This past Saturday, whilst cleaning out embarrassingly messy closets, I came across this photo:
It was taken the third week of June, 2001, at Royal Ascot — one of the most famous horse racing events in the world. A woman simply Does Not Go To Royal Ascot without wearing a fascinator, and this was mine, purchased a few days before at Harrod’s in London. I still have it in a hatbox at the top of my closet. About once a year it comes down and the girls try it on for size and I, I remember it all.
My favorite musical growing up was My Fair Lady, so this particular moment was rich with signifiers. On at least two occasions during the afternoon, I muttered under my breath, “Come on, Dover! Come on, Dover! Move your bloomin’ arse!” There was champagne flowing and pageantry, Royals and drunks and exquisite horses. It was a fabulous experience and is now, more than a decade later, a great memory.
I stare at the woman in the photo, and I realize I am looking not at myself but for myself. She was 31, still a newlywed. She strikes me as sassy and beautiful and full of life, someone I would have loved to be around as much as possible. My kind of person.
I can guarantee you that was not how I felt about myself on the day that photo was taken.
I felt ugly. Fat. Out of my element. Awkward. An outsider, face and palms pressed to the window, wondering what it felt like to be on the inside, with the beautiful people, the popular people, the ones who mattered.
I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I did not meet cultural expectations for what a beautiful woman was, let alone a Christian woman. I had more than one fine young man point out that I was not feminine, not attractive, not Godly. I was too opinionated, they said. Sharp tongued. I was mannish — athletic, intellectual, interested in theology, assertive — and what among my male peers would have been considered “robust discussion” was “argumentative” and “nitpicking” when I engaged. I was not demure, not a follower. I would make a lousy “helper,” they said.
How these words sunk into my soul! Made me feel less than and ashamed. Made me hyper-focus on my body and its flaws, convinced me that my personality was rank and displeasing to God, was something to mitigate, wrestle down, erase.
I actually tried, my senior year in college, to change. I had lost a very important relationship due, apparently, to my flaws, and so, trying desperately to hide an excruciating pain, I set out to cultivate a “gentle and quiet spirit” — which meant holding my tongue, dressing in feminine clothing, listening to Every Word that proceedeth from the mouth of the boys in my College group, those not-quite-yet men whom God had put in authority over me, who would be my spiritual leader someday. The ones to whom God had given the keys to the Kingdom, the ones God had determined before the foundations of the world that I would be beneath.
Friends, it lasted two days. Two. I couldn’t do it. Could Not. My authentic self simply leaked out, seeped through my skin. My best friend, a boy who loved me for who I was and (dare I say it) loved God for who God was, laughed in my face when I told him of my failure. “Well duh, Geek (his favorite nickname for me). You are never going to be gentle and quiet and who would want you to be? You are never going to be a follower. You carry a machete and you carve your own path through places most of us are scared to go.”
I loved that boy with my whole heart and seeing myself in his eyes did more for my understanding of God than I could possibly have known at the time.
And now I see, as I stare into the dark, dancing eyes of the woman in this picture, how wrong they all were. She was beautiful. Audacious. Brave. Funny. She loved Jesus more than life itself and wanted nothing less than Him in fullness. He would answer the prayer of her heart, to give her Himself, and she would learn just what it meant to follow Jesus to the cross, even the grave. Soon the body she was ashamed of would grow another human being, and then another. Her face would wrinkle, her hair begin to grey, but her voice, the one that caused her so much shame, God Himself would fill it up with the vowels and consonants of grace, truth and tears.
As my own daughters stand at the precipice of adolescence, I think about these things. How to teach them to inhabit their bodies without shame. How to gird them against the onslaught of a culture that will tell them they are less than, a Church that will tell them they are less than too. Writing those words, my hands shake at the keyboard for how wrong it is, at the rejection I know they will experience by men, by women too who, enslaved to their own theology, cannot let others live free.
I watched my daughter get ready for bed last night, brushing her hair and teeth, tidying her room, laying out her soccer clothes for the morning. I was overwhelmed with the reality that I can’t change the world for her.
So, instead, I will take her picture, and when she forgets who she is, I will show her. I will capture her words and when she forgets how to speak true, when she sits in mute silence, I will remind her what her own voice sounds like. I will tell her over and over again the story of how she was made in the image of God, how the same One who formed her in His imagination now calls her to become His unique likeness in the world. I will pray that she learns beyond a shadow of a doubt that every inch of her is fearfully and wonderfully made.