Blogger and author Rachel Held Evans recently critiqued the idea pervasive in American evangelicalism that a certain type of "biblical womanhood" is required of us, which means we cannot "let ourselves go," lest our husbands stray. I wholeheartedly agree with Evans' critique and wish we had more women (and men too!) speaking up in this way.
Another blogger and author, Tim Challies, has responded to Evans. I can affirm and appreciate portions of the response, but was left with a bothersome, nagging feeling...something was "off."
As a longtime critic of leaders like Mark Driscoll, I can't help but speak up in this conversation. So, in an effort to pinpoint what bothered me, I simply want to point out that we don't do theology and work out what Scripture says in a vacuum. That is, if a middle-class white male wants to interpret parts of the Bible that appear to apply to women, we simply cannot ignore our American, consumerist context.
We don't hear about this issue often enough, probably because the loudest and most conspicuous voices in evangelicalism are male: many, many women and young girls struggle with body image issues. These issues are often fraught with complex, damaging relationships with food, exercise, other women, men, health...the list goes on.
I can't even articulate how difficult it can be as an American woman to have what should be a normal, healthy view of her body. We are constantly fed photo-shopped images of long bronzed legs, shiny smooth hair, poreless skin, and protruding collarbones. The pressure for young girls is unbelievable. Just google the word "thinspiration." It will break your heart.
Women's bodies are used every day, all over the place, to sell things. Women are constantly objectified, because of the meaning that our culture has assigned to our physical appearance. A woman cannot simply be lauded for her intelligence or expertise on a subject - we just have to throw in a reference to her physical attributes.
In an introduction to an academic lecture or a sermon (if she is even allowed to approach the pulpit), or in a newspaper article, physical descriptions are often included, such as "lovely" or a reference to clothing or jewelry. I just read this description of a successful comedian and author in the NY Times: "[She] had on khaki pants and a blousy sleeveless top with small gold jewelry." Do we feel the need to introduce or describe a man, before an academic lecture or in a NY Times profile, as handsome? Do we mention whether his watch is gold or silver? Very rarely, because to do so would seem ridiculous.
So as a Christian woman I constantly have to face these distorted images of what my body should look like, trying my best to call them out for what they are. I have to be ever-conscious of the fact that women's bodies have been commodified and objectified in our culture, just to sell more things. I have to be extra careful, in my workplace as an attorney-to-be, to prove myself based on my intellect and skill only. And I can only hope my physical appearance is secondary rather than primary.
It's tiring. And I worry what it's doing to young girls who aren't able to name these sexist, consumerist, objectifying forces for what they are. This is what our culture throws at us every day.
What's even more worrisome and heartbreaking, however, is when the church is no different from our consumerist, damaging society. Women and girls should be able to find redemption, healing, and new creation in the gospel, as worked out in our church communities. Instead, we are told to choose "an attractive sweater instead of the stained Mickey Mouse t-shirt." We are told to be "available" to our husbands. I don't even want to unpack what the word "available" is supposed to mean.
Were I a mom, possibly struggling with post-partum depression, who has had a rough day attempting to wear the many hats we impose on women and mothers, and were I to read Challies' post, I would probably lose my shit, because some days we are lucky to throw on even a stained Mickey Mouse shirt. Heaven help us.
Thankfully we do have voices like Evans' speaking up so that women--especially young girls--will realize that there is neither male nor female at the foot of the cross. The radical message of Jesus deconstructs the devastating, objectifying, and not-good-enough images that are hurled at women these days.
Challies makes an excellent point that what is on the inside should inevitably reflect one's outward appearance, but even if he couches his emphasis on a woman's appearance in terms of "love" and "respect," his message comes across as no different from the one that bombards us in our consumerist society. Yes, our outer appearance matters, but we absolutely cannot discuss the expectations of women's physical appearance without reckoning with the destructive, complex, and often-taboo issue of female body image and the effects of advertising. To miss this important point would be an attempt at theology in a vacuum.
I do have hope that we can unpack this sensitive issue, especially as we move away from hearing exclusively male voices in evangelical-dom. Any thoughts on Challies' response?