Learning to Love Ourselves

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by ariela

I believe that loving your own body is one of the hardest things for a woman to do. Granted, it might be easier for some women and harder for others, but overall I get the feeling we women simply struggle with loving themselves and embracing their bodies.

Why?

There are many reasons, and depending on the culture you grew up in might affect how you view yourself. A conservative, nondenominational, homeschooling, and patriarch-supporting family like mine? I grew up being told that my body was a stumbling block for men and therefore I needed to cover it up. Skirts had to be below the knee and all shirts had to pass the “tummy test”. If you aren’t familiar with this degrading dressing room ritual, it’s where you do various things such as bending over to make sure the shirt doesn’t pull up to reveal your back/butt, and raising your hands as high as you can to make sure no stomach is revealed at all. Once I turned 11, shorts were pretty much a no-no, because puberty was coming. I’m in my early 20s and it’s been almost 11 years since I last wore a pair of shorts.

Because of all the shaming, I have believed for many, many years that my body was a lean, mean, seducing machine. Unless I covered up, men would stalk me, just waiting for a glimpse of sinful flesh that would instantly make them rape me.

It’s dangerous. And to top it off, I’ve always been slightly overweight, so there has been the added pressure of losing weight to have a “body that pleases the Lord”. Because, you know, Jesus ONLY loves women who wear size 0.

Too fat, too thin, too tall, too short, too curvy, too straight. Your boobs are too big, your boobs are too small. I’ve heard it all.

Is it any wonder we struggle with loving ourselves?

I almost feel like a parrot, because this subject has been written about so many times. But maybe if we keep talking about it, things will begin to change.

Things have already begun to change for me. A few days ago I had my hair cut into a bob, which I’ve always wanted. My grandma is completely ignoring it and my dad can’t bring himself to say he approves.

But I realized that I don’t care anymore. It’s my body, it’s my hair.

I tried on a new shirt a couple of weeks ago and looked in the mirror. The shirt really looked good on me so I told myself something; I spoke out loud and said “Damn, woman, you look sexy.”

Do you know what happened? No, men didn’t come leaping out of the crevices to attack me. The world did not explode. The Lord is still on His throne.

But I felt a surge of confidence come over me.

It’s my body. Why shouldn’t I love the curves that form me? It’s me, after all.

Do yourself a favor, dear. Look in the mirror and even if you don’t believe it, look yourself in the eye and tell yourself how sexy you look. I can’t see you but if I know I would agree with you.

Haven’t brushed your hair in two days and still in those ratty sweatpants? Love yourself anyway.

Just dropped a couple pounds and wearing a new dress? Love yourself anyway.

Overweight, with bags under your bloodshot eyes and a stained tee shirt? Love yourself anyway.

Get picked on at school for wearing that outfit because you have a tiny build and need to gain a couple of pounds? Love yourself anyway.

As I learn to love my own body more, I hope to keep writing on the subject. Meanwhile, keep telling yourself encouraging things. What do you want to hear someone say about you? Why don’t you say it to yourself?

“Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?”

— Maya Angelou

How Feminism Released Me From “Biblical Womanhood”

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By Sky

When I was ten, I started blogging. My first blog was hosted on a small homeschool blogging platform, and because I was so young, I was only allowed to visit blogs on the same site as mine. This arrangement was amazing and allowed me to make a ton of friends, but it also exposed me to a different niche of Christian homeschoolers than the ones I’d previously experienced.

This niche is hard for me to describe, though if you’ve been in it, you’ll understand what I mean. It’s often referred to as fundamentalist Christianity, or patriocentrism. This culture can be extremely oppressive to women, and is most often twisted in order to be that way. Strict modesty is encouraged. The idea of wearing skirts only is popular, as well as head coverings. Instead of dating, the young people are required to “court,” which is where the parents have a strong say in who the children marry. In addition, and perhaps the most awful, daughters belong to their fathers until they get married, are under their father’s “headship”, and often have little to no agency of their own. Getting married young was highly recommended, and starting as young as fourteen, women were preparing for their ultimate roles as wives and homemakers. (This can also fall under the term “Biblical womanhood.”) It was almost like going back in time, and as you can imagine, the ways that this belief set can go wrong are numerous.

Several of my old friends were among those who believed this way, and I wanted to fit in. So I became one of them for a while. Even though my parents were not encouraging me in this way at all, and often questioned what I was doing, I subscribed to this belief set in a lot of ways. I awaited the day when I’d get married and have an unrealistically perfect romance. (I still do, but to a much lesser extent.) I wore skirts only, and I tried to bake and crochet. These things were hard for me to accomplish, and it honestly was not what I was interested in. I look back on those times with mild embarrassment, and I wonder how I could have fallen for it. But I was young, and I wanted to be included. Call it the Christian homeschooling version of “peer pressure.”

But even during my time trying to fit in, I had a hard time with this sect of homeschooling. I still felt so out of place there. Instead of Jane Austen, I loved C.S. Lewis and fantasy. Instead of baking, I enjoyed blogging and writing stories. I had a secret longing for adventure. I didn’t like period dramas, I liked action and adventure movies! This was pretty hard for me to reconcile with my outer world. To be honest, I felt like less of a woman, which wasn’t helpful to my already-fragile self esteem. I remember having several impassioned conversations with my parents and possibly others where I expressed how frustrating it was. Even while trying to follow the rules, I was angry with them.

Somehow, I got out of the phase I was in. I got tired of the endless list of what a woman should be. I got tired of trying to aim for perfection. In addition, most of the friendships related to this culture ended, and I slowly drifted away from it. My old friends were replaced with new ones. I started wearing pants again. I wore skinny jeans and graphic teens instead. I’m okay now with being a geek. I don’t enjoy or want to actively pursue traditionally female pursuits like cooking and crafts, which I’m trying to be okay with. I’m not entirely comfortable in my skin, but it’s a lot easier now that I’m not trying to pretend to be something I’m not.

Now that I’m older and wiser, I know what feminism is. I don’t really know how I discovered it wasn’t a bad thing, but last year it crept up on me, and my beliefs have radically changed. Feminism has liberated the twelve-year-old in me, the one that would rather carry a sword than a handbag, and wear a cape instead of a skirt. Though I didn’t know it, that side of me is the feminist side, the one that wants to be free to follow whatever pursuits she wants, regardless of their “gender.” (I have to say, it’s my dream to go to a shooting range one day.)

I think back to when I was trying to fit the mold of “Biblical womanhood,” and it makes me sad. I don’t think forcing women to be submissive and homemakers only is the way to go. Please don’t misunderstand me: homemaking is a noble pursuit. The problem is that far too often women feel that it is their only option, and the patriocentric belief system can be so easily twisted. The mindset of “waiting for Prince Charming” is destructive as well, because it causes women to sit at home, “preparing for marriage.” Often this holds them back from experiencing everything that life has to offer.

I have feminism now, and I’m a strong believer in women finding themselves before they even consider finding a man. Homemaking isn’t your only fate, friends. Neither is “preparing for marriage.” Don’t subscribe to the notion that you are less of a woman because you are not with a man. (Don’t subscribe to the notion that you are less of a woman, period. There is not a checklist for things to make you a “perfect” or “Biblical” woman. This is not what God wants for us.) If you don’t want to get married, don’t. If you do want to get married, go for it–you are not less of a woman if you do get married, and a balanced marriage can have so much to offer. But until you do get married, you absolutely do not have to wait around.

In fact, I beg of you: please don’t wait. Don’t sit around waiting for a man in order for you to start living. Travel the world. Make a shit-ton of art. Write your first novel. Paint a picture. Cook and bake and read. Do things. Your life is not dependent on a man to come in and save you. Neither are you. You are whole and complete without a man or a list of “Biblical womanhood” requirements. You always have been whole and complete. And regardless of whether you get married down the line, or if you don’t, you have a life now. Go live it.

— Sky

“Every Young Woman’s Battle” Is Not Mine

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By Laura Sook Duncombe

When I think back about it, I’m so angry I can hardly handle it. Who writes a book like that? And who gives it to young girls?

“Every Young Woman’s Battle: Guarding Your Mind, Heart, and Body in a Sex-Saturated World” was given to me by a friend in high school. She was a youth-group veteran, this girl who had given me my first F.R.O.G. and P.U.S.H. bracelets, and I took her word on religious matters as Gospel. I loved Jesus with all my heart, but I wasn’t able to express it openly like she did. My relationship with Jesus was intense but private—I hoped this book would help make it public. Boys got turned on by what they saw, the book informed me, so it was my responsibility to protect my Christian brothers from sinful thoughts. Suggestions included wearing layers of clothing to insulate me from the boys’ gazes: no low cut tops or short shorts. I started wearing at least two shirts at a time, and jeans under my skirts and dresses. This was my job to save my classmates from sin. And I was happy to do it.

I was particularly susceptible to this, because I was a “good” girl. I thrived on pleasing adults and saw this as a way to be even more pleasing. I would cover myself up, make my body disappear, and thus become an even better girl. By hiding my sinful curves, I would become invisible: children are supposed to be seen and not heard, but girls are not even allowed to be seen.

But it was not enough to protect my Christian brothers from sin—I had to protect myself, too. Popular music and TV might give me ideas about sex, make me feel certain feelings. And I had to be ever vigilant against these feelings and crush them if they showed up. Even if they felt good, they were not good for me, the book promised. “You have to decide whether you are going to trust your own judgment in your pursuit of sexual purity or whether you are going to look to a trusted advisor for guidance.” This book’s message: do not trust yourself. And for years, I listened. I viewed my body as a ticking time bomb, just waiting to betray me. If I felt desire, it was a sin to be conquered. If I enjoyed the feeling of sun on my bare shoulders, I was hedonistic and should put on a sweater to protect my brothers in Christ. I was afraid to wash myself in the shower, lest I accidentally linger too long on my body and enjoy the touch. I avoided being naked as much as possible. Sometimes I awoke from a steamy dream, body sweaty and throbbing, and I prayed for God to forgive me for those poisonous thoughts. I had a dim concept that someday long in the future I would get married and I’d have to have sex, but that was years away and God would lead me once I got there.

But once I got there, there was no instruction manual or divine intervention to guide me. I thought my body would know what to do, but I had been denying my instincts for years, and I no longer knew what felt good and what didn’t. Pleasure had been avoided for so long that I wasn’t sure I would recognize it if it happened to me. Slowly, carefully, my husband and I have been exploring touch—I am learning to be an inhabitant of my own body for the first time. I’ve taken to wearing cashmere and silk, trying to get used to feeling something sensual without shame. It’s strange and surreal—like taking off blinders and realizing the world is full of color and light. It’s beautiful but awfully overwhelming. I could have used some time to get used to it.

The irony of the whole thing is that God never meant this for me. Despite everything, I still love Jesus with all my heart, and I believe that He did not want me to spend years ashamed of my body and its natural urges. I don’t think God wants us to go around rutting like animals as soon as we hit puberty, but I think that the man who hung out with prostitutes and said “let ye among you without sin cast the first stone” understood that it’s complicated. And I am certain that He never meant for my purity to be a bargaining tool or something that passed from my father to my husband. But some members the religious right have imposed these ideas onto Jesus and are putting them into the hands of young, impressionable girls. And it’s a terrible, awful thing.

Desire does not have an on and off switch. It cannot be fully ignored and rejected until a wedding day then flipped on at a wedding night. I was lucky; my husband is patient and committed to helping me undo the damage. But other women—friends—have still not escaped this trauma. When I see copies of this book in stores, I turn the covers backwards so it’s harder for people to find them. I want to protect girls from it. Even bright girls can fall for this shit—I’m living proof. Girls already grow up afraid of men, who will harass, oppress, rape, and murder us—we do not need to grow up afraid of ourselves, too.

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Laura Sook Duncombe is a part-time lawyer, part-time YA novelist, and full-time Christian feminist nerd. Greek epic poetry, Sherlock Holmes, and musical theater are a few of her favorite things. Visit her blog at laurasookduncombe.wordpress.com, as well as her Twitter, @LauraDuncombe1.