So many things in the news have recently reminded me of your last letter about how women are judged by their appearance, causing some women to believe they must be slaves to fashion. And I also want to comment on something else I read in the news last week, namely, the news that a Roman Catholic survey has indicated that the sins people confess differ according to gender. That observational study led some news headline writers to imply that men and women actually sin in different ways. But do they? Or do they just confess certain attitudes as sins according to the different socialization they’ve experienced as women or men? Let’s discuss that, too, at some point. I’ll just briefly introduce the topic toward the end of this letter and maybe we can discuss it later.
A message to our readers
But first, I want to apologize for the long delay in responding to your January 10 post. And I want to say a word to our readers. I know some loyal readers of our blog posts have expressed concern that our posts have been less frequent. On the other hand, other readers have remarked that they found it hard to keep up with our essays when we were posting sometimes twice a week. So we’ve started slowing it down a bit, because we’re trying to make our posts solid informational articles, which take time to read and ponder and also take quite a bit of time, thought, and research on our part. Recently, we’ve both found that a number of our other responsibilities have prevented more than once-a-month or once-every-two-or-three-weeks posts. We thank our readers for hanging in there and not thinking we’ve abandoned them!
I know how busy you’ve been, Kimberly, with moving, traveling, and graduate school applications; and I’ve been devoting countless hours to editing and publishing the Winter edition of Christian Feminism Today and providing new website content for this website. I tend to be somewhat of a night owl, as you know from times I’ve often answered your emails in the wee hours of the night (or more accurately, wee hours of the morning!), but I’m trying to be more sensible about burning the after-midnight oil. I want to do everything in my power to keep my immune system strong and healthy so that it can do its best in fighting off any recurrence of cancer. I know you are rejoicing with me and joining in praise to God that this month, February 2009, I celebrated the milestone of being a one-year breast cancer survivor. I have so much for which to be thankful.
Cultural conformity and women’s appearance
If you’re wondering what has recently steered my mind toward some of the things you said in your January 10 post, here are just a few items that come to mind. Last week was Fashion Week in New York City, and an emphasis on appearance was center stage as designers presented their latest creations. During that week, in two separate incidents, the models fell to the floor as they were walking across the runway in their multi-strapped platform high heels. These tumbles reminded me once again of how women’s feet and shoes have been a major area of conformity to societal beauty ideals. The extremes of this phenomenon can be seen in the ancient Chinese custom of footbinding, which survived into the 20th century; and, now in the 21st century, can be seen in the decisions of some women to have cosmetic foot surgery, including shortening or otherwise altering toes to fit pointed shoes as well as special procedures for wearing stiletto heels. And speaking of extremes in cosmetic surgery, I also saw an article in the past couple of weeks about a woman who is determined to have her breast size increased until she has the world’s largest breasts by having multiple surgeries and silicone implants. She was already a size triple-K and said she planned even further enhancement. (It makes me wonder about her surgeons!)
Other media items that have kept me reflecting on your letter are some that I included in my Winter-Early Spring, 2009 edition of Web Explorations for Christian Feminists. For example, I mention a program I heard recently about the 50th anniversary of Barbie dolls. I also provided a link to a movie about weight issues in which a woman, feeling judged because of her plus size, asks an anorexic woman for lessons on becoming anorexic. The characters in that movie didn’t realize at the time that they were actually attempting to deal with feelings about their personal self-worth rather than the numbers on a scale or their reflection in a mirror. In addition to all these reminders about women and physical appearance, I read some advance reviews of Susie Orbach’s new book, Bodies, which again deals with issues of “body shame” and today’s emphasis on “fixing” any physical characteristic that is considered even the tiniest bit imperfect. Men are affected by this attitude, too. Susie Orbach herself has explained why she wrote the book.
I appreciated your reminding me of Mary Pipher’s term “lookism” (from her book Reviving Ophelia, which she also talks about in a short video). Lookism hurts people just as other “isms” do — “isms” like sexism, racism, heterosexism, ageism, able-ism, ethnocentrism, classism, and so on. Lookism not only causes women to feel they are never quite attractive enough but also convinces them that physical attractiveness and sex appeal are what counts more than the unique qualities they can offer the world through their talents and intellect. Susan Campbell had a blog post recently about how the news media often seem to think they must talk about details of an accomplished woman’s appearance in a way they do not talk or write about men. (The day after President Obama’s February 24 speech to Congress, TheNew York Times had a commentary pointing out that Michelle Obama had worn a sleeveless dress to the event. The writer said, “Already, a debate is brewing about just what the First Arms signify”–self-discipline, achievement, attention to physical exercise in the gym, the pride women can take in athletic bodies after Title IX? The attention was still on appearance, but in this case the spin seemed to be an attempt to see it as more of a personal positive statement than as conformity to a certain prescribed image.)
Young girls get the message about physical appearance early in life. Remember the ceremonies at the 2008 Olympics in China in which a seven-year-old girl with an angelic voice sang but was not visible because her teeth were not perfect? Instead, another girl was considered “cuter” and was chosen to stand in front of the audience and lip-synch the other girl’s voice. “The main consideration was the national interest,” the music director of the opening ceremonies later explained, adding that the Chinese politburo insisted that “the child on screen should be flawless in image,” even though the voice that was heard was the recorded voice of the other little girl who had won the national singing competition.
When my granddaughter Morgan was 3 years old, I wanted to immunize her early against the forces that she’d run up against that would emphasize physical appearance over intellect and achievement for girls, so I gave her Robert Munsch’s The Paper Bag Princess and Shana Corey’s You Forgot Your Skirt, Amelia Bloomer! Morgan’s parents appreciated the books, too. (I’m providing links to Amazon.com because of that site’s excellent editorial reviews of these two books, in case you’re unfamiliar with them. Both books relate to the topic we’re discussing in this blog.) In brief, The Paper Bag Princess is a very different kind of fairy tale. It tells the story of an elegantly dressed princess who was engaged to to be married to a prince. One day, a fiery dragon invaded the castle and kidnapped the prince. The dragon’s fiery breath had burned the princess’s clothes, so the princess dressed in a large paper bag, went after the dragon and, through a series of clever tricks, defeated the dragon and rescued the prince. Was the prince grateful? No. Instead of thanking her, he immediately criticized her appearance. He complained that she smelled smoky and looked dirty and had messy hair and wasn’t dressed in the beautiful attire a princess should wear. Seeing him in his true colors, the princess called off the wedding. She was wise enough to know there are other ways to live happily ever after than to be married to someone like him!
The other book, You Forgot Your Skirt, Amelia Bloomer, starts out by humorously stating that Amelia Bloomer “was not a proper woman” and that her behavior was considered shocking. Why was she judged that way? Because she dared to believe that women should use their minds and develop their skills and not be limited to housekeeping and child-care but should contribute to the world in many other ways as well. And she believed women should be allowed to vote! Furthermore, she saw that the clothing of her time was restrictive and uncomfortable, the designs preventing girls and women from being active in the way men could be, so she dared to join with a few other women in challenging women’s dress by wearing a new style that was originally adapted from a Turkish outfit and consisted of baggy trousers under a shorter dress. Some of the early feminists called this outfit by what it signified to them, “freedom dress,” but the name that stuck was “bloomers,” after Amelia. The children’s book introduces the topic to a young audience, but if you really want to see an in-depth account of the outrage this new clothing style stirred up, read Galye Fischer’s scholarly but entertaining book, Pantaloons and Power (Kent State University Press).
The intertwining of clothing reform and the politics of gender-based power issues showed up in public reactions to women who wanted to be free of their tightly laced corsets, long billowing skirts, and 14 pounds of layered petticoats and other underwear, which the Rational Dress Society argued should be reduced to no more than seven pounds. (See the Fashion.era website for more information, including fascinating pictures, about all this.)
Restrictive clothing, as well as social conventions about what was proper for women, kept women from exercising and participating in sports. I recently heard sportswriter David Zirin on NPR, reading from his new book, A People’s History of Sports in the United States. He quotes from a 19th century Christian magazine which predicted the moral downfall of women who played croquet! Women were expected to be frail, delicate ornaments.
Of course, such attitudes applied only to women of means and privilege. Poor women were expected to do society’s drudge work and to somehow find the strength to do it because they had no other choice. Society’s definitions of womanhood and the limitations imposed on women were conveniently ignored when it came to poor women — a point former slave Sojourner Truth made so powerfully in her 1851 “Ain’t I a Woman” speech.
As you’ve said so often, Kim, reading women’s history is ever so enlightening! One more article you might like to check out is this one from the University of Virginia’s American Studies department. It’s a fascinating essay about the part the bicycle played in providing women with new freedom. Susan B. Anthony claimed that the bicycle had done “more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.” It not only provided good arguments for more comfortable and practical dress styles; it gave women mobility and a new sense of freedom and empowerment. Women could now, on their own, pedal their way far beyond the home. And they did.
Well, we could go on with this topic, and I hope we will in future posts. It’s hard for me to stop. But I also want to introduce briefly the other topic I mentioned that struck me in recent news reports: the Catholic survey about the differences in what sins Catholic women were found to confess to priests as compared to those that men confessed. I suggest that we may want to have some future discussions about some questions it has raised in my mind. And I’d love to hear what you think.
Do Men and Women Sin Differently?
The Bible does not provide a specific list of “seven deadly sins,” but such a list was formulated by the church between the fourth and sixth centuries. On this list were pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, and sloth. In the recent news reports of a Jesuit priest’s survey of confessions in which penitents sought absolution in the confessional, the top three of the sins reported by women were pride, envy, and anger. For men, the top three were lust, gluttony, and sloth. The Pope’s personal theologian, as quoted in the Vatican newspaper, said there is “no sexual equality” when it comes to sin.
But here are some questions the survey raised for me (aside from the fact that this was not a scientific study of Catholics in general but only those who go to confession, and 30 percent said they don’t). And so I found myself wondering:
1. If women are confessing pride as their major sin, could it be because they have been traditionally encouraged to put themselves last, curtail ambitions, and defer to others’ wants and needs disproportionately to what is expected of men, causing a woman to believe that when she does aspire to achieve or meet her own needs, she should view such aspirations and any delight in her successes as sinful pride?
2. If women yearn for opportunities, privileges, and earnings equal to those granted to men, might they mistake that desire as a sign of sinful envy — that they are coveting what men have and should instead be content with their subordinate role, viewed as having been assigned by God? (Of course, I realize there are many other kinds of envy which may indeed choke off our closeness to God.)
3. Could it be that women confess anger as one of their top three sins because women have been traditionally taught that they must never be angry, that any indication of anger is not “ladylike,” and that they must not allow themselves to experience such feelings and certainly not express them — even when anger is perfectly justified as a response to unfair treatment? Could it be that many women have never been encouraged to recognize the difference between exploding over petty annoyances or frustration and what is truly righteous anger over social injustice?
(I’m not going to go into the list of sins men confess, topped off by lust at the top and pride as down at number 5 on the list. Maybe we could talk about the concept of sin in general sometime).
But I must stop. This letter has gone on much too long. I have a feeling I’m leaving us both with more than enough to think about, Kimberly, and I hope we can revisit some of these issues in future discussions. I already have more ideas. And I’ll bet you do, too!