When I was 14, I wrote a manifesto calling for reform of the advertising industry. I thought (and continue to think) the industry should be more responsible in its use of models who are much thinner than average because of the way we, as young women, looked at the ads. Regardless of our opinions on advertising, most, if not all, of the women I know have difficulty loving our bodies. But at 14, I started a crusade. My mother spent much of my adolescence reminding me that not everything has to be a revolution.
Women do have a lot of expectations place on us in life. We are expected to be wives, mothers, businesswomen, feminine, smart, beautiful, funny, and nurturing. And sadly, the church does not relieve those pressures. I am not sure what prompted my thoughts on this topic, except that I found myself in a situation where I needed to be assertive. And I thought to myself, “If I am assertive, I will not be attractive because godly, patient women are attractive. And godly women are not assertive.” While Sunday School is not entirely to blame, I remembered the lessons about Biblical femininity and heard those messages play out in my head even now, ten or fifteen years later.
The phrase “Biblical femininity” entered my vocabulary when I was 14 and my family first attended the beige church. My church in California had not addressed gender much, if at all. So at the moment I was beginning to think about what it is like to be a woman in this culture, I was inundated with lessons of what the Bible says about being a woman.
There are multiple sides to the Biblical femininity debate though I mostly heard the traditional view. One says that we should emulate the women described in Paul and Peter’s letters- endeavoring to serve our families, be good housewives, hospitable and submissive to our husbands. This view is inherently opposed to what the world in general says, women should endeavor to do everything. All sides are probably right. I do not want to address the theology of it. I am not an expert on it. What I do know is the way this debate deeply affected me.
In high school, and really for my entire life, I was bossy. I liked to tell people what to do and when to do it. My brothers and their friends were constantly under my influence and power. My aunt calls me the “benevolent dictator” of our neighborhood. I was loud, bubbly and argumentative. Many will argue I still am. But, in high school and in youth group, I learned those things were detrimental to my future. I do not remember anyone telling me that it was bad to be bubbly, loud, aggressive or driven. They did however provide strong arguments to be patient, godly, passive, demure, pure and hospitable.
My small group would open our Bibles and look for verses about women: Proverbs 31 (The Traits of a Godly Wife), the books of Ruth and Esther, Paul and Peter’s letters about marriage and husbands and wives. I think because we were adolescent girls, trying to understand what it meant to be a woman, like most adolescent girls are, we naturally turned to the Bible and books by Elizabeth Eliot, wife of martyred missionary, Jim Eliot. Ironically, if you really read Proverbs 31, Ruth and Esther, you will not find passive women waiting for a husband and family. Proverbs 31 describes a businesswoman. Ruth and Esther took charge of their families and nations and played active parts in both the story of Christianity and their lives. But, for some reason, the message I took away from all of this was that the way I am was wrong.
I remember my youth pastor saying that one of our leaders was “a really godly woman.” She was not married but was in fulltime ministry. Women who were held up as role models were always wives and mothers and/or in fulltime ministry. Thanks to Facebook I have reconnected with many friends from youth group. Most of the women I knew are now married and most have gone through counseling programs at seminaries so they can be Christian counselors.
I compiled a list of what godly women were like based on my observations. Godly women wore long dresses and had long hair. They wore terrible shoes and no makeup. It took me several counseling sessions just to go buy makeup, let alone decide to wear it sometimes. Having learned that godly women did not need the outward adornments, I wanted to prove I was not superficial. So, I refused to wear it, despite the fact that it is fun at times. Godly women did not care what the world thought. I could not stop worrying what the world, specifically the Christian world, thought of me.
None of the women I heard described as “godly” were like me. I quickly adapted from aggressive, driven and loud to quiet, self-conscious and driven to please others. Giving up on my true nature led to greater conflict within me and in essence the loss of myself. I went from being comfortable with who I was and how I looked to insecure and far from confident. I wanted to fit in with these girls and wanted to be seen as godly because godly women got the godly men to marry them. And when that is the ultimate goal (see previous blog post), it becomes necessary to adapt. Even now, I start to wonder if the path I have chosen is wrong. Will a great Christian guy want to marry someone who wants to own her own business, likes to wear make up and does not know how to cook?
It’s not that I have a problem with the path many of my friends have taken. I just wonder if things would have worked out differently if we had been informed that the Proverbs 31 woman was a successful businesswoman and that who we are is who we were created to be.
Both sides of this argument have merit and fault. On one side, we hear that women should be successful, equal to men and driven. On the more traditional side, we hear women should not be aggressive and should not pursue careers that would take them away from their families or husbands. But both of these camps are full of “shoulds.” The whole point of Christianity is that we cannot live up to standards- on either side. What if girls were taught that who they were created to be- long hair, short hair, good shoes, bad shoes, loud, quiet, aggressive or demure- was just fine. The last thing any of us need is a group telling us we need to be less feminine or more feminine. Godly women are women who follow God. It is as simple as that. Perhaps that is where we should leave it, instead of creating a new list of standards to be considered good enough for God, his service and godly men.