[Disclaimer: This topic is particularly uncomfortable for me, and likely also is for a great number of others. But with this in mind, and BECAUSE it is carries a great amount of discomfort with it, I believe that this is precisely why, in the season of Lent, I should blog about it. Here goes nothing.]
The Bible and the Church have long struggled in my opinion to reconcile their treatment of the female body image, let alone respect for it. This morning, in my ritual flipping through of my Paper app on my phone, an article came up highlighting the benefits of female physical, spiritual and emotional modesty. In sum, the article called for women of all shapes – curvy and thin and everything in between – to hide their bodies under sackcloths both in and out of the church for the sake of men everywhere. Further, this movement encouraged “complete purity,” purity of mind, body, spirit, and obviously sexual purity. This type of attitude (in the church, mind you – I want to distinguish the difference between the church & other traditions), asking women to hide their bodies under long skirts, long sleeve shirts, and demanded women to live up to completely unrealistic expectations.
Within this culture, women are taught that they are to desire emotional intimacy, while men are to desire sex; this is precisely why, therefore women must dress modestly, covering their bodies, despite the fact that they too are created in the image of God (equally, according to scripture, but that sure isn’t taken into account, let alone mentioned by the Purity Movement). Women are expected to maintain self-control, despite the fact that men too are capable of controlling their desires; a modest woman is praised for restraining themselves in the presence of men – for being demure, for not giving hugs freely, for not flirting and for being restrained in their behaviors. What is most fascinating about this perspective is the burden placed upon women; women are being asked not to control their own behaviors primarily, but the sexual desires of men. Is this fair? (Is it fair to ask that it is fair? Is it appropriate? Who knows?) But how are women supposed to control what goes on in the heads of another, let alone shoulder the burden of others when they can barely shoulder their own in a world that demands so much already of women? Women are supposed to be and do so much in today’s society, and for the church to demand yet another thing of them seems to be like the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
In a culture where Eating Disorders, depression, and self-esteem issues among women (and also men) are on the rise, I refuse to see how this type of “purity culture” is anything but destructive, and couldn’t contribute further to these type of catastrophic Mental Illnesses. Having lost a dear friend in College to an Eating Disorder (she too was a woman of great faith herself, despite having been raised in a different faith tradition), I will not stand for the demeaning of women in the church, nor will I permit the perpetuation of a culture that only sees women as sex objects or for their physical value. Scripture certainly doesn’t only see women that way, nor does God see women that way in my opinion – and much of the world doesn’t see women that way.
I want to emphasize that I (Liz) am NOT encouraging young women and men to live a sexually “scandalous” lifestyle (there are no good words to describe what I really am meaning to say here, without sounding like a judgy Christian, but suffice it to say, I am not encouraging a lifestyle lived completely in the fast lane. Be safe, y’all.), but I don’t think that what the Southern Baptist Convention instituted beginning in 1992 with the “True Love Waits” campaign is the only way, nor is it the right way for everyone. Further, I think it’s implicit “Christian purity rules” might put undue pressure on girls and young women, even dehumanizing them. Girls and young women learn who they are through the process of dating, through their interactions with boys and young men, and this campaign teaches girls that any interaction with a boy is sinful behavior. But for the church to use scare tactics (as this is what the movement is intending to do…), meaning to scare youth into sexual abstinence and purity, seems a bit inappropriate, let alone isolating in a world that already isolates teenagers who don’t fit in for something else – their teenage faith.
How can the church heal this? How can the church, from the time they are young, help girls love and embrace their bodies, rather than feel shamed into hiding their sexuality and their bodies? It begins with teaching them that their bodies – each and every part, curves, bones, jiggly and wiggly bits, flaws and perfect parts – are created by God and therefore are absolutely perfect. If God wanted our flaws to be perfect, He would have made them that way, and there is no shame in hiding them under long skirts, turtlenecks and long sleeves for the sake of a church rule.
Teaching love can and should begin in the church, as the theme abounds in God’s Word. Christ teaches the church to love one another, not abuse each other; Paul expounds on the fact that love is the greatest of the three virtues – faith, hope, and love. Paul even tells men to love their wives in the same manner that Christ loved the church and gave himself up for “her.” (Ephesians 5:25) Take that particular piece of scripture as you will, because that one has been misconstrued and misinterpreted, interpreted and taken out of context, used to abuse women and what have you, but even Paul preaches a message of respecting and upholding women to a higher level in this world. But my most favorite piece of scripture comes from 1 John:
“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:18-19)
Scripture teaches that love and respect are important, and that accepting others in the name of God’s love is even more significant and critical. Fear only begets fear, as love begets love, and the church has an obligation to teach that women are not objects, just as men are not either. I don’t want anyone to get the impression that this post is intended to be a feminist rant; instead, it should be a call to action for both men and women, mothers and fathers, elders and deacons, and leaders of the church to gather together and work to discuss how best to teach young women (and also young men as well, as love is equal) to love and respect their bodies.
Women cannot be taught to love themselves if their physical bodies are hidden in shame beneath layers of polyester and denim, nor if they are taught that their physical, God-given vessels are solely objects of sexual temptation for the opposite or same sex. Shame cultivates shame, and only further perpetuates an understanding that the church is a place where women are lesser than men, not where women’s voices are equally as loud and worthy as those of men. And this is not the way it has to be, nor the way it is in general. But when one voice speaks loudly, another must speak up as well.
Lenten Action Steps:
-Have Open Door sessions on body image issues in the church
-Encourage raw and authentic conversation among adults (parents, lay leaders, other pastors) on the issue of sexuality in the church and why it is so difficult to talk about this subject from the pulpit, in the congregation
-Talk about body image in Youth Group w/high schoolers (a risky discussion, especially with hormonal teenagers, but it CAN be worth it…)
-Have authentic and open discussions with Youth Groups about modesty in scripture and what that means to them (or doesn’t mean to them): why is it/isn’t it outdated, too hard to deal with in today’s culture, etc.
May God’s will prevail over those of His creation, and may women feel comfortable and safe being precisely who God created them to be – beautiful, imperfectly perfect, just as broken and wonderfully whole, just the way they are, created in the image of God. And may the ordained and lay leaders of God’s church come to some better understanding as to how to reconcile this issue, so as to better teach, preach and work in a world that doesn’t always know how to eloquently and sensitively address the issues of the body, sexuality and body images.
All this I pray in the name of the one who was willing to go to the cross for my broken but still beautiful imperfections,
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