So, Heather’s comment has got me thinking about where I get my values and my standards of goodness. Where do I turn to see who I am? What is it that makes it ok to be me?
Is it as I look at Christ, the perfect man? Or as I read about my spiritual ancestors, marching off the pages of Scripture and into throne rooms and lion’s dens and Roman arenas? How about my brothers and sisters in the persecuted church? I want to say, yes! The reality is more like – er, maybe! Sometimes? In my ‘better’ moments. Once a year or so, at least.
Actually, my self-assessment often begins a little closer to home. If I’m being slightly honest, then too often I compare myself to others. In fact, if I’m going to be brutally frank, I compare myself to other women.
And I don’t do this in a positive way. Instead, such comparisons fuel both self-condemnation and implicit criticism of others. I can’t cope with people – other women – being ‘better’ than me. It shatters my self-worth. It cripples me and stops me from engaging with others, from receiving and giving love – the heart of femininity. And I’m not alone. One of my friends is very beautiful and confessed recently that if another good-looking woman enters the room, it has the power to ruin her entire evening. Now, my struggle and yours may not be in the area of looks or even talents. Maybe it’s ‘niceness’. Joy. Peace. But there are many areas where I feel threatened by and compare myself to other women in just that way.
So, after a wonderful evening with friends, too often I don’t think, ‘Isn’t X lovely. Her hospitality is a tremendous witness to her love of Jesus and others. What an encouragement and inspiration’. Instead, I’ll take the opportunity to roll out the bunting for a pity party, with one guest of honour – me! Here’s a lovely opportunity to berate myself for everything from my inability to bake flapjacks to my carbon footprint. But whilst that looks like a simple case of low self-esteem, actually it’s something else. It’s pride. And it really is ugly.
You see these comparisons have nothing to do with true repentance. I don’t really want to change. I don’t really want to celebrate my sister or to be a blessing to others. What I really want, what I really really want, is to wrap my self-hatred and my pride around me like a big fluffy duvet. They’re comfy. And they keep the focus right where it belongs – on me. But such comparisons are strangling my spiritual life – and perhaps yours. They’re feeding all manner of mental health issues – from depression to eating disorders. It makes no difference whether it’s the girls in the book group, or the celebrities we love to hate, (after all, they’re not real people, right?). Too often, instead of seeking positive-models or mentoring others, we tear down our sisters, to shore up ourselves.
Women are crying out for role models – particularly today, where, with the erosion of family and conflicting presentations of womanhood, more traditional models of femininity have been lost. Where do we look to fill the gap? Isn’t this surrogate motherhood precisely what so many women’s magazines and media are trying to provide? From the matey makeovers to the sisterly gossip and problem pages – as I absorb these stories, I feel connected to other women. Yet unlike real friendship, when I engage with newsprint, I don’t have to deal with other people’s mess. Or worse – share my own. And when I look closer at those glossy images, beneath the camaraderie and affirmation runs something a lot darker. For starters, there’s an industry dedicated to undermining our identity in order to sell us solutions. And that’s not just the opinion of a ranting fundamentalist:
‘Their formula includes an aspirational, individualist, can-do tone that says that you should be your best and nothing should get in your way; a focus on personal and sexual relationships that affirms female ambition and erotic appetite; and sexualised images of female models that, though only slightly subtler than those aimed at men, are meant to convey female sexual liberation. But the formula must also include an element that contradicts and then undermines the overall pro-woman fare: In diet, skin care and surgery features, it sells women the deadliest version of the beauty myth money can buy.’ (Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth)
This is not to hold the media responsible for the contradictions of modern womanhood – although it plays a part, at least in reflecting, if not shaping our ambivalence. But those, like me, with a low sense of self, will be particularly receptive to its messages. And as believers, we are responsible for what we put into our brains. This isn’t an injunction to pull our socks up and stop reading Grazia – it’s about feeding ourselves with truth and real beauty.
Finally, as Christians, it’s not just what we put in, but also what we give out, which can make a difference. We don’t need to look to the world to see who we are. Our churches are full of role models, of godly older women who have so much to teach us. Women of all ages and from all walks of life. Grannies, children, mothers, singles. And we can mentor others too. It doesn’t take a PhD in theology or pastoral care. It starts with a simple willingness to come before the Lord and ask Him to help us. To step out in honesty and vulnerability towards other women. To be you, sharing your heart and your life. (For a great example of this and some food for thought, check out Emily’s comment).
Sisters, reach out! We have nothing to lose but our chains...