“The requirements for conforming to western female norms are ‘nice, thin, modest, uses all available resources for appearance.”
– Brene Brown
I’d never heard anyone explicitly state these standards before, but it occurred to me, as I glued my eyes to Brene’s kindly face projected larger-than-life on a living room wall, that I’d always felt uncomfortable, sort of socially naked, when I was not subconsciously complying with them.
// NICE. //
I have driven myself mad with NICE.
I have pretended to believe all manner of lazy theology because to disagree with someone I admired and honored would mean to offend them and to offend someone is not NICE.
I have shut my mouth and closed my eyes to disastrous choices that dear friends have made – journeys they’ve embarked on that I could have dissuaded them from – because to point out error is not NICE.
I have mopped the contents of my heart up off my bathroom floor, time and again, and offered my whole person to boy after boy who did not want it & did not care to care for it because refusing your trust to anyone is not NICE.
The very thought of NICE infuriates me and yet, when my supervisor tells me that an unruly child is spreading the word that I am a perpetrator of NOT-NICE, I melt into a puddle of angry self-doubt.
// THIN. //
I’m not quite sure any of us really know HOW to be thin.
I mean some of us are, and that’s fantastic, and a lot more of us aren’t. Nobody knows how to stay that way and nobody knows how to get that way.
If it happens for you, excellent.
Lemme buy you a [Slim-Fast] shake.
When I was sixteen years old I loved a boy whose constant bipolar crises I bravely strapped to my barely formed shoulders and the weight sent me into a tailspin of depression and sorrow. In the name of young, miserable, hearty and foolhardy love, his every thought became mine; his every misery my cross to bear.
A symptom of that mess was an actual physical loss of appetite.
I never meant to stop eating.
I never meant to starve.
But once you have begun slowly starving the soul, the body seems to quietly follow suit. All of a sudden you’re spending hours in between classes agonizing over trying to choke down a single cup of soup.
(While we’re on the subject, never do I ever want to hear any self-styled Christian counselor patronizingly inform me that depression is “all in your head, dear”. OKAY. You let me know when you’ve had every symptom of the stomach flu for months on end without any treatable virus. Then we can talk.)
And even as this distressed teenager, wasting away, I remember thinking – with a bit of morbid humor – that perhaps all the heartache was worth it if I could at least maintain this new-and-improved, bare-bones version of myself. Because if I could not comply with this boy’s exacting standards – if I could not somehow FEEL enough for him- then at least I could look the way I was supposed to.
Sometimes THIN is the only visible symptom of deep-rooted, black-veined heart rot.
And what a good deal of the rest of us dejectedly find is that the harder we work for THIN, we tend to just become healthier (or less healthy, as the case may be) versions of the bodies we already had. You can’t change your basic structure.
I mean, you can, but that’s another conversation.
// MODEST. //
Every time I ran across the courtyard and over the lawn and up 8 flights of stairs to my tiny two-room Chicago walk-up to throw off my clothes and swear never to put them on again because of the shaming glares of my sisters in Christ and dear God, maybe I wasn’t such a good believer after all.
Every time I would forego bright colors or red lipstick or that one shirt with the mildly suggestive cut-out in the back or any hint of dark self-expression because MODEST –
MODEST ultimately means UNREVEALING –
And there’s more to be revealed here than just skin.
And even though I wear the lipstick now on the days that call for it and I have – God forbid! two visible tattoos! – I still find my jaw clamped shut on long late-night drives with my best friends when we’re all supposed to be baring our souls and I decide to save my ugly, deformed little thought for later.
And this is what MODEST has become to me – a false storefront, a disguise, a comfortably barricaded bomb shelter of sorts to guard against the onslaught of honesty and vulnerability that have come knocking louder and longer lately.
It seems that every relationship, after it has first come to blows –
after the first breach of trust,
after the honeymoon perma-smiles have faded and you are made to look right into the eyes of someone who presumably has only, to this point, known only things they like about you and are about to enter a much, darker, overgrown, untraveled pathway of you –
– every relationship must choose whether being known – or feeling pleasant – is of more worth to them.
There is nothing MODEST about intimacy.
// EMPLOYING ALL AVAILABLE RESOURCES TO [IMPROVE?] APPEARANCE. //
I don’t have anything even lightly poetic to interject here.
My beauty routine involves a curling iron, a grocery bag of collected make-up supplies, a large quantity of baby powder, Moroccan argan oil and a Christmas-gift bottle of Kat Von D’s Sinner.
I’m hardly employing all available resources here.
While that used to trouble me more, there are still mornings I’ll pull into my backlot parking space at the preschool I work (read: slave) at and I’ll suddenly panic at the sight of my naked face in the rear view.
And although most days I’ll tell you make-up is a pastime and not a crutch, there are mornings when I’ll admit to myself – before the honesty of sleep has worn off – that I like my mask more than the face beneath.
I’m not sure there is, in fact, a point here.
I cannot divorce my body from my soul.
I cannot pretend to throw off the confines of society and adopt a lifestyle of hearty asceticism.
I cannot feel more helpless than I do on this subversive shoreline of ruthless Western superficiality. I am out of the waters for a moment, but it is, after all, just a moment and I’ll be assailed by its calm, imperturbable waters as soon as the tide rises again.
And even still I have not begun to chisel away at Christian purity culture’s adoption and unabashed copying of Western norms of beauty and femininity.
What I can – what I do – demand is a new standard for womanhood: one that has far more to do with the content of our deeds and our souls than our bodies, weary from doing good and from simply bearing the weight of living here in this unrestored creation which daily, hourly cries out for its Creator and Savior to please make all things new. My body – with its already grey hairs and dandruff and stress-weight and stress marks – cries out too, with the rest of everything.
Women of valor, lets imagine something better and teach it to our children and our grandchildren and remake this tired culture into a celebration of the divine image-bearers we each one of us are.