Monday, August 18, 2008

Conversation with Molly Aley Part 1- Bodies and Aging

There is a woman I've met online that you must know about. Her name is Molly. Here is her life in a nutshell:
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 d├ęcor, 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.

Cool imagery.

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.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Lip-Syncing Actress

There was a beautiful nine year old girl in China's opening ceremonies, Lin Miaoke, who belted out "Ode to the Motherland". We've since discovered that she was not singing, only performing. The real singer was seven and hidden behind stage because her appearance didn't make the final cut.

Yang Peiyi, like most seven year olds, is still getting her front teeth in, so they're not smoothly, Cheshire cat perfect. Most seven year olds would be able to relate (remember when you were seven?) Knowing that she was seven (not nine) and belting out a beautiful song in her unique way, with real breaths and deep sustained notes would have increased my amazement. (What talent and so YOUNG!)

But Chinese officials pulled her from the stage at the last moment. A senior Communist party official decided her looks were not suitable.

The ceremony's music director, Chen Qijang said, "It was for the national interest. The child on camera should be flawless in image, internal feelings and expression." To read the LA Times article go here.

Picture has Yang Peiyi on left and Lin Miaoke on right.

The Wall Street Journal's article "1 Song, 2 Girls" quoted spokeswoman for Bejing's Olympic organizing committee, Sun Weide, explained, "We decided to let Lin Miaoke to sing on the stage, and to use Yang Peiyi's voice, because Yang Peiyi has the best voice, while Lin Miaoke is the best actress."

Nice spin, Weide. Best actress is a thinly veiled euphemism for "best face." When you're actually singing, you don't have to act.

I can't really blame China as if they have a unique problem, because we do this in America, too. We dub beautiful voices into beautiful actors mouths. It's been happening for decades, for instance Audrey Hepburn's voice in My Fair Lady is actually Marni Nixon.

It's not just that these unseen singers don't get accolades or noticed or appreciated, it's more than that.

It's the implicit belief that children with new crooked, front teeth are flawed. This attitude makes many stages of life flawed, (a sort of Goldilocks trial for beauty, you can't look too young, you can't look too old, you must look just right). Hiding Peiyi is a symbol of hiding so much of our lives, when in reality very young girls and very old women are each flawless (they perfectly represent themselves at that stage) examples of their uniqueness at that age. To refuse to celebrate Peiyi is to refuse to celebrate a human being as she looks at age seven. That is essentially inhumane.

I'm so tired of women being forced to look perpetually cute and young (but as Peiyi has taught us, not too young).

Finally and most discouragingly, this substitution perpetuates the myth that flawless (read Hollywoodesque) people are also good at everything else. For a few days we all believed the nine year old Miaoke was flawlessly singing. In the days that followed we compared her face to Peiyi's. What's interesting is that no on has actually heard Miaoke sing. Wouldn't that be interesting to compare her voice to Peiyi's?

We have to shoulder on against this myth that beauty means goodness, beauty means talent, beauty means perfection. We must face the actuality that people with perfectly straight teeth are just as deceptive, ashamed, broken, manipulative, confused as people with crooked teeth.

But we've taught Miaoke and many others that she is flawless. And what about Peiyi? I wonder how she'll feel about her teeth for the rest of her life...

One artist, Oleg Dou, helps me battle this tendency to make every human squeeze into a manipulated version of flawlessness. He uses the same airbrushing techniques used in high fashion for a different purpose.

Dou photographs, and then heavily manipulates his model's faces. At first glance they all look superficially similar (see his series Sketches click on "eng" and then "art" then select "sketches"). But, if you spend more than 10 seconds looking at each photo, you’ll enjoy an unnerving and beautiful experience (notice especially his Naked Faces series) His models are very different, but we have to sit with them long enough to notice and then appreciate the difference. Dou lets us discover the differences among these women in hopes of showing that each woman’s face is worth this time. To read more on this Russian artist see "Surrealism and Issues of Identity"

Dou is teaching me new ways to see women others might call flawed or freakish (see his series on Freaks). He's helping me see that individual "looks" are worth noticing, preserving, celebrating, not hiding behind the stage.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Mystery of Submission- What My Husband Thinks

For nearly seven years of marriage, I've lived with a man whose mind and grace have changed my life. Dale's willingness to revisit passages of Scripture that have seemed "so clear" is one of the many things I admire about him.

For the last several months Dale has been laboring over a fresh approach to Ephesians 5, that powerfully used and abused passage on marriage that covers submission, headship, love and respect.

He has begun posting his verse by verse discoveries on his blog (Scroll down to his entries by date, and look up his August posts). I think you will be amazed and delighted to read his ideas. I found them both humbly offered and ground-breaking. Hope you enjoy reading a bit from him.

This is how his multi-part series begins:

The relationships between men and women, husbands and wives, is a deeply needed cultural conversation with great import into apologetics. Not only does the Scripture tell us to give an answer for our faith, but even more often it tells us to live out that answer, even in marriage. How we relate to one another in love is a tall signpost. Today, more than ever, the doors are swung wide to explore this mystery of marriage; it is prudent for anyone who claims to follow Jesus as the Messiah to do so. Ephesians 5 holds the most detailed passage on the relationship between husband and wife in the New Testament. In other passages of Peter and Paul, we find short reminders of marriage using the same language as Ephesians. So we turn to here for the clearest idea of what Paul means. This is not to preclude the many passages that speak to all humans to love, be neighborly, admonish, exhort, and stand firm in the Messiah. The “roles” of marriage evoke a roller-coaster of images and emotion. Everyone has an opinion . . .
To

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

"Compare Jesus" Part IV- Jesus Outshine C.T. Russell and Conclusion

Charles Taze (C.T.) Russell, founder of the Jehovah Witnesses had an unusual marital agreement with his wife, Maria Frances Ackley (1850-1938). C.T. and Maria entered into a marriage of celibacy for the sake of partnering in their ministry. But Ackley eventually distanced herself from her husband, not only because he failed to equally share the financial goodies from their ministry together, but also because of Russell’s marital infidelity and emotional abuse.

In their divorce proceedings Maria accused C.T. of a sexual relationship with their foster child, Rose Ball, a teenager at the time who worked as Russell’s correspondence secretary.* According to Maria’s testimony under oath, Russell had repeatedly molested Rose in 1894, calling her his “little wife.” Maria told the jury that when she questioned Rose about this, Rose told her that she protested, “I am not your wife,” to which C.T. replied, “I will call you daughter, and a daughter has nearly all the privileges of a wife.”**

It is interesting that C.T. Russell’s own testimony found Maria to be “a woman of high intellectual qualities and perfect moral character.” Perhaps this is why the courts granted Maria alimony. The courts judged Russell’s behavior towards Maria as “insulting”, “domineering” and improper, so much as to make her life intolerable. During their marriage Russell had given Maria the silent treatment for months at a time, refusing to speak to her except in letters. Russell had isolated Maria from society and eventually tried to pronounce her insane and put her away.

Russell did not pay the court ordered alimony, instead he hastened to transfer his wealth to the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society. The court ruled that these transfers of monies violated his agreement with Maria, they were “against his wife.”*** Friends covered his bills while he fled to another state. He fought this alimony case appealing twice over the course of five years, eventually losing. In the end his alimony was increased, which seems to confirm, at least if you take the court's view, that Maria was entitled to part of his wealth.

It’s unpleasant to dig up private scenes from Russell’s home life. But even in the most private moments from Jesus' life we cannot find any behavior toward women that smacks of false accusations, stone-walling, silent treatment or even appropriate management of funds. Even if we assume that Maria was lying under oath, we still have to face Russell’s failed marriage. Though Jesus was not married, think of how Jesus was able to engage with women as different as the Samaritan woman and the woman caught in adultery (John 4 and 8)? Think on the ways Jesus allows women to correct him in Scripture (for a good example see Mark 7:27-29).

If you were given the choice of one of these religious founders, Buddha, Muhammad, Joseph Smith, C.T. Russell or Jesus to accompany a woman you cared about, say your mother, your sister, or your wife, which would you choose?

Perhaps the most refreshing difference to me is that Jesus had multiple opportunities to take advantage of women. Women longed to touch him, to anoint him, to spread their perfume on his feet and support him with their money. It would take quite a man to withstand their advances. In ancient times a man’s weakness for females was winked at as one of the particular rights of spiritual, powerful, wealthy men. As the comprehensive historian of ancient history, Edward Gibbon, writes, "Perfumes and women were the two sensual enjoyments which Muhammad's nature required, and his religion did not forbid."****

But throughout his friendships with women, Jesus doesn't overindulge in romantic rendezvous, nor does he swing toward the other extreme. Jesus did not insulate himself from women as if we were wicked distractions. On his long road to the cross Jesus refuses to take a female lover to comfort him, but he still allows women to be near him (Mary and Martha in Bethany for instance). Instead of lewdness or asceticism the Gospels show Jesus guiding women along the road to truth, life, beauty, goodness. To Martha he says, “I am the resurrection and the life . . . do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26). To Mary he permits her to stay with him and learn the teachings along with the disciples (Luke 10:38-42). To Mary Magdalene he gives the command to preach the good news, “Go to my brothers and tell them, 'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.' “(John 20:17). To the woman who anoints his feet he commends, “Your sins are forgiven . . . Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (Luke 7:37).

Jesus trusted women, treating us as if we were made in God’s image. When Jesus reminds the Jewish religious experts, “Haven't you read that at the beginning the Creator 'made them male and female,’” (Matt 19:4), he’s quoting from the Creation account in Genesis, “So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27).

Of all religious founders Jesus is the only one who puts women on equal standing with men, both in his teachings and in his example. For that reason, among others, I follow his path.

* Rev. J.J. Ross, a contemporary of C.T. Russell and Pastor of the James Street Baptist Church, “Some Facts and More Facts” (1913), 25-31. Also see The Brooklyn Daily Eagle

** Ibid, 29-30.

*** Ibid, 15-16, 23.

**** The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter 50, (1776)


Monday, August 4, 2008

"Compare Jesus" Part III- Jesus Outshines Joseph Smith

Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism spoke against polygamy but in his private life he pursued and authorized the practice of marrying multiple wives. None were quite as displeased as his own wife, Emma.

Faithful Mormons argue that Smith was trying to protect widows or elderly women, so he married them to legitimately help them. But in 1843 alone, Smith betrayed his wife by secretly marrying twelve women, two already married to other men. If Smith's motives were entirely honorable then why would he have hidden his honorable behavior from Emma? If Smith longed to provide for elderly widows, then why did he pursue a woman like Lucy Walker Kimball?

Lucy’s mother had died so Joseph and Emma offered to care for Lucy and her brothers while their father went on mission. Lucy served as Emma’s maid while she attended school. When Lucy was fifteen Joseph invited her to live in his home, explaining “I have a message for you. I have been commanded of God to take another wife, and you are the woman.” Smith’s pressure (he renewed the request regularly declaring it was "the command of God") ultimatums (requiring that she decide or he would remove the "favor of God's prophet" from her and never renew the request again) and finally a heavenly vision (Smith promises her a vision to assuage her conscience) convinces Lucy to secretly wed Joseph.

Lucy’s brother performed the ceremony.

Lucy’s testimony is not a strangely mislead teenager writing to malign the character of a man she hated. Historian Richard Lyman Bushman calls Lucy’s example “the standard autobiography for the celestial marriage narratives in Utah.”* From Bushman’s research, he found that wives were forced leave their current husbands, cut themselves off from friends and possibly suffer the humiliation of pregnancy if they conceived.

Ten of Smith’s wives were under twenty. In reading their personal narratives it becomes clear that it is not their conviction of celestial marriage (read polygamy) as proper or good, nor their romantic aspirations toward Smith that convince them to enter into marriage with him. It is Smith’s spiritual pressure that finally breaks their resolve and prompts them into obedience.

Emma Smith had to live with the unpleasant dilemma of faith in her husband’s teachings and disgust in his plural marriages. I can only imagine how his secrecy incited her disappointment and distrust. Smith offered Emma more financial security and even some freshly received revelation from God that proved that plural marriages were God’s idea not Smith's. Nevertheless, Emma was unwilling to accept Smith’s wives.

Interestingly enough, it is not until Emma was included in the typically all male rituals (called endowments) did their marriage improve. It seems that even Emma had her price.

Smith engaged in secrecy, spiritual abuse and polygamy. Some Mormons have shared with me that even the Bible shows the patriarchs engaging in polygamy. And they are correct, we do find several instances of polygamy, but it fascinates me that God never condoning or encourages multiple wives. Quite the opposite, God warns the kings of Israel against many wives (see Deut 17:17). And when Jesus appears, he taught faithfulness to one spouse as God’ original intentions for men and women.

Haven't you read," he replied, "that at the beginning the Creator 'made them male and female,' and said, 'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh'? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate."

"Why then," they asked, "did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?"

Jesus replied, "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery" (Matt 19:4-9).

*Kimball, Lucy Walker. Autobiographical Sketch. Church Archives. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Salt Lake City, Utah as quoted in Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling: A Cultural Biography of Mormonism’s Founder (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 490-491.