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On being a female body at a Christian college

[I wrote recently about learning to love my body for Lent. Part of that loving so far has involved some deep contemplation about where the fear and hatred come from. And I’ve realized something.

Part of my body hatred, and by extension part of my self hatred, comes from the fact that oppressive people have used my female body  to justifying oppressing me.

I hate my body and myself because, deep down, I blame my body (and thus myself) for the ways in which I’ve been hurt by others.

7128_173502622984_2193630_nTwo examples stick out clearly in my mind. Both from experiences at my former Christian school, Grace College.

It was the first week of my freshman year. We had a meeting for everyone in our all-women dorm to go over the basic rules. Don’t burn popcorn and set off the smoke alarm. Be in before curfew. No sex, drugs, or rock and roll (okay, maybe rock and roll was okay. Just not during quiet hours!).

During this meeting, the husband of our Residence Director came in to talk to us ladies about, you guessed it!

Modesty.

He started out by telling us to never let any Christian man blame us for their sins. Then he proceed to…well, blame us for his sins.

He told us of his own porn addiction and of the porn addictions that other men on campus have talked to them about. He was blunt, and even made subconscious hand motions while talking about masturbation.

And what was his point?

“When you wear those tight jeans, your brothers in Christ go home and masturbate to you. Your selfish clothing choices make it hard for your brothers in Christ to break their addictions. Thanks to God’s grace, it’s been weeks since I’ve looked at porn, but it hasn’t been months. And the way women on this campus dress doesn’t help.”

I talked to many women who were present in that meeting who expressed that they left feeling ashamed and dirty. I know that every time I passed that man on campus from that day on, I wanted to turn invisible. I’d tug my skirt down and pull my jacket over my chest, and I’d resist the urge to get sick to my stomach thinking about him masturbating to me, and it being my fault.

My body was shameful. It was dirty. It could ruin lives and marriages just by existing.

This is the first thing I learned about my body at Grace College.

It was the second semester of my freshman year. We were required to attend chapel three times a week, so there I was. This week we were learning about relationships between men and women, how they were often broken in this world, and how we could fix them.

We did this by learning our roles.

And we could learn our roles, not just from Scripture, but from our bodies.

The speaker told the Biblical story of King Joash (and I’m still to this day not sure why). “Joash drilled a hole into the box,” he said. “Joash femaled the box.”

According to this man and his strange desire to associate being female with having a hole drilled into you, the reason men and women can’t get along is because men and women (mostly women) are rebelling against the nature revealed to us by our bodies.

“Men are supposed to give the life-bearing seed of the gospel to all the world,” he said, while making disturbing hand motions from his crotch to the audience. “Women are supposed to receive that seed.”

The moral was that female people were trying too hard to give when they were made to receive and weren’t letting male people to what they were meant to do (which is apparently to spiritually ejaculate on everyone).

Female bodies were not built to give life (apparently child birth doesn’t count and we’re just the incubators) but to be fulfilled in receiving life.

It wasn’t patriarchy holding me back, according to this man. It was my body. This is why I could not be a pastor, or a spiritual leader in my family. This is why I could not speak my mind too loudly or be too bold. Because I had a vagina, and vaginas are not for giving.

But I fell for it for years and years. I saw myself as stuck in this body with its sinful breasts and its useless vagina.

I saw my body as a prison.

And in seeing my body as a prison, I blamed myself.

Oppression is tied to bodies. It often happens in bodies and to bodies. It often comes from other bodies. And oppressive people use the bodies of the oppressed to excuse it.

Loving my body for Lent means recognizing that it is not my body’s fault when I am treated as “less than.” Loving my body means recognizing that others have used it to tell me I am “less than.” Loving my body means recognizing that those people were lying to me about my body.

Loving my body means affirming that they don’t decide what my body means. They don’t decide what I mean.

[Note: Though I learned some harmful things at Grace College, it was also at Grace College where I began the process of loving my body. That may be a post for another day]

 

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As a former fundamental Baptist, this is only my second year of observing Lent. Lent, when I was growing up, was one of those things that Catholics do because they don’t really believe in Jesus (I don’t think most Baptist preachers actually know any Catholics) and so they are enslaved to law and to rules and boundaries.

I thought, as a Baptist, that I was so lucky to not be enslaved to rules like those Catholics were.

Image

Photo by me.

Funny, considering the fact that when I was thinking this, I likely had on a skirt that had to go past the bottom of knee and a shirt that passed the “two-finger” test. I probably wore a silver ring on my left hand that bore the words “True Love Waits.”

Sitting their with a beam in my own eye, judging the Catholics and their Lent, I could not see how bound to rules I really was.

How bound to rules my body really was.

“Don’t cause your brothers to stumble.” 

“I was addicted to porn because the girls in my youth group wore tight jeans.”

Music should speak to your heart, not your hips.”

A Christian man will be able to tell if a woman is not sexually pure. A good Christian man will not find an impure woman beautiful.” 

When you give your body away, it is like letting someone test-drive you like a car and crash you.”

You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” 

Skin is sin.”

These are the words I heard over and over growing up. Skin is sin. Using my body is sin. My body itself is sin.

These were the words which kept me afraid of the body that was mine. The body that was me. These are the words that made me afraid of the awesome mass of cells and energy and chemical reactions that was my body. These are the words that made me afraid of any emotional or physical actions or reactions that were considered bodily. 

Sweating.

Crying.

A need for touch.

Dancing.

Exercising.

Sexual attraction.

I hid my body under layers of clothes. I crossed my arms and my legs and made myself as small as possible. I didn’t touch. Didn’t dance. I beat myself up whenever my body reacted to someone I found attracted. I heaped on guilt and shame and self-hatred whenever I touched myself.

And when I met my first boyfriend, and he began to treat my body like it belonged to him, I didn’t think I was allowed to stop. After all, my body didn’t belong to me, and I couldn’t use my body to fight back.

I carry over so much baggage from those years of disconnect from my body, from myself. Though I spent my years as a fundamentalist bragging about the freedom I supposedly had in Christ, that freedom was for my soul alone.

Not my body.

Never my body.

Yet, as my blogger friend Suzannah Paul says in this wonderful piece (made even more wonderful because of a reference to one of my favorite genres of music):

Our physical selves were knit by God to be wholly entwined with our spirituality, and the latter doesn’t trump the former. In the Nicene Creed, we affirm the resurrection of the dead. Even in heaven we’ll have bodies, and it makes little sense to live spiritual lives divorced from our bodily ones here on earth. [Emphasis mine]

So, for Lent this year, I’m setting my body free.

I’m setting it free from the hatred that I have directed toward it for years and years. I’m setting it free from any responsibility that the church tries to put on it for the sins of men. I’m setting it free from Platonic associations with the carnal, the base, the non-transcendent.

I’m embracing my body for what it is–one of the amazing manifestations of a universe filled with divine wisdom. Also, me. My body is me. 

I’m loving my body for Lent. I’m letting me be me.


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Image via JustJared

Image via JustJared

I didn’t watch the Superbowl, this year (or…any year) but conversations about Beyoncé’s halftime show caught my eye. On one hand, many felt that Beyoncé’s display of all-women power and sexuality was inspiring and empowering. David Henson even went so far as to call it prophetic (and I agree):

It was a dance of defiance.

For 14 minutes, women were owned by no one. Instead, for those few prophetic and powerful minutes, Beyoncé and the women onstage with her owned the night.

Last night, men, misogyny, objectification, or sexism didn’t win, even though they got most of the airtime.

Rather, last night, thanks to Beyoncé, women owned Super Bowl XLVII.

Others brought up valid criticisms, saying that they did not feel empowered by the performance and questioning what displays of power are allowed in the Super Bowl. Could a woman artist get on stage and display a less overtly sexual type of power? Probably not, and I think we do need to talk about other ways that power can be expressed.

What I can’t stand, however, are people who call themselves feminists or progressives who spent the next day shaming Beyoncé, and I saw plenty of that as I watched the Twitter response pouring in. Many said that Beyoncé objectified herself because of the way she was dressed and the way she danced.

Though I think we need to have a conversation about how few images of women are presented in the music industry, right now, I just want to talk to those progressives.

Women have bodies.

No, women (like men) are bodies.

These bodies were not made for men to conquer, steal, and objectify but for women to be.

Many, if not most women have sex from time to time using our bodies. Often we are sexual with our bodies or we use our bodies to be sexy.

This does not make us objects. Objects don’t have sex.

Men are often seen as more human, as REAL men when they are sexual, while women are accused of objectifying themselves.

But I repeat: Objects don’t have sex.

Objectification does not happen when a woman like Beyoncé decides to use her sexuality to be powerful. Objectification happens when Audi commercials show a teenaged boy kissing a teenaged girl without her permission and displaying that as bravery. Objectification happens when men doing something sexual to a woman is put on the same level as a man driving an awesome car–when women are seen as nothing more than a product to be owned as a mark of manhood (note: women often objectify men and same-sex couples objectify one another. I’m speaking about the context of the Super Bowl and patriarchy, though often the situation is more complicated).

Objectification is something one person does to another person.

Objectification is treating someone as less than human, as if their body is nothing more than a thing to be claimed or conquered or bought.

Beyoncé went on stage last night and showed the world what a talented and powerful woman she was. She sang lyrics about independence and men not being ready or able to handle her body.

Did some men ignore her songs about women’s power and independence and choose to see Beyoncé as yet another object that they could conquer in their fantasies? Undoubtedly.

But I fail to see how this was Beyoncé’s fault.

She shouldn’t have been dressed like a Victoria’s Secret model.”

Her dance moves were too sexual and just made men fantasize about her.”

Feminists and progressives, do you not realize how you sound?

I’ll tell you how you sound by quoting a conservative Christian dating book that I am reading for my research project on rape and Christianity:

“If you dress like a piece of meat, you’re going to get thrown on the barbeque.”

You sound like conservative Christian dating books promoting modesty culture and enabling rape culture.

You sound like the same culture that is telling women that dressing immodestly is like waving money around asking for people to steal it. You sound like the authors who tell teenage girls that they lose their value and dignity when they have premarital sex.

I’m done with this idea that every time a woman presents her body to the world, men get to assume “that was for us.” And you’re naive or willfully ignorant if you’re going to try to claim that objectification would not have happened had Beyoncé been more “covered up.” You’re wrong if you think a different outfit would have made a difference in carrying Beyoncé’s message.

The truth there’s nothing a woman can wear under patriarchy that will prevent patriarchal men from trying to control their bodies.

Muslim women are accused of submitting to patriarchy for covering their bodies. Beyoncé is accused of submitting to patriarchy for showing hers. Even as she’s literally singing lyrics about how men wouldn’t even be able to handle her body, men think they can claim it as an object for themselves. To say that her performance is what caused men’s objectification of her is the same talk as modesty culture which says that women must dress a certain way to keep their brothers from stumbling.

Having sex is not what objectifies women. Dressing in a “sexy” way is not what objectifies women. Women are allowed to have sex and perform sexually and be sexual and be sexy. That’s not objectifying. Again, objects don’t have sex.


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Unseduced and Unshaken: A Book Review

 

 

 

The following is a book review of Rosalie de Rosset’s book, Unseduced and Unshaken: The Place of Dignity in a Young Woman’s Choices. I’ve been given a copy of the book to give to one of my readers, so if you’re interested in a free book, leave a comment! 

 

When I first began reading Unseduced and Unshaken (which one of my twitter followers joked sounded like what you’d get when you played a James Bond film backwards), though there were a few aspects of it that made me uneasy, I wanted to like it. I really did. The author made several points that stood out from typical Christian jargon and I wanted to embrace those points and write a review about how I was “pleasantly surprised.” The main idea of the book is the idea that women should be “dignified.” That word made me cringe right from the start, but the author’s initial definition of dignity actual had me nodding my head in agreement. According to Rosset, a dignified woman is strong, demands respect, has found her voice and uses it, and boldly speaks the truth. Rosset encourages women to educate themselves, study theology on their own (in opposition to asking their husbands at home, a point which made me particularly happy), and to reject the world’s attempts to sexualize and commodify women. These are all things that I want to do and be as a feminist woman.

 

However, despite the good, I couldn’t get over my unease at the idea of demanding that women be “dignified.” I was too much of a skeptic to embrace the author’s positive points. Women speaking and being bold and thinking for themselves? I just had a feeling that what I was reading was too good to be true. This is a Christian book. There has to be a catch.

 

I was right about that. The book quickly decelerated until  the last few chapters where it got so bad I wanted to throw the book across the room. Even before that point, however, there were hints as to where the book was headed.

 

One positive thing I will say about the book is that it meets its intended purpose. In the introduction,the author states, “I pray that this book will begin significant  conversations, lead to further reading, discussion, and even disagreement.” Oh, there was disagreement. But that disagreement led to discussions, with Abe and with friends on Twitter. Through these discussions, I realized that many of the points made in this book are commonly made in Christian culture, and that these points can have unhealthy, even disastrous, effects on women.

 

I’m going to list and briefly discuss a few of these points below, and I, like Rosset, hope that they lead to significant conversations. A few of these points may even merit their own blog post in the future.

 

  • Be rational!: The book consistently makes a point to demonize emotions. Emotions are usually equated with sin, and women are told to foster rational thinking so that we can combat the feelings that are leading us to sin. Rational thinking is good and important, and it’s refreshing to hear someone encourage women (and Christian women at that!) to use it. But when rational thinking is contrasted with emotion, it sets up a false dichotomy of thinking and feeling. The message many take away from that false dichotomy is “Don’t trust your feelings and don’t express them too much.”
  • God fixes eating disorders: In one chapter, the author explains how vicious society is toward women. She’s right, of course, but rather than turning her critique toward society, she critiques the women who are affected by society. She describes women who don’t feel adequate because of societal pressures as having a “pathetic greed.” She also states in another chapter that eating disorders and depression are caused, not by a society that constantly tears down women, but by women not fulfilling their longings with God.
  • Respect or sex? You can only choose one: The author states that many women “open themselves up to disrespect” by “getting physically involved too soon and going too far.” The author also tells women that they are to dress modestly so that they “are taken seriously…not objectified and don’t attract the wrong kind of man.” She then says that once we overcome sexual sin, we can return to our “self-respect.”
  • Lesbians are pathological and clingy: The author lists “same-sex attraction” as an addiction. In one of the most rage-inducing parts of the entire book, she describes lesbian relationships as mere friendships that include “attachment that is marked by emotional immaturities, crippling dependency, exclusivity, and insecurity.” She sees lesbian relationships has having some “elements of genuine affection,” but as mostly being “problems of idealization and unresolved childhood attachment that create a barrier to healthy adult mutuality.” She ignorantly suggests that lesbians are unable to “emotionally receive the presence of another without a loss of self or a dependent consumption of the other.”
  • Masturbation is evil:  According to this book, masturbation will make it hard for you to have a relationship with someone because you’ll be satisfied with satisfying yourself. I’ve heard this argument many times from Christians. I have no idea where they get it from. I’ve never heard of anyone (besides maybe John Mayer) who just couldn’t relate to a sexual partner because of masturbation. The author defends her idea that masturbation is a sin by stating that people feel guilty for doing it. This kind of contradicts her whole “don’t trust your feelings and use logic” point. Her reasoning here just baffles me. She doesn’t address Christian culture that makes people ashamed of all sexual expression, nor does she address society that shames women who are able to find fulfillment outside of men. She simply concludes that since people feel guilty for masturbating, it must be a sin.
  • Modesty. Be ashamed. Be very ashamed: The book tries to make a point for modesty outside of the tired, old “don’t cause your brothers to stumble” line. The author believes in this line, of course, so I couldn’t even celebrate her choice not to focus on it for too long. But the author thinks that our idea of modesty should come from theology, specifically the theology that states how worthless we are without God. Using the story of Adam and Eve as a reference point, the author states, “clothing confesses that humans are ‘without.’ We are…untrustworthy, vulnerable to one another, and lacking faith in the benevolence of God.” We are to dress modestly to “confess who [we] are in Christ by showing who [we] are without Him–naked and ashamed.” With this idea, the author lifts all pretense from the modesty discussion and states what it is really about–being ashamed of our bodies, ourselves.
  • Civilize the menfolk! Later in the book, another reason for modesty is given: it “changed men from uncivilized males who ran after as many sexual partners as they could get to men who really wanted to stick by one woman.”
  • “One of the most precious gifts in life is innocence,” the book states. Yet innocence is stolen from us by things like sex education and sexual abuse (yes, the author really puts those two things in the same sentence as thieves of innocence). The author praises the Lord–who protected her from ever having been touched sexually or jeered at inappropriately–for protecting her innocence, which hit a nerve for me since the Lord apparently chose not to protect my innocence when I was abused at a young age.

 

When I discussed these points with Abe, his response was, “Well, that just sounds like every other Christian self-help book for women. Why do we need to hear all that again?” He’s right. You’re probably not surprised by the above points if you’ve spent any time at all in evangelical culture. For many of us, these points have shaped, and may even continue to shape, our worldview. I’d like to spend some more time dissecting these points in the comments. Let me know if you’re interested in a free copy of the book so you can dissect it more thoroughly!

 


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Veiled Muslim women and revolutionary modesty

I saw this floating around Facebook:

Could it be, I wonder, that for a Muslim woman, wearing a veil is not a symbol of oppression or male dominance, but a sign of religious commitment?

Could we perhaps even call it revolutionary modesty?

Now, all y’all who read my blog on a regular basis know that I am no fan of the way the church handles discussions of women’s clothing. So, don’t worry. I’m not about to tell you all what to wear or what not to wear.

But I want us to take some second looks.

I want us to take a second look at the Muslim woman in this picture.

I want us to take a second look at our so-called liberated American society.

I want us to take a second look at the church’s run-of-the-mill modesty sermon.

I want us to take a look at the clothes we wear and the reasons we wear them.

Last night, to prepare for my class the next day, I read a chapter in the book Shattering Stereotypes: Muslim Women Speak Out. In the chapter “Tapping Our Strength,” Eisa Nefertari Ulen, an American Muslim feminist, shares her thoughts on veiled Muslim women in America (emphasis mine):

Are women who insist on wearing the hajib unselfconsciously oppressed, or–particularly in the land that gave us wet t-shirt contests–are they performing daily acts of resistance by covering their hair? In the West, where long blonde tresses signify a certain power through sexuality and set the standard for beauty, are veiled women the most daring revolutionaries? 

She continues:

By living in constant alignment with faith, they challenge the misogynist systems that compel too many Western women and girls to binge, purge, and starve themselves…American Muslim women who choose to cover undeniably act out real life resistance to the hyper-sexualization of women and girls in the West…

It takes a warrior to be a Muslim woman.

So often we non-veiled, non-Muslim women look at our veiled sisters and we feel pity that they do not have the freedoms that we have.

But what freedoms?

Is it free to feel the constant need to compare ourselves to photo-shopped bodies in magazines? Is it free to be enslaved by the ever-evolving capitalist fashion industry?  Is it free to have see those of our sex constantly objectified and sexualized by the media? Is it free to dress for the male gaze?

Is that really freedom?

Of course, some of you are already preparing your comments which are going to say, “Well, some veiled women really are oppressed!” And you’d be right.

But here’s another quote by  Ulen to ponder:

I think about the women I know who cover themselves and their daughters for the wrong reason, and then I remember I know some women who wear push-up bras for the same wrong reason: to please men.

And, I’d add, the modesty sermons in the Christian church are almost always fueled by that same wrong reason.

“Don’t let your brothers stumble!”

“A good Christian man will be more attracted to a modest woman!”

“Modest is hottest!”

…to please men.

As Ulen says,

Right now, half of American non-Muslim women encourage other women to be free by being naked and the other half desperately tries to get women and girls to cover up. Meanwhile, the men simply get dressed in the morning.

Whether we’re wearing hajibs or jeans or baggy t-shirts or mini-skirts, are our clothes making us slaves to patriarchy and consumerism? Are we letting debates over clothing keep us from being truly free? Or from embracing and loving and banding together with our sisters who dress differently?

Let’s think about that today.

I’d like to add that, it is about as easy to talk about Muslim women as it is to talk about Christian women. Islam is the second largest religion in the world and has billions of followers. Muslim women are diverse–some wear veils, some wear mini-skirts. Another thing to keep in mind! 


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Modest is hottest?

Can we talk about modesty?

No, not about how women need to cover up their legs and chest to keep men from stumbling. Not about how women need to “respect themselves” by covering up (really, what does that even mean?). Not even about how there’s a huge double standard and how we don’t talk about male modesty as much and how women are visual too (though, we are. Seriously, folks)

No, let’s talk about what modesty really is.

And let’s start with a t-shirt that I saw at a Christian book store a few years ago:

I hate to break it to you, folk, but this shirt isn’t modest. I don’t care if you buy it three sizes too big and you can drop a quarter through it and it passes the three finger rule (yeah, Baptist school girl. I know all the modesty tests).

It’s not modest.

Why?

Because modesty isn’t a dress standard. Modesty is humility. 

I cannot recall modesty in the Bible ever being linked to sexuality. Unless braided hair and gold were the boobs of the first century, I get the idea that passages on modesty were directed toward rich women who were bragging about their social status.

Biblical passages about modesty are calling women to the humility of Jesus. Biblical passages about modesty are reminding women of what is really important– not how well you dress, but how well you love.

This t-shirt, however, is sending the message, “My clothing contains more fabric in all the ‘right’ places, and therefore, I am more sexually attractive than you.”

This shirt is self-promotion, self-righteousness. This shirt, with hilarious irony, becomes the opposite of the very thing that it claims to promote. This shirt unintentionally parodies what the issue of modesty has become.

Under the guise of “not causing our brothers in Christ to stumble,” today’s so-called modesty is just another way to attract men sexually. Rather than showing it all off, we “leave some for the imagination.”  Both approaches achieve the same result.

Even when promoted with the best of intentions, even when the women dressing modestly truly care about their brothers in Christ and not just about being “hottest,” today’s so-called modesty is silly.

Why?

Because it’s okay for humans to be sexually attracted to other humans.

Seriously.

That’s natural. That’s just part of our biological makeup as sexual creatures. We’re wired to want sex. Covering up our bodies doesn’t change biology, nor should it.

Just as modesty is not about sexuality,  lust is also not about sexuality. Lust is about a lack of self-control. Lust is about over-indulging in natural desires. Lust is about consuming objects or people in an addictive manner that prevents the person lusting from truly seeing value in the object of lust.

Modesty is great. Women should be modest. Men should be modest. But somewhere along the line, modesty lost it’s meaning.

Modesty isn’t something that advertises itself on a t-shirt.

Modesty is not a leash that keeps men from getting into trouble.

Modesty is a meek and quiet Christ-like spirit that changes the world with love.