A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post on what it mean when I say I am a feminist. In that post, I said I wanted to listed to the voices of women I encounter. Today, I’m super stoked to be able to do that, and to share the words with you. Becca Rose is a fantastic writer that I have been getting to know for about a week now. She wrote a post about how the church has treated her worth and her body. This post is a sort of follow up, dealing with the way many probably well meaning guys have responded to her post. Becca was kind enough to let me publish this here. It’s been very eye opening to me, and I hope you will hear her voice well.
A little bit ago, I came home from visiting a new church feeling frustrated. I stayed up til 4 a.m. wrestling my way through that frustration the only way I know how – writing. It culminated in a post which I rather scandalously titled “The Only Thing My Double-D’s Ever Got Me Was Kicked Out of Church.” It’s very befitting the general theme of my life that the post that included my bra size in the title is the one that went viral in the Christian blogosphere.
I’m a fairly unknown writer, with a small but loyal readership. I’ve been hacking out my journey of faith, from fundamentalist charismatic cult-child to liberal feminist, online for the past seven years, which has led to job opportunities for me in decidedly non-Christian environs. I had pretty much given up the idea of ever breaking into the popular circles of Christian bloggers, but I still read their work and engaged with it regularly. Much to my surprise, many of the writers whose work I admired began sharing this piece. I can only guess it was because of a combination of the honesty I write, and the recent boom in great bloggers decapitating the idea of modesty doctrine and purity culture. I’d say it’s mostly luck, but Oprah once said “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity,” and god knows I enjoy a good hit of Oprah every once in a while.
You know how if a blogger tells you they don’t care about stats, they’re lying? It’s true. I watched as the page views and comments and emails rolled in, feeling overwhelmed, weird, and grateful all at once. I began the task of filtering through my inbox, where women three times my age were sharing their stories of lifetimes filled with the same abuse I’ve suffered. This is my story, they said. This is my story. If that’s the most significant outcome of my blog post reaching out across the internet, I am so glad to give women a space to acknowledge abuse and negative aftereffects of modesty doctrine.
But then, of course, the horrible comments started rolling in. “God, another fatty complaining. Gross,” a person wrote, as though they didn’t care that I was sitting right there on the other end of the screen. Lots of fat shaming, lots of victim-blaming. Those things hurt, especially because I’ve never received such a high volume of traffic before and wasn’t used to this in mass amounts. But you know what hurt me more than the insults, than the accusations?
Men commenting to tell me “I’ve seen your pictures. You’re beautiful.” If I had to do a totally scientific guess as to what percentage of the men who responded included this, it’d be around the neighborhood of 90%. Compliments, showered down upon me like a gift from the internet gods, from nameless, faceless men, sitting in living rooms across the country, probably with the best of intentions. They called me adorable, cute, pretty, gorgeous, attractive, jaw-dropping, curvy, well-proportioned, generously-sized, sexy, and, my personal favorite, “you’re not fat, you’re just well-rounded.” Aside from that last one, you’d think this would be any young twenty-something girl’s dream come true. All these men think I’m beautiful! Isn’t that nice? Isn’t that wonderful? Shouldn’t that be a boost to my self-esteem? I should probably be glad they told me, right?
Here’s the thing: why would I be grateful for an unsolicited analyzation of my appearance from a stranger? In my real life, if a man walked up to me to tell me he’d been staring and that he’d decided to inform me what he thought of my body, my reaction would not be one of pleasant surprise. When I go outside, I don’t do it to offer my body on display for the entirety of the male gender to examine, analyze, and comment on. They might have the intention of flattering me, but that’s not how I’m going to internalize their words. As a young woman living in an urban environment, I’ve been on the receiving end of some really violent and disturbing street harassment, and any man in public commenting on my looks immediately sends me into panic mode because I have to wonder if he’s going to follow me for the next six blocks like others have. I go outside because I have things to do and a life to live, not to step up on the auction block of attractiveness.
In a similar fashion, I’m not going to be grateful when a strange man online emails me to tell me that, in his eyes, I’m attractive. That’s not why I wrote that post. The message of it is not “I’m ugly, please tell me otherwise.” It is about the culture of shame the church has created around women’s bodies, and my personal experience with it. I do understand why that’s the reaction of many men, Christian or no, when reading a woman’s story of feeling unattractive and undesirable. They want to fix it, they want to help, they want me to feel better, and in their minds, if the problem is “She doesn’t think she’s pretty,” the solution is for them to tell me “Don’t worry, I think you’re plenty pretty!” as if that will help balance out my lifetime of being told the opposite. That line of thinking seems to posit this: there were not enough men in my life who told me I was beautiful/ too many men who told me I was ugly, so I need more men to drop positive affirmation into my self-esteem pool to even me up.
However, this is not the problem. What I wrote detailed a culture that believed the woman’s body was to be policed, and therefore shamed me for committing the crime of possessing such contraband genetics. Did men contribute to the shame I carry? Yes, they did. Church leaders, family members, and most crushingly, my father, all combined with this culture of toxicity to bring about the convictions I bore for years. But in the scheme of developing my girlish self-esteem, not all men were created equal. The people I needed to affirm my looks as I developed were those men who were in my life at that time. Someone I’ve never met commenting to say “I don’t see the problem, because you’re great-looking” does not cancel out the hatred that men who were influential in my life held towards me because of my body. It doesn’t even help a little bit, because to me, you’re just one more man believing it is his duty to inform me how he feels about my physicality. To me, you’re just one more person who thinks their perception defines my reality.
I think I can say that I did not ever actually need the men in my life to affirm my appearance. What I needed them to do was tell me that no matter what I looked like, no matter my size, no matter my apparel, I was worthy of affection, love and respect. That’s what I needed then. I never got it from them. Does that mean if a stranger on the internet who’s a guy with the best of intentions ought to substitute “You’re worthy, no matter what you look like” instead of his initial response of affirming my attractiveness? I don’t think so. I don’t need men who have no actual relationship with me to tell me that. I don’t need you, a stranger, to define my worth for me, either. I have close friends and family who have been supportive of me in the last few years as I made my way out of that toxic environment, and they have the power and the privilege to influence how I see myself because I know them and trust them. You may be the kindest of kind-hearted souls and want nothing but to help me, but I don’t need you to tell me I’m pretty. I never asked for that. If I need that reminder (and there are some days I do), I will ask someone who is actually involved in my life.
It’s worth keeping in mind that when your conditioned response to a woman speaking about her negative body image is to blurt out “but I think you’re pretty!”, that woman may not be positively influenced by your unsolicited opinion. The problem is so much more multi-layered than that, and your well-intended words can add to the hurt felt over a lifetime of being told that our bodies are only as good as men think they are. I understand, I really do, that for the most part, the men who told me this in response to my post thought they were doing good. But please, don’t tell me I’m pretty. If you want to compliment a woman on her looks, do so to the women in your life who know you and trust you. I offer a much more appropriate response to use online: “Thank you for sharing.” You can tell me it made you think, you can tell me you appreciated seeing this from a new perspective, or you can engage in the discussion about the themes of shaming and fearing bodies in Christian culture. That’d be very nice, and you know what? It’d also make me feel pretty good.
Becca Rose is currently studying writing and has high hopes for her student loan debt. She writes about faith and feminism at bookwormbeauty.com and is in a twelve-step program for Twitter@bookwormbeaut. She is in the process of writing a novel or two, and it is simultaneously the worst and best thing she’s ever done.