This post is part of a series called Recovering the Imago Dei for Girls, which focuses on seeing and naming the image of God in girls. For a general introduction to the series, read this post.
When embracing embodied theology and embodied pedagogy with teens girls, a key question to ask is, “to whom does your body belong?” I have asked this question to girls and women, and the response I usually receive is, “me…I guess.” Then, I ask a follow up question: “What messages do you get about who your body belongs to?” The conversation tends to provide fertile ground for unpacking the many dangerous messages that girls hear about their bodies and its rightful owner. Girls receive very different answers from both the Church and wider culture about who their body belongs to.
The General Public
Women’s and girls’ bodies are often treated as public property open for critique. People make their careers judging the style of some women (mostly celebrities) going about their day and deciding who wore a particular outfit best. Entire articles are written on the weight, body structure, or new hairstyle of a famous woman without seeking her permission because, after all, why would you need to obtain it since her body belongs to the public? This is seen as a normal part of being in a woman in the public eye, no matter her profession.
In 2014, The Representation Project launched #askhermore preceding the Oscars. On a night supposedly dedicated to celebrating the best craft of actors, the questions to female actors were mostly about their appearance. Men were also asked who they were wearing, but rarely got asked to pose for the shoe cam, the nail cam, or asked how long it took to decide on their outfit for the evening. For the men, the question about their clothing was a segue into deeper discussion and a way to advertise the designer. For the women, it was the entire discussion.
Tired of this, the Representation Project charged interviewers to have a conversation about what a woman was doing or working on—to have a conversation about her craft and not her body or the adornment of it. This is one of the ways that groups have fought against the notion that women’s bodies belong to society in general and are therefore available for others to peruse, admire, discuss, and critique. In the usual way society treats women, even if a woman were to win an award, we would talk only briefly about the performance that got her there, and then spend much more time on the dress she wore as she reached the epitome of career achievement.
Women preachers often talk about the many comments they receive about their clothing as parishioners shake their hands on the way out of the door—comments that their male counterparts do not hear as a matter of course.
This happens often in Christian congregations as well. Women preachers often talk about the many comments they receive about their clothing as parishioners shake their hands on the way out of the door—comments that their male counterparts do not hear as a matter of course. I think that very few people would actually verbalize that one’s body belongs to the wider society, but their actions say otherwise. The female body as public property is not just about high profile women. Recently, women have been talking more about cat-calling and street harassment, only to be told that they should take these events as compliments. When a woman’s body is seen as public property, then it is perfectly within any man’s right to respond to her body however he feels fit. She, in turn, is expected to be grateful that her body is appreciated by the public because it is, after all, theirs.
The Men in Her Life
The story is told so often that it is cliché. The teen girl or young adult woman has a date, and waiting on the porch is the father (or uncle, older brother, or some other male authority figure) with a shotgun (literally or metaphorically). The male authority figure interrogates the male date until the latter is able to prove himself worthy of the date with the female. It is a negotiation between men, as if the young woman has no say at all in who she chooses to date. This type of negotiation has even been done by the sons of single mothers, thereby giving a level of ownership to a male who is not only much younger than the adult woman, but who, in actuality, she has authority over. This stems from a time when women were the legal property of their fathers or male elders before they were the property of their husbands—a tradition that still lives on in different cultures around the world.
While this tradition doesn’t legally exist in mainstream American culture, many men (and some women) still act as if it does. Worse, they act as if this tradition still should exist because they perceive it as better than a woman making her own choices. In faith traditions that celebrate Purity Balls and the like, the message is clear: Your body, and more specifically, your virginity belongs to your father or another male authority figure. He is responsible for it until you get married, and then it will belong to your husband. Either way, the decision of who a woman shares her body with is up to the men in her life.
It’s Her Body!
On the other hand, there is the mantra: “It’s her body. She can do with it whatever she wants.” This mantra seems to appear most when a woman is choosing to flaunt her body in a particular way. When a woman chooses to dress provocatively, there will be those who disagree with her choice of dress. Then, someone will come to her defense and say, “It’s her body. She can wear whatever she wants.” But this is often not a true recognition of her ownership because, in the same spirit, it will be said, “If you’ve got it, flaunt it.” This goes back to a woman’s body belonging to society. Because you have beautiful legs, you should flaunt it because the public has the right to see it.
If people really meant the phrase, “It’s her body,” then much of the conversation would not be engaged at all. There would be no need to embark on the conversation of whether a woman should flaunt it, cover it up, or paint it blue.
The same cries of “It’s her body” that apply to a woman in a barely-there outfit does not always seem to apply to a woman who chooses to dress conservatively. She, in contrast, is told to be a little less “frumpy,” to “show a little skin.” Why? Because it really isn’t her body as much as it is for the aesthetic pleasure for everyone around her. If people really meant the phrase, “It’s her body,” then much of the conversation would not be engaged at all. There would be no need to embark on the conversation of whether a woman should flaunt it, cover it up, or paint it blue. Instead, we would focus on empowering women and girls to decide how they want to show up in the world.
The Body as a Gift from God
What would I propose as the right answer to my question? The desire of many Christians is to say that the body belongs to God. While I see this as a step in the right direction, it is missing the mark because it does not give personal ownership. Instead, I choose to say that my body is a gift from God, but it is very much mine. As an analogy, I use my engagement and wedding rings. Of all the material things I possess, they are my prized possessions. I love and care for them because they are gifts from my husband and represent our love. But they are also very much mine. I can choose to hold them dear and treat them as precious, or I can choose to hock them at the local pawn shop even though I am not in financial turmoil. One is a better decision for me than the other, but the decision is mine because the rings are mine. However, it would be heartbreaking for me to hock them because I value them, and the main reason I value them is because I value the person who gave them to me. I value the relationship they represent, and how I care for them is a symbol about how I care for the relationship.
We all have different items we consider our prized possessions. Whether it’s the piece of jewelry that was passed down through generations and that you will pass down to a following generation or a gift given by a loved one before they passed away, we recognize its importance and may take extra special care of it because of our relationship with the giver. Even so, we recognize this prized possession as ours, and so it is with our bodies. My body is important. It houses the image of God. It houses my hopes, dreams, intellect, and it allows me to show up in the world. I care for my body and treat it as special because of all those things and because of the relationship I have with the God who gave it to me. When people see this body, I want them to see a representative of Jesus in the world. I want people to see this body as one that is supportive, one that stands up for justice and against oppression. This may mean that sometimes I place my body in harm’s way to protect another—a decision that may really frighten those who love me, but a decision I get to make because this body is mine. So, I do with it what I believe I am called to do.
Teaching Girls to Own Their Gift
We can empower girls to own their bodies from a very early age by not forcing children to hug people they do not want to. Whether at church or family functions, children should not be forced to hug people with whom they are not comfortable. And when we force a child to hug Aunt Becky, Minister Dave, or Santa Claus, we are teaching that child that they do not have control over their body, that they cannot stay within their comfort zone, and that what they do with their body is not completely up to them. This is a bad precedent to set. In more severe cases, children have been forced to embrace their abusers because they happen to be a member of their biological or church family. But even if the person we want our child to hug is completely safe, the child should still be able to make that decision on their own. At the very least, we should not teach a child not to trust her own instinct.
Opportunities for lessons on body ownership also come in elementary and middle school. When a girl complains about a boy hitting her or snapping her bra, the common societal reaction is to explain it away by telling the girl that the boy probably likes her and just can’t express it another way or by saying that “boys will be boys.” These responses send yet another lesson that a girl’s body is accessible for any boy to touch because he deems her worthy, and what’s more, she should feel flattered for being invaded in this way. In fact, she should not feel invaded, because her body is public property.
Teaching girls through discussion and giving them information to make their own decisions are great ways to have girls know how to own their God-given gift and treat their bodies well.
Instead of making decisions for a girl’s body, let’s make age-appropriate decisions with the girl. These decisions can be about dressing, activities, how she carries herself, her medical treatment, and so many other topics that range from benign to serious. Let’s teach each girl to grill her own dates so she can be in discussion with the elder men and women in her life after they have met the person. Teaching girls through discussion and giving them information to make their own decisions are great ways to have girls know how to own their God-given gift and treat their bodies well. Remind her that God gifted the body to her, and walk with her as she prayerfully discerns how God is calling her to show up in the world.
Rev. Annie A. Lockhart Gilroy, Ph.D. is currently the Assistant Professor of Christian Education and Louisville Institute Postdoctoral Fellow at Drew Theological School. She has worked with youth as a teacher, coach, and youth minister for almost two decades. She earned her Ph.D. in Christian Education and Congregational Studies from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and her M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary. Her dissertation focused on the role of imagination in youth ministry, especially with girls from poor and working-class families.