The “Christian” Objectification of Women

My friend Meg, who is a professor of Biblical Studies at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, told me this story from her trip to Bolivia last summer:

“I took an all-female team to work […] in a small mountain community […].  At first, I don’t think [the community] quite knew what to do with us.  […]  Over the week, we worked hard and even got a chance to lead their little Baptist church in service.  I preached, the girls sang and gave testimonies, and the people in the community got to know us and our hopes and dreams as we got to know theirs. 

At the end of our time together, one of the staff, by far the most educated man in the village, spoke about his experience with us.  He said that he had a four-year-old daughter and that watching all the women on our team who were studying to be doctors, nurses, nutritionists, teachers, etc. had opened his eyes to a whole other life that might be possible for his little girl that he’d never dreamed of before.”

As Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn explain in Half the Sky, lifting women and girls through education and economic empowerment lifts whole societies.

By contrast, the perpetuation of patriarchy and disempowerment of women tends to maintain cycles of poverty, abuse, and violence.

What upsets me when I hear stories like Meg’s is that there are increasingly vocal evangelicals who would openly critique what happened there in Bolivia. {They had a woman preach?}

{Heck, via Meg, I’ve even read a Christian attack on The Hunger Games which bemoaned Katniss’s ‘masculinity’ and Peeta’s ‘femininity’ as a reversal of ‘God’s design’ for manhood and womanhood.}

It seems to me that despite the insistence that such a perspective is Biblical, there is, in fact, an unwitting confirmation of consumer culture’s perspective of women, which is that women are not–or at least shouldn’t be–the subjects of their own lives but the objects of other people’s gazes and desires.  The “Bestselling Books for Christian Women” at include a disproportionate number of books that more or less argue that the way to be a really ‘Biblical’ or ‘true’ woman of God is to, essentially submit to the authority and control of men, because doing so is submitting to the authority of God.

As unlikely as it may seem–and as historically and culturally myopic as it is–there are churches that are once again insisting that a woman’s rightful place is in the home of her father until she’s married, and then in her husband’s home, and that for her to be the ‘breadwinner’ is against ‘God’s design,’ and, conversely, for a man to do housework is against ‘God’s design’ for him. Where it is pointed out that highly patriarchal cultures tend toward violence, abuse, and poverty, ‘Biblical’ patriarchalists insist that this is because such cultures aren’t ‘doing patriarchy well,’ not that there’s something inherently amiss with patriarchy itself.

{And this position is supported by the insistence that God is, if not male, exactly, then certainly masculine.}

Could being in the US in the 21st century blind us a bit to what’s really at stake when we talk about women’s equality and women’s rights or what is always disparagingly referred (by all those men and not a few of the women authors of bestselling Christian books) as “feminism.”

It’s easy to forget that we’re not even a hundred years removed from the time when women couldn’t vote and maternal mortality was high. Worldwide, maternal mortality still claims one woman per minute. There are still honor killings–where a woman must throw herself on the funeral pyre, for example, to demonstrate her commitment to her husband.

But when women hold the purse-strings–when they are empowered to start businesses–when they have some capital and some say–things get better for everyone.

Meg said:

“Sometimes cross-cultural interchanges are great examples of cross-pollination.  We just have to be careful about what type of seeds we’re sowing.”

I am glad that most women in America have a choice about what they’re going to do, and it’s fine and wonderful when some choose to stay home (as I do). I consider it a privilege to be able to make that choice. But stamping that choice with the term ‘Biblical’?

I don’t think so.

{And, besides? Aren’t we supposed to care more about being like Jesus than about performing culturally coded gender roles?}

How Patriarchy Gave Me an Eating Disorder, Part 2

My husband says I forgot to point out that not only did Ruth pursue Boaz, pretty much proposing marriage to him, but she also went and lay down next to Boaz at night. When he was sleeping. After he’d been drinking.

How’s that for some ‘Biblical’ Passion & Purity!?

{And yes. I totally love and adore my scholarly husband for pointing that out.}

Anyway, OK. Brief recap from part one–

Things I learned from evangelical culture:

Be Pure.

And so be afraid of your own desires.

Be Pretty.

And so be afraid of eating, excreting, and everything bodily.

Be Perfect.

And so walk the fine line between looking great, being ‘nice,’ and pretending that you don’t even care about ‘the physical.’

{Because you have a crush on the cute boy with nice hair who plays guitar for youth group talks piously about wanting to date only ‘spiritual’ girls. And ‘spiritual,’ in the theology of the evangelical youth group, means ‘not physical.’ That’s why the really ‘spiritual’ girls are always ‘dating Jesus.’ Which unfortunately translates, too often, treating the smitten guys around them, with whom they’re ‘just friends,’ like crap.}

My own understanding of growing up Christian, then, meant shutting down everything that was God-given, normal, and healthy.

I was terrified of ‘liking’ boys because that might lead “someplace” sinful. So I was choked up, found it hard to talk to boys unless it was to listen to how much they liked my friends.

I was terrified of getting a womanly body. Not just because women were dangerous temptresses, all curves and sensuousness and endangering to a young man’s ‘purity,’ though that was part of it.

Part of it, too, was that I was afraid to take up space. Because, after all, in the evangelical version of womanhood I’d pieced together for myself, a woman’s passive perfection entailed unobtrusiveness.

Let me tell you, I’m not really naturally unobtrusive. Oh, I might be a little shy when we first meet in person. And I’m told my personality is more ‘sweet’ than not. But I also can be a bit of a Scrappy Doo, or, if you prefer, a bit of an Anne of Green Gables kind of girl. One time I smacked a boy in my Sunday School class on the head with a hardback Bible. (Sorry about that, Tommy!) I rather enjoyed debates as a young’un. And none of that’s really conducive to the whole “gentle and quiet spirit” thing that I took to mean passivity.

Somehow, in my mind, cultivating a passive, pure, perfect Christian girl persona got tied in with remaining physically petite. Not being ‘weighty,’ not being a contender. Something to be pursued, not someone to be reckoned with.

And then, too, there was the food side of things. Oh, food. Until a certain point–I think about age 14 or 15–I enjoyed eating and didn’t give undue thought either to food or to my weight. Sure, I was aware of dieting, aware that ‘someday,’ when I was a woman, I’d hate my body just like most of the grown-up women I knew. But I liked food. Not that I was particularly adventurous, but I remember relishing the sweet and sour chicken my dad would cook for my every birthday at my request, the simple pleasure of perfectly steamed white rice, and the lemony explosion of a cold Granny Smith apple behind my teeth.

Somehow, though–and it’s all mixed in, I think, with the passivity and the perfection, the prettiness and the purity–I began to fear my appetite. Just when my appetite should’ve been growing–when I was growing, both in mind and body, more rapidly than I’d ever grown since babyhood–I recoiled from it in fear.

Gluttony was a sin, after all. The body’s desires were suspiciously sinful: “put a knife to your throat if you’re given to gluttony”?!

You combine that with a food culture like ours, where food is plentiful, cheap, and everywhere, and I began to harbor a secret, shameful fear: what if I eat everything? What if I just start eating and can’t stop? If I can never stop? How would I know how to stop?

Obviously, eating was too complicated and dangerous.

Not eating was easier. Of course, then the problem was my hunger would overtake me, eventually, and I’d break down and eat and eat, always, it seemed, too much–enough to trigger fear, panic, guilt; terror over letting my physical ‘desire’ get the better of me.

After all, where might that lead?

And so I was afraid: afraid of wanting to eat, of eating, of liking boys, of boys, of accepting my body, of my body, of going out and of being seen.

I would get dressed under my bath towel, hiding nakedness from myself.

And in all this time, all this was a shameful secret.

Because, after all, this wasn’t the behavior of someone pretty, perfect, pure, or passive.

But that–a tortured, circumscribed, turned-in-itself, endlessly abstemious life–is not the flourishing, fully human life God desires for God’s daughters.

You are God’s. God made you, you are beautiful, and God loves to feed you and to see you flourish–you, as God made you–not you, pressed down and rolled out and cut to fit some other shape.

You, as God made you, are beautiful.

{of course this isn’t the end. there’s more to my story. and to yours. looking forward to sharing and hearing more…}

How Patriarchy Gave Me an Eating Disorder, Part 1


1. This title is, of course, hyperbole.

2. My parents didn’t teach or embody patriarchal attitudes. {Not blaming you, mom! Not blaming you, dad!}

3. I might have to add more disclaimers later.

maiden with unicorn--a symbol of chastity

Criticizing fairy tales for being relentlessly patriarchal is well-trod ground, I know. It’s been nearly 20 years since Ani DiFranco first sang:

i am not a pretty girl

that’s not what i do

i ain’t no damsel in distress

and i don’t need to be rescued

so put me down, punk

maybe you’d prefer a maiden fair

isn’t there a kitten stuck up a tree somewhere?

why is the skinny, conventionally pretty Fiona the 'real' Fiona here when she's NOT in the film?

But I didn’t discover Ani until my senior year of high school, the same year that I saw Shrek and realized the power of the anti-fairy tale. Before that, I uncritically absorbed things that I learned in youth group, from Focus on the Family’s Brio magazine, from I Kissed Dating Goodbye, from the stories and tales swapped at Christian camps. So much of these things, these folklorish bits of pseudo-Biblical wisdom, reinforced the fairy-tale narrative:

1. Be pure

You know. Don’t have sex. Better yet, don’t even kiss. And better still, don’t get emotionally involved. Because any of those things might scar you, mar you, soil you for your “future husband.” Even a crush is a potential slippery slope toward some kind of emotional fornication. Or something. In other words, everything that adolescence awakens is fraught with the potential for irreversible self-destruction.

2. Be pretty

Yeah, yeah, yeah, Proverbs 31:30, “beauty is fleeting,” blah, blah, blah in between pictures of wholesome, all-American looking girls and Focus on the Family-approved hair-and-makeup tips and vague references to weight being one of the things a person can control about his/her looks. Not to mention that you should exercise regularly, watch what you eat, and floss, and look for those things in a potential mate. Don’t skimp on the cardio! Your potential mate might be evaluating you!

look how skinny and pretty these people are! look how she's looking UP at him! THIS, THIS here, is what you get IF you're godly enough.

3. Be passive

The book of Ruth? Not actually about a powerful Moabite go-getter of a woman who commits herself to the mother of her loser dead husband and works her a$$ off to make sure they don’t starve in a time and place that was notoriously harsh for women on their own without men. No. It’s about Ruth keeping busy while waiting for Mr. Right to notice her. (Never mind that Ruth goes to Boaz and pretty much proposes marriage to him.) The ‘godly girl’ waits for God to write her love story, which means waiting for some guy to write it.

So then there’s me, 14 or 15 years old, outgrowing my American Girl doll and growing out of my GapKids clothes, realizing I’d never be a ballerina and resisting admitting any crushes on any boys anywhere.

Could I admit to myself (let alone my parents, LET ALONE the boy I had a crush on) that I had a crush?

No. That might be some kinda emotional fornication. Or something. Not pure.

Could I accept the changes in my body as good, as normal, as God-given?

No. I could not. My body was now, in Ani DiFranco’s words again, a

“breakable, takeable body/an ever-increasingly valuable body/…a woman had come in the night to replace me/deface me.”

My body was now a “temptation” to boys, something to be well-hidden, well-covered, well-controlled. Oh, but beautiful. And pure. And passive.

Putting those things together in a culture that’s already pretty well body-obsessed and eating-disordered? Meant that somehow, pleasing God got tied up in my mind with exercising enormous control over my body. Excess/loose flesh signified sin and was certain to displease God and horrify potential suitors. Furthermore, since my whole feminine duty was summed up in “waiting purely & patiently” for life/love/whatever to happen to me, my endless project of self-perfection was, to my mind, righteous rather than self-absorbed.

{More to come tomorrow…}