Pentecostals & Body Shaming
WHAT IS "BODY SHAMING?"
"Body shaming" is a term which, quite honestly, I was blissfully ignorant of until the past year. Growing up as an overweight child with thick glasses and all the athleticism of a three-toed sloth, I was constantly bombarded by snide remarks and rude comments in regard to my size, blindness and bumbling ways. I can't remember ever coming home from school crying because of what other kids had said to me. I guess I didn't really care or was accepting of the fact that such is what kids do to other kids. It was in a time when kids didn't commit suicide on LiveLeak because someone called them names. It was a time when, I must confess, we knew how to handle things like that better as a whole. That time has passed and, now, we are faced with just such a reality. Is it because of bad parenting, soft kids or a societal emotional devolution of some kind? I don't pretend to have that answer.
What I do know is that "body shaming" is a part of life today that has gone beyond just pointing out the obvious (I was a fat kid after all - and a very cute fat kid, I might add) and escalated into hurtful stereotyping. For example, an overweight person who is automatically labeled as lazy because of their size is a victim of "body shaming." Such would also be the case of, let's say, a very skinny blonde woman who would be characterized as ditzy and snobbish based on her appearance. These are physical characteristics reclassified as lifestyle and personality indicators which might or might not have any basis in reality. Because of this, it is safe to say that this form of "body shaming" should be seriously reconsidered since it is quite a dishonest and self-deceptive practice.
Up to this point, we have properly defined "body shaming" and, I think, can all agree that it is not generally appropriate. This doesn't mean people shouldn't be able to joke and kid with one another. In fact, having a thicker skin would help all of us in this age of political correctness and emotional sensitivity. But it does mean that we should be careful and mindful not to make judgments about people based solely on their physical characteristics. Now we should venture in to the other "body shaming" which, thanks to popular culture, has redefined and incorrectly defined the term.
THE REDEFINITION OF "BODY SHAMING"
All of a sudden, nude selfies became a trend. Now, that's quite an introductory sentence and I can only hope it doesn't dissuade you from reading further. It is a fact. From popular singers and musicians to people who are famous for being famous and not really accomplishing anything meaningful in life beyond surviving multiple plastic surgeries (no, that's not "body shaming" - that's reality), social media began erupting not too long ago with nude or semi-nude selfies accompanied with captions declaring, "I'm not ashamed of my body" or "I won't be shamed into covering up" or any other similar platitude. And, yes, I realize that, by this point, my bias must be showing quite clearly.
We are faced with a popular culture which has redefined "body shaming" as: "if anyone tells me I need to cover up any part of my body, they're just trying to make me feel ashamed of myself and I'm not going to stand for it. So, I'll show as much as I can and, if they don't like it, they can look the other way." But this, in and of itself, is no new thing. Haven't we seen this same attitude, in one degree or another, for a century or more in America? Once it was considered taboo for a woman to show her knee in public. Now it is taboo to ask a woman to keep her reproductive organs covered in a public place.
What happened? "Well," some would say, "we have finally reached a place where we have abandoned those old Victorian sensitivities which restricted the progress of our culture." These would also agree that it is a good thing and that, as time passes, the old order of "traditional morality" must be abandoned in the name of societal evolution. Furthermore, such behavior is, in their opinion, teaching our children and young people to be bold, brave and fearless. It is a right of passage into a world of empowerment and unprecedented self-confidence. In short, it is a form of virtue if not virtue itself.
After all, why should there be any shame in something as natural as nudity? Well, for whatever it's worth, using the restroom is every bit as natural as nudity, but I really don't want everyone joining together with me and sharing in the experience no matter how liberating and empowering that might be. Asking that people, men and women, should consider being modest in their behavior and dress is now a cardinal sin and the basis for squelching individuality and self-confidence. Are not our public schools coming under fire in some places for implementing dress codes requiring students to cover their bodies? And is it not the parents of these children who are complaining the most about the dress codes being violations of their children's "rights?"
SHAME AS A POSITIVE
Pain is not a pleasant experience. I, personally, am blessed with a fairly high pain tolerance. I have had doctors look at me in particular situations and scratch their head wondering why I wasn't crying with pain. When I do feel pain, it is an indicator that something is wrong and needs correction. In this, pain is also a blessing. What would happen if you were unable to feel pain in your hands? Perhaps you would place your hand on a hot surface and not realize it until irreparable damage had been done. Isn't the salvaging of a finger or two well worth the experience of pain? Most certainly!
Shame, likewise, is an unpleasant experience which can serve as a positive. One definition of shame has been given as, "a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior." The ability to feel shame is, to a large degree, a self-protective mechanism designed by the Creator to help an individual understand universal morality and guard one from potentially damaging action. It is a product of the conscience which is a product of the Creator. The ability to feel shame is a self-corrective mechanism directing one away from "wrong" and pointing them toward "right." In this, shame is a very positive experience which manifests, initially, as a negative.
But the ability to feel shame can be overridden. The Prophet Jeremiah wrote of this:
"Were they ashamed when they committed abomination? No, they were not at all ashamed; they did not know how to blush..." - Jeremiah 6:15 (ESV)
The people had reached a place where no matter how abominable and offensive their actions were, they could not even blush about them. This is not an overnight event. It is a process over time. For example, one might feel squeamish the first time they look at a catastrophic physical injury but, with time and regular exposure, the feeling changes and the individual is more emotionally passive. It is no different with the ability to blush. Losing that ability is very possible and is not a positive. It is a symptom of what the Apostle Paul spoke of in 1 Timothy 4:2, "having their conscience seared with a hot iron" (KJV) or, as the New Living Translation puts it, "their consciences are dead."
ARE PENTECOSTALS GUILTY OF "BODY SHAMING?"
To begin with, let it be clear that we are talking about the redefinition of "body shaming." Or, in other words, the wrong definition. It was not too many years ago that a rabid feminist (and I call her that for a reason that will be disclosed shortly) hurled herself at me, metaphorically speaking, in a screaming tirade. Her face was blood red with beads of sweat forming on her forehead, fist clinched with flecks of foam flying from her lips as she punctuated every word with unbridled anger. Her ire was touched off, not by anything I had said, but by my very presence at an event.
"You Pentecostal people have done more to hurt women than any other religious group in the world," her impromptu lecture began. "You teach girls to be ashamed of their bodies," she continued, "and that's not only wrong, it's immoral and you should be ashamed of yourself!" I smiled at her and, realizing there was nothing to be said, said nothing. This drew another salvo which was intermittently laced with profanity. With that, I smiled at her again and said nothing. Finally, she walked away.
Now, this is an extreme example of something that I have witnessed many times over the years. People seem to get the idea that we, as Pentecostals, are guilty of "body shaming" women (and men) and robbing them of self-confidence. I will not deny that there have been some within the Pentecostal movement who have taught modesty in such a way that is not only abrasive, it borders on abusive. (Please note that the same could be said for many far beyond the scope of Pentecostalism. The most abrasive message I ever heard on the subject of modesty was from a minister of the Church of Christ.) But, by in large, what I have taught as a Pentecostal Minister and what I have heard others teach has been a message, toward men and women, which says the body of a Christian is dedicated to God just as much as the soul of a Christian. It has been a message of dignity; not degradation.
Simply put, Pentecostals are not guilty of "body shaming" when we say that God has asked Christians to dress, act and live modestly. When we say, "A woman shouldn't dress in such a way as to draw attention to physical areas of sexual desire," we are not saying that a woman should be ashamed of her body. Rather, we are saying that a woman should have self-respect and her self-esteem should radiate from that instead of her ability to accentuate her sensuality. We are not saying, "don't be proud of your body." We are saying, "be proud of yourself - a being which is more than a body and has an internal value which remains long after physical beauty fades."
Asking people to "cover up" is not the same as telling them "to hate their body." It is teaching them that, in life, you will be respected by the respectable when you act respectably. It is teaching people that they are above needing to depend upon the pull of lust. It is the difference between being attractive and being seductive. It is not telling people they must walk around dressed in burlap sacks but, rather, in modesty which becomes godliness - fashionable with dignity. Modesty is not telling people not to dress attractively; it is teaching that the attention one gains by dressing immodestly is not of the superior quality of that which is gained by modesty. With seduction someone might want you but with modesty someone will respect you. The former dies with time; the latter is maintained in perpetuity.
Pentecostals are doing the exact opposite of what we are accused of. We are telling people to be proud of who they are rather than depending on their physical beauty to turn heads. We are telling people that modesty is beautiful. We are telling people that they are enough as they are and do not need to stoop to exploiting their bodies for attention. It is teaching them that there is a way to dress in a modest, classy, and attractive fashion that does not hide their physical beauty, but rather displays it in a fashion that will garner the admiration and respect of those around them.
Are Pentecostals guilty of "body shaming?" No. Are Pentecostals guilty of teaching some things are shameful? Yes. Is that wrong? No. It's right and so desperately needed today. We teach that modesty is a beauty which transcends the physical and radiates the spiritual. It is that through which the inner and outer man unite in a visible witnesses of character, integrity, strength, virtue and confidence. It is our way of saying, "I don't need you to look at me for me to have a strong feeling of self worth." We are not guilty of "body shaming." The real guilty party in "body shaming" are the ones who are treating their body shamefully for lack of an active and healthy conscience.
We are not ashamed; we are empowered.