Total cereal has a new commercial. A daughter discovers her mother’s old hip huggers, and says to her mom, “You used to fit into these?” The rest of the commercial shows the mother eating Total cereal while the daughter parades through the kitchen in the mother’s old jeans. At the end of the commercial the mother says, “I want those back,” and in the final scene we see the mother in jeans she wore when she was a teenager. Because every woman should be the same size she was when she was 15. Right. Diana Blaine has dealt with this very topic in two of her recent blog entries. In A Sad State of Affairs she observes that our culture’s obsession with keeping women as girls has gone from removing hair from our armpits and legs to removing pubic hair in pornography. Women are expected to stay in a state of perpetual girlhood through being skinny and hairless. In another post, Emergency, There’s a criminal in my living room! she evaluates the latest Yoplait yogurt commercial where the actress is trying to frantically hide her body with a red raft. When we finally see her we discover her to be a thin woman who looks great in her “little, itty-bitty yellow polka dot bikini” thanks to Yoplait. As Diana notes, she’s so thin, you can see her ribs. It’s not only secular feminists who have noticed this. In her book Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction, Margaret Guenther notes that most female bodily experiences are taboo:
Considering how inseparable woman’s physical being is from her spirituality, it is striking how much of her bodily experience is taboo for open discussion. Menstruation remains a secret topic, with most public mention in negative terms: does woman’s cyclical nature make her unstable and unreliable? Menopause is seen as either comic or pathetic, an exception being Margaret Meade’s joyous prayer of thanksgiving for the energy and zest of post-menopausal women. Pregnancy and birth are usually relegated to the women’s magazines, despite Luke’s exemplary theological treatment of the subject. And rarely addressed, in spiritual terms, is women’s own deep dislike of their bodies, their dissatisfaction with certain features, and their pervasive sense that they need to lose weight–literally to diminish themselves. . . . Since women’s most powerful and formative experiences are often the hidden, secret ones, they may seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things, and hence too homely for theological reflection (pp. 124-5).
Menstration, menopause, pregnancy are all taboo, even now. All of these bodily experiences mark us as women–grown-up, mature, independent–not girls nor teenagers. In my first post I wrote that I want to be comfortable with my body being a historical and theological record as the Korean women were. Again we see how our society tries to wipe clean the historical record of women’s bodies by insisting that fitting into the jeans one wore as a teenager is worthy goal to go after and attain. To be perfectly honest I have no desire to starve myself back into the size 5 jeans I wore over 20 years ago. I like being healthy and being at a healthy weight (not to mention my size 12 jeans are much more comfortable, thank you very much Total).
It disturbs me to see how our society encourages women to harm themselves to stay skinny, and that cosmetic surgery is becoming fairly normal. What disturbs me more is that the church is not dealing with this theologically (As Guenther noted this is too homely or insignificant for theological thought). This topic was brought up on on the CBE Scroll recently where it was also noted that our skewed view of women is now going worldwide with Asian women having breast enhancements and surgery to make their eyes larger. Neither the poster nor the commenters could think of the church or Christian culture actively engaging in helping women navigate our way through the unhealthy girlishness of our society.
As I have been typing this I have been trying to think of an answer or something to help, but right now I don’t have much. But this is definitely one of the areas I want to work in and write on. I know it needs to start with women being made in the image of God. What does that mean for women? How can that kind of theology help to correct the thin teenager model and exchange it for a theology of mature womanhood imaging God? Hopefully, there will be more to come.