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Flesh and Blood

The first time I remember hating my body, I was nine.

Oh, I don’t think I put it exactly in those terms.  It was more the certainty that I didn’t look like other girls.  I was short, for one thing, even at that age.  I was rounder, too, than my classmates.  I’ve seen pictures of myself in fourth grade, and I wasn’t even what adults would have semi-affectionately termed “chubby.”  But I wasn’t skinny, and for whatever reason, my peers latched onto that insecurity and spent the next several years calling me fat.  Taunting me about my hips and thighs.  Pinching me to show where I could “lose a few pounds.”

People say that girls today learn those lessons earlier than in previous generations.  No, they don’t.

When I reached high school and chose to reinvent myself through conservative evangelical religiosity, I thought I’d found a place where I wouldn’t be judged on my body.  How very wrong I was.

Instead of using beauty as the standard by which  I was judged, it became “godliness.”  I lost track of the number of times some well-meaning person asked me if I “really needed to eat that.”  It didn’t actually matter what I was eating; I could have eaten anything and I still would’ve been asked.  No one said it to my skinny friends under any circumstances.

As shaming as that was, that wasn’t the worst of it.  It was the way in which preaching spoke of “the flesh” as a dirty, evil thing that must be overcome.  I learned that my body was bad—not bad merely for being the wrong shape but bad because it wanted things.

In that graceless spiritual bubble, the mind, the body, and the spirit were disconnected.  The body had sinful desires to overcome.  The mind had sinful thoughts to overcome.  But the spirit was of God and trumped all of our sinful nature if we prayed and asked Jesus in to fix our broken humanity.

I’m sure some of my conservative evangelical peers must be saying, “It’s not like that!”  Perhaps it isn’t, for them.  Maybe they didn’t already go into faith believing they were broken simply by virtue of existence.  Or maybe they just can’t see it even though it’s right there in front of them.

It never occurred to me to medicate my shame.  Food, substance use, sex, even suicide—none of those were options because they were all “temptations” to be deal with through prayer and reading the Bible.  I didn’t touch drugs or alcohol or cigarettes because that would have been fleshly sin.  Eating the wrong things or in the wrong way was sin, too.  I stayed away from boys just in case my body betrayed my spirit and wanted more than hand-holding and innocent pecks on the cheek.

None of that stopped my body from wanting things, of course.  I used to hide my Easter chocolate in my room and make it last for six months by eating just a tiny bit at a time.  I would nibble, and then I would feel guilty—both for hiding and for eating.  Chocolate was sinful for bodies like mine.  I wasn’t disciplined enough.

I made sure I was covered, not out of modesty, but out of hiding.  It functioned both ways, though, and I was safe from the bodily sin of “causing my brother to stumble” in lust.  Not that I believed for even a moment that any boys were looking at me that way; I knew they all liked pretty girls with skinny waists and big boobs.  Privately, I could barely admit to myself that I wanted someone to look at me that way.

My language was clean, at least on the outside.  I pretended to be outraged once on a trip with some other Christian teens.  A boy from another city said “shit.”  I joined the others in telling him that wasn’t God’s best.  Secretly, it gave me a thrill to hear such a word on the lips of the faithful.  I wished I were that brave, but I felt ashamed for it.

I monitored my thoughts to make sure I wasn’t harboring resentment, anger, or lust.  There was a boy I liked.  I imagined what it would feel like to kiss him, maybe to have his hands on me.  But I remembered that I wasn’t supposed to be thinking about that.  I never asked him out because I was afraid both my body and my mind would betray me.

Alone at night, sometimes, I touched myself, all the time trying not to think about anything so I wouldn’t be guilty of lusting.  Except the very act of giving myself pleasure seemed to fall into that category—not to mention the impossibility of keeping my mind blank, separate from my body.  Orgasm and guilt became inextricably linked.

Everything was about overcoming the “desires of the flesh,” emptying myself of me so that I could be filled with the Holy Spirit.  The more Spirit-filled I was, the closer to God.  If I just let Jesus in far enough, he could make all the things my body—and my mind—wanted go away, replaced only by the desire to love and serve God in near-perfect holiness.

It didn’t work.

Instead, it left a gaping, dripping wound, a hole in the place where I should have been.  I tried harder and harder to not sin, convinced I was broken somehow for not having the faith in God to keep me from doing the things a Good Girl doesn’t do.  So I prayed harder, confessed more, and begged God to make me just not feel.

That did work.  In the wrong way.

A door closed, locked, bolted.  But instead of keeping my spirit safe from my own mind and body, it kept me from feeling much of anything for anyone else.  And it didn’t stop my body or my mind from their natural inclinations; it only served to prove they needed to be separated.

I want to open that door again, but I think I’m afraid that what I unleash will be very much like Elsa in Frozen, setting off an eternal winter.  That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but not much.

Slowly, slowly, I’m unfastening the chains.  I let myself cry with someone from church who was feeling a deep, heavy hurt.  I asked after several friends coping with fresh grief.  It felt good to allow their pain in.

If only I could let mine out.

Healing, forgiveness, and redemption

Joseph Forgives His Brothers, by the Providence Lithograph Company (http://thebiblerevival.com/clipart/1907/gen45.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I recently had the privilege of connecting with Stephanie Drury (of Stuff Christian Culture Likes) through an online community we both belong to.  I’ve long appreciated what she has to say because even though I don’t agree 100% with everything she says, she’s one of the people who comes closest to expressing more or less where my own faith is right now.  I don’t have the history of spiritual (and other) abuse she’s endured; my stay in the conservative evangelical world was comparatively short and uneventful.  My leaving was mostly for the sake of my children.  I saw enough to know that even in the best-intentioned evangelical spheres, abuse is a natural outflow of certain teachings.  It wasn’t something I wanted my children to have long-term exposure to.  Trust me when I say I’d have been happy to foot the therapy bill knowing I could have prevented the damage and didn’t.

That said, yesterday, I read Stephanie’s post, hugo schwyzer’s suicide attempt, the feminist response, and the tension of holding horrible things alongside possiblity.  While again, I don’t agree 100% with everything she says, it resonated with me.  Bear with me as I attempt to explain why, keeping two things in mind:

  1. Stephanie writes from a place of having been harmed.  No one should accuse her of failing to understand what it’s like to be victimized.
  2. I am not writing from that place.  I’m writing from the place of one who has both done the harm and seen the harm.

A lot of people were pretty angry about what Stephanie said in her post.  I understand that.  There was a time when I would have readily jumped on that train.  I have my own experiences with being told to forgive someone who had wronged me–to the point of not being able to express my anger because both Christianity and “psychology” told me that the burden was on me to “own” my reactions.  I wasn’t supposed to hold past misdeeds against people who continued to hurt me.  All of those things are lies; it’s not on me to do anything, and a person’s history does inform his or her present actions.  So believe me when I say I get it that some of what Stephanie said could trigger a lot of feelings.

On the other hand, her post did make me consider two things that are very important for me.  I emphasize that last part because I recognize myself to be pretty near the top of the privilege food chain.  I’m white, I’m cisgender, and I’m straight.  I’m a married stay-at-home-mom (to me, that’s like the height of economic privilege, that I can choose to do what I want).  I’ve never been spiritually abused, though I have a long history of other forms of bullying, and there were certainly abuses in my family.  What Stephanie’s post made me think about wasn’t how I treat those who have wronged me but how I, as a person who has wronged others, have had my own redemption story.

First, I have to really, truly, deeply own my history of fundamentalist ideas.  When I was 15 or 16, I was in the car with a couple of family members.  I cheerfully told them that “sin is sin,” a line I was repeating from church.  They already knew that my church had taught me that gay = sin.  The conversation went like this:

Me: Sin is sin.  One sin is no better or worse than any other.

Family member 1: So, lying and murder are equal.

Me: Yep.

Family member 2: You believe it’s wrong to be gay.

Me: Yes.

Family member 1: So, being gay is as bad as being a rapist.

Me [now very uncomfortable]: Yeah, I guess, but it’s just because all sin keeps us from God.

Family member 2: So I’m as bad as a rapist.

Me: I don’t know. I guess so.

And that’s the most mild and printable of the ways I hurt this person.

Ten years.  It took me ten years to get to a point where I didn’t still believe that.  I have no idea how that particular family member stuck it out with me.  All I can say is that from the time I was old enough to remember, she’s been one of my favorite people in the whole world.  She’s been one of my biggest advocates.  Because she (and other family members, who have also been wonderful) loved me and waited patiently for me, we made it past all that.  I changed.

It’s that belief that people can–and do–change that keeps me blogging.  It keeps me searching for new ways to be an ally and it keeps me reading on Twitter to see where my privilege is showing and what I can do to make it right.  It keeps me searching for justice and my part in it.  It keeps me pointing to the voices of others and asking people to listen.  I express all that in different ways.  Sometimes I’m angry and bold; sometimes I use Scripture; sometimes I write about how deeply I love the people in my life.  I keep going, though, because someone, somewhere may be reading and might just find the spark to change.

The second thing that occurred to me is that I’m a harsh critic of people.  I don’t actually like people very much.  Perhaps that’s the result of my history with peers at school or with some of my family.  It could be because I’m pretty introverted.  I don’t really know.  The problem is that I often have trouble separating what people say and do from who they are.  This is particularly true when those people are public figures.

I have little difficulty accepting and loving ordinary people, even when they aren’t perfect.  The real people in my everyday life get the benefit of my ongoing forgiveness.  My two closest friends (other than my husband) are very different women, but I love them both so, so much.  Have we ever hurt each other?  Sure.  Do we do things the others think are probably bad ideas?  Of course.  But there is a lot of good history that none of us are willing to throw away.  We make things right and we move on.

That can’t be done with these big-name “celebrity” bloggers, pastors, and speakers.  I’m not at all condoning what any of them say or do.  We need to keep calling them out on their behavior because they are doing these big, public things and using their fame to gain followers who will then turn around and do the same things.  We need to stop them.  We need to be angry, we need to be pushy, we need to be bold.  We also need to be gentle and persuasive and kind–not because that’s the “best” way to do it but because our natural personalities make us respond in our own ways.  I cannot imagine some of my fellow bloggers being polite about Mark Driscoll or Hugo Schwyzer’s latest pile of poo.  On the other hand, there are many bloggers I can’t imagine writing a scathingly funny take-down or an angry rant; they normally write very differently than that.

Where we may be able to agree is that we can say what a person is actually doing without assigning motive or making assumptions about who that person is or whether there is any hope for change.  We can say with certainty that Mark Driscoll, John Piper, Hugo Schwyzer, and others have said and continue to say terrible things.  We can worry about their families.  We can tell anyone who will listen in whatever way we need to that their words are damaging.  What we can’t do is know why they do those things or whether they will ever change.

I also feel uncomfortable with name-calling, as that speaks to who or what we think someone is at their core.  I admit to having done this; I imagine that I learned to do it as a child.  My mother used to call me names when she was angry, and I was bullied mostly with name-calling for years.  Whether or not anyone else agrees, I believe no matter what abuse someone has committed or appears to have committed, it is, in fact, bullying to call people steaming piles of shit or assholes or fucktards or douchebags.  I don’t really care that you think it’s not hurting them because they hurt you first or that you’re just expressing your anger.  It’s still not right.  They are humans, not poo or body parts–regardless of the evil things they’ve done.*

There is one place where I strongly disagree with Stephanie (and I hope this does not hurt her, in the same way that I hope not to have hurt others with my words above).  In the specific case of Hugo Schwyzer, his past is applicable.  He may have apologized for what he did, but the fact that he keeps on doing it says volumes more than his apology.  Perhaps he wouldn’t try to kill an intimate partner now, but he isn’t demonstrating respect for women.  This is the same man who penned an article (which I will not link to) about removing a tampon from his soon-to-be ex-wife.  If that’s not a violation of her privacy and her womanhood, I don’t know what is.  If he wants people to stop bringing up his past, then he needs to stop behaving that way in the present.

I know this post is already too long; I hope you’ve stuck with me.  I honestly don’t want to hurt anyone with my words.  As I said near the beginning, this was mostly about the things I believe I’ve done wrong and now wish to amend.  It won’t change the fact that I’m going to continue to use my words to fight injustice.  It does mean that I want to be careful not to conflate actions with unknown motives or words with people.

I’d love to know what you think; leave me a comment and tell me what’s on your mind.

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*I maintain that name-calling can be ok for institutions (which are not thinking/feeling beings) or in certain humorous contexts, such as the post I linked in my News last Friday about being a better douchebag (it wasn’t connected with a specific individual).

Shame, shame

There is so much shame out there for us to use against our fellow humans.  It’s so easy to claim-and-club, to bludgeon each other in the name of making others into better people.  And doesn’t it feel good, knowing that we’re doing the right thing, the moral thing, while others wallow in their guilt?

I read an article yesterday about how restaurant portion sizes can be an issue for people wanting to have healthier lifestyles.  In the article, a study was cited in which people were given cookies labeled “medium” and “large,” but the cookies were in fact the same size.  People who had the medium cookies ate more, and it was suggested that the labeling convinced them that the portion was smaller so they could indulge.  The implication is that if restaurant portion sizes were standard (a medium soda is always the same number of ounces everywhere, for example) then it could be more effective than laws restricting the maximum size.  The article went on to mention that clothing sizes have gone down in the last 50 years, meaning that larger people fit into smaller sizes because of resizing (called “vanity sizing”).

I have no problem with the research or even the thesis of the article.  It was mostly factual, providing information.  What did bother me was the comments on the article.  It was a string of people claiming to be very thin and unable to find clothing that fits.  (I find that hard to believe, as I have noticed neither an epidemic of nakedness nor large numbers of skinny people in baggy clothes.)  In fact, the majority of the comments ran along the lines of, “Let’s not make excuses for the fat people sitting around on their lazy asses stuffing themselves with supersized fast food.”

In other words, fat shaming.

I will never understand why it’s so appealing to say hateful things on a public forum.  I’m not even talking about the stupidity here, the conflating of fat and lazy or unhealthy. I’m talking about the name-calling, the character assassination of people we don’t even know.  I don’t get the desire to verbally thrash complete strangers, as though we ourselves live flawless lives.  Nor do I relate to the underlying fears that lead us to disproportionately shame fat people as though being overweight is among the worst things one can do.

I’ve never met anyone who had long-term success becoming a better person as the result of being shamed into “proper” behavior.  I’ve met plenty of people who have become fearful and depressed and have hidden some of the best parts of themselves because they believed that they weren’t worthy of love.  Not only that, I’ve seen perfectly healthy people become ashamed of their bodies because they are curvier, more muscular, large-boned (and I mean that literally), or even because they are pregnant.  Is this what we’ve become as a society?  People who are afraid of natural variation and even natural biological function?

The thing is, I’m not even laying this one on the church.  While I think that in large part the church has a role to play (Christian “diet” programs, anyone?), that doesn’t explain why there are so many people who are not now or never have been Christians who believe the same things.  In this case, it’s not necessarily the direct actions of the church but the passive failure to act that is the problem.

As Christians, we have a responsibility to end the cycle of shame.  We need to stop buying into the lie that thinness is God’s plan for humanity or that there is any such thing as “righteous” health behavior.  I don’t mean that it’s our job just to make people feel good about themselves.  But we need to separate what society says from what God says, especially if we claim to be “Bible-believing.”  (I’ve never seen a commandment in Scripture that says, “Thou shalt be thin.”)

I’m not really a “fat activist.”  I was merely bothered by the rude and judgmental comments (along with the bragging about being too small for normal clothes; if that’s not fat shaming, I’ll eat my hat).  But if you are interested in the subject, here’s a woman who does just that.  Her blog is fantastic and she regularly gets all sorts of interesting feedback.  Check it out (and especially check out her Hate Mail page if you want to read a cross between hysterically funny and rage-inducing).

An Open Letter to No One

I am sick and tired of open letters.  It’s a meme I wish would die a thousand deaths.

Some time ago, I posted my response to Joe Dallas’ “To My Gay Angry Friend” (you can read those posts here, here, and here).  The other day, I read a post titled, “An Open Letter To The Girl In The Dressing Room.”  Those are only two examples of this “open letter” idea, two among a sea of similar blog posts.

The thing is, I understand why people write these things.  We all have feelings that we need to explore after our encounters with others and the world.  Situations can be triggering for us due to our own past or because of what we’ve seen loved ones experience.  As a person who loves words, both written and spoken, I understand this need.

But, people, this is not the way to deal with our feelings.  There are three serious problems with these “open letter”-style blog posts.

First, the open letter puts our own overlay onto the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of others.  Both the posts I mentioned above, as well as nearly all other similar posts, make assumptions about the people to whom the letters are written.  Joe Dallas assumed that the man with the sign was gay and that he was angry.  Lauren Alexander made assumptions about what specific thoughts the woman in the dressing room was having.  It’s entirely possible that they were right, but they could not possibly know that without speaking directly to the people in question.

What they did do, however, was an inappropriate hijacking of those people’s inner life.  They confused their own prior experiences and feelings for those of another person.  This is wrong.  It takes away someone else’s ownership of his or her feelings and actions.  It takes away that person’s right to express him- or herself as he or she chooses.  It reduces another human being to an object, something that feeds our own personal need to express our feelings.

Second, the open letter fails to take any real action, or to make any real human connection.  Both Joe Dallas and Lauren Alexander comment that they did not engage with the other person of whom they spoke.  Mr. Dallas chalks this up to business; Ms. Alexander to not wanting to be creepy.  The sad thing is, their failure to connect didn’t just prevent them from knowing what real feelings those people were having in that moment.  It also prevented them from doing any real good in the lives of those individuals.

I strongly suspect that one reason some people (and I am not specifically referring to the aforementioned bloggers) don’t engage is exactly for that reason.  They don’t want to deal with whatever they might have to face if they take the risk of interacting.  They would rather use their almost-meetings as blog post fodder, rather than find ways to connect and help.  I actually don’t think it’s a bad thing to feel uncomfortable walking over to strange people in restaurants and stores.  But if we don’t take the risk and meet the other person, then we lose our right to impose our view of their feelings on them.

Third, the open letter almost never reaches its purported audience.  I realize that’s not usually the point.  The point is to write something that will possibly touch people who are struggling with similar issues.  If that’s the reason for the blog post, however, why not write it generically?  Or write about our own feelings and thoughts?  Or respond to a blog post that someone else wrote on a similar subject?  There are many better ways to handle tough subjects than coming at them sideways through the lens of what we think a random stranger might have been feelings.

Again, I believe there is an underlying fear in these open letters.  Sometimes, it can be hard to admit that something we saw stirs up past pain.  We may need a way to get ourselves into a place where we can freely write about our deepest wounds.  But I believe this can be done without transferring our feelings onto others.  Instead of making claims about what someone might have been thinking in a dressing room or outside a restaurant, why not admit that their actions—rather than their feelings—stirred the waters in our souls?

I am sure that reading (and perhaps writing) these open letters can be healing for some people.  But we need to be careful that our own healing doesn’t come at the expense of usurping someone else’s agency over his or her own experiences and feelings.

Lies, damn lies, and lies we tell ourselves

By Anthony Easton/flickr: PinkMoose (http://www.flickr.com/photos/pinkmoose/2611293086/) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Fellow blogger Jennifer Luitwieler (go read her blog, if you’re not already doing so) has asked us to Deny the Lie.  So here’s my way of fighting back against the lies we tell ourselves.

Trigger warning: This post contains mention of body image, disordered eating, fat shaming, slut shaming, purity/virginity culture, rape.  Too many of us find those things triggering or, at minimum, upsetting.  If you choose not to read this, just know my heart loves your heart and I understand your need to protect yourself.  If you do choose to read, go into it knowing that you are loved and you are safe.

I have never liked my body.

From the time I was in third grade, I endured merciless teasing.  The most common insult my peers used was “fat.”  It wasn’t about whether or not I was actually a fat child; it was about finding the thing that would upset me the most.  After enough time, I internalized this lie—I saw my body as unacceptable.  I did everything I could to cover it, to hide under too-large clothes so that no one would see my fat.  If no one, including myself, could see it, it didn’t exist.

The sad thing is, the church didn’t help.  When I was older, I was still being told to cover my body.  This time, however, it was because it was important that boys be blissfully unaware that I possessed hips and breasts.  I learned that boys don’t have an interest in girls for their minds or their spirits.  My post-pubertal body was just as unacceptable as my childhood body.  The only difference was, now there was slut-shame in addition to fat-shame.

Since I already hated my body, I was only too happy to comply with the Purity Rules.

It wasn’t going to be hard for me to remain a virgin, since I was convinced that my body made me unlovable to potential boyfriends.  I was terrified that a boy might ask me out, and then find out that my body was ugly and worthless.  But as long as I kept myself under wraps, no one could see my fat and no one could touch my vagina.  I was safe, on all counts.

I bought into the lies—all of them.  Fat-shaming and slut-shaming are two sides of the same destructive coin.  Both tell girls that they are no more than their bodies.  What the church likes to call “the world” (media, culture, whatever) tells us our bodies aren’t good enough because our thighs are too big, our breasts are too small, and the scale reads too high.  The church tells us our bodies aren’t good enough because our beauty holds the key to leading boys and men into sin.  Either way, we become nothing beyond our bodies.

As an adult, I’ve faced much of the same body-shame.  Every time someone I haven’t seen in a while says, “You look good, like you’ve lost some weight,” I die a little on the inside.  It’s not a compliment.  It means those people thought I needed to lose some weight, that my body was substandard before.  It means those people had little interest in me beyond whether or not I am thin enough for their liking.  And it hurts.

It makes me want to run away, to cover my body and tell them they can’t look at it.

But I refuse to do that.  I refuse to compliment anyone on her weight loss, because my friends mean more to me than what they look like or what the scale says.  I refuse to send dear ones into a crisis of disordered eating because I made them feel ashamed of the good, beautiful bodies they live inside.  I refuse to see the ones I love as merely a body.

I refuse to see myself that way.

I refuse to insist on some unattainable standard of purity, including shaming girls and women into covering up their bodies to keep men from lusting after them.  I refuse to confirm the lie that rape is about sex or lust or a woman’s failure to keep men from desiring her body.  I refuse to teach my daughter that she needs to fear boys or her body or sex or her own sexuality.

I am more than a body.

My daughter is more than a body.

You are more than a body.

We are more than the fat we possess or don’t possess or wish we didn’t possess.  We are more than hips and breasts and vaginas, more than objects of lust (because we’re told we should be or because we’re told we shouldn’t).  We are more than the clothes with which we cover our shame.

We have souls.  We think, we love, we laugh.  We weep.  We cry out in anger at the injustice done to our bodies: the ways in which culture, the church, our families try to own them.  We fight back, demanding to own ourselves, to end the cycles of shame and violence done to us.

I don’t believe I will ever be fully beyond the struggle to accept my body.  Perhaps that’s why I fight so hard for those who have been shamed for who they are.  Deep inside, I will probably never see myself the way God sees me.  I will always be, in some way, that little girl crying in her bed at night because another classmate called her fat and ugly.

But I’m learning.  Every day, I tell myself that those words are lies.  Every day, I remind myself that God doesn’t need me to look just right or wear the right clothes or hide inside myself or pretend that the feminine parts of my body don’t exist.  Every day, I fight back a little harder against the power of those lies.  Every day, I win back a little more of my soul.

What lies do you need to deny in your life?

All Dressed Up

Since I’ve already (twice now) addressed the problem of how men treat women, it’s only fair that I make a point about women. While I don’t believe it’s reasonable to blame women for male shortcomings, it’s equally unfair to blame men for the things women do.

I don’t get my panties in a bunch because a woman wore a low-cut blouse or showed a lot of leg. I think this is because I have a much more narrow definition of lust than most conservative people. Conservative Christians often define lust much too broadly, allowing it to encompass absolutely everything that even remotely seems “dirty.” That may be why we’re so anxious to absolve men of their “problem” by pointing fingers at women and what they are wearing. Let’s face it, this issue has been around since forever, and what women are wearing isn’t what drives it. If it were, then we should have no problem with cultures that expect women to be covered head-to-toe. I strongly suspect that it wouldn’t matter if some women wore sweat pants and didn’t wash their hair for a week. There are still men who would try to make a case that they’re using “pheromones” or something to attract men because they don’t cover up their natural scent.

That said, I do think modesty is important. But I don’t mean in the sense that girls and women should just “cover up.” (Because I think it’s perfectly acceptable to wear shorts to the gym or a bathing suit to the beach.) I mean in the sense of how she herself treats her body and how she treats men. Immodesty comes more from motivation than from the garment in question. I’ve seen women look immodest in t-shirts while others look appropriate in above-the-knee skirts and low necklines. But somehow, we’ve cultivated the bizarre idea that the percentage of flesh showing is directly proportional to the degree of sluttiness possessed by the woman.

This is the very same stupid logic that leads people to claim that public breastfeeding is improper. The idea that there is a nipple somewhere under that baby’s lips, and that a little flesh might show around the baby’s head, is just plain horrifying to some people. The irony isn’t lost on me that in cultures requiring head coverings, public breastfeeding is relatively common and no one blinks.

We’ve grown into a society that values women for their looks. From an early age, girls are coached on how to look good. Young girls are encouraged to look (and dress) like little adults, and adult women are encouraged to look like prepubescent girls. We’re all supposed to base our self-worth on how pretty our faces are and how thin our bodies are. Is it any wonder that so many women and girls dress themselves in ways supposedly designed to make men drool? We’re taught to believe that our value rests on whether or not we can successfully catch (and keep) a man.

Strangely, culture has become fixated on the most fleeting of female traits, her physical appearance, and has dictated which characteristics are the most attractive. What we are to find beautiful today will change tomorrow. And the other side effect of all this is to fail to give real men credit for being better than that. We tell them they “can’t help it” when confronted with “hot” women. But the fact that real men are marrying real women betrays the lie. Real men love their significant others for a lot more than what can be seen.

Instead of teaching our daughters that they ought to be careful how much cleavage, back, shoulder, or leg they show, we should be helping them love their bodies no matter what they wear. We’re aiming at the wrong thing. It’s not about trying to figure out where the modesty line is and how not to cross it. It’s about having a healthy concept of ourselves without needing external proof. It’s about dressing for ourselves instead of someone else.

We also need to encourage our daughters to treat their male friends with respect. I know a lovely (read: kind, sweet, charming, intelligent) young woman who has a lot of male friends. They all treat her with respect, even though she is pretty and dresses in ways that flatter her figure. Why? Because she knows the line and doesn’t cross it; because she treats them with respect; because she expects them to return that respect; and because she doesn’t place her worth on whether or not she is dating any of them.

It’s not an insurmountable problem. For every degrading beer commercial, there is a woman striving to help us become body-confident and see ourselves in a positive way regardless of our shape. If you’re a woman in the business of helping other women love and respect their bodies, I’d love to hear from you. Let’s raise a generation of young women who don’t buy into the commercialization and exploitation of their bodies.

Taking It Too Far

Today I got into a fight online with a stranger. The thing is, I have no idea why I took it so personally. Well, come to think of it, maybe I do.

It wasn’t because the other person was mean. She was harsh, yes, but not cruel. It wasn’t because I was right and she was wrong. I’m not sure there was a right or wrong. It wasn’t because she doesn’t like me. I have no idea what her feelings toward me are. And I don’t care if random people like me.

No, what bothered me is that I wasn’t able to come across as my authentic self. I would have needed an entire blog post of my own to explain the feelings and thoughts that the original article evoked. So I resorted to idea nuggets in the comments section. It was a bad idea.

Even worse, I failed to be anything like the Jesus I claim to love. Not because I was rude, nasty, or resorted to childish behavior, but because I didn’t express mercy or grace.

I’m not okay with that. I don’t want to be that sort of person, one who comes off as unconcerned about someone else. When I posted my comments, I wasn’t trying to be unkind. But I somehow wasn’t able to convey my real feelings about the issue being discussed.

So here I sit, reminded that how we interact online is just as important as face to face. Next time, I need to choose my words much more carefully, or say nothing at all.

Owner’s Manual

Why is it that when we read the Bible, we seem to look at it as though we’re reading a textbook?  I don’t just mean all the things that sound irrelevant or even completely dull (long lists of people who “begat” other people, anyone?).  I mean that all we ever do is view it as some sort of how-to manual, as if we’re trying to fix the kitchen sink or learn to speak unnaturally formal French or put together a piece of cheap furniture.

There are some really wild stories in the Bible.  What’s in there rivals some of the greatest action films and puts love stories to shame.  Yet we read even those tales in terms of what we can get out of it.

This week, the devotion I follow has been using the text of 1 Kings 18.  If you’re not familiar with that story, I suggest you read it.  Here’s a convenient link.  This has to be one of the best Bible stories, hands down.  Evil king? Check.  Badass prophet of G-d? Check.  Showdown with a bunch of false prophets? Check.  Awesome power of G-d demonstrated? Yup, that too.  I mean, it does not get any better.  Seriously, I can just imagine the field day the special effects techs could have with this one in film version.

Anyway, back to the subject at hand.  After Elijah completely makes fun of the Prophets of Baal, he tells them to call on Baal to ignite their altar.  Their method of summoning their god is to beat themselves and cut themselves in order to draw attention to themselves.  When I read the devotion on that Scripture, I was about six different kinds of horrified by the direction the writer took.

I mean, you’d think that there would be some mention of idolatry, maybe a comparison to the ways we hold up false gods today, such as money or power.  Maybe some parallel about the ways in which we try to draw attention to ourselves in our idolatry.  Heck, I could even have seen something about the ways in which we may be practicing subtle idolatry.  But, sadly, that’s not the way the devotion writer saw this text.

That particular day, the writer decided to take it in a very strange direction.  I think it may be the most bizarre literal use of Scripture I’ve ever seen.  The writer used this Scripture to berate teenagers who cut/self-harm.  Yeah, no kidding.

Instead of a fantastic story of G-d’s power, the false nature of idolatry, and the courage to stand up for what you believe in, this person chose to use Scripture to condemn and wound.  The writer clearly has no experience with actual teenagers (or, at least, teenagers with serious things in their lives).  He essentially left it that teens who cut are just attention-seeking.  That would have been bad enough, but there were several people who posted sickening replies to the devotion.  Among them were the parent who tried to “help” her son by using that Scripture to remind him of the sinful, selfish nature of his self-harm and the healthcare worker who apparently believes mental illness is a “cry for attention.”  It reminded me of a conversation I had with a fellow nursing student about 15 years ago.  She said she didn’t like working with kids who have eating disorders.  She said she wanted to go to them with a candy bar, shove it in their faces, and say, “Eat this!”  Wow, so much heartfelt empathy there.

The above is a classic example of finding Scriptures and making them conform to our beliefs.  It reduces the Bible to nothing more than a rulebook, wherein every story has a neat, snappy moral lesson and every human behavior has a corresponding Bible verse.  There is no love or compassion in showing a troubled, desperate adolescent a Scripture about idolatry and saying, “See this? G-d’s gonna strike you dead for your false way of getting His attention.”  There is no grace in crushing people’s spirits with condescending pseudo-understanding.

The whole thing came across as though the devotion writer didn’t actually read or study the story, didn’t try to understand the historical context, and didn’t even see the truly great things right before his eyes.  He was too wrapped up in his own “Aha!  This sounds like something I read on a Fundamentalist web site once!” moment to notice his superior tone.

We need to be very careful that our reading of Scripture doesn’t lead us away from extending grace, mercy, and compassion for others.

Un-Feelings

Sometimes, it’s easy for us as Christians to forget that we are free. Being free doesn’t mean doing whatever we want, but it also doesn’t mean that we subject ourselves to doctrines which bind us through legalism. All that can ever lead to is feelings of shame. Faith in Christ cannot ever be about being ashamed, because that is not love or grace. A legalistic church environment denies basic, common human needs and feelings. When we live in that kind of space for any length of time, it leads to both suppression and repression.

We may be used to hearing the term “repression” in the context of sexual expression. It is often presented as an accusation by a non-religious person towards a person of faith and can be roughly translated as “prude.” A person may be referred to as “repressed” because he or she believes pornography to be unhealthy sexuality, for example.

Sexuality is only one aspect of repression, however, and the above example is a misapplication of the term. A person whose moral values lead him or her to conclude that a particular action or expression of feelings is wrong is not necessarily repressing anything. The reason for this is that repression refers to unconscious exclusion or avoidance of feelings or desires. A person with the value that murder is wrong is not repressing anger, merely making a distinction between appropriate and inappropriate ways of handling anger.

This concept is markedly different from suppression, which is a conscious avoidance of feelings and desires one deems negative. Parents often suppress their own needs in favor of meeting the needs of their children. This is entirely normal when a child is an infant; it is not normal when a child is an adolescent.

At this point, you may be wondering what any of this has to do with legalistic church doctrine. Legalism as a measure of church doctrine is a way for church leadership to control the flock. It has little to do with actual righteous living or humbly following and serving a gracious and merciful God. Legalism, when practiced as church mission, is self-serving. Its aim is to create a group of like-minded and like-behaving people in order to project a certain image. It concerns itself not with love and life but with doctrinal purity.

In the end, this leads many people within those rigid confines to both suppress and repress their natural human feelings and desires. People begin to believe consciously that their feelings are sinful, and attempt to control themselves by denying their needs for self-expression. They may also begin to subconsciously avoid certain feelings because it is too painful or embarrassing to acknowledge their existence.

Sadly, this kind of thing happens even when a church has healthy boundaries and the leadership are attempting to guide the people without legalism. This brings me to the point I want to make.  One Sunday, for example, my son came home from his Sunday school class in which children’s very real feelings were denied. His sister expressed a “what if” type of concern, and I reassured her that we would take care of her. He piped up with, “You shouldn’t worry, worry is a sin.” I would very much like to know who used those words on my eight-year-old in such a way that he repeated them back to deny his sister the right to express her fears.

Children should not be told that their fears are “sin.” The world is a big and sometimes scary place to a young child. When a child has a fear, the correct course of action is not to scold a child for “worrying.” The correct response is to reassure the child that he or she is loved by God and the people in the church and that we are here for them. There are other ways, of course, of helping children feel safe, but that’s a basic beginning.

Not only that, the sentiment isn’t even Biblically true. It may be inferred if one wants to take certain Scriptures in a particular way. But the statement, “Worry is a sin” cannot be found within the pages of the Bible. We do find the idea that worrying alone, without faith, is a useless pursuit. But even that is a difficult concept to bring to children. One way it can be handled with older children is to ask if their worry has made the situation go away, or if they have had to trust an adult or pray about it. But for very young children, no more is needed than care and reassurance.

How often do churches make the same mistake with adults?  Rather than helping people explore healthy self-expression, we simply tell them their feelings are “wrong” or “sinful” or that God doesn’t “want” us to have those feelings.  The church becomes the thought police.  From that stems the shame, leading to people denying, in one way or another, that they have those internal thoughts.  People are afraid to be honest with themselves and others, and perhaps even with God.

Yet the truth is that the more open we are with ourselves, other people, and God, the deeper our relationships become.  God doesn’t want us to clean ourselves up, it’s His job.  He wants us to bring every part of ourselves to Him, keeping nothing back.  Not because He wants to judge us, but because He loves us and wants to crack us open that we can replace (not reject) those hurting, insecure, and sinful parts of ourselves with His grace and His desires.

I admit I struggle with this.  I still have a lot of trouble being completely open about some of the things in my life.  But I’m trusting God to fill those parts of my life with His Life, daily making me whole.

Failure Is an Option

Today’s confession: I have a deep fear of failure.  And by “deep” I mean “extreme.”  To the point of avoiding certain tasks because I believe I won’t be able to do them.  Not that I won’t be able to do them right (it’s not perfectionism), but that I won’t be able to do them at all.

This was confirmed in a somewhat lame way.  A few weeks ago, I went in for my annual eye exam.  I really like my new provider.  He’s the kind of doctor all health care practitioners should strive to be.  When he was testing to see if my current prescription is adequate, he did that thing where the eye doctor shuffles between two similar lenses and asks, “Is it better or worse?”  As I couldn’t decide, he had me read the letters on the chart.  I couldn’t quite see the smallest line with either lens.  He kept asking me to just read what I saw.  I refused, saying that I couldn’t see the letters.  His answer was, “You don’t like to make mistakes, do you?”

Now, you may think that he was just being a jerk.  Trust me, if you’d been there, you would have seen that nothing could be further from the truth.  And the reality is that he was right.  I didn’t want to read the letters because I knew that I wouldn’t get any of them right.  Fortunately, it didn’t matter.  Nothing was at stake.  The doctor determined that I didn’t really need to read at 20/15 anyway, and that I didn’t need new glasses.

But what about when it does matter?  So often, I worry that I will make some huge, very public mistake.  When that happens, there will be people saying, “I told you so.”  Even though I don’t have any way of knowing that, I still believe it and live by it.  It keeps me from trying new things in front of people, but it also keeps me from failing in private, too.

I’ve been writing for a long time.  It took me several tries before I decided to actually keep a blog on a regular basis.  Even so, I only publish about twice a week.  Sometimes, I write, revise, edit, scrap and rewrite several times before I actually commit to sending it out to the world.  Right now, I have a post in “draft” status because I am hesitant to put voice to something deep that’s been on my heart.  I simply don’t want to fail.

The other day, a writer I follow on Twitter posted a great piece of advice.  I can’t recall the exact quote, but it had to do with not being afraid to fail.  We only see in print what has been deemed successful.  How much more was written before that?

Beyond being good advice for writers (not being afraid to write garbage), it’s good advice for life.  When we live in fear that we may fail, we aren’t living at all.  That isn’t how I want to exist.  If I can’t fail in front of the mirror, how can I expect to pick myself back up when I fail in public?

I’m going to go practice writing crap.