by the Revd Hayley Matthews, Rector and member of the National Executive for UNITE representing the Faithworkers’ Branch
The Rt Rev. the Lord Bishop of Gloucester, Rachel Treweek has delighted many of us recently with her campaign to speak out about body image issues, and in particular for teenage girls.
Yet I would suggest the damage sets in so much earlier than that.
Just last week my four-year-old daughter was promised that the next time she visited a particular venue she would have her nails polished ‘if your Mummy doesn’t mind’. Well, yes, as a matter of fact, I do mind but you have now put the idea into her head. She’s only four and she has dirt under her fingernails from digging in the garden and exploring bugs and ‘creatures’ and asking questions about where and how they live and what they like to eat. Sometimes it’s paint or bread dough under her tiny little nails, and for now, that’s how I’d like it to be. Thankfully, she barely registered the comment as I’m not a big fan of nail polish – never having mastered the art of not ruining it within an hour of application, which I like to think is proof-positive of my active lifestyle.
I’ve therefore worked hard to avoid her prematurely mimicking an adult, make-up and all. For ‘beautiful’ as she is (and even a stranger would concede me that point), her innocence and lack of self-consciousness is such a delight to see.
Bishop Rachel confirmed what us women – yes, even us dog-collared types – know only too well, that the first comment most people make about us will be a comment on our hair, clothing or general appearance. This is happening already my Reception aged daughter. Whilst her brother is asked how is he doing, what subjects he likes at school and what his hobbies are, she is told that she has beautiful eyes, gorgeous hair and ‘is cute’. Some have even gone on to remark about her weight, even though she is a perfectly healthy and well within her average height/weight range – implying that she may not be ‘thin enough’ to pass the bar when she’s older.
Conversely, I don’t mind admitting that I have sometimes been labelled ‘a strapping lass’. But this summer has been a real eye-opener for me. Unfortunately, I have been really quite ill, and have lost a significant amount of weight. Yet when I meet with people who know what I’ve been going through (let alone those who don’t) the exclamation is the same, ‘Wow, you look AMAZING!’ which loosely translates as ‘you are barely a size 10!’ It has stopped people feeling empathy for my suffering or recognising that I am so weak and frail. But that doesn’t matter for it seems that finally I meet the ‘magic mark’ of feminine perfection: the hallowed ground of ‘being thin enough’.
One fellow professional confided in me that one of her colleagues wasn’t being taken as seriously because she was considered to be ‘fat’ and therefore ‘less intelligent’ and that perhaps now I might be taken more seriously, too. The whole premise is so ludicrous – do women really have to think like this, let alone be judged professionally by their weight and dress size?
So, where is God and Godliness in all of this?
Of course, women are beautiful in all of their varied shapes and sizes and ought to be celebrated as such, but where have these norms arisen that suggest a conformity to a singular ‘perfection’ that not even our supermodels can meet?
Ironically, the Old Testament warns of women’s beauty as a means of leading good and godly men astray. Similarly, in the New Testament epistles St Paul suggests we ought not to be vain, braiding our hair and adorning ourselves with pearls and fancy fabrics. The Bible has a strong emphasis on the beauty of a woman being her character, her personality, her values and the way she cares for her own family, her own enterprising nature and her willingness to care for others. Of course, the perfect woman pictured in Proverbs 31 is a little too good to be true, but include being a good business woman, an owner and developer of land and of an optimistic disposition, facing whatever tomorrow may bring with a smile. Yes, it mentions that she dresses well, but it does not focus on outward but inner beauty, wisdom and an entrepreneurial spirit as her delights are listed for praise.
The constant focus on diet, clothing and make-up that consumes many a teenager’s mind (female or male) must surely be to the detriment of developing the sorts of qualities that trudging around in the mud on a Duke of Edinburgh’s Expedition plants as diamonds deep in a teen’s preparation for adulthood and all of the new responsibilities, challenges and decisions they will soon face. To think that beautiful (inside and out), vibrant, quirky, characterful children and young people might be straightjacketed into a physical conformity that is neither life-giving nor natural for them, saddens me immensely.
We are three dimensional beings, body, soul and spirit and for each person to be fully free, fully themselves, each aspect of their being must be free to be itself, too. And that includes owning, befriending and caring for the body we have, not some imaginary ‘body beautiful’.