Sunday, February 23, 2014

Body Image, Purity, and Christianity - This is Why We Fail

(I wrote this to address mostly the issues surrounding women and body image.  I can speak more knowledgeably about this because I am a woman.  Rest assured, though, I know about the very real body image struggles men also face, and this is in no way meant to take away from those struggles.  I am simply just addressing specific issues for my gender.  Hopefully someday I will have a better understanding of the issues men face and will be able to write on that topic.)

When I was in college, I decided to finally pursue my childhood interest in the Fine Arts and take an Introductory Drawing course in order to fulfill my General Education requirement for Art.  One of the exercises in the class was to learn how to draw the human form.  As it is simpler to draw someone without clothing on, nude models were brought to the class so that we could draw nudes from life and essentially learn about how to analyze proportion, shade, etc...  There was nothing sexual about this experience.  However, there were two Christian girls in my class who asked to opt-out of drawing nudes because they felt that it went against their religion to look at the nude models.  What message is the Christian community sending to its youth about nudity if, even seeing a nude model in a context completely free of anything sexual, it is seen by them as sinful?  Do we really want them to think that the human body, a major part of the crowning glory of God's creation, is sinful and dirty in all contexts?  Let's be real here; if we send that message, then it's no surprise that sometimes people who lost their faith partially credit feeling ashamed by their body as reason for their loss.  This is absolutely where the reactionary purity movement to our overly-sexualized culture, although well-intentioned, falls flat of what we really need to effectively teach about the beauty, power, and dignity of our bodies.  Our bodies and our sexual nature are not inherently sinful.  If we truly understand the teachings of the Church, we do not separate the body and the soul, saying the body being an unimportant flesh bag and the soul being the only part of us that matters.  In fact, this is what the Catechism has to say about our bodies:

362 The human person, created in the image of God, is a being at once corporeal and spiritual. The biblical account expresses this reality in symbolic language when it affirms that "then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being." Man, whole and entire, is therefore willed by God.
363 In Sacred Scripture the term "soul" often refers to human life or the entire human person. But "soul" also refers to the innermost aspect of man, that which is of greatest value in him, that by which he is most especially in God's image: "soul" signifies the spiritual principle in man.
364 The human body shares in the dignity of "the image of God": it is a human body precisely because it is animated by a spiritual soul, and it is the whole human person that is intended to become, in the body of Christ, a temple of the Spirit:
Man, though made of body and soul, is a unity. Through his very bodily condition he sums up in himself the elements of the material world. Through him they are thus brought to their highest perfection and can raise their voice in praise freely given to the Creator. For this reason man may not despise his bodily life. Rather he is obliged to regard his body as good and to hold it in honor since God has created it and will raise it up on the last day.
365 The unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the "form" of the body: i.e., it is because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living, human body; spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature.
366 The Church teaches that every spiritual soul is created immediately by God - it is not "produced" by the parents - and also that it is immortal: it does not perish when it separates from the body at death, and it will be reunited with the body at the final Resurrection.
367 Sometimes the soul is distinguished from the spirit: St. Paul for instance prays that God may sanctify his people "wholly", with "spirit and soul and body" kept sound and blameless at the Lord's coming. The Church teaches that this distinction does not introduce a duality into the soul. "Spirit" signifies that from creation man is ordered to a supernatural end and that his soul can gratuitously be raised beyond all it deserves to communion with God.
368 The spiritual tradition of the Church also emphasizes the heart, in the biblical sense of the depths of one's being, where the person decides for or against God.
Did you catch that?  "[S]pirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature." Disparage your body and say it is shameful, and you directly disparage the nature given to you by your creator.

If you are still one of the people who think that body parts and nudity are inherently sinful, then well, I have something to show you:

Virgin of the Green Cushion by Andrea Solari - Mary using her immaculate flesh to feed the nude Messiah.  Your argument is invalid.

Society bombards us with images of bodies and faces Photoshoped to perfection, telling us that our sex appeal is the epitome of our worth, and what is the Christian community's response to this?  Well, we tell folks that our flesh is always sinful, and our value is in our "purity," and thus imply our bodies are something to be ashamed of, especially if we fall.  Well-intentioned as it is to try to help people remain chaste, the method is short-sighted and not helpful in the long-term, nor does it address the actual issue of teaching what the language of our bodies and sexuality is meant to teach us.  Replacing "You are only worthwhile if you are sexy," with, "You are only worthy if you are pure and untouched," is not the answer.  It just makes the purity movement appear to be another tactic in a long line of movements that is used to tell women that they are not good enough and make them feel like they have to fit a certain mold to be worthy and loved.  On top of that, we have the fitness community giving the impression that not having a svelte, perfectly muscled body makes you a lazy glutton, thus adding another layer to the, "Religion is used to make me feel ashamed of my body," that women hear from our society.  How can we really blame some feminists for pointing at us and claiming we are just trying to keep women submissive when our words on female purity do nothing but paint us as people who feel that the epitome of a woman's worth is how much a man will find her attractive?  This is not Christianity.  This is foolishness.

Not all of the Purity/Chastity Movement is bad.  I am being critical of the parts that aren't working so that the parts that do have a much better chance of helping people.  The part of the movement that I'm talking about the is the part that tells women that, should they fall and lose their virginity, men will be less likely to want to marry them or love them.  The part where we talk about how God smiles down on virgins, but don't validate the worthiness and inherent dignity of the unchaste, or share the Good News of God's love with them.  (Why would they love Him and want to please Him if they only hear how much He disapproves of them?)  The part that refers to us as chewed up pieces of gum if we fool around with a boy.  The "modest is hottest" (women are most attractive when they are virginal and cover up their sinful flesh) part of purity culture.  The part directed at women to tell us how to be appealing for men.  How is that empowering?  How is it helpful?  I wasn't always chaste, and I can tell you that the majority of the memes and taglines that come out of this movement make me feel like I am unworthy, unloved, and horribly ashamed of my past, even though I've asked God for His forgiveness and received the sacrament of penance.  I can only imagine how a woman who hasn't reconciled with God feels about Him when she reads these catchy slogans about how much God and men only love "purity" if they even hurt me.  How will she know that God still loves her?  Can you see how worthless that could make her feel"?! 

How does she know He loves her?
You can't replace the feelings of worthlessness because we don't fit society's physical ideal while building up another physical ideal (virginity) that women cannot get back once it is lost and expect it empower any woman.  (News flash, we all sin, God forgives us when we repent, so should our fellow Christians.)  You can't expect treating women like all their self-worth is in making themselves appealing to men in just another fashion to make any long-term positive impact on women and our culture.

One of my favorite examples for what I'm discussing is bikinis.  There is a large backlash against them in the Christian community lately because they are supposedly inherently immodest.  I do agree that, as Christians, we are called to make sure that we aren't purposely trying to cause our brother to fall (or lust after us), but to assume that anyone wearing a bikini is wearing it to cause all the men around her to fall is hardly reasonable.  I'll tell you a secret; women generally dress for other women.  Bathing suit shopping is one of the most frustrating and humiliating experiences we put ourselves through.  We stand in the harsh, unflattering light of a dressing room, trying on bathing suit after bathing suit, seeing all of the things society tells us is wrong with our bodies personified.  Eventually, after feeling completely drained, defeated, and ugly because we aren't Photoshopped to perfection, we find something we feel cute in.  Maybe it's a bikini.  All we know is that our Great Aunt  Matilda won't tell us we look chubby in it.  Finally feeling more confident we buy the suit.  Maybe at some point during this we hope people will think we look pretty in it.  To think that we have a nefarious plot to take all the boys around us down while we wear it is a pretty harsh judgement on us with a lot of assumptions about the intentions of our hearts.  Covering up every inch of our skin isn't what modesty is.  In the Catechism, it states,
 2524 The forms taken by modesty vary from one culture to another. Everywhere, however, modesty exists as an intuition of the spiritual dignity proper to man. It is born with the awakening consciousness of being a subject. Teaching modesty to children and adolescents means awakening in them respect for the human person.
In our culture, a bathing suit is what is used to swim at the beach.  A bikini is a form of a bathing suit.  Sure, if a bikini is worn in a photo shoot where the woman is positioned in such a fashion as to create a sensation of lust for the viewer of the photo, that's one thing, but swimming at the beach in your bathing suit?  Not immodest, even if someone can see your navel.  In fact, if we helped women be more comfortable with their bodies and didn't act like their flesh were something to be ashamed of, maybe women would have an easier time respecting themselves, seeing their spiritual dignity, and better able to be really, truly modest in the way the Catechism calls us to.  As of right now, asserting that a bikini is inherently immodest because it shows a certain amount of skin without any true, in-depth discussion of modesty just perpetuates the myth that our flesh is inherently shameful.  Instead of complaining about how immodest bikinis are, I suggest we all just remind men and women that we aren't supposed to try to induce lust in others, and then we should also remind everyone that we need to control ourselves no matter what someone else is wearing; while we can't control our feelings and impulses, our actions are our own and truly can't be blamed on other people. Complaining about a certain article of clothing is hardly a solution as it only tells women that showing their flesh, even without intending to incite lust will just imply to them that their flesh is inherently sinful.  No affirmation+No empathy+Criticism/Shame=Hardened and confused hearts

Encouraging chastity is a worthy cause.  Our bodies are beautiful and our sexual nature was given to us by God.  The solution to a culture that inserts sex into everything is not to say that everything is, therefore, sinful, but to instead to take back and make non-sexual situations, like drawing a nude body in an art class.  Encourage your children to look at classic paintings, like the "Birth of Venus," and explain to them the beauty of the human form.  Try not to make appropriate nudity shameful in your home.

"Birth of Venus" by Sandro Botticelli

We should encourage using our sexuality and bodies in the context God created for them, but to disparage someone who is not currently doing that will just push people away.  The better solution is to talk about the beauty our bodies have and the language they speak about God and His creation.  To emphasize that all of us are loved and longed for by our Creator no matter where we are in life. Instead of saying that men want pure women we should emphasize the mercy of God.  I don't want to rewrite the wheel as I think Theology of the Body is a wonderful resource to use for this purpose, but I would like to suggest starting with and emphasizing something like:

Affirmation of our inherent dignity will get far further in this world full of criticism than any disparaging words of our bodies, united with our souls and full of dignity, will.  Confidence in God's love and mercy is more powerful than any purity ring or referenced to tarnished household items and chewed up food. Teaching what Christians actually believe about our bodies will be far more effective than any reactionary attempt to make people feel ashamed of them will do because the Truth is a far better tactic than any knee-jerk reaction.  Let's bring the world what we really believe about our bodies and actually bring something positive and true into this whole mess.  After all, how can we expect the Holy Spirit to change hearts if we aren't even bothering to express the Truth about Him and His love for every part of us, including our bodies?

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