The Privilege and Pain of This White Female Body

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By Shelbi Gesch

As a girl who grew up evangelical, I learned to function in the world in my white, female body. I was taught that the soul was eternal and the body was just temporary, like a candy bar wrapper, something to be eventually discarded. It was the inside that counted; the flaws and failures of my body didn’t matter, because that wasn’t what God saw. It wasn’t the true me.

I’d long since rejected Plato’s idea that we are essentially eternal souls caged in temporal bodies. Death itself illustrates that the body and what we call the soul, were never meant to be viewed as separate entities. And yet, the ripples of that ideology persist in the way I treat my body as an inconvenience, as an obstacle to my “true self.” As a teenager, that dualistic perspective showed itself in the way I dressed, hiding the shape of my body.

I know now what nobody told me when I was that girl, age 14, sitting behind her fortress of fabric and insecurity: No amount of fabric or lack of makeup will keep me safe from someone dead set on sexually gratifying themselves at my expense. I can finally admit that I’m not immune to the male gaze.

The girl I used to be at 14, hardly knew herself. She believed a lie, born of fear, that she would be loved for the wrong thing: her body, her face, her physicality. The irony behind all the effort she made to hide her body was that more than anything else, she wanted someone to look through the layers of clothing she hid behind and see the girl inside. She didn’t want shallow lust or flighty attraction. She wanted to be loved. At the time, the only way she thought that love could be a pure and holy thing, was to so de-emphasize her body that, in her mind, she made herself disappear. Rather than Plato’s illustration of the caged bird, she was trying to be the Cheshire cat. Only her soul remained visible, while the rest of her—her body—faded into invisibility.

We were told in our church youth group gatherings that we were “fearfully and wonderfully made,” but nearly all the emphasis in our gender-segregated discussions on sex and relationships was on fear. The wonder of our sexuality, the sacredness of the way our bodies were put together and the mystery of how the body and soul work together as one unit, were ideas saved for after marriage, a mysterious prize dangled in front of us and presented as something fragile and forbidden. We who were navigating our newly-adult bodies were hungering for acknowledgment that the desires we were experiencing, we weren’t experiencing alone and that they were not only normal, but good.

Instead of exploring the complexities of relating to one another and what that means as people who want to treat each other with honor and respect, we girls were cautioned about the differences between the ways men and women think. Instead of principles, we were given rules. We learned through all those high school youth group huddles to compartmentalize our bodies and our souls and our hearts; to sublimate our physical desires. We didn’t know how to handle this strange power suddenly bestowed on us as women. Some of us used it in destructive ways, some found their way through with grace, but some of us—and I was in this camp—just learned to run and hide. In this way, we denied that we were, in fact, created as sexual beings, even at 20, at 15, at twelve.

A lot of the difficulty in adjusting to life as a married woman involved deconstructing the division I maintained between my body and my heart. I’d trained myself since my teens to “take every thought captive” and question my physical desires out of existence. No wonder suddenly going from zero to married was a bit of a difficult transition. I wouldn’t say I felt guilt, but I constantly fought the sense of shame that I’d grown accustomed to when it came to sex. I’d learned to operate on two channels: the modest girl, prone to blush at the slightest provocation, and the wife who not only generously offered herself to her husband, but enjoyed it. And nobody got to know that girl but my husband.

I’d venture that a lot of women from my generation who grew up in church, those of us who signed purity pledges and saved our virginity for our husbands, might still operate that way. In two worlds. I always felt there was something not quite right about it. Either God created me, my body and my desires as something good, or God didn’t. It took the remainder of my twenties and nearly all of my thirties to find a place where I began to see myself as a whole, to become comfortable in my body and bring my whole self to my husband and the world.

Today, that false hierarchy of body and soul shows up in the way that I resent the added weight that’s come with age. I fail to remember that feeding myself well isn’t punishment for my dietary “sins,” but self-care. I’ve treated exercise as penance rather than something that benefits both my physical and mental health. I still feel self-conscious and battle shame when I wear what I call “clothing I have to think about”—blouses with a lower neckline, skirts that ride just above my knees, high heeled shoes. I still want to hide. I’ve refused to spend time or money on my physical appearance, partly because I’ve felt it’s a waste, but more often, it’s because I’ve felt unworthy. Or afraid.

When I catch a full-length glimpse of myself in a mirror, it never matches my mental image of myself. It takes a moment to accept that the woman in the mirror, in the photo, this round-faced woman with curves and hips and legs and a belly that won’t be ignored and nothing much that moves in that light elegance that I had at twenty, is still me.

What I’ve wanted all along is confidence that all of the parts of me fit together. That’s something I didn’t have at 14, and still don’t fully have at 45. Maybe what we all really want is to know ourselves in this body, to push through the fear and accept ourselves as we are, to find the boldness inside ourselves that will admit that this person in the mirror, all of what we see and what we don’t, is made in the Creator’s image, and because of that, is worthy of care and love.

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About Shelbi:

I live in rural southwest Minnesota with my husband and three teenagers. I recently graduated with my B.A. in English from Dordt College at the wise old age of 44, and I’m currently an MFA student in creative nonfiction writing at Augsburg University in Minneapolis. I’m a firm believer in the healing power of journaling, walking, and conversational prayer, and I blog randomly as the spirit moves at shelbigesch.com.

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