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.
It was in response to the latest Dove video, which you can see here:
And look, here I am writing about it anyway! (Just as I havebefore about earlier Dove ads.)
As far as the video goes, I absolutely agree with the seeming diagnosis that many women have a kind of body dysmorphia. They focus on the qualities they hate rather than the qualities they like, and this causes them to perceive themselves as vastly less attractive than they are perceived by others. However, I think this video suggests the wrong treatment for their diagnosis. They suggest that beauty, physical beauty, “couldn’t be more critical to happiness.” And they suggest focusing on the things you do like about yourself, and, presumably, buying Dove products to help you mitigate and feel better about the stuff you don’t like, like your armpits, for example.
Like I said, I absolutely agree that there is an epidemic of low self esteem in our culture. I would say, however, that the underlying cause is not that we don’t value our physical beauty enough, but that we put too much stock in it altogether– that we make it “absolutely critical” to our happiness.
If the strangers in that video thought the women they met were more beautiful than the women saw themselves, how much more beautiful are those women to the people who know and love them? Think about the people whom you love most in the world. They’re gorgeous to you, right? There are moments with them that simply take your breath away. And it’s because the truest beauty we see and love in others, the kind we need to see in ourselves, comes from love. When you look at people through the eyes of love, they become beautiful to you, a beauty that is pervasive and total and has nothing to do with the shape of their jaw and everything to do with the shape of their heart.
One of the most mind-exploding aspects of becoming a mother has been the way it has utterly changed how I feel about beauty. Into my life have come these two absolutely gorgeous, utterly and totally beloved little creatures. They take my breath away. Daily, their beauty brings tears to my eyes and a pang to my chest. There is not a bit of them, not even their underarms, that needs to be made more beautiful.
And here’s the truly mind-bending part: I came into this world the same way. I took my parents’ breath away. To them, I am heart-stoppingly beautiful. And I am that way to others who love me as well. And even crazier, bigger, more mind bending? I am beginning to see that I am that beautiful to the One who created me as well. And if that isn’t enough to revolutionize our thinking, what is?
The Beatles say, “You’re talkin bout a revolution, well, you know, you oughta free your mind instead.” The Bible says, “Do not be conformed to the ways of this world, but be transformed, by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). Freeing and renewing our minds can’t be done when we accept consumerist culture’s premise that beauty is external. It can’t be accomplished by cheerleading brands for ever-so-slightly widening the cultural beauty standard. It can only be done by trying to get our heads around just how deeply we are loved, and seeing ourselves and others through the eyes of Love.
Now, I know this is a much more difficult premise than simply obsessing over parts of ourselves that we like, or buying a cream. Learning to love yourself is tough stuff. But it doesn’t happen if we’re simply focusing on another aspect of our physical appearance. It can only come from the amazing, crazy, transformative power of an encounter with Love. For me, that’s the Love of God. For you, it may be simply meditating on the way you deeply love someone in your life, and trying to see yourself through those same eyes. But this is the revolution folks. You gotta free your mind.
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 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.
Long time, no blog! My friends would say I caught the blogflu, but the truth is, I caught the regular flu too. Somewhere between getting busy with the end of a semester of grad school, catching the flu, and my husband having a brief cardiac episode that landed him in the hospital overnight, I haven’t done much blogging lately. The truth is, I was kind of burned out on blogging. I’ve been doing a lot more tweeting and Facebooking of things about which I’d normally churn out a nice blog rant. But, I’m finally feeling healthy and starting to feel the urge to blog again, so I’m back. Luckily, I’m not like, Dooce or anything, so I haven’t deluded myself into thinking that anyone missed me.
But, here’s what’s gotten me fired up enough to take pen to paper fingers to keys and get back to blogging: awkward interactions with old high school classmates.
Now, Little Rock is a big small town. It’s small enough and close enough to where I grew up that I still feel wary about going to Kroger unshowered and un-makeup-ed, because I know I’ll run into someone I know. Now that everyone is coming home for the holidays, the odds of me running into old friends in public is amplified by a factor of ten.
Just yesterday, my husband and I were out doing holiday shopping when I ran into a high school classmate. We hugged and caught up and exchanged the basic details of where we live now and what we’re up to. She told me I looked just the same as in high school. I told her, “Thanks, you too!” And then she said, “No, I don’t, I’m fat!” What was I supposed to say to that? On the one hand, she has gained some weight since high school. And, I read enough Fat Acceptance blogs to believe that the word “fat” should no more be an insult than “tall” or “short.” On the other hand, I know that to most people, calling oneself fat is self-deprecation at best, and an insult at worst. Was I supposed to argue with her? Say, “No, you look great”? Was I supposed to just agree and say, “You’re right, you have put on some pounds”? I felt really awkward.
Instead, I felt like I should insult myself too. Other women can correct me if I’m wrong here, but it felt like we’d entered some sort of ritual, where we’d both self-deprecate in order to be “nice.” I muttered something about having to buy new pants lately because my ass has gotten bigger (this is true, but not something I’m super concerned about), and then saw my husband approaching and changed the subject by introducing him to my friend.
Still, even as we’d left the store, I was thinking about the awkward exchange. As I munched french fries with my husband, I asked him, “Why couldn’t she just smile and say thanks? Why do women so often do that? Why can’t we just take a compliment, be it about our looks or our abilities?”
The truth is, this happens a lot. You compliment someone on their outfit, or their hair, or their figure, or the great job they did at something, and then they start trying to convince you that you’re wrong, they don’t really look great, or they really don’t deserve all the credit for that awesome thing they did. And then you, the complimenter, feel like a jerkface. Like, why did I even bother trying to say something complimentary?
It’s enough to make me want to become a motivational speaker (plus or minus a van down by the river), to have seminars where I make women practice receiving compliments with a broad smile and a sincere “Thank you!” Where I holler at a crowd about OWNING YOUR OWN AWESOME, and the way that this makes people who give you compliments feel good, and more likely to give you compliments, and also about the way that owning your own awesome gives others permission to own their own awesome too. Because I guarantee you, there is something awesome about you. And I also guarantee you that the person telling you about that awesome thing really does think it’s awesome. My friend may have gained some weight since high school, but she’s still a gorgeous woman, and it seems she has a fulfilling job and a husband that she loves, and by most metrics is having a great life. She should own that awesome.
So, my motivational speech to anyone reading this is: if you bump into an old friend this holiday season, and if they give you a compliment, JUST SMILE AND SAY THANK YOU. Trust that the other person means it. Know that when you deflect their praise, you make them feel awkward and kill the conversation, which is the opposite of gracious behavior. OWN YOUR AWESOME.
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.