1. girl meets God
2. girl falls into big fat popular pit of legalism, religion, condemnation and performance-based living and sets up camp there for almost a decade
3. girl meets God
4. girl climbs out of said pit, slowly, painfully, the grace of God breathing life into dead bones.
Molly Aley is a mother of five (FIVE!) who lives in Alaska, loves her husband and blogging (she's been at it since 2006). Her posts are refreshingly honest. See her "When God Says to Rebel" post here. I've found her a kindred spirit about many things that matter: God, gender, femininity, politics, parenting. To all parents and parent-hopefuls I highly recommend her series on "Parenting with Gentleness."
Today I want to share a recent conversation we
had about bodies and aging. I hope to do several more of these conversations with Molly. Hope you enjoy her as much as I did.
I began this conversation thread and Molly responded. Molly will begin the next one and I will respond to her. My ideas are italicized and red, hers are bold and blue.
I’ve been waking up with sleeping lines on my checks and forehead. It’s not the sheets cause they’re always in the same place. It looks like I’ve been frowning all night. I think it’s a sign of aging, which seems premature as I’m not 30 yet. Makes me start to notice other miniscule unpleasantries about growing older. What will I be like when I get older, will I covet my younger elastic skin? Will I mourn it? Will I feel envious of young women?
Yes. And, just as equally, no.
Because growing older is, in it’s way, a part of the dying process, a thing that human beings were never originally designed to do, I don’t think it’s odd to want to resist death—and an aging body is an ever-present sign that, “all flesh is as the grass of the field.”
But I also think that each woman’s personality differs in how she responds to the aging process. For example, I have two very close friends who handle aging in separate ways. One has a husband who loves a beautiful female body (and loves hers), and as she’s nursed six successive babies, has always reassured her not to worry about the wear and tear of her breasts, because, “we’ll get you all fixed up when you’re done.” Approaching her middle-thirties, she wears make-up regularly and tries to maintain a stylish appearance. My other friend, a mother of seven leaving her thirties behind, wouldn’t pluck her eyebrows if her life depended on it—and though she likes to dress up and put on make-up on occasion, she finds jeans and a t-shirt much more conducive to being in the kitchen all afternoon fixing the gourmet meals that her husband and kids delight in.
They are both beautiful women, but both have different focuses on outward appearance. I notice that my stylish friend struggles more with aging than my other friend, because her youthful beauty matters more to her. I find myself in the middle, a mix of someone who likes to have a nice appearance and someone who is sitting here typing a response to your thoughts instead of taking a shower. Ha.
My pilates friend, who’s barely in her mid-twenties has one strong body. She’s a regular marathon runner, a few months back she nearly made it to American Gladiator, and she spends most her days thinking, eating, talking nutrition. But the women she trains come into her studio and have tighter buns and flatter abs than she does. They’ve got some work done on them. And my friend gets frustrated by it all. Why do the 50 year older women have this demand to look younger and stronger than a 25 year old? Will I end up wanting that?
I remember disdaining women who were so vain as to color their grey, wear make-up or get “work” done on their bodies. Of course, I was twenty. I’d never known what it was like not to have a great body, so it was easy to pass judgment. I’ve felt so bad for my bold brash statements many times since then… Okay, well, I still don’t color my grey because so far, at thirty-three, I don’t have any, but I do wear a little make-up now, did notice some fine lines start creeping into my eyes around the time I turned thirty, and the morning they were there, I stood in front of the mirror for a long time with a cold feeling in my stomach. They weren’t there before. Now they were. And I spent some time that morning realizing that aging was going to happen, even to me.
On a related front, I have begun to be thankful for one of the few benefits of having a smaller, ahem, top section, because I’ve learned from many friends that sagging breasts are a non-optional aspect of growing older. I feel deeply for the woman whose once-perky chest now hangs limply toward her belly button. For the women who care about their personal appearances, getting “work” done, in a situation like that, doesn’t seem vain or frivolous, but a blessed perk of living in a technologically-advanced society. On the other side of the spectrum, of course, are those who constantly go in for plastic surgery regularly because, for them, having a body that doesn’t look youthful is the worst fate they can imagine. There is something unhealthy about that type of inability to face the reality of aging. So, with all things, I think there is a fine balance.
It reminds me of the way women go from fixating on our bods in high school, scrutinizing all our defects, to letting go somewhere in our late twenties, thirties. Isn’t there something unhealthy in all of it?
Often the “letting go” happens when a young woman starts having babies. Up to that point, she’s had an almost effortless beauty, but being pregnant again (and perhaps again) changes that. Her body stretches out…and then back in (or often not)…and then, if she’s able to take off the earlier weight but has another child, it stretches back out… She’s up all night with a newborn—and the toddler’s exuberance during the day makes it almost impossible to catch up on sleep, much less give attention to personal grooming. She considers her day a success if she could manage to grocery shop with the kids and make it back home with her sanity still intact. Her personal appearance is now framed by the question, “What is absolutely necessary?” vs. her former standard of, “What will make me look really pretty?”
Some women never leave that place, and some women bounce back. And some of this depends on where a person lives and the standards of their particular subculture. My years in the “big-hair” world of Dallas, TX area were eye-opening, in that respect, as there was quite a different standard for What Women Should Look Like than the one I was used to in the practical/functional Alaska I grew up in. And, again, some of this also depends on the woman’s personality. Just as I don’t want the big-hair women telling me that I can’t have my straight sleek bob, I don’t want to be guilty of doing the same to others. As long as we can all agree to brush our teeth and keep a low-profile on underarm odor, I’m happy. :)
Okay, our body is a temple and it belongs to God, but how do I appreciate my body as God’s temple? How do I refuse to slam it because it belongs to God?
The temple was a sacred place. It was showy in a good sense, full of rich colors and opulent décor, pure gold overlay, rich and expensive lumber, dishes and lampstands of pure gold, flowers, fruits, branches woven into the patterns, linen curtains of blue, purple and scarlet (Exodus 25-26). But the temple was also messy, full of blood and odor, sacrifices, screaming animals, smoke and incense. This is what Paul would have had in mind when he cited the temple as a metaphor for our bodies (I Cor 6:19). I think the imagery is particularly appropriate for female bodies, we hold these glorious and messy moments, glorious and messy moments.
I would say that being feminine can’t be about being physically beautiful, or we will think we’ve, “lost ourselves,” as we age, and though I recognize that does happen to some, I refuse to believe that is necessary. Stealing from your wonderful analogy, I can say, as with temple life, that it’s good to embrace the season of worship. The author of Ecclesiastes rightly encourages one to enjoy the years of one’s youth. The younger phase of life has one kind of beauty, but the other older phases can usher us into a deeper kind of beauty, not always so easily seen from a quick outward glance, but no less real. The outward beauty of youth is a delightful gift, but so is the wisdom and tenderness that age brings. Our culture values youthfulness, so perhaps we are more at a disadvantage than many other peoples in other times, but it seems to me that for the Christ-followers, our standard of beauty is more to be found in the fruits of the Spirit than the latest fashion advice. As Paul might say to us today, “If I grace the cover of Cosmopolitan, but do not have love, I am nothing.”
How do I translate ideas of temple-likeness into ideas about my own body?
What do kids do to change the way we own our bodies? Why is it so common for women with kids to find their scars of the warfare to hold and birth a child unappealing, worthy of covering up, getting rid of? My girlfriends with kids are most skeptical of any compliments I give them about their body’s beauty.
Giving birth is not something that all women experience (nor is it required for maturity or growth), but it is one of the primary experiences of womanhood for many, and it forever changes the landscape of the body. I had a principle role in a community theater production this past Spring and it involved changing costumes multiple times in a dressing room with a ton of other women—all ages, all sizes—all doing the same. We started out undressing shyly, but by the end of the show there was little restraint left at all. It was a bit of a throw-back to high-school locker room days, but with a lot more diversity, and I, who, at 5’8, am only 125lbs, got a real kick showing off my body to the teenage girls I’d come to love. Their envious comments about my slenderness during rehearsals were nice, but now that we had our clothes off, I wanted them to see the other side of my skinny self—the parts we can’t help, the parts that we have to accept and, well, even have a little fun with. At my grinning invitation, they took turns pulling out the sagging skin that adorns what I affectionately refer to as my “bread-dough” belly, shrieking, “Oh my gosh, it really does feel like bread dough!” We laughed so hard…
When I look at myself in the mirror, I smile at my belly. In that place grew five people who have forever changed my life. They were worth the skin.
Perhaps, ideally, the change in the way we own our bodies comes through birthing something that is worth losing the identity of having a youthful body. So, even later, if parts of that youthful body return (if at all), the reminders of sagging skin aren’t as traumatic as they would have been to have before one had children. You now know that your body isn’t your greatest treasure—that it’s not the full measure of who you are, in a way that you never knew before.