Feminism

There’s Something About Mary: On Women and the Incarnation

Today I have the great honor of sharing a post over at CBE International’s (Christians for Biblical Equality) Arise newsletter which has now been reblogged by Scot McKnight on Jesus Creed (!). This past summer I wrote a satirical piece for Arise about what it means to act like a lady. This time I took a more serious route and wrote about something I think about a lot during the Christmas season – the role of women like Mary in the story of salvation.

“One thing I love about Advent is that you can’t get through it without talking about Mary. Whether you believe that Mary was a saint, an innocent virgin girl, or even if you’re skeptical about the whole virgin birth thing, you can’t deny that without Mary, there would be no Christmas story. Because the story of the incarnation, of God becoming flesh, doesn’t begin in a manger full of sweet, clean hay with a lullaby of softly lowing cattle—it begins in the belly of an unwed teenage girl.

Maybe you believe that Mary was chosen to be the mother of Christ because she was particularly pious and holy. Perhaps you’ve heard sermons like the ones I heard growing up where Mary is held up as an example of virtue, that we might all strive to be holy enough to be called blessed and highly favored as she was.

In reality, we have no evidence that Mary was especially devout. All we know about her is that she was a virgin from the line of David, betrothed to Joseph the carpenter, and that when the angel came to her with astonishing, even absurd news, she simply said, “Let it be to me according to your word.” Mary was an ordinary girl who simply chose to say yes.”

Click here to read the rest of this piece!

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Thankful Thursdays Guest Post: I’m Thankful for My Body

You guys. This post. I just can’t even. When Karissa first sent it to me I immediately responded with this mondo email chronicling my own constant battles with my body, my weight, and my eating. For me, they all started at summer camp the year I was ten when I was playing soccer and a boy behind me said to his friend, “Hey look! That girl’s butt jiggles when she runs.” I don’t think there’s been a day of my life since then that I haven’t been self-conscious about my body. So many of us have those stories. So many of us need this post. There are so many things I admire about Karissa as a writer and as a woman, and her ability and willingness to tell these truths here today is one of them. Soak this in, friends, and then be sure to head over and subscribe to her blog. She’s doing some great and beautiful work there that you won’t want to miss.

I’m Thankful for My Body

You might think this is an inappropriate thing to be thankful for. But as a woman, I believe I’ve been taught to despise my body. The magazines at the grocery checkout teach me I need to diet, the photos of movie stars teach me I need to be a smaller size, and even my coworkers’ chatter in the teacher’s lounge teaches me I need to exercise more. We live in a world where only certain body types are praised, and mine is not one of them.

My husband and I were talking before bed the other night. “It makes me unhappy when I tell you you’re beautiful and you don’t believe it,” he told me. I tried to hold them back, but the tears came anyway.

Seventh grade: I have been living in Bangkok for a year and am applying to a new school. When I arrive at the uniform store, a Thai woman takes her yellow measuring tape and winds it around my hips. “So fat!” she exclaims. It doesn’t matter that as an American I am simply taller and bigger than most Thais (even the men). Her words scar. My body disappoints.

High school senior trip: My friend Denny and I stand shoulder-to-shoulder in front of the hotel room mirror in our bathing suits. We compare our bodies, inspecting the curves of our hips, turning sideways to see how far our stomachs stick out. “Who’s bigger?” I ask. “I think we’re the same,” she says. She’s Bulgarian; I’m American. We are the biggest girls in our grade.

My wedding day, 15 years ago: 128 pounds. Skinny arms that boast a bit of a farmer’s tan. I never considered trying to fix that. Hair: short, streaked with highlights, impossible curls. Size 8. I wear a fitted, straight wedding dress with a mandarin collar. The pearl-covered dress fits beautifully over my hips.

Today: I step on the scale before getting into the shower. 156.5. At the doctor’s office a couple of weeks ago, his scale said 158. “Losing ten pounds might help your heartburn issues,” he told me. I sigh and turn the water on. After showering and drying off, I inspect myself in the mirror.

Stretch lines stripe my hips. They look pink head-on, but silver if I turn sideways. Mom arms that jiggle. A waistline that pushes out of last year’s size 10 capris. Thighs riddled with cellulite. Size 12. Surely I won’t edge to 14.

Face: Round. Full cheeks, a double chin when I look down. Crows feet around my eyes when I smile, permanent shadows beneath my eyes, oily skin, makeup that rubs off by noon.

The problem is that I like food, and I don’t like to exercise much. If I stick to diets, I lose weight. But I have a hard time following through. One week I get up early every morning and lift weights. The next week I drink wine and eat Oreos every night.

When attempts to lose weight don’t work, I try to make my body seem more acceptable. I feel the need to apologize for how large my body has become, the need to soften the blow of thirty pounds gained. I get tattoos and dye my hair and layer on make-up. I research body types and try to dress for my shape: belts, flared skirts, empire waist dresses, fitted jackets.

Underneath it all, this one truth haunts me: I won’t be happy until I accept my body. My attempt to make my body more presentable to others is really just a way to combat my disappointment with myself.

So here I am, declaring it: I am thankful for my body.

My body is a gift, a vessel that brought two babies into the world and carried three into the afterlife. It is a source of pleasure, of help, of kindness, of love. My body is a gift, even to me, the gift of being present in the world in a physical way.

My son gave me this little questionnaire for Mothers Day:

Karissa Thankful Thursdays

“My mother looks prettiest when she is here.” Not when she’s got make-up on, not when she’s wearing a dress or after she’s lost ten pounds. When she’s here. My presence is beauty.

Observe: Arms that wrap around my children every morning. Round, full lips that give goodbye kisses. Hands that brush out long tangles in hair and wrap bandaids around toes. Feet that carry me with confidence into my workplace, where my face smiles at coworkers. Legs that take me up hiking paths and around playground walking tracks. Lungs that take in oxygen, skin that renews itself constantly, ears that notice the sounds of a world discovered.

I am learning to be thankful for my own skin: even its round softness, even its scars, even its imperfections. I am learning to be thankful for this gift that my husband calls beautiful, and to actually believe that myself.

Karissa

About the Author: Karissa Knox Sorrell is a mother, ESL educator, and writer from Nashville, Tennessee. Read more of her writing at her blog or follow her on Twitter @KKSorrell.

If you’re enjoying this series, be sure to go back and check out other guest posts I’ve shared so far in the Thankful Thursdays series, here, here, and here!

PS- Sorry about the placement of these ads. Haven’t figured out how to move them yet!

The Hard-Knock Life of a Feminist’s Wife

Today I am linking up with the Faith Feminisms’ week-long sychroblog project.  This piece is very tongue-in-cheek and not nearly as eloquent as many other pieces I’ve read in this series (like this beautiful piece from Karissa Knox Sorrell) but I think it still fits into the conversation. You can also follow the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #faithfeminisms.

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Every night my husband washes the dishes. We don’t have a dishwasher, so he does it by hand, standing at the kitchen sink in his undershirt because our un-air-conditioned kitchen is so unbearably hot right now. I watch him as he scrubs the pots and pans, dries each piece and puts it away. And I think, I hate when he does MY job like that. I’m the woman here. Dishes are MY thing.

I’d love to say that the dishes are the only responsibility he rips from my delicate hands, but no, he also has the audacity to sweep the floor. To clean the bathroom. To run to the grocery store. At least he lets me cook dinner. At least I still have that to cling to.

On days when I pay the bills I am overwhelmed with anxiety. How can he trust me with our finances like that? Should I really be this involved in budgeting and bill-paying? Won’t I screw it up? But the insufferable man seems to think I’m just as good with the money as he is.

Sometimes, I wish, just for once, that my husband would be frustrated that our salaries are exactly the same. Shouldn’t it bother him that we do the same job and get paid the exact same amount? After all, he is a man. Doesn’t that make him worth more? Where’s his sense of self-respect?

I really hate the way my husband tells me that I am smart and talented and capable and strong, as well as beautiful. Like I really need to focus on ALL of those things! I mean, isn’t it enough for me to just be pretty and quiet? If he starts thinking I’m smart and creative and make valuable contributions, there’s going to be all this pressure for me to think deeply about things and influence the world around me. I don’t know if I can handle all of that. Doesn’t he know I’m a member of the “weaker sex.” I don’t think I have the constitution for it.

A year and a half ago I came up with this crazy idea – “Hey, honey. Let’s sell everything we own, move across the world and teach English in a foreign country!”  But did he do the sensible thing and smile and pat my head and say, “No, honey. We’re not going to do that”? No! Of all the times I thought I could count on him to lay down the law and make the tough decision, this seemed like an obvious one. But instead he wanted to discuss it. He wanted to listen to my ideas and research it together. He said that if it was important to me, then we should consider it. Do you know how stressful that was for me? Having an equal voice in making that decision? It would have been so easy to just do whatever he felt was right. But he wouldn’t hear of it. He said we were a team. He said we needed to reach a decision together. So I had to research and discuss and decide with him. What a jerk, right?

On the weeks I lead our house church, my husband weighs my thoughts against the Scripture and he considers what I have to say the exact same way he does when he or another man is leading. It’s unnerving, really. I mean, doesn’t he know I am just a woman? Doesn’t he know I can’t be taken seriously? But he seems to think that God speaks to and through women just as much as men. He seems to have gotten it into his head that God could use me too. That he might even learn something from me.

Pity me, women of the world. I’m married to a feminist and it’s ruining my life.

I’d been told that my identity as a woman was dependent on fitting into a certain mold. I’d been told I would always be secondary to my husband, able to influence but never to lead. I’d been told that being paid fairly for my work or being the primary bread-winner would emasculate my husband. I’d been told that my roles in life and in marriage were clearly defined and unmovable. I I’d been told that my gender mattered more than my humanity. I’d been told that my thoughts and words were made less valuable because of the shape of the body they came out of.

And now I’m married to this man who says my identity goes beyond my gender. A man who sees me as being every bit as valuable as he is. A man who is not threatened by my successes – personal, professional, or financial. A man who values my opinions, listens to my advice, and refuses to make a decision without me. A man who sees intelligence, creativity and strength in me and encourages me to cultivate those things. A man who doesn’t believe in dividing our home into “his” and “hers” zones. A strong, responsible, smart, and hard-working man who is isn’t afraid to be tender and loving and kind.

So, yeah, not what I signed up for…

Ryan Gosling

My Husband Doesn’t Treat Me Like a Princess – and I’m OK with That

In college, when Jonathan and I were dating, we had an acquaintance who was always asking me questions about our relationship. I’d run into him coming out of the Beamer Center and he’d throw his arm over my shoulder and ask me, “Tell me, is Jonathan good to you? Does he treat you like a princess?” This made me really uncomfortable. Partly because it felt like a weird way of flirting when I was clearly not interested and partly because it seemed to suggest that maybe there was something wrong with our relationship.

Jonathan was my first boyfriend and I wasn’t totally sure what it was supposed to look like. Questions like that made me panicky. I thought things were going well, but what did I really know? Did I feel like a princess? Shouldn’t I?

Growing up in a conservative evangelical church and community I believed that the ideal husband was a man who treated his wife like a pristine jewel.* I imagined I would marry a man who admired me for my purity and my modesty and who considered it the great honor of his life to provide for me. This man would be captivated by my beauty and filled with gratitude and maybe even some disbelief that he had been entrusted with something as precious as me. I would be a companion to him, supporting him and taking care of all of his domestic needs** and he would dote on me.

When I pictured my husband in that abstract way of a teenage girl I imagined flowers every Friday and frequent serenades (sometimes featuring string quartets). I pictured picnics in the park and romantic dinners and moments where he stopped dead in his tracks, awe-struck by my beauty and maybe a little weepy.

If you know my husband, you know how funny this is.

Don’t get me wrong, my husband is a wonderful man. He is very gentle and tender towards me. He serves me in beautiful and humbling ways. But he is not a romantic in the conventional sense. He tells me that I’m beautiful, but I don’t think he’s ever stopped and stared at me in awe. He expresses appreciation for the things I do around the house, but he does not worship me as a domestic goddess. Once, I leaned over and whispered very sweetly in his ear, “I love you so much and I’m so glad that we’re together.” And he smiled and reached out and said, “Got your nose!” while joyfully tweaking my nose. My husband is unfailingly patient and kind to me. But does he treat me like a princess? No, he doesn’t. And I’ve come to realize that I’m glad about that.

See, the “princess” as we commonly envision her, rules from an ivory tower. She may be adored, but she isn’t really known. She is praised for her sweetness, her beauty, and her daintiness. She might be wise and may be present for important discussions, but she doesn’t make decisions. Her power is symbolic more than it is actualized. She can’t protect herself because she’s never been given the opportunity to develop her strength. She isn’t able to grow because she isn’t given the freedom to fail. Her value lies in her position and in everything that that symbolizes.

All of the princesses together in the castle! I bet they have a book club!

All of the princesses together in the castle! I bet they have a book club!

My husband doesn’t treat me like a princess. He treats me like I’m his favorite person in the world. He treats me like a woman whose ideas and opinions he respects and is influenced by. He tells me that I am capable and strong. He treats me like I am valuable, not for the role I play, but for who I am. I am not afraid to make mistakes because my husband treats me like a human being – he isn’t devastated when he discovers that I’m flawed, because he never expected me to be perfect.

So while the remnants of my younger self sometimes wish my husband lived in awe of my beauty, my current self is thankful that he doesn’t. I don’t need a husband who treats me like a princess. I need a husband who reminds me that I’m a warrior.

_________________________________________________________________

*Ok, part of that might also have come from an early obsession with Disney. But I don’t want to get into the whole Disney princess debate because they are really improving that lately. And also, Disney still added far more magic to my life than the damage done by limp-noodle heroines. In conclusion, I still love Disney and my children will know the words to every Disney song ever recorded by the time they are three, so help me God.
**I wasn’t raised in the kind of strict complementarian circles that would disapprove of a woman working outside of the home, but there was certainly the expectation that part of a wife’s role is to keep a nice home.

True Confessions: I Have Cellulite and It’s Not From Having Babies

Yesterday I found some new stretch marks -thin white lines running parallel to each other like the rungs of a ladder climbing up my outer thigh. My heart sank and my shoulders sagged involuntarily under the weight of yet another imperfection.

I’ve seen a lot of articles and videos lately about women embracing their post-baby bodies. About society learning to respect the body of a woman who has stretched herself around another human life. Who has willingly allowed her own body to be “wrecked” for the sake of another person. These articles and videos urge us to see their sagging breasts and wrinkled bellies as beautiful symbols of strength and sacrifice. I applaud that. It’s beyond time that society honored women, especially mothers, for who they are and what they do instead of making any kind of statements about how their bodies should look.

But every time I read one of these articles or watch one of these videos, I experience an underlying sense of guilt and shame. What about those of us who haven’t birthed children and still have hopelessly flawed bodies? What about those of us who can’t look at our veiny legs and count these as something we have embraced in order to create new life? It’s embarrassing to admit this, but I have often dreamed about the day when I can embrace my mess of a body as “post-baby.” People understand that. Other mothers, particularly, have great compassion for that. I have great respect for that.

But what about the 26-year-old woman who has never had a child, who is healthy and active, but whose knees are still dimpled with cellulite? The angry purple lines that criss-cross my inner thighs don’t mark my body’s anguished and miraculous journey to produce a new life. The cellulite that ripples my skin from my hips to my knees is not from the strain of carrying another human’s body inside of mine. These are the marks of an adolescent girl whose body stretched into a woman’s before she was ready for it.

Here is a short list off the top of my head of things I am ashamed of about my body and that I actively try to correct where possible:

  • Stretch marks
  • Unfeminine body hair Thick, dark, impossible-to-get-rid-of hair.
  • Razor burn from removal of unfeminine body hair
  • Bushy eyebrows
  • Uneven skin tone/acne
  • Flat chest – but not flat enough to just be super thin and shapeless like the Korean girls, just flat enough to make me pear-shaped.
  • Possible improper ratio of breast to areola to nipple (I just found out that that’s a thing recently, so naturally now I’m worried about it.)
  • Cellulite
  • Hair that is simultaneously dry and greasy
  • Belly down – (what I call that very light layer of hair over my belly that makes it look pudgy even when you can clearly see the outline of my abs)
  • Saddle-bags
  • Chunky calves that make it impossible to buy boots
  • Short, stubby fingers with short stubby nails
  • That one weird mole on my back

After reading that list you probably think I am obsessed with my body image and spend way too much time thinking about this. Maybe that’s true, but I really don’t think I spend any more time thinking about this than the average woman does. In fact, these are all the flaws I noticed this morning during my 12-minute shower.

As a society, we are starting to speak out against “body-shaming” mothers and against the promotion of unrealistic and hyper-sexualized expectations for women’s bodies. We, as a culture, still have a long way to go, but we are making some noise. And this is a good thing.

On Saturday I ran six miles on my solid, muscular legs, and on Sunday my thick calves and cellulite-y thighs carried me to the top of a mountain. I didn’t feel particularly proud of either of those things, but when I saw those silvery lines stretching up the side of my thigh yesterday I felt defeated and ashamed. So today I am wondering, is there grace for me too? Is there a way to love my flaws when I can’t explain them away with the sacrificial love of a mother? Can I still be beautiful and strong and proud if I didn’t earn these imperfections in a noble way? Can I let you see my scars and not feel ashamed?

The Flasher or Why I am a Feminist

I was eight years old the day I saw the flasher. I was riding my bike home from a friend’s house around the corner from mine. I was in the height of my American Girl days*, wearing a dress and an apron and lace-up boots, my hair in a thick golden braid that fell all the way down my back and kissed the bike seat, pedaling down the sidewalk on my pink bike with the white tires, pink streamers flying from the handlebars.  I turned the corner onto my street and was surprised to see a man in a tan truck parked on the street in front of my friend Paige’s house. We lived in a quiet neighborhood with lots of kids and no through-traffic. There weren’t many strangers around. I was even more surprised when he got out of his truck and I realized he wasn’t wearing pants or underwear. I thought maybe he was going to pee on the side of the road. (I had a brother, after all. I knew boys did that sort of thing.) I sped up and passed him on my bike. He stared at me as I went past. His eyes were bright blue.

***

I was too young to know about exhibitionists. Of course, I knew that people weren’t supposed to take their clothes off in public, but it never occurred to me that the man was doing it on purpose to show me his penis, much less that this was an actual crime. I can’t imagine how disturbed my mom must have been when I came inside.

Me (more confused than bothered): Mom, I saw something weird on the way home from Emily’s. This man got out of his truck and he wasn’t wearing any pants! I thought maybe he needed to use the bathroom, but he never did.

Mom: What? Where? Did he say anything to you? Did he touch you? What did he look like? Is he still there?

I still didn’t understand what a big deal it was until the policeman showed up. My mom, obviously fearful for me and the neighborhood of kids we lived in, had called the police to report the incident. The policeman asked me to describe the man. “Dirty blond hair, scruffy face, gray t-shirt, no pants. Bright blue eyes,” I recited, heart-pounding because I was talking to a policeman, etching that face into my memory forever.

***

For years after the incident, I had this fantasy of the man with the bright blue eyes outside of my window, trying to peek in so he could see me when I changed my clothes. Taking baths became a sort of torture. In the bathroom was a high transom window far above the bathtub, but in my mind, I saw the man with the gray shirt and the bright blue eyes on a ladder, leaned against the brick outside, peering down at me while I bathed. I perfected the art of the 90-second bath, jumping in and out with barely enough time to get wet.  My mom couldn’t figure out what was wrong with her doll-carrying, dress-up playing, tea-party hosting girly-girl who suddenly never wanted to take a bath. I don’t know why I never told her what I was afraid of, but I was eight and children aren’t logical.

***

I grew up in a very conservative household in a very conservative school and church environment. I developed early, suddenly sprouting breasts while I was still a child. These two facts together meant I was taught from a very early age about modesty. Keeping myself covered so that I didn’t attract attention to my body. My mother dutifully explained the basics of my anatomy, of what was happening to my body and why and the very simplest version of what sex was. (I didn’t believe her for a while. I remember feeling bad that she would tell me such a weird lie because it made me feel gross to think about it.) I continued to take record-breaking showers, convinced that the man with the blue eyes was only more interested now.

It was several more years before I learned the words for what exactly I was afraid of. I knew that I was afraid of men, but I couldn’t name my fears – of sex, of being raped or molested, of lewd remarks, of stares that made me feel dirty. And as I grew, a rising fear that my own body would betray me. I was weighed down with the heaviness of it. Sick with the shame of having breasts.

It wasn’t as though it was all I thought about. I played and read and sang and did my homework. But at night in my bed I would pray, “God, I know I told a lie today, but I’m sorry. Please don’t let me get raped.” It wasn’t exactly that I thought God would punish me for bad behavior by letting me be raped. I just thought maybe if I didn’t behave well enough, I couldn’t guarantee that he would protect me.

***

I lived a relatively privileged life and still, there were years I spent in daily fear that I would be harmed, simply because I was a girl-child. I grew up looking at my body with shame and with fear of what it might possibly attract. And I never understood this as being fundamentally wrong. It was just the way the world was.

I am a feminist because I don’t think little girls and grown women should live in fear of their own bodies, afraid that they might attract violence simply because of their anatomy. I am a feminist because I believe that women should be free from the fear of bodily harm, of discrimination, of social injustice, and of inequality in all of its forms.

But I am also a feminist because I believe men should be free from the stereotype that they are some sort of sexual animals, always poised to attack. Men should be free of having genuine kindness towards women judged as an action with ulterior motive. And men, too, should be free from the fear of any form of bodily harm, discrimination, social injustice, or inequality.

I don’t particularly like the word “feminist” because I think it’s too small of a word. It doesn’t reach far enough. I am a feminist, but not because I only believe in equality for women. Equality cannot be FOR someone at the expense of someone else. I am a feminist because I believe in the right of every human being to have equal access to health care, education, job opportunities, adequate food, clean water, adequate shelter, and freedom from bodily harm. I am a feminist because I believe in fighting for and insisting upon equality for all who are marginalized, be they women, minorities, orphans, the poor, the sick, the mentally ill, or anyone else who is treated as less than a valued human being by society.

I want to delve into all of that. But right now, I want to acknowledge where it started for me. I am a feminist because 8-year-old little girls should be able to take baths without being afraid.

* American Girl is a popular brand of historical books, (highly overpriced) dolls, clothes and accessories wildly popular with the 10 and under crowd when I was in elementary school. In fact, they are still fairly popular. I had Felicity, in case you were wondering.