Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Beauty Myth (and Why I'm not Buying it Anymore)

There was the moment I stepped on a scale when I was ten and saw that I weighed 92 pounds.  I didn't even know what that meant but it was too much.  There were the half-naked bikini models on glossy paper, common decor of boys' school lockers visible to me when I was twelve and everyday after that.  Or hiding in the library pouring over Seventeen magazine, trying to figure out how to be pretty and what sexuality was all about.  Exercising to punish my body for what I'd ingested the day before, weeks of eating very few carbs and letting numbers determine my value. Being sexually harassed while waiting tables at a family diner when I was 22 and always blaming myself, never speaking up.  Hating my body and being terrified of nakedness when I should have been over the moon with soon to be married bliss.

I just read "The Beauty Myth" by Naomi Wolf and all these memories have been coming up, I've scribbled them into the margins of my thrift shop purchase.  I don't agree with all of her conclusions but something has been torn open in my mind, some paradigm is shifting, some hope is being sparked.  I was raised with a good amount of self-esteem for a girl growing up in small town America, attending a public school.  I made pretty good choices, did well in academics and sports, got a four year degree from a liberal arts college and have traveled to a few amazing places.  At 25 I met a boy and married him when I was 27; I have two children and my husband sees me as his equal in all ways.  I have a community of people, across oceans and down the street, who love and care for me.  I'm a privileged person and a confident, passionate, "liberated" woman.  I wrote a love letter to my body which is one of my most widely read postsAnd yet I am astounded by how I still have lived under the power of the Beauty Myth.

The premise of Wolf's book is that the more women break through historical hindrances, whether that be legal or material (the right to vote, the right to work outside of the home, positions of leadership) the more images of female beauty are used to constrict and control them.  She writes this in 1990, when I was only a child, but I think many of these problems have only gotten worse:
During the past decade, women breached the power structure; meanwhile, eating disorders rose exponentially and cosmetic surgery became the fastest-growing medical speciality.  During the past five years, consumer spending doubled, pornography became the main media category, ahead of legitimate films and records combined, and thirty-three thousand American woman told researchers that they would rather lose ten to fifteen pounds than achieve any other goal.  More women have more money and power and scope and legal recognition than we have ever had before; but in terms of how we feel about ourselves physically, we may actually be worse off than our unliberated grandmothers. (10)  
Are most women individually neurotic and insecure about their bodies?  Or is there a greater force at work that seeks to undermine women collectively, a violent backlash against the corporate power of women to bring change in the world?

Wolf points to advertisers as the biggest players in determining what women think about themselves, because our economy is fairly dependent on their buying power.  In the 1950s the "Feminine Mystique" told women that their value was in being a good wife, good mother and good homemaker and then sold them home products to help them achieve that mythical status.  When women left homemaking for the workplace in the 60s, a new force was needed to compel 'insecure consumerism':  if women were no longer buying more things for their house, could they be convinced to buy more things for their body? "Somehow, somewhere, someone must have figured out that they will buy more things if they are kept in the self-hating, ever-failing, hungry, and sexually insecure state of being aspiring "beauties." ... The Beauty Myth, in its modern form, arose to take the place of the Feminine Mystique, to save magazines and advertisers from the economic fallout of the women's revolution."(66)

Women's magazines that often featured pro-women content and had the potential to unite women for a common cause would lose large amounts of money from advertisers if they didn't also propogate the mythical ideal woman.  The focus on beauty in magazines is primarily an economic one, where "what editors are obliged to appear to say that men want from women is actually what their advertisers want from women."(73)  Wolf goes on to say that it's not sex that sells in advertising as much as discontentmentThe more dissatisfied a woman is with her body or her sexuality, the more estranged she is in relationships, the more stuff she will buy.  Hello, retail therapy?  It's a real thing and much more insidious than we think.

Wolf's chapter entitled "Sex" is fascinating.  I underlined about half of it and then read it all out loud to my husband.  The images of women that we see in, what Wolf calls, "beauty pornography" shapes our understandings (and mostly lack of understanding) of women's bodies.  It's relatively new for our culture to believe that beauty = thinness; impossible perfection = sexuality/sexiness.  Women are told that losing weight will make them feel sexier but it often has the reverse effect.  A healthy amount of fat is a female characteristic contributing to stable hormones, fertility and sexual desire; becoming thinner through hunger and dieting can decrease a woman's libido, especially when the motivation is self-deprecation, something never satisfied no matter what the scale reads.

We agree that violent pornography and violence against women in the media has devastating affects on how we understand sex, rape and our own self-worth as humans, increasing violence and abuse in our families and relationships.  But what about images of naked or near naked women who are not having any harm done to them?  Why does this bother us so much?  Wolf writes,
For the woman who cannot locate in her worldview a reasonable objection to images of naked, "beautiful" women to whom nothing bad is visibly being done, what is it that can explain the damage she feels within?  Her silence itself comes from the myth: If women feel ugly, it is our fault, and we have no inalienable right to feel sexually beautiful.  A woman must not admit it if she objects to beauty pornography because it strikes to the root of her sexuality by making her feel sexually unlovely. (148)
"Beauty pornography", the stuff we see daily in magazines, billboards and posters in the mall, makes women feel inadequate.  We will never look like her and therefore we will never reach the mythical status of 'beautiful'.  The objectification and comparison of women's bodies publicly is such a normal part of our culture (while it is very different for male bodies) that we are trained as little girls to do this to ourselves.  Women are asked to measure up to a hybrid ideal that, especially today, is computer generated (but we are convinced is real and possible even when we know better).  The Beauty Myth operates in a way that says, "You too can be beautiful like her if you just wear this, eat this, put this on your face, have your hair coloured like this; if you are not like her it is your own fault."  But models portrayed in beauty pornography will never look like real women because if they did then we would realize we don't need to buy the stuff they're paid to sell.

This public and private comparison robs women of their own innate dignity and it robs women in relationships from receiving love from their partners.  Early in our marriage I really struggled with the fact that I didn't suddenly feel beautiful and attractive all the time.  I blamed Chris because if he would just say it more or say it in public or say it at the right moments, when my eyes are asking him what he thinks, THEN I would finally know that I was beautiful.  We had quite a few arguments rooted in this and it was painful to feel forced to say "I want to know that you think I'm beautiful".   It quickly turned to anger because why in the world did I so badly want him to judge me at all?  Why wasn't this going both ways?  Why did he seem so secure that I loved him and didn't desire anyone else?  Why was I wanting to be measured and validated and he wasn't?

That's the power of the beauty myth.  It makes us be crazy and obsessive and fearful and competitive and it's not just our problem and it's not just "a mysterious hormonal woman thing"; it's a force that is trying to stop women from reaching their full potential.  The busier we are criticizing our bodies and measuring ourselves against other (real and not real) women, the more disengaged we will be in the world: we'll be less likely to speak up and take hold of  our rightful place in family, government, media, business and the church; we will be less likely to use our gifts and talents to seek justice and do mercy in the world.  We will keep buying the stuff they are selling.

What is the path out of the beauty myth?  Wolf closes her book with the question, "What will we see?" (291)  So much of the beauty myth's power will be broken as we challenge ourselves to see anew, to redefine beauty as something that all women carry, that is non-hierarchical and non-competitive.  We are enough and other women are too. We already are beautiful, we don't need to diet or get new clothes or cover up our acne or make love with the lights dim and we don't need to rank ourselves among other real or mythical women.  Wolf writes, "The 'beautiful' woman does not win under the myth; neither does anyone else... You do not win by struggling to the top of a caste system, you win by refusing to be trapped within one at all.  The woman wins who calls herself beautiful and challenges the world to change to truly see her." (290)

Changing our habitual thought patterns takes time, maybe it takes years, but we must do it for our own selves and our communities but also for our daughters and sons.  Sarah Bessey wrote over two years ago, "In which I promise not to call myself fat" and it's really resonated with me now that my children are growing and listening and telling our family's story with their own words.  It may be a struggle throughout my whole life but I have so much hope that the next generation will have eyes to see what is truly there.

How has the Beauty Myth affected your view of yourself or other women?  Does any of this resonate with you? What have you done to walk out of the beauty myth's power? As always I would love to hear your thoughts!

  *(thanks for the pictures, Spiro)

Read Part 2 here: Breaking the Beauty Myth (with 16 Girls in a Turkish Bath)

Sunday, July 14, 2013

welcomed to the table (a lesson from Ramadan)

Have you ever experienced iftar, breaking the daily fast with friends during Ramadan, the month set aside for Muslims to fast, pray and focus on their families?  That's how we spent Saturday evening, in a park at sunset with hundreds of people, most of whom we didn't know.  The women sat together, babies in our laps and toddlers by our sides, waiting for the sun to dip down low so that we could fill hungry bellies with food, we waited together.  Dates first, fruits and juice, Arabic sweets, then a feast of saffron rice and lamb, a warm plate for hundreds of people.  The food kept coming, there was plenty for all.  I couldn't believe the number of women gathered and seated, a multitude of colours in skin and headscarves born from at least a dozen nations. 

My neighbour, who had invited us, was one of the hosts of the event.  My husband was passed along to a few different male hosts throughout the evening, was even asked if he was Lebanese, he was glad that I beg him not to shave.  My son swapped sides, occasionally joining the men when he wanted to be close to his dad.  The meal was interrupted only by prayer as people lined up, shoulder to shoulder, facing their holy city and whispering words to the God who spoke them into existence.

I was warmed by this community, even in the winter chill.  So many people, though different in culture and covering, even language and creed, still chose to break their fast in the presence of one another.  The women genuinely welcomed me and not just my personality and conversation but my body too was filled up with nourishing food.  My head was uncovered, my children noisy, my understandings of religious practices awkward and still I was welcomed to the table.

In ancient Bedouin hospitality codes, even your enemy should be given food and shelter if needed, for a number of days.  Sharing food and water in a desert climate is an act of vulnerability, a giving of oneself more than what most of the western world would deem necessary.  Having traveled to six Middle Eastern countries I know it's written on their hearts and cities, this way of welcome and surplus and "please, eat some more."  I will never out-give an Arab, and probably not a Muslim from any culture; that is why the surprising friendships in my neighourhood are such a gift, especially for me.


Can we come hungry to the table together to let our stomachs remind us our hearts' collective groan?  Can we hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice together, crossing lines of religion and race?  Can we lay down the fear and violence that separates us and instead square ourselves to one another, face to face?  We must learn empathy and understanding on the road to peace, teaching our children that we all belong to God, are all innately bestowed with unsurpassable worth. 

We are all hungry for honest to goodness friendship, for acceptance at the table.  It's important to sit down with people who have experienced life differently than we have.  They might look different than us, might not speak our language well or know how we do things 'round these parts but as we reach out our hands in kindness we will be too busy caring for each other to hurt each other.  We must do this because things need to change.  Do it for Desmond Tutu, or Trayvon Martin, do it for Syria and Iraq or Los Angeles.  Do it because you need a friend and there's someone who needs a friend in you. 

Friendship is the first seeds of justice, a tree that will grow with healing shade for us all. 

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
    and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? 
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
    and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. 
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
    you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
    with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
    and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
    and your night will become like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you always;
    he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
    and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
    like a spring whose waters never fail.
Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
    and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
    Restorer of Streets with Dwellings."

 Isaiah 58 6-12


Monday, July 8, 2013

The variables of miracles and other things I don't understand.

I love to hear stories of people being healed, of miracles happening.  I have a good friend who, after the birth of her first child, was diagnosed with a severe kidney disease requiring strong medication.  Always planning to have a large family she was told she could have only one more pregnancy.  She quickly became pregnant and gave birth to twin girls.  I love this story, it fills my heart with joy.  I'd call that a miracle. 

For every miraculous story of healing that I know first hand I also know someone who is in the painful place of grief, of longing, of waiting and trusting for change to come.  I have a friend who is in faith for her daughter's healing and it's a heartbreaking, life-giving gift to read her journey over the year since she received her diagnosis.  She writes courageously, so openly although I know there's so much more depth to the joy and pain than she publicly shares.  I've seen her change, I've seen her words change, I've seen her mama heart get ripped wide open and it's healing that way.  She is honest about her fears, her anger, the possibilities of loss in a world where bad things do happen, even to our people.  And somehow she always finds her way back to the goodness of God's character, to her hope in Jesus, to the promise of all things new. 

Greg Boyd, a pastor and theologian in the US, preached a sermon series on faith a good while ago that we watched with a group of friends.  He explored ideas about what faith is and what it is not.  He talked about the mythical 'faithometer' that we often think we need to have peaking at all times.  If you really have faith there will be no doubt in your heart, no questions, no talk of any other possibilities.  Any doubting or searching or grieving and the faithometer starts to plummet–quick let's think happy thoughts and get it back up!  This puts so much pressure on us and when healing isn't happening or change hasn't arrived, the fault is with us, isn't it?

Boyd talks about faith like covenant.  To be in faith isn't that we have our faithometer sky high at all times, it's about who we come back to.  It's a marriage covenant, God with God's people and we are faithful because we come back to Him.  The psalms give us permission (and mandate!) to be honest and open with ourselves and God and our community.  There is so much room for rage and anger, doubt and unbelief, for honestly about the disorientation we experience. But we keep coming back.  We allow God to, as Walter Brueggemmann writes, "surprisingly re-orientate us".  My marriage to Chris doesn't hinge on my feelings towards him at any given moment, it's based on the promise that I will keep coming back to him, and he will keep coming back to me.

I wrote about the variables of birth some months ago.  When childbirth goes well, people say we are amazing, we are strong, we must have handled the pain well.  Conversely, we blame ourselves and often experience great dissapointment when our births don't go as planned.  But the labour room ball is not completely in our court. As much as I believe education, prayer and positive thinking contribute to a natural birth, it's not all in our control.  That's frustrating and sometimes it's devastating depending on the outcome.  But that's reality.  

Variables, known in all their complexity to God, surround our desired outcomes for healing.  One of those variables the Bible speaks about is faith, and isn't that a mysterious thing?  Who of us can really understand it when Jesus talks of faith not as something we should be stockpiling but like the tiniest mustard seed, able to move trees or mountains.  It doesn't sound like it takes much faith at all, just the planting of it, just the space to receive it.   There are other variables:  there's prayer, free will, powers of darkness bent on destruction, there's the chaotic forces of gravity and nature and God's grace in the world.  And there's God's kingdom come, arriving like a screaming baby, always a surprise.  We live in the tension of the already and the not yet; we live in the reality of a long Holy Saturday, caught between death and, someday, all things new.

I believe God is always doing in every situation all that God can do With what I've understood to be in God's very character and nature I don't think God would hold back his love or healing or justice in the world.  Because God created beings with free will, creation (by nature) is not under God's micro-managerial control.  So sometimes God can't do because doing in a given situation would contradict the nature of God's creation, a world open to all the possibilities for Real Love, and so also open to all the possibilities for pain.  Our prayers are extremely important because they invite God into the domain he's released to us, to increasingly hold sway in bringing about his justice and joy-filled will on the earth.  There isn't a formula for prayers of 'faith' (ie. just say these three things and healing will happen).  There isn't a formula for an easy labour either, or a successful vaginal birth.  There are always many variables at play.

And yet, I do believe in miracles.  I just don't know why they happen when they do.


When my son was born, nearly three years ago, his birth went bad very quickly in the second stage of labour and it was too late for an emergency cesarean.  He was severely deprived of oxygen and when resuscitated (after 6 1/2 minutes) he was prepared to be transferred to a large hospital in Sydney two hours away.  When the team came to take him I was able to see him for a few minutes.  The first thing I was told was: "Congratulations.  You need to know that he may never be alright.  He's not moving one side of his body, his oxygen level was extremely low at birth ..."  His body was cooled with ice to slow his metabolism and hopefully stop the presumed brain damage from continuing.

I had my own complications and stayed the night alone in the hospital while my husband went with Safran to Sydney.  A good friend came to stay with me a few hours and I don't remember much of what we talked about, though my general feeling was, "If he's a baby his whole life, he's my baby.  At least he is alive."  I was scared too, but I had pretty much accepted our situation as much as one could in the shock of a few life changing hours (maybe a survival mechanism).  My midwife thought he would live but would be in hospital for weeks.

our son, an hour old

Friends in our local community had gathered to pray earnestly, having walked with me through this pregnancy.  Chris sent an email to our family and friends far away to please pray, at that point we really had no idea what would happen or how long we would be in the hospital.  I remember getting a message back from some very dear friends telling me they spent the evening praying for him, asking that every breath taken from him would be given back even more.  It meant a lot to me, I was not there at all, not praying, not crying, just stunned and so sad that he wasn't sleeping in my arms.

Chris was given a small room right off of the NICU and eventually left Saf to get a few hours of sleep.  He told me that he has never cried as hard as he did that night, never felt the darkness so palpable.

The next morning I was transferred to the bigger Sydney hospital.  I was able to hold Saf within the hour and then a few more hours and I tried to nurse him, thirty hours after his birth.  He looked so beautiful and so vulnerable.  I hated that my husband was telling me how he liked to hold onto your finger and have you hold the pacifier in his mouth while he shivered in the cold.  I hated that his one-on-one nurses seemed to know him better than I did.  And yet I was so grateful for the care he was getting, so glad to be in Australia and not in so many other parts of the world.

The first brain scan came back clear.  Fingers crossed, they said, maybe there wasn't going to be the brain damage they had suspected.   Another day and his body was allowed to be warmed back to a normal temperature.  I heard a nurse handing over his case to another a few days later, explaining his situation. She followed up his stats at birth with "bless his heart" and then said, "But he seems to have made a spontaneous recovery."  After five days we were home.

We saw the head pediatrician a month later.  She was surprised by how closely he watched her as she spoke.  We were told to keep an eye on his milestones and come back if we suspect anything, to be prepared even for some learning delays later on but she thought he was probably fine.

And three years later it seems like she was right.

our son, oct 2012


I've never known what to do with his story, how to talk about it with people.  There was a baby right next to him on that first day in the NICU, a baby born under similar circumstances with a very low APGAR score as well, a baby on ice with new parents worried.  She was not picking up in the way that our son already was.  I think about them, their baby also nearly three now, if she survived.  I don't think my son was simply a "spontaneous recovery" but I don't know why exactly the goodness and healing of God's kingdom broke into our situation in those desperate moments.  Did God love my baby more?  Did God have more important plans for my child's life than for their child?  I don't believe either of those things to be true, but I am still grateful every day for my son's life and health.

There were many variables at work.  Saf was born after 40 weeks gestation, he was a good weight, he was a strong little guy.  The Australian healthcare system served us, quick and important decisions by my midwife and doctors brought life to my child.  There were spiritual variables that I can't name or understand, I believe there is a battle over every new life coming into the world.  I know that the prayers of my family and friends were a powerful force.  I didn't personally have any strong belief that he would be healed, but he was. 

For whatever reason, the variables were alligned in those moments and it had nothing to do with God's special love or preference for my family.  I understand there are a myriad of things that cause evil to happen, my struggle is more with why good things do.  I struggle with talk about God's "blessings" knowing that there are people who labour for years or lifetimes to see things made right and whole. 

Greg Boyd's own son is autistic and he shares openly about their journey of engaging with God in that reality.  I have two siblings with special needs and parents who labour over their lives with prayer and with everything they have.  I have experienced the devastation that comes when people actually die much too early, friends of mine and parents of friends and babies born too soon.  I read the blog of a mother who lost her four year old son to brain cancer.  I've met many women in the world who have lost children to diarrhea or babies to unsafe birthing practices.  I read the news enough to know that the general safety I experience is a luxury and children grow up under the threat of drones and missiles and soldiers.  The world sometimes is really, really messed up; some of that is nature and chaos and some of that is because of greed, militarism and violence.

I think faith is less about moments and more about our orientation.  Our faith's power is not in the amount but in the One whom we hold faith towards: Jesus, the Prince of Shalom, whose radically subversive teachings show us what God looks like.  He redefined power as servanthood and went all the way to the cross choosing love over violence.  God raised Jesus from the dead, vindicating him and all he taught us, giving us a taste of the new creation that is to come.  One day he will return again and make all things new; there will be no more mourning or weeping or fear.

One of the first posts I published on this blog was something I wrote in 2007 while volunteering for six months at a hospital in India.  I can't describe the daily glory and devastation there, the new babies screaming and the mothers weeping; in some moments the kingdom came with newborn cries of deliverance and in others it was deafening silence, only God's weeping could be heard.  I wrote about it here. 

But it was then that I started to think about faith in a new way, when truth seemed to only come in the imagery of expectant bellies and the groaning of all creation as we wait, for our King to come for all.

I just finished reading through Luke and was once again stunned by Jesus--a little bit terrified, but wanting to follow.  Halfway through the story his disciples ask him to increase their faith.  They want more.  They want to see His kingdom come.  But Jesus is gentle and troubled and picks up a seed and tells them that this is all they need to see even a massive tree uprooted and planted into the sea.  Just a seed of faith. 
When a sperm and an egg meet in a woman's body, its the smallest moment with the most eternal implications.  And as soon as it happens, as soon as that seed is planted the woman's body begins to prepare for this seed to grow and after some months, to be born.
Jesus said we just need a seed of faith.  Maybe it's the kind of seed that, like the first cells of an eternal spirit, kicks us into action.  We need faith that changes us and that we give room to grow in our lives--and to take over no matter what disappointments we have experienced before.  Like a mustard seed grows into a bush that is massive and invasive; like a seed of life planted in a mother's womb changes her body and her heart forever.  Her body does everything it can to make fertile space for him. Eventually when he is born the mother's life is conquered by commitment to this newborn until the end of her life.  That is a seed of faith that will change the world.
I want to be a person of faith ready for that smallest seed to be planted in my heart, ready to welcome God's kingdom as it arrives among us–surprising and even violating laws of culture and superseding our known laws of physics.  I want to be faithful to my friends and family who wait in the darkness of longing, for healing, for pregnancy, for comfort, for resurrection.  I want to be faithful to the mystery of how it all works, confessing that I don't understand, but I do believe.  I believe that God is good, always, and is coming soon.  And until He comes, I believe in miracles.


What are your thoughts on faith and miracles?  What has your experience been? I would love to hear.