seem like a leap to go from “sexy” photos of men folding clothes to the idea of rape, but it’s part of a larger problem of seeing women as sex objects who reluctantly give up sex, instead of active participants in the wanting and having of sex. Fold laundry because you live here, not because you want a sexual reward. Have sex because you want to, not because you feel you owe it to someone or that you have to be talked into it.
3. Bodies are sexy. I’m always quick to point out how uncool it is to shame women about their bodies. Telling men that part of their body is universally unsexy is also uncool. Sure, as I actually said when the whole Brett Farve thing went down, a picture of a penis outside of any context, certainly when unsolicited, can be jarring and confusing and even violating. But bodies and their parts can also be very very sexy, even if said bodies aren’t involved in mopping floors or whatever. One stereotype I think is particularly damaging is the idea that men are visual creatures but women aren’t. Different people are aroused in different ways, but for many many women, visuals are indeed arousing. Even visuals of naked men. Just as I believe women deserve to be with men who think ALL of them is sexy, men deserve the same.
4. The thing that makes the Brett Farve and Anthony Weiner pics unsexy is that they were also unsolicited. This goes back to my earlier post about enthusiastic consent. Don’t foist pictures or activities or anything on someone unless someone has enthusiastically consented to that picture or activity. Because it turns out rape/assault is decidedly NOT SEXY. **The Weiner pics would be increasingly unsexy if they prove to have been taken and/or posted without Weiner’s consent, making him a victim as well.
My pithy final words? Don’t send penis pictures to people who don’t want them or don’t find them sexy. Don’t assume that women do not like sex, that they do not like men’s bodies, or that housework is their job. Don’t assume that the four people you interview for your piece are representative of all people of that gender (or race, or socioeconomic group, or, or, or).
I barely remember her from the bad Christian pop of the 90s, but apparently Rebecca St. James is still some sort of authority on modesty and whether or not someone deserves to be sexually assaulted because of what they are wearing. I say apparently, because Fox News had her on to discuss a recent spate of “Slut Walks,” which I would describe as a sort of updated “Take Back the Night” rally, in which women march wearing whatever they want, in order to make the point that being perceived as a slut, whether because of one’s clothes or other reasons, is not justification for sexual assault. It’s largely based on lampooning the very concept of the word “slut,” since it can’t be an insult or a justification if those to whom it is applied refuse to be shamed by it.
Anyway, back to Rebecca St. James, she of 90s CCM fame. This is what she said on Fox News (video here):
“I think there has to be responsibility though for what a woman is wearing,” St. James told Hannity Monday. “When a woman is dressing in an immodest way, in a proactive way, she’s got to think about what is she saying by her dress.”
“They’re asking for sex,” she continued. “They’re asking for sex if they’re dressed immodestly.”
Here’s the thing. ONLY ACTUALLY ASKING FOR SEX CAN BE CONSIDERED ASKING FOR SEX.
What someone is wearing, whether or not they are drinking, what kind of neighborhood they are walking down the street it: these are not ways of consenting to sex. I’ll put it a bit more clearly:
ONLY ACTUALLY CONSENTING TO SEX CAN BE CONSIDERED CONSENT TO SEX.
St. James seems to believe that rape is an appropriate punishment for women who dare to dress in a way that does not meet her cultural standards of modesty. She also seems to take the very negative and insulting view of men that suggests they are sexbeasts who cannot control themselves in the presence of female flesh. And, possibly, she seems to hold the beliefs that women don’t really want sex, and are unlikely to enthusiastically, verbally, clearly consent to engage in it, and that sex is something men must convince or coerce women into having, either by raping them, or exchanging gifts and time (it’s called dating, romance, or maybe even marriage– since an engagement ring is the ultimate gift) in exchange for sex.
Here’s what I think. Sex is natural, sex is fun, sex is best (and should only happen) with someone who wants to be having it with you. Both men and women enjoy and desire sex. Sex should only be had with someone who very clearly, obviously, verbally has expressed that he or she wants to be having sex with you. It’s called a standard of enthusiastic consent, and it handily does away with slut shaming, and “gray rape” and other points of confusion about consensual vs. nonconsensual sex. You don’t have to wonder if someone is sending you signals by their clothing, or by where they happen to be walking, or by what they happen to be drinking. You’ll know.
I have to confess: until The Bluest Eye was assigned for one of my classes this term, I had never read any Toni Morrison. And WOW. She’s amazing. Her prose is amazing. I can’t get over it. I’m so glad Beloved is also on my comps reading list.
I just finished The Bluest Eye and one of the things that stuck out to me is the theme of beauty vs. ugliness. Now, of course, I have to preface this by saying that race and socioeconomic status play huge roles in this theme throughout the book. I am a person of racial and socioeconomic privilege, and I do understand that I cannot fully relate to the characters in the book, but, who really can fully relate to the experience of another, ever?
Anyway, one passage just so aptly described what I KNOW to be true that I have to share it. It’s describing a family that everyone perceives as ugly:
You looked closely at them and wondered why they were so ugly; you looked closely and could not find the source. Then you realized that it came from conviction, their conviction. It was as though some mysterious all-knowing master had given each of them a cloak of ugliness to wear, and they had each accepted it without question. The master had said, “You are ugly people.” They had looked about themselves and saw nothing to contradict the statement; saw, in fact, support for it leaning at them from every billboard, every movie, every glance. “Yes,” they had said. “You are right.” And they took the ugliness in their hands, threw it as a mantle over them, and went about the world with it.
I feel like society hands women ugliness every day. It’s the message leering at us from the billboards and movies and magazines full of women who literally do not exist. They have been created in Photoshop and through lighting and makeup and editing and styling to become fictional representations of all that we are not. And these mirages reach out to us and hand us ugliness. They tell us we can be them, if we use the right skin cream, have the proper surgical procedures, wear the right clothes, follow the right diet, but they can’t even be them. They don’t even exist.
Another passage describes a character who comes to believe she is ugly in comparison to the women she sees in movies, women like Jean Harlow. Worse than judging herself, she judges her own daughter by that standard of beauty. She hands her own daughter ugliness:
She was never able, after her education in the movies, to look at a face and not assign it some category in the scale of absolute beauty, and the scale was one she absorbed from the silver screen.
I know so many beautiful women who are utterly convinced that they are ugly. That they are less-than. That they are not worthy. But the truth is, their ugliness doesn’t really exist, not on their faces. It’s just a garment they’ve been handed and they choose to wear it. Eventually it maybe even becomes a part of them, but they weren’t born that way.
Are you wearing ugliness where you should be acknowledging beauty? You don’t have to take it from them when it’s offered, you know.
Today marks the fifth and final installment of my Jesus and Gender series. If you missed any of the earlier posts, feel free to check out Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 before reading the rest of this post.
As I said in my introduction in Part 1, when I set out to prepare for the talk at my church that led to this blog series, I was thinking I might end up just having to “chuck” some sections of the New Testament, particularly Paul’s letters. I thought there was just no way I was going to build a case for the full inclusion of women without having to admit that I think, in some cases, parts of the Bible can just be plain outdated and inapplicable to modern life. But, to my surprise, I discovered a rich tradition of women leaders in the early church, even in Paul’s writings!
Women were actively involved in the forming of the first church immediately after Jesus’ death. From Acts 1:14: “They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.” Acts also speaks of a fairly remarkable set of sisters, though perhaps what is most remarkable about them is that Luke, the writer of Acts, doesn’t consider them remarkable at all. In Acts 21:9 “Leaving the next day, we reached Caesarea and stayed at the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the Seven. He had four unmarried daughters who prophesied.” To prophesy is to preach, and Luke presents four unmarried women who preach, and deems it normal, unworthy of any particular comment or condemnation.
But what about Paul? Verses from Paul are often used to make the case that women are not to speak in church, women are not to teach men, and women are to be modest. My argument is that, in light of what we know about Jesus’ radical interactions with women, we have to look at Paul again. Is it possible that we have misunderstood Paul by failing to look at the entire context of his writings?
After all, it is Paul who has the beautiful vision of the kingdom of God described in Galatians 3:28-29: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise.” According to Woman in the World of Jesus, “The phrase ‘in Christ’ implies one’s personal relationship with Jesus Christ; but it also implies one’s being in the family of Christ. To be in Christ is to be in the church, the body of Christ. For those ‘in Christ’ or in the church, the body of Christ, it is irrelevant to ask if one is Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female.” (163)
Paul also establishes that the primary criteria for determining who should serve in what area of the body of Christ is whether or not an individual has been gifted by God in that area, not gender, or ethnic status, or any other human criteria. This becomes apparent in Romans 12:4-8. If you have a gift, you are obligated to use it.
Even in the midst of the bizarre 1 Cor passage (11:2-16)* in which Paul demands that women in Corinth cover their heads in church, he affirms their role to pray and prophesy in public: “But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved.” At the time, “prophesy” was the preaching portion of their worship, and Paul does not call for women to be disallowed from prophesy or public prayer, just that they cover their head while doing so. His later instruction that women “should remain silent in the churches” and save their questions for their husbands for when they are at home, rather than interrupting those who are praying and prophesying cannot therefore undermine his support of women as the ones doing the praying and the prophesying. This is a section about maintaining order in the worship service, and his instruction is to keep silent while others are teaching and praying, not that women are not permitted to teach and pray.
And Paul was a man who had no problem with women as equal partners in ministry, as with Priscilla and her husband Aquila, and he has no problem calling women deacons and apostles, as he did with Phoebe and Junia. Phoebe appears in Romans 16:1-2: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.” Phoebe is described in Rom. 16:1 as what is sometimes translated “a servant,” but this word, “diakonon,” the root of our word “deacon,” was used for anyone engaged in any form of ministry, and is the same word that Paul uses to describe his own ministry (1 Cor 3:5; 2 Cor 3:6, 6:4, 11:23; Eph 3:7; Col 1:23, 25). According to McCabe**, the words used “points to a more recognized ministry” or “a position of responsibility within the congregation.” “Minister” would be an acceptable translation in this regard (99). Other women were deacons: Pliny, writing during the reign of Trajan (98-117 AD), describes female deacons in Bethynia. He also describes these same women as “ministers.” And, in his commentary on Romans 16:2, early Church Father Hatto of Vercelli stated “at that time not only men, but also women presided over churches.” (McCabe 109)
Another noteworthy woman was Priscilla, who appears in Romans 16:3. Significantly, she and her husband are listed as “Priscilla and Acquila” (the most important of a group was usually listed first, which is why we conclude Mary Magdalene was the leader of Jesus’ women disciples, because she was always listed first). BOTH are Paul’s “fellow workers in Christ.” Both “risked their necks” for Paul, and for them Paul and all the other Gentile churches give thanks. A church meets in “their” house. Priscilla and her husband are equal partners in ministry. In Acts, Luke describes Priscilla and her husband teaching a man, a Jew named Apollos: “When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.” (Acts 18:26)
This brings us to the apostle Junia, who appears in Romans 16:7: “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” There is some debate about whether or not this should be translated Junia or Junias, but many scholars support translating it Junia, and note that Junias is not a common Roman name, and has not been located elsewhere in other ancient texts, while Junia was acommon name for Roman women at the time of Paul. Despite this, for years, translators went with Junias instead of Junia, because of the word “apostle” next to her name. They reasoned that women can’t be apostles, so the text must be wrong to name her Junia. My translation, the TNIV, names her as Junia, as does my English Standard Version. Most newer, more accurate translations go with Junia. Early Church Father Chrysostom (344-407 AD) writes of Romans 16:7: “To be an apostle is something great. But to be outstanding among the apostles—just think what a wonderful song of praise that is! They were outstanding on the basis of their works and virtuous actions. Indeed, how great the wisdom of this woman must have been that she was even deemed worthy of the title of apostle.” (McCabe 121)
Finally, I have to mention Euodia and Syntyche, who are found in Philippians 4:2-3 “I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.” These are two women whom Paul calls his co-workers, his equals, his fellow ministers.
I have to admit, I had never heard of Junia, Phoebe, or Euodia or Syntyche. As I read and researched to prepare for this talk, and I came across these names of these great women of our faith, I even found myself getting angry that I had never been taught these pieces of our history—and I grew up in a faith tradition, Presbyterians, that had no problem with full inclusion of women in every aspect of church life—I just can’t believe we aren’t being taught this great history!
Just as there are many different women named in many different roles in the early church, just as Mary and Martha had very different ways of showing their faith in and love for Jesus, there are many different roles available to women and to everyone in the family of faith today. I am not arguing that all pastors should be women or that all women should be pastors, but simply that women should be able to serve Jesus and work to advance his kingdom in any manner to which they feel called, just like anyone else in the church. I am so glad that I can love and serve a Jesus who encountered men and women and treated them all as whole persons, worthy of dignity, love and respect. I am so glad to be able to be his disciple, like Mary Magdalene and Joanna. I am so glad I can find my own way of serving in the Body of Christ, like Junia, Priscilla, Phoebe, Euodia, and Syntyche. And I am so glad to have found my particular family of faith, Eikon, where they’d let even a geeky, passionate, loudmouthed, feminist like me stand up and teach. I am so encouraged by this church, so excited about the inclusive spirit this church tries to embody, and so blessed to be a part of it.
*Seriously, this is a bizarre passage. Paul tries to say that men having long hair is “unnatural.” Any men out there, stop cutting your hair and let nature take over and guess what will happen. He also makes a strange allusion to angels, as if they are somehow tempted by women with uncovered heads. As best I can tell, this is some sort of reference to accounts in Genesis where angels had sex with human women, producing giants and other heroic offspring.
**Women in the Biblical World: A survey of Old and New Testament Perspectives. Elizabeth A. McCabe, ed.