I am talking with a friend when I find myself saying to her, “Yes, I’m a feminist.”
When is the last time you bought something for yourself? Today? Yesterday? Last week? For me, it is usually no longer ago than “last week,” and that is hard for me to admit. It is, I think, an admission of my selfishness. I buy not because I lack anything but because of some perceived deficiency or because there is some further convenience I crave or because of some less definable hankering that urges me to amass more things for myself.
And it makes me angry that I do this. Not only is it selfish, but I also believe it is degrading, both for me and for those I exploit in order to buy often and cheaply (think underpaid factory workers, poor environmental standards that lead to health hazards and climate change, perpetuation of unequal wealth distribution, etc.).
I recently read an article in The Anglican Theological Review because the title seemed to speak so directly to me: “The Struggle for Human Dignity in a Consumer-Oriented Culture” by Beverly Eileen Mitchell. Mitchell writes:
In the United States, a leading player in the global economy, too many of us have overspent, going into debt to buy according not to our basic needs, but to manufactured wants. What is insidious is the growing link that has developed between our sense of identity, value and worth and the products we purchase. We no longer buy products simply for themselves, but because we fall for the illusion that they will enhance us or make us into who we would like to be and fear we are not.
In what way did I imagine a new tablet cover would “enhance me”? Did I buy a fancy tea kettle that heats the water to specific temperatures for various kinds of tea because I needed it? Certainly not. I could argue that I bought these things for the added convenience they provide in my life; in fact, that is how I justify the purchases to myself. But I think, if I don’t want to deceive myself, I must also admit that I bought them so that I would look a certain way to others, so that I could bolster up my image of myself as a smart consumer or a tea aficionado or some such foolishness.
I want to be a real person. I don’t want to buy because I’m told to, and I don’t want to cut myself into some prefab shape so that I can be acceptable to society.
In fact, isn’t a prefab person often something of a turnoff? Isn’t someone who is uber-fashionable/always “put together”/always ready to show off their newest electronic marvel, isn’t that person somewhat unapproachable? Do the clothes I put on in the morning make me look good? I think so. But is it possible that some of the choices I make when I am getting ready for the day–when I am putting together an image of how I want to present myself to the world–actually make me seem aloof or arrogant? Could it be that the way I present myself turns some people off from talking to me, smiling at me, sitting next to me on the bus?
What I really want is to be down-to-earth and open. I’m not very good at this. And much of it is my own fault. I put on armor all the time. It’s an armor made of things: my clothes, my electronic gadgets, my choice of highly marketed snack or beverage, even my damn tea kettle and tablet cover. I want to say there’s nothing wrong with looking good and feeling confident, but shouldn’t this be innate within us, as individuals created by a loving God, not a confidence and beauty we must manufacture with all the stuff we buy?
So for Lent this year, I’m choosing to abstain from the culture of superfluous spending. For forty days at least, I’m going to step back and stop. I’m not going to buy anything for myself.
I’m a fan of the band Giants & Pilgrims. They’ve got a new single out for Lent this year, and they’ve posted it online along with a short reflection by pastor Jeff Cook. It really spoke to me, and I hope you’ll take a moment to listen as well, to start off your Lenten season with a deeper contemplation of what it means to be a soul in a body, what it means to subtract the excess, and what it means to celebrate with ashes, which are a symbol of destruction–something we may need to do to our insatiable desire to buy. The reflection is first, followed by the song:
I love to buy new stuff. I love wandering thrift store racks, searching for skirts with eclectic patterns, for vintage dresses, for name-brand purses. And I love to buy shoes on Zappos. I love waiting for packages from Amazon. It’s really the best, pulling from cardboard something bright and shiny, something that still smells of warehouse and factory.
But I don’t believe in buying new stuff. Buying another thing I don’t need–duplicative purses, more skirts than days of the month, shoes in every color–it’s not healthy for me. Because no matter how many purchases I make, the hunger for unboxing never abets. I am never sated.
When I spend my time and money on new stuff, I’m encouraging and living out of my discontent. I’m also exploiting underpaid workers and feeding a system that undervalues the humanity of the targeted consumer. I’m accepting the religion of upward mobility, of upper middle class-ism, of a hierarchy that values the rich and the privileged and, at best, ignores the needy and the oppressed. What about living out of contentedness, Christianity, love, and justice?
I have been pointed to the blog Un-Fancy by several people in my life, and most recently by this mom’s post. As I read, I thought to myself, You know, you need to start acting on what you believe. You need to simplify and you need to stop buying. So I was inspired to start by raiding my closet.
I didn’t do the capsule wardrobe. Instead, I decided I’d get rid of 3/4 of my clothes. And then I wouldn’t buy anything new until something I had wore out. (My old friends will remember I did something like this sophomore year of college! I made it most of the school year before buying some pants at Gap.)
Bagging up all those clothes, many of which I still liked a lot, didn’t feel good. And now sometimes I miss some of the things I got rid of, but I still think it was the right move for me. I want to feel good about the person that I am and the things I put my time into. Putting so much emphasis on presenting myself just so through an ever-growing wardrobe was not something I wanted to spend my time doing.
Really, emptying my closet was the easy part. The hard part is not filling it again–and not just shifting my focus from clothes to other purchases. After dropping off about six packed garbage bags of clothes at St. Vinny’s, I bought a new water bottle. And a week later, I ordered a new backpack online. No good.
It was hard for me to stop spending money. It’s such an enjoyable pastime! I knew I needed to resolve myself to more than just a small wardrobe. I had to commit to a small everything–to the idea that one of something is enough, to the mindset that I am a good seamstress and I can fix what I have to work well enough. To the belief that I don’t need new to be happy–that, in fact, new will not make me happy even if I indulge in every purchase I desire.
After all, the center of my existence is not my investment in capitalist America. It’s my belief in a Jesus who loves and accepts us (everyone!) along with our crazy, my faith in a God who has set in my heart passions for words and for the craft of my hands. The center of my existence should be spreading love and justice, writing poetry, creating beautiful things. (And here I think, Ah, if only money didn’t make the world go round….)
I want to start a new pattern, to recommit to truth and beauty and justice. To meditate on this Bible verse: “Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies.” (Philippians 4:8-9, The Message)
Over the last several years, my wardrobe has shifted from about half skirts to mainly skirts to, now, almost exclusively skirts. Sometimes this makes me feel a bit sheepish because I worry what people might think of me. After all, it’s not all that normal for a 21st century American woman to wear only skirts.
What if people think I’m that Christian–the one who feels called to wear only skirts as a religious practice, and who probably also feels called to cover her head at church and submit in all things to her husband? Well, if you follow this blog or know me personally, you know that’s not me (if this is you, let me say, I respect your decision and your convictions, especially as they require you to go against the grain of the culture, which takes strength and self-assurance).
It’s silly, really, that I should worry what acquaintances might think this of me. But at the same time, I do desire my outward appearance to reflect my inner beliefs. That’s part of why I choose not to shave my legs or armpits–it’s my physical rebellion against the rigid, arbitrary, and often hurtful restrictions that our male-centric culture puts on women’s bodies, as if the culture at large has some right to dictate what women do with their own bodies. I hate shaving, and I don’t think I should feel “required” to, so I don’t.
And I wear skirts for some of the same reasons–comfort and personal preference–though wearing skirts doesn’t pack the political punch that not shaving does. I find it ironic that trousers for women were originally part of the feminist movement in America as well as a practicality for working women in some professions, but now, so many of the trousers made for women are so uncomfortable and impractical. I mean, skinny jeans? Seriously, if I try to cross my legs in those, my leg falls asleep from the knee down. And I hate that thing where every time you bend over in low-rise jeans, your butt half falls out of your pants and your underwear shows and when you stand back up, you have to tug on the back of your jeans to get re-situated. And wedgies. And tight waistbands that restrict movement and cause muffin tops, which I’m not against aesthetically, but it’s just not comfortable for me to have my fat pushed out and over my pants like that. I’m not willing to allow fashion to make me uncomfortable in my clothes, and I’m not one to choose sweatpants or leggings every day (if you are, more power to you!), so I choose skirts, which I find absolutely comfortable.
And you know what else? This is true for some men’s fashions, too, and though I think fashion-conscious men probably have more comfortable choices than women, I think that men should be able to wear skirts, too, if they want. I mean, I love the way skirts feel, and I bet if it were socially acceptable, some men would also choose skirts over trousers. So that’s part of my stance, too: skirts for all!
“Whatever faith you emerge with at the end of your life is going to be not simply affected by that life but intimately dependent upon it, for faith in God is, in the deepest sense, faith in life—which means that even the staunchest life of faith is a life of great change. It follows that if you believe at fifty what you believed at fifteen, then you have not lived—or have denied the reality of your life.”
― Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer
Recently, I took a little time away from the Bible. It seemed every time I read it, I found not love but judgment, not freedom but bondage to a God who favors men. I would read the Bible and hear the voices of men only, the history of a patriarchy that excluded me as an equal partner in life and spiritual wisdom. But now I have begun to read the Bible again, and what has brought me back is a new translation—new to me at any rate. I have been reading The Inclusive Bible, a translation by Priests for Equality, a program of the Quixote Center. This translation speaks directly into the feminine wounds I harbor—feelings of inadequacy and inferiority, a sense that I am less valued and less wise and less worthy simply because I am female. The Bible I had been reading (translations like NIV, RSV, and The Message) added salt to my wounds by ignoring the feminine in God, glorifying the male by speaking of God always as He, and using words like man and mankind to supposedly refer to all people (which, if it doesn’t exclude women—though I think it does—at the very least makes women feel swallowed up in words that turn first and always to the masculine). There are few Christians who would claim God is male, but, as Sue Monk Kidd put it, “How many times had I heard someone say ‘God is not male, He is spirit’?”
I read this in the preface to The Inclusive Bible:
“‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me,’ says the old proverb. We now know that this is a lie. Words can wound, alienate, and degrade people. Language can also affirm and express love. Care for language is a show of concern for people and a revelation of the attitudes of the speaker…. Church language is predominantly masculine. Male terms, images, and stereotypes, so-called sexist language, dominate church expression. Such usage is no longer adequate. It is time to build gender equality into the very fabric of the church life. The effort to build new gender-balanced ways of speaking helps to educate us toward greater equality for women and men.”
In these translators, I found a group of Christ-followers who had seen my hurt, the hurt of women as a group, and they had responded with many years of hard work and dedication to the God we believe in—a God of love for all people, a God who created all humans, male and female, to be like God. The translators created a Bible that spoke to me, a woman, rather than excluding me from its every page through a constant barrage of male-centric vernacular.
One of the most beautiful moments for me when I started reading The Inclusive Bible was when I came upon this passage from Genesis 17: “When Abram was ninety-nine years old, YHWH appeared and said, ‘I am the Breasted One. Walk in my presence and be blameless. I will make a covenant between you and me, and I will increase your numbers exceedingly.'” I thought, The Breasted One?? What a crazy way to translate one of the names of God! But I love it! I totally get it, and in this context, it is a perfect picture of what God is to us—One who nourishes, One who brings new life! For those of you who are as startled as I was by this translation, there was an interesting footnote about how this is one possible meaning of El Shaddai, based on the Hebrew word shad or “breast.” But I’m not going to try to convince you if this turns you off. For me, it was a wonderful, perfect, life-giving translation. It announced, “God is not only Father; God is Mother, too!” And as a mother myself who went through the hills and valleys of breastfeeding, I was moved greatly by a God who would claim the image of a breastfeeding mother as a picture of the divine.
Some days, I wake up and say to myself, How did I get here? How did I arrive in this day with convictions so vastly different than those I held a few years ago? I turn to Jesus walking beside me and say, How is it you seem so different to me today than you did yesterday, and yet I still know you to be Truth, Love, Grace? And then I think about Christian Wiman’s words—”even the staunchest life of faith is a life of great change”—and I am comforted that God is big enough to hold my past and my future, that the Truth is strong enough to be present in how I used to see God and how God comes to me now in fresh language, out of patriarchy and into feminism.
Sometimes when I wake in the morning, the first feeling I have is like a stone in my stomach. Sometimes the weeks gather in questions, stones gathering together as they rumble through the mountains of my body. Sometimes I lose the rhythm of the Deep Song.
And then, in loneliness, despairing the depravity of the world and the deep craters in me, I find myself sitting at a picnic table under a great, wide elm as my daughter plays just there, at the playground. Suddenly, I am present, drawn back into the green. I stretch my neck back, draw my eyes into the thin, serrated leaves. Light plays through them, layer upon layer of leaves, creating every shade of brightness.
A small breeze, a chill of cloud. A deep sigh, and I hear the beat. I rise, rest my head on the elm, and hear the drumming of the world, the beauty of the things that grow.
I am one of them.