New blog!

Well, that brief hiatus obviously turned into something a bit bigger. I realized that as my life changes, it’s time for a new metaphor and a new location where I can ask bigger questions and write about more topics. For those of you that have stuck with me for the past few years, thank you so much for your support and your readership. I hope you’ll join me over at itsallsoverycomplicated.tumblr.com for articles, links, videos, music, and discussion!

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Taking a break!

I’m working on a few other projects this week, so I’m taking a brief hiatus. Have a great week!

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Gender: Implications

If, as I suggest in my previous post, gender isn’t not about strict roles or living up to a cosmic ideal, what does it mean to be a “man” or a “woman?” Do our biological sex and psychological gender have any impact on our lives?

Of course they do. My whole goal is to explore how our embodiment affects our humanity, and living in a male or female body has a huge impact on our personhood – not in terms of worth, but in our understanding and experience of the world.

I would love to hear from some male readers what it’s like to live in a male body, but as I’m a woman, I’m going to start with what it’s like to be female – at least for me.  The point of this isn’t to create an “ideal” that all women must reach or a “norm” that all women must adhere to. The point is to listen to a diversity of voices so that our understanding of the world gets bigger.

First, the most obvious: children. Most women have the capacity to bear children and nurse them naturally. I don’t believe this is a criteria for womanhood – not all women can have children, and that affects them deeply in a unique way. I’d love to hear from some women for whom that’s the case – there’s a huge amount of diversity in what it means to be a mother (see this post by The Bloggess for example. Some language) But if you can have children, it changes your perspective on a lot of things, even if you never actually do.

Our reproductive cycles make themselves very visible on a regular basis. There’s just no getting around it, and it connects us to the physical world in a deep, painful, messy way. We are reminded over and over that our bodies have the ability to nurture life. For many women, this results in an increased sense of responsibility. Statistics show that empowering women through a country’s policy decisions can have a huge impact on GDP and poverty levels, because women are more likely to invest in their family’s food, shelter, and education rather than spending the money on themselves. This isn’t always true, but it is one impact that our female bodies can have on our human psyches.

Many women also feel a drive to shelter and nurture that is probably at least in part biological, or conditioned into our personalities by our bodies. Again, this is not a criteria, but something that is commonly experienced. We can also seek more inclusive solutions to problems rather than hierarchical ones. This means that many women have a difficult time in traditionally male industries – the hierarchies are often designed in a way that can be considered traditionally masculine. But I think both men and women benefit when this approach is softened with a few traditionally female characteristics – not by adding a token female to the board, but by letting lots of women at all levels challenge the way things have been done so that both men and women (and the company) can benefit.

Even if not all women exhibit “traditionally female” characteristics, combining them with “traditionally male” ones really does create a more balanced environment. It’s like someone, somewhere decided to call half of our humanity – mostly the warm, friendly parts – “female,” and then said they’re the least useful half and men should never exhibit them. Women should develop and cultivate these traits, but then women should keep them within the realm of the home and not try to bring them out into the world. And God forbid that a woman ever possess a trait we decided to call “masculine” like leadership or confidence – that makes her, pardon the language, a manipulative bitch! Her traits are seen as less desirable, but she’s not given any room to develop other ones. Is it any wonder so many women feel disempowered, even when individual men aren’t trying to be misogynist or discriminatory? This is what we’ve heard, subtly, through media and culture our entire lives, even in America.

Lastly, women have a very different experience of simply living in the world. This is often culturally conditioned (and stereotypical), but we are very aware that the men around us are usually bigger and stronger and more aggressive than we are. We are constantly in a heightened state of awareness because we know that we may not have the physical or societal resources to stay safe if our environment turns sour. Things like street harassment are particularly insidious, because even if the situation doesn’t turn violent, it reinforces our paranoia and prevents us from relaxing into our daily lives the same way most (but not all) men do. This is why people often refer to “male privilege” – most men aren’t intentionally sexist, but they still don’t know what it’s like to feel this stress all the time. Again, this is stereotypical because many man experience violence or abuse at the hands of women, but in societies around the world, this is a very real part of the experience of living in a female body.

What else do you think is part of the “female” experience? Any guys out there who want to take a stab at the other side of the coin?

Here are some other links on this topic:

Jonalyn and Dale Fincher on how this view of gender plays out in a Christian Egalitarian Marriage (CEM): For a CEM marriage, Jesus is the spiritual leader, not the husband or wife.  A CEM that walks daily with Jesus will find each partner leading, liberating each other with new insight. CEM believes that only by being responsible of taking care of ourselves are we better able to reach out and love our spouse.  The husband and wife are to challenge one another in spiritual growth equally and both lead their children equally.”

A male’s perspective on feminism (some language): “When I say I am a feminist, I am saying I want to listen. The women in my life have their own conflicts, their own struggles, their own victories, and their own defeats. The narrative of their life as a human belongs to them. I want to hear their stories, their wisdom, their fear, their pain. It is not my story to steal and turn into something else. If I believe women can and should speak up on any and every topic they choose, then I must listen when they speak.”

Another article about understanding Paul’s instructions to women. This writer asks whether some of the verses are actually original to Paul, but even if they are, he goes into detail on where commands for women to remain silent in church contradict other passages, like the one that says women should prophesy with their heads covered (which presumably requires speaking!): “Philip the Evangelist had four daughters who prophesied (Acts 21:9) and the context of their prophecy makes it clear that they prophesied to Paul about his situation. By the time Corinthians was written, somewhere around 25 years after the crucifixion of Christ, women and men were actively engaging in prophecy, and that certainly was the case in Corinth, where sometimes everyone in the church had a prophetic word (1 Cor. 14:24). However, as we saw above, women were told to prophesy and pray in public with their heads covered as a sign of the authority over them (1 Cor. 11:5).”

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Gender: It’s Complicated

In ancient philosophy, there’s a line of thought that says “masculinity” and “femininity” are cosmic concepts. The moon is feminine; the sun is masculine. The ocean is female; the land is male. There are spaces in Christian thought where these ideas have been grafted in. They say that as male and female humans, we reflect aspects of this divinely instituted universal order, and our personalities and actions should align with this divine structure. Unless we fully embrace our role as a reflection of the cosmic feminine or masculine, nature itself will suffer.

This point of view is actually very attractive on a lot of levels. Stretching our human characteristics until they are big enough to fill a universe is rewarding and gratifying. Order and conformity promise us peace amid the complexity.

If only the complexity ever really disappeared.

Biologically, there are clearly differences between male and female bodies. These differences carry a heavy responsibility that must be given its due. Female bodies can usually bear and nourish children naturally. Male bodies generally have less body fat and often more strength. Our hormone levels are different; high levels of testosterone appear to encourage aggression, impacting the way men think and act (though our hormones don’t dictate our actions. Probably).

But even our biological differences are not always as clear as they seem. Did you know that it’s possible to be an apparent female with an “XY” chromosomal pair (unless that was just a thing on House…)? Or a woman with extremely high testosterone levels and no ovaries? Can you imagine what it would be like to identify as the female gender and not have the typical biology to match? Or vice versa?

Obviously, these are deviations from the norm. But they do exist, and any truth that doesn’t make room for people on the fringes can hardly be considered absolute. And in my opinion, any truth that excludes rather than welcomes people into the wholeness of the family of God can hardly be called Christian.

Our psychological notions of “gender” are even more complicated. Because of our physical differences, societies throughout history have categorized some traits as being more masculine or more feminine. This kind of makes sense when you realize that for most of history, all women over the age of 12 were pretty much always pregnant or nursing. This would have had a pretty big impact on societies that relied on manual labor. But a quick glance at any traditional list of male and female traits makes it clear that many men – including Christ as pictured in the bible – exhibit traditionally feminine characteristics like nurturing and graciousness while many women possess traditionally male traits like protectiveness and authority.

The same thing exists in nature:

(This is just a 2 minute preview – the last 30 seconds is what I’m getting at. Gotta love it when the Madagascar penguins get profound…)

Some also argue that we have distinctly female or male souls, and that when men and women work together, our souls reflect the full image of God. I do think that both the “masculine” and the “feminine” are found in the God of the bible, but I’m not convinced that we have to force ourselves into alignment with a few particular traits in order to reflect God. There are just too many variations between individual men and individual women in my experience. Our personalities do often match up in some ways with what would be considered traditionally masculine or feminine, but I do wonder if there’s a better picture, one that incorporates all of our complexity and allows for our differences.

Perhaps we could imagine masculinity and femininity as something of a spectrum inhabited by our human souls. Biological and psychological differences do exist between the sexes and should be embraced, but they should be embraced on an individual level, not as an absolute “norm” for a whole half of the population. We need to allow room for each of us to express our God-given gifts to their fullest potential. We do need to examine the impact of living in a masculine or feminine body on our souls and minds. Our souls and minds don’t exist in a vacuum. But they also don’t determine our personalities or our futures.

We also need to examine our cultural expectations. How do we view manhood and womanhood compared with people from other countries and backgrounds? Which of those views empowers us? Which bind us and prevent us from living in freedom? Which perspectives help us love God and our neighbor better? Which ones lead to shame and judgment?

I know these ideas fly in the face of some theologies of manhood and womanhood. But if you go back to the scriptures, I think you’ll find a diverse array of perspectives and examples of what it means to be a man or a woman and how we should express our human souls in these gendered bodies. And in Christ, I think, we find acceptance of people who don’t fit the norm – even the people that would have been excluded from the assembly of God under the old covenant laws because of physical differences.

It’s not as neat and clean as a list of acceptable roles. But of course, neither is grace.

If we start from a softer “spectrum” point of view rather than a hard, delineated “roles,” what does it lead to? Depending on your background, you may be thinking “Armageddon” or “hell in a handbasket.” But taking a softer position on gender doesn’t have to lead to a denial of our physical differences. It doesn’t have to cause the breakdown of society. Embracing grace doesn’t mean everybody goes crazy. Many fear a slippery slope as traditional structures break down, but when done in pursuit of truth, it can be a slippery slope towards grace and freedom and godliness, not selfishness and harm.

What do you think? Have you ever considered a perspective like this before? I’ll get into some of the implications of this kind of philosophy in a later post. If you want to know more about different biblical interpretations of masculinity and femininity, check out these two articles on the context of Paul’s instructions to women and 4 myths about egalitarians.

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Friday Body-Soul Connection: Gender

Of course, the one time I don’t preview my post, the formatting freaks out. All better now! Here’s your Friday body-soul connection. I’d love to hear some thoughts on this!

We all unconsciously absorb both positive and negative views of our gender and biological sex from our families and our cultures. We hear things like “men are aggressive and harsh.” “Women are weak and whiny.” “Men are bossy.” “Women are manipulative.” These get even worse when we think about the ideal man or woman. Real men like to hunt and shoot and play sports. Real women are obsessed with their kids and scrapbooking and preparing meals that are raw and vegan and shaped like a tiny organic panda bear. If you don’t live up to those standards, it’s easy to feel like YOU FAIL AT LIFE.

The standards are ridiculously high, making most of us feel guilty when we don’t shape up. Instead of being free to express our inner gifts and talents, we’re pressured to fit the mold. Or the opposite happens – we’ve heard so many negative things about our gender (girls suck at math, boys are cold and emotionless) that we reject our gender entirely. We hide traits that we do actually have because we associate them with negative stereotypes – or we judge others for expressing them. I fell into this category. I disliked “girly-girls” because I assumed they were shallow and unintelligent. I bought into the stereotype – that femininity couldn’t possibly be associated with competence – so I ran as far in the opposite direction as I could.

I’m just now starting to explore the impact that our gender has on our perspectives and our experience of the world. It’s a pretty small step from is to ought for most people; does our biological sex mean that we must do something in order to be a “proper” man or woman? Do women have to have kids to be real women? Do men have to be aggressive and testosterone-fueled in order to be real men? Or is there room for diversity, even as we embrace the gender we identify with.

What if we let “feminine” and “masculine” become bigger than the traditional lists of traits and roles? What if we didn’t tie gender traits to intelligence or competence? What if we could overcome both our feelings of inadequacy and our shame over our gender?

What if “feminine” meant speaking out against those who cause suffering and “masculine” meant standing up for others with gentleness and self-control? What if we saw our womanhood reflected in bold action or our manhood in quiet reflection? What if both males and females simply strove to become more human, more like Christ? What if embracing our gender simply meant that we embraced our full humanity, physical and emotional differences and all, without either fear or shame?

Sometimes this looks like dressing to embrace our bodies or being willing to express our vulnerability even if society says that’s a “weaker” trait. Sometimes it means bucking the expectations by living out of our true selves and speaking up – or staying quiet – even when others don’t expect us to. Sometimes it looks scary because we’re going against the flow, and sometimes it’s even scarier because we’re trying something we’ve been fighting all our lives.

But it always looks like not being afraid of who we are.

Questions: What traditional traits for your gender do you feel like you possess? Which ones have you been striving for because you thought you had to? Which ones have you run from? Consider whether it would be freeing or constricting to let some of those expectations go and live out of your individuality instead of gender stereotypes, even for a moment (I’ll get into the theology of gender roles next week).

For me, these would be: hospitality (which turned into guilt when I didn’t want to have people over), tact (which turned into fear because I didn’t want to offend anybody), consideration (which turned into codependence), and a people-centered rather than task-centered mindset (which actually developed through time and experience – I wasn’t born with it). Some of these things are probably more related to me being an introvert than a woman, but there is still a lot of societal pressure and stereotyping around them.

One trait I ran from for a long time was caring about my appearance and embracing the female-ness of my body, partly because I felt like I wasn’t physically feminine enough and partly because I didn’t want others to see me as extremely feminine. Finally recognizing the enormously diverse spectrum of femininity was hugely freeing for me! I’m no less a woman if I choose not to throw a party, and I’m no less a person if I decide to dress up for dinner. So there! :)

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Let Me Be a Woman, Too

Photo By Jennifer Upton

Photo By Jennifer Upton

 

If a man knew what a woman never forgets, he would love her differently. Terry Tempest Williams, When Women Were Birds

This post starts a series of a few posts on gender. This is my reflection on my story. More analytical posts will follow, but I wanted to provide context in a more meditative way.

I’m the oldest of six kids, homeschooled, raised in a conservative faith community. Much of my story mirrors those of others with that history; I’ve seen deep echoes of my struggles with relationships, body image, and faith across this slowly-recovering community.

But my story is also different: I never got the message that my job in life was to become a wife and a mother. I guess it has a lot to do with my mom – she originally didn’t want kids, or the husband that went with them. The story of how her heart grew to become the mother of many is a beautiful one. It’s long and winding, and she’s still living it. I lived alongside that story, but it isn’t mine.

My college at Oxford had ten chemists in my year (there were nearly two hundred across the university). Eight of us were girls. We were Americans, English, Thai, Chinese, Cantonese, and more. But only two were male. They were usually better at things like spatial reasoning and fudging their way through tutorials than we were, but not the rest of the course – one of the highest scorers in our year was female. The story of women in science is a long and winding one. I lived alongside it, but it isn’t mine.

Two years before I graduated highschool, my mom and I visited Britain to explore its universities. In February. We froze our way through dark train stations and confusing timetables and ancient castles from London to Edinburgh. We toured the Oxford of Morse and Lewis and sought a glimpse of my future. On Sunday, we asked the porter of Christ Church college if he could recommend a service. Music poured out of the centuries-old building across the street. We went in.

The first sermon I ever heard at my beloved St. Aldate’s church was about women. Charlie Cleverly unfolded the broad picture painted in the scriptures, empowering women at every turn. As a student, I heard women lead countless services, communions, and worships. The hidden story of women of faith is an ancient one, sorrowful, rich and winding. I lived alongside it, but outside it. I never felt the fear, or the longing, or the pain.

I am 25, and my body is rebelling. I don’t get out often enough to meet new people. My friends are scattered around the world. I know now that marriage and children are not in my immediate future as I always imagined. I know the stories of women who have a deep longing for children, for motherhood, for nurturing. Who have been cut to the core by infidelity or childlessness or an ideal “Christian” marriage of clear roles and duties that turned out to be anything but. But I have no deep longing for that just now. Loneliness, yes, sometimes. But no ticking clock. I live alongside these stories, even in the midst of them, but their pain is not mine. Mine is my own.

And my womanhood is not diminished.

There are other stories, too. Friends who considered refusing communion given by a woman – though she served the church alongside her husband. Of never being asked to dance at our formal homeschool dances. Hearing that a boy was ashamed of his crush on me when he realized I was three years younger than everyone else in my class, including him. Fearing my developing body because I didn’t understand it. Listening to tapes that said women had to wear skirts to be true women (though my parents didn’t agree). Books that said there were deep, fundamental, cosmic differences between men and women that God intended to dictate our lives. People who railed against feminist straw men and called themselves persecuted because others saw the world differently.

These are part of my story, but not all of it, just as my female body is part of me, but not all.

What does it mean to live in a woman’s body? To never forget the things that those in male bodies will never know? To never forget my danger, and my possibility; my vulnerability, and my strength; my hormones, and my intuition; my connection with the earth, and with the moon.

None of the narratives of womanhood fit me quite right. Not the traditional ones of early marriage and children; not the modern ones of singleness-by-choice, or even the overcoming of deeply-ingrained wrong ideas. But I am a woman, too. And I will claim my story.

I am dust; but my dust was born among the stars.

As dust, you are eternal change, and everlasting growth, and a high note of laughter soaring through chaos from the deep heart of God. Be proud, O Dust! Then you may love the stars as equals! – Eugene O’Neill, Lazarus Laughed

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Friday Body-Soul Connection: Senses

Messy Canvas’s “Secret Messages” collection. Click here to explore!

On Fridays, I’m exploring exercises that can help us bring our minds, bodies and souls closer together, helping us experience wholeness instead of fragmentation.

Think about your five senses: taste, touch, smell, hearing, and sight. What senses do you use most to connect with other people? To express your innermost person? What makes you feel alive? Is it music? Art? Dancing? Preparing and eating a gourmet meal? The smell of the air after it rains?

Each of our senses has something to offer, something that will better connect us to the world around us, but some forms of expression are more natural to each of us. Hearing and taste are probably the most natural for me. Music resonates with me deeply, and words are the easiest way for me to communicate my thoughts and feelings. Creatively, I love pairing flavors to make delicious meals. I love discovering new combinations and balancing all the components to make a cohesive whole. For some reason, these senses are the most evocative for me.

But I’ve recently started exploring sight as a method of soul-communication. My friends and family will tell you I’m not very visual – I usually ignore pictures on websites (or get loudly and dramatically annoyed with them if there are too many) and skip straight to the text. Yeah, I’m in the vast minority there. But I’ve started exploring pieces of art that speak to me and experimented with using those pieces as a starting place for introspection. It’s not as natural for me, but it’s been a powerful experience to discover a new way of connecting with the world. I’m trying out scrapbooking again with song lyrics I love to see if I can find new depth through exploring them a different way. If I come up with anything good I’ll post it… when I get brave enough! Maybe it will at least make all you naturally visually artistic people feel better about yourselves!

I think my exploration of visual beauty started back in January with this painting when I was sick and decided to marathon Supernatural. This character, Castiel, is a very different sort of angel. I like the way he makes me think differently about ideas I grew up with.

A Lonely Road by Alice X. Zhang (Society6)

So much is communicated in that picture, especially if you’re familiar with the show. I love how the right image, expressed in the right medium, can speak volumes more than prose or even music ever could.

Another painting I’m in love with is this one. Check out Studio Under the Moon’s whole gallery!

148 by StudioUndertheMoon on deviantART

I also love pretty much everything in Messy Canvas’s Etsy Shop! I guess my tastes are pretty eclectic right now, but maybe I’ll eventually get a handle on my “style.”

Today’s exercise: Think about which senses you use most to connect yourself to the world or the world to yourself. How could your world be broadened if you allowed your other senses to make that link as well? What senses would you like to explore if you had the time?

Also feel free to share some of your favorite artists – in any medium – with the rest of us!

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