Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Panty lines and perfectionism

I was doing my regular exercise on the elliptical machine at the gym reading a magazine and wishing my 30 minutes were over.  When I looked up for a diversion, I saw a woman in front of me wearing a short top and pants slightly below her waist giving me a view of her red thong underwear.  While I can appreciate style and fashion I definitely had no interest in knowing the look and style of her underwear! But there it was, and I could hardly resist wondering why she chose to wear this uncomfortable garment and why it was all right for her to be flashing us.

Thongs were supposedly invented to remove panty lines which have become a faux pas in fashion according to the male-dominated sex/fashion industry.  Now sexy, liberated women can show their underwear publicly (thanks to Madonna for starting this trend), and I presume this is why. She wanted to be sexy and fashionable. However, women get sexual messages about gender from a repressive Christian church as well. According to Jessica Valenti in The Purity Myth, How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women, “…the virginity movement gives young women only two choices of who they can be sexually: sluts or not sluts. While the first choice doesn’t seem attractive, I can guarantee you that most young women are going to go with the option that allows them to have sex. And there’s no in-between identity for young women who are making smart, healthy choices in their sexual lives.” (1) This means then that women who desire to be attractive will follow the fashions of the day, whether uncomfortable (Girdles in another age were the precursor to thongs!) or dangerous (Who can run from danger in 4 inch heels?) And according to the virginity movement, as long as they are not sexual they meet the criteria for Christian purity.

In ‘”The Perfect Pantomime,” a short story about eating disorders, Aimee Liu notes the connection  between those women who suffer from eating disorders and the curse of perfectionism. Although researchers have discovered the risk of eating disorders is largely genetic, the mystery has not been solved because “science has shown that the contributing genes often express themselves through a signal personality trait: perfectionism.” Describing the perfectionism of her parents and her own life she writes, “I never doubted that the world was divided between the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the desirable and the disgusting. I knew there must be a right and wrong way to do everything, including simply to exist.” Suddenly, the flashing red thong in front of me connected to the author’s eating disorders that connected to the ‘purity movement’ and perfectionistic Christianity. The woman on the treadmill obeyed cultural rules about fashionable sexiness to her discomfort. Liu obeyed perfectionistic standards of her family system to the detriment of her health. And so many Christians obey an unattainable standard of perfection in their walk of faith that can only result in substantial guilt and angst.

The unrealistic quest for perfection is based on the misinterpretation of “Be ye, therefore perfect as your father is perfect.” (Matt 5:48) Yet, at no other time in the Bible are people of faith and courage told to be perfect. The Hebrew scriptures (Lev. 11:45) say, “You shall be holy, for I am holy” but according to Thomas Dozeman, “Holiness and God are inseparable in the Bible, but they are not the same.” In his view, “Holiness acts as an agency of the divine will.” That means that in following God’s will for our lives and seeking to live righteously we convey the holiness or righteousness of God even as we are not being God.

The word perfection is seldom used in scripture which favors the word righteousness instead. Any attempt to achieve some semblance of earthly perfection is idolatry. The self-absorption required in this folly prevents us from placing the rightful focus on God’s righteousness and obstructs our view of our neighbors and enemies as recipients of the love and grace that we are to convey.

Although we note Jesus’ disciples were less than perfect, Christians still attempt the impossible, especially women. This is because we get the double whammy of the cultural emphasis on sexy perfection and the religious repression emphasizing being sexy but not sexual.

While some women have wished to be “just a little” anorexic, Liu’s response is that this is like wishing “they could be just a little bit dead.” She concludes that “imperfection and blemishes are part of the human condition… our bodies contain us.. They carry us and work for us and give us pleasure. They speak for us when we dare not admit the truth. We owe it to ourselves to remember how to listen.” Christians seeking some sexual purity or female perfection are not listening to the wisdom of their bodies.

Instead of being like Jesus, a more correct idea would be to live like Jesus. This means not seeking some miraculous transformation into a quasi-god state but rather doing acts of justice to bring healing to those who suffer and to challenge the status quo when people are being hurt. This is what righteousness is. The perfection that many Christians seek is not Christian. It is from the Greco-Roman world which, it must be remembered, included a pantheon of gods to worship. Of eating disorders Liu writes, “Recovery must be measured not only in pounds, but also, crucially, in the discovery of a sense of self.” And that is also the mandate for Christians, discovering our sense of ourselves through the eyes of a loving God.

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