Saturday, November 19, 2011

women, weight, and war.

My friend recently gave me a pregnancy magazine which I've enjoyed perusing.  Unfortunately most of the articles are about nutrition and exercise.  I remembered that I've 'exercised' maybe 2 or 3 times this pregnancy and decided, at 28 weeks, to start.  That was 5 weeks ago and I think I managed an interrupted 20 minute pregnancy pilates video once.  mHm.  I do carry my 25 pound toddler up a steep flight of stairs multiple times a day which must count for something.  I'm sure I'll have plenty of time for exercise ... after the baby comes.  mHm.

Cover of "Pray the Devil Back to Hell"Cover of Pray the Devil Back to HellMy husband saw the magazine sitting on our counter and remarked, "wow, they even photoshop pictures of pregnant women" - who, I might add, already look like models.  I heard recently that generally 99.9% of female images in magazines are altered.  (Really?!?)  The pregnancy magazine was full of tall, extremely thin women who only gain weight on their bellies which they miraculously shed completely back to defined abs within weeks of birth.  I felt a bit depressed flipping through the pages, comparing my body, my diet, my (complete lack of) exercise routine.  The cover donned a heading, "Have the Baby but Keep the Body!"  Because that's the most important indicator of your post-partum success, you know.  How long did it take to get back into your old jeans?  I'm sure your baby really cares.

We recently had some friends over to watch an incredible documentary called "Pray the Devil Back to Hell."  It's the story of Liberia's (a small country in West Africa) journey to freedom from a 14 year civil war in the face of a ruthless dictator and greed-stricken rebels.  And the women made it happen.

Christian and Muslim women began uniting in their desperation for the same thing:  the end of violence, rape, hunger and fear for their children who had never known anything else.  Leymah Gbowee, who at the time was a pregnant mother with three children, courageously led the initiative.  She believed that "if any changes were to be made in society it had to be by the mothers".  She began 2 1/2 years of creative non-violent protest, the bulk of which were thousands of Liberian women dressed in white, gathering at the fish markets, praying, dancing, grieving and celebrating life together.  When given opportunity to address Liberia's dictator, Charles Taylor, she bravely said, " We are tired of war. We are tired of running. We are tired of begging for bulgur wheat. We are tired of our children being raped. We are now taking this stand, to secure the future of our children. Because we believe, as custodians of society, tomorrow our children will ask us, "Mama, what was your role during the crisis?"

It's a wild story.  And it worked.  In 2004 Liberia was the first African country to elect a female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who, along with Leymah Gbowee, was awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.

Here's the documentary's trailer:

Every time I watch this film I'm challenged in new ways, often looking my own apathy in the face.  And that's a terrifying thing.  This time, as I saw these Liberian women who had been raped, had their children kidnapped, fled their homes for safety, gone days without food and clean water - when I saw them completely risking their lives demanding their country choose another way - I was deeply stirred.  One woman told her children, "If I die, you will know I died fighting for peace."

In Liberia, that's what it meant to be a woman - to fight for peace for your children, no matter what the cost.  The scars of war lay as deep lines on their faces and ache in their eyes.  They were pregnant, gave birth, nursed and raised their babies.  But they had a lot more to worry about than how quickly they lost their pregnancy weight.

I felt shallow.  I felt deceived.  I felt amazed that after spending time with women in at least ten emerging nations, eyes wide open to poverty, injustice and suffering that I could still think being a woman is largely about how I look.  I spent three months in South Sudan, doing life in mud huts, carrying water on my head, learning everything from my friend Miriam who had lived as a refugee in Uganda for 20 years under continual threat of violence.  I had very little electricity and 3 cm of mirror to my name.  My shirt and skirt rarely matched.  And I had never felt so alive.

But once I'm back in my own culture, it's so deep in my subconcious to care about my appearance, regardless of what I say, or even think I believe.  I compare myself to women in magazines, women I see at the beach, or moms around me.  How do I have time for that?  There are sex workers on my block, friends in need of comfort and fellowship, children to grow, a husband to care for, books to read, streets to walk, governments and people in uproar around the world - do I really have time to critique my body?  Do I really think it's that important?  Will I really let magazines with pictures of women THAT DO NOT EVEN EXIST IN REALITY  give me a standard by which to measure myself?  Please God have mercy on me.

Leymah Gbowee led Liberia to the end of a devastating civil war.  Before that she was reading the works of Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr while providing for her children in the midst of chaos.  She won the Nobel Peace Prize.  She is a mother of six children.  She is an outstandingly beautiful and brilliant woman and I bet she doesn't give a damn that my culture would define her as "overweight" or "heavy".

I want to be heavy like her - heavy with influence, heavy with compassion, heavy with courage and creativity and suffering love.

When my eyes scan magazine covers at the grocery store looking for a definition of "woman", I want to immediately recall the Liberian mothers, wearing white and changing the world.  They are my definition.  They will be my standard when I feel the need to compare.

When my children ask me, "Mama, what was your role in the crisis?", I hope I have something to say.
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  1. Daggum... that was good. I was having similar thoughts recently about how little I cared what I looked like on our DTS and how fulfilled I felt in Namibia and now I care so much about filling all these feminine roles and how ridiculous and frustrating it all feels. This was a great reminder of where true beauty and power lie. Thank you again.

  2. Oh becca...I was looking for something to share at devotions tomorrow while we discuss the start of 16 days of activism for no violence against women and children. This is beautiful...heavy with a beauty you share so often. I just put the story of the 3 women that won the Nobel Prize this year on my wall...thanks for making it come alive. Beth

  3. thanks ladies - you should definitely try to watch the whole documentary. it's incredible. and i heard they're showing it to groups of women in areas of conflict all over the world. and MB - I definitely am amazed at how quickly I let the culture I'm in define 'beauty' for me, no matter how shallow it may be. ugh. but giving myself an alternative to think of (the Liberian activists) has been helping already. miss you both! xo

  4. good point becca. i am cheering you on from my sleepy eyed 5am bf. and appreciating the truth in this as it washes my soul. hannah m