The Development of My Body Theology

August 24, 2009

Below is the link to the first part of “Call of the Artist: a recovering of image in the Church,” a piece I wrote about 18 months ago exploring the connection between the human body and art in the Church. (I never posted it because it includes a story involving another Fuller student, who has since graduated and moved away.) You can find excerpts from the second part through the “theology pop culture and emerging church” category at the bottom of the page, or follow the links at the end of this post. I am posting this first part in its entirety (sans footnotes), so for the sake of space, you can access the majority of the piece through the link below.

Here’s the opening paragraph as a teaser:

My body betrays me. It attracts attention I don’t want. It fails to attract attention I do want. It crumples into a weepy heap when I get angry or frustrated or tired. It breaks down entirely on occasions when it has a responsibility to get me to work on time. It reminds me of my ability to procreate at the most inconvenient time of the month. It sweats and farts—so very unladylike. Most of all, it ties me—the real me, the me inside, that spiritual, ethereal self—to an existence that often wearies me beyond expression. It, this body I am reduced to, is not on my side.

***

Part 1: Body Theology

***
Growing up, my mom has always been the sole voice of identity and encouragement in my life. As a child of divorce, my dad has been the silent-silent partner in my upbringing; I saw him little and spoke to him less. He came to visit me here at Fuller last year while he was in Southern California for a conference. When he came to pick me up, I saw the look on his face as he watched me put the finishing touches on my outfit for an evening out with the new staff of his church. I saw his surprise that I now wear earrings and high heels and know how to curl my hair. I saw him take note, but he never said a word, not even when some of the ladies with him complimented me at dinner. I can’t remember a single time in the whole of my life when my dad has ever made a comment to me about how I look, for good or bad.

Now, looking back, I wonder if my dad’s silence isn’t part of the reason I can’t take a compliment. Compliments have always carried an element of suspicion for me, since in my experience growing up they were always tied to a punch-line. Children can be cruel, and without any positive male reinforcement of my body image, I heard only the negative from those around me: “you look pretty, pretty ugly!” When a boy sought my attention, I wondered what his angle was, and I learned to respond to veiled cruelty from both boys and girls with self-deprecation. If I could steal the punch-line, then I could transfer the balance of power: now I was the one talking; I was in charge. And, somehow, I was thus protected from being the butt of yet another joke. But in the process, I shifted from being the victim to being the perpetrator, victimizing myself and thus internalizing these lies that are only just now beginning to surface. These lies stand in the way of my having a healthy body theology. Naming these lies and speaking God’s truth into them is the first step toward bridging the chasm between self-as-my-soul and body.

***

Lie #1: You’ll never be pretty enough.

My mom sends me cosmetics in the mail. “You’d be so much prettier with a little mascara,” she said to me on the phone the other day. It’s a constant refrain. In high school we made a deal: I would wear makeup to church on Sundays if she would stop bugging me about it the rest of the week. It worked for a while, sort of.

I can understand her concern, to a degree. She grew up in a culture where it was absolutely unacceptable to leave the house without careful thought for one’s appearance. When she came to the States for college, she cried in the Atlanta Airport at the sight of two overweight middle-aged women sitting in the food court in shorts and curlers. But I grew up with tomboys for friends, preferring to play soccer with my brothers than dress-up by myself. Makeup and earrings and trendy clothes made me uncomfortable, made me stand out, made me an object of ridicule.

Attending church was a painful experience for me, especially during middle and high school. I hated going to Sunday school because the boys—who also saw me on week days at school—would ridicule me for “trying to look like a girl” (per my mom’s request) and the girls would ignore me and whisper among themselves about my inability to wear shoes that were “in season.” The cliques in our youth group divided over economic status and image, and though the youth director tried to foster unity among us (by forcing us to learn three things about someone we’d never met in the first three minutes of Sunday school each week), he never addressed the root problems that divided us. We were told that we should love each other, but we were never taught how to reorient ourselves in a world that kept telling us that image is everything.

Because I couldn’t compete with the girls at church, and because my mom kept trying to relive her childhood dreams through me, I rebelled against image. I wore jeans and baggy sweatshirts everyday. But it wasn’t just image that I rebelled against. I rebelled against being defined by my body, so I hid it. I stopped wearing swimsuits in sixth grade. I stopped wearing shorts in eighth grade. I stole sweaters out of my grandmother’s closet and wore them to school and even to church. It wasn’t until my senior year of college that I began to purchase clothing that actually fit close enough to my body to see my form underneath, and even now I still have one of those baggy sweatshirts in my closet here at Fuller, just in case.

The truth: My identity is in God, who gave me a body not to define me but to image my Creator. I am a creative expression of who God is, as a spiritual self blessed with the good gift of tangible flesh.

***

Lie #2: Inner beauty is everything; the body is nothing.

“Hey, Mommy, how you doing? That’s okay, you just keep walking. I like that sexy ass shake.” I can’t tell you how dirty I felt every day, having to walk up and down Los Robles Avenue for ten months before I got my car out here. By the time I arrived at campus, Altadena Elementary where I used to work, or home, I was angry. Every day. It didn’t matter what I wore, whether I avoided eye contact, or how thoroughly I ignored them, the inappropriate comments were unavoidable. I began to worry that the comments directed at me in the street where there was no accountability were indicative of comments other people thought but just had strong enough filters not to make out loud or within my hearing. Am I somehow at fault, then, for being female, for having a body that attracts male attention, warranted or not?

In high school I joined this summer small group led by Kristen Chandler, a senior in the youth group. I was in awe of Kristen’s physical and inner beauty and wanted to be like her in every way. She took her leadership role very seriously, spending hours preparing her weekly lessons for us. At the end of each lesson, we prayed together through the last part of Proverbs 31, asking God to make us into blessed women who worked hard to take care of our families and did not depend on our physicality to bring us praise. The last lesson we did that summer was an in-depth study of Song of Songs. The love poem that had once made me blush with its explicit imagery was transformed from a celebration of the romantic passion of two newlyweds to a highly spiritualized metaphor of the relationship between Christ and his bride the Church. My one connection with the lauding of the human body was severed.

When I asked Kristen at our going-back-to-school party at the end of the summer what it really meant to be a godly woman, she told me to read 1 Timothy 2. What I learned from the passage, taken out of context of course, was that the most important thing about my body was that it should be covered. I should dress not to draw attention, do good deeds, be quiet, submit to authority, and be fertile to make up for the sin of being descendant from Eve. Ah, there was the connection to the body: procreation! Now all I had to do was find that unattainable “Mr. Right” and mysteriously manage to get-married-and-live-happily-ever-after. A pretty impossible task considering I also believed lie #3 that I wasn’t interesting enough, inwardly beautiful enough, as a person-devoid-of-body to make someone love me.

The truth: I am not just a body; I am not just a soul. I am defined by a self that experiences life and spirituality on many interrelated levels of existence. I am a body-soul, a whole person who has worth because of my identity as a creative image of God.

***

Lie #3: No boy will ever love you for who you are and what you look like.

“Can I kiss you?” he asked again, for the sixth time that night. I shook my head and sighed. “You know, every time I ask you, your whole face changes. It gets…cold.” It’s been over a year now since I stopped allowing John (name changed) to entangle me in this web of illusion and unreality, and still I can hear his voice in my head, asking over and over, “Can I kiss you?” Accepting John’s attention for the first two months of my time at Fuller turned out to be the most humiliating way possible to be introduced to the dangers of naïve trust and inexperience.

Coming from a broken home, I have grown up with my mom’s persistent warnings not to fall for the wrong guy, not to make the mistakes she made, but to just wait for “the right one” to come along. So I decided the only way to protect myself was not to date. Ever. My youth group only capitalized on this fear by hosting such conferences as “The Silver-Ring Thing” and having us study books like I Kissed Dating Goodbye and Lady in Waiting as though they were scripture. I kept hearing the refrain: “Don’t date; don’t date; don’t date. Oh, but one day you’ll meet-someone-great-and-get-married-and-live-happily-ever-after.” Only no one ever explained to me how to get from the fear part to the marriage part.

Even our youth group “sex talks” did me harm, though I’m sure unintentionally. I recently discovered what I think is the root of Lie #2 when discussing the issue with a friend last week. “Sex talks” are always segregated, and I used to wonder what the boys were being told while we girls were learning how to rise above objectification by wearing longer skirts to church and letting Jesus be our boyfriend. I once left the room during one of these segregated talks, in ninth grade, and walked past the boy’s discussion on my way to the restroom.

The door was open, and I saw “my elder,” my favorite man at the church who had walked me through Confirmation class in second grade and written a nice note in my Bible, talking to the boys. He was in the middle of an illustration. “I know what it’s like, guys. I’ve been there. You get a girl to give you a hug, and while she’s thinking ‘isn’t this sweet,’ you’re thinking ‘man, this is great!’ It feels good to have her breasts pushed against you like that. I know it. But guys, you can’t take advantage of these girls; you have to protect them and yourselves. So just go for the side hug.”

That did it for me. Hugging was no longer safe ground. If boys were only ever trying to use my body for a cheap thrill, trying to reduce me to nothing more than body parts, then I was not going to make it any easier on them. Touching became officially off-limits, since I never knew if I was being taken advantage of. In ninth grade I stopped hugging anyone I wasn’t related to. It was just too risky.

When I came to Fuller and met John, I tried to let my guard down a little. Surely I could trust a seminary student! But his constant push for physical attention without any actual commitment to assure me that he liked me, the person-devoid-of-body, kept me in turmoil for two months. When it finally became clear to him that “we’re just getting to know each other, but don’t tell anyone” was not going to induce me to give him my first kiss, he dropped me entirely. One more confirmation that boys only objectify, that my body betrays me by putting me in situations where love comes at the price of moral integrity, that the kind of person I am is not interesting enough to attract that “someone great” who I will mysteriously be able to fall in love with and marry without dating or physical touch.

Somehow we’ve come full circle. My experience and some faulty church teaching have left me with the awkward tension of being simultaneously an objectified worldly body and a bodiless spiritual self. How does such a being relate to another human being, to culture and church doctrine, to the world?

The truth: My identity is not bound by the dualism the world imposes on me. I am worth loving for the whole person I am because of my identity as a creative and unique God-image.

***

Part 2: Call of the Artist

Call of the Artist
More Call of the Artist

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3 Responses to “The Development of My Body Theology”

  1. William Brust said

    Thank you for this post Laura. It’s always illuminating to hear what my friends go through in their quests for love and acceptance. I pray that you find peace in your body and your mind.

    Though for the record, I think you’re amazing. An amazing writer and an amazing person with genuinely interesting thoughts. And yes, you’re beautiful too.

    • lauraknowles said

      Thanks for the comments, William. You’re always such an encouraging friend. Plus, I think you’re probably the only person who reads my blog! Haha! I have dabbled in the Pope’s stuff, but I haven’t really read in depth. Do you have a recommendation?

  2. […] then, there was that first glimmer of understanding between us.  We had climbed into the boxing ring together, eying each other warily, circling, waiting for the […]

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