Beauty

Defending Chastity (and the Feminine Genius)

I recently read an article vilifying the virtue of pre-marital virginity. The writer claimed that girls—and the families of those girls—who make a promise not to have sex before marriage are afraid of female sexuality, devalue girls and women who aren’t virgins, and perpetuate patriarchy.

I disagree on all counts. And so does the Church.

Catholic teachings on pre-marital sex are both misunderstood as patriarchal and misconstrued as outdated. To begin with, the Church’s teachings on sexuality apply to both men and women. In the eyes of the Faith, men are not held to any different standards, nor is their worth greater than that of their female counterparts. Any suggestion to the contrary comes from a skewed cultural perspective—not from the catechism. No one can dispute that pop culture glorifies men for sexual experience and mocks women for it, but that doesn’t make it right, and it certainly doesn’t make it the position of the Catholic faith.

In truth, the Catholic Church holds the feminine genius in incredibly high esteem. During his papacy, Saint John Paul II was outspoken and passionate about the unique character and contributions of women in the Church, and in society at large. I’d encourage you to read his writings in his Letter to Women and Mulieris Dignitatem, which discuss the feminine genius—and the many and splendid roles of women in the Church—at length.

Moreover, the Church is, herself, personified as the bride of Christ. She is an essential partner in the salvation of humanity, and is both devoted to Christ and loved by him. If you truly reflect on that imagery—which was established centuries ago, at the foundation of the Church’s beginning—and it still doesn’t convince you of Catholicism’s love for femininity, I don’t know what will.

While it may seem easy to quote historically significant theologians who touted anti-feminist teachings, it’s essential to remember one thing: no person since Christ and Mary themselves has been without sin, and no one but God is always right. Because many of even our greatest theological minds may been tainted by perspectives built by the societal hierarchies of their times, it’s critical to remember that the words and teachings of no Catholic—whether saint, sinner, pastor, or nun—are taken without question. We all must recognize that, humanly speaking, wisdom is selective, conditional, and not without influence.

One of the many beautiful things about Catholicism is that the Church, as the bride of Christ, is perfect—even if her members are not. Such is the structure that has kept her faithful for 2,000 years.

In addition to her teachings against patriarchy, the Church’s teachings say nothing to reject the worthiness of women—or men—who’ve lost their virginity before marriage. Is any one of us made less valuable by sin? Less loved by God? Less capable of being forgiven? Of course not. After all, our Church knows of only two individuals who spent their entire lives without bending to the temptation of sin: Christ himself, and Mary, his mother. No person, obviously, could ever match the perfection of God. But we haven’t even managed to emulate the devotion of Mary—a fellow human, through and through.

Without exception, “Human persons are willed by God; they are imprinted with God’s image. Their dignity does not come from the work they do, but from the persons they are” (Centesimus annus, #11).

Finally, the Church isn’t fearful of female sexuality—or sexuality in general, for that matter. A thorough, end-to-end education on Catholic teachings regarding sex can be found in the Church’s theology of the body, as well as the catechism. Neither resource refers to human sexuality alone as wrong, evil, frightening, or disgusting—or, in fact, any negative quality at all. In truth, the Church regards sexuality as one of God’s most precious gifts to mankind: it is a surreal, unique opportunity to express and strengthen the bond between a married couple. More importantly, it blesses us with the opportunity to take part in God’s greatest act: creation. There’s nothing dirty or unbecoming about an honest, truly committed, selfless, and open-to-life expression of sexuality by a man or a woman.

So what, then, does the Church say is wrong about pre-marital sex?

To understand that, it is essential to understand Catholic teachings on marriage. Please check out this post for a holistic discussion on that, but here’s an abridged version:

  • Catholic marriage is a sacrament—which counts it among the seven holiest experiences anyone in the Church could ever experience.
  • Among other reasons, marriage is treated as a sacrament because:
    • It was ordained by God Himself, who joined Adam and Eve together at the very beginning of everything humanity has ever known.
    • It is the relationship in which we take on an extremely blessed and sacred role in God’s creation: that of participants in the creation of new life, which is the formation of everything out of nothing.
  • The marital bond is permanent and unyielding. As a relationship of choice—the only permanent relationship we choose to experience with a specific person, as opposed to being born into a family of blood relatives—it requires the most profound commitment there is, and therefore cannot be revoked or undone. Thus, husband and wife “become one flesh,” and cannot be separated.
  • Because that permanent, unique union joined by God cannot be fully comprehended by our limited human understanding, the Church teaches that sex is a tangible, experiential way for us to begin to grasp its profundity, in that it is inherently bonding and there is no other experience like it.
  • The relationship between husband and wife is central to the family, and thus plays an essential and unmatched role in the Church.

So chastity outside of marriage is taught by the Church neither as the selfish command of an overprotective parent, nor the devaluation of sexually active single people, nor the rejection of female empowerment. It is a holistic approach to valuing oneself for all that we are worth, because a true spirit of chastity is about more than just withholding from sex. It is taught to be a simple, selfless decision to choose love over pleasure, permanence over brevity, giving over receiving, and life over egoism.

Purity

Battling Shame to Promote a Culture of Love and Life

I have never been a feminist. I believe in equality, not superiority. Of course, I’m well aware that most feminists out there feel the same way I do: that men and women should be treated equally, paid equally, and given the same opportunities. But I don’t consider that to be “feminism” so much as general human rights, if I’m being honest.

That said, there are two prevalent issues that never fail to spark some kind of feministy flame in my belly: the culture of shame, and abortion. I believe with my whole heart that those are the injustices that are really waging the so-called “war on women.”

To see what I mean, stop and consider what’s happening to virtually every girl and woman experiencing day-to-day pop culture and media right now.

Slut shaming. Virgin shaming. Skinny shaming. Fat shaming. Pretty shaming. Ugly shaming. Online shaming. In-person shaming. Smart shaming. Stupid shaming.

And do you know who’s often perpetuating that shame?

Women.

We mock each other for eating, speaking, praying, exercising, socializing, dating, having sex, studying, and partying too much or too little. We judge one another mercilessly and aren’t afraid to share those judgments with others. We gossip. We bully. We pick fights and wage battles over boys we barely know.

That’s incredibly frustrating and heartbreaking to see, but the thing to remember is that this lack of mercy does not define us. Inside every one of us is a beautiful, powerful heart made of love, not stone. So why don’t we let it shine? Why do we lock it up?

It’s because we constantly engage in something almost as bad as shaming each other: we shame ourselves.

It’s a vicious cycle, really. We compare ourselves to airbrushed fantasies, think of ourselves as sexual objects, and consider ourselves lucky when we capture the frisky attention of a male counterpart. In our weakness, we point out the faults in our peers to make our “positive” attributes stand out. We adhere to pop culture’s definitions of beauty and femininity and know that we don’t always fit them (because we can’t), but neither do our peers (because they can’t), and so we place the attention on them to avoid letting it fall on ourselves. And they do it right back. So on and on the cycle goes.

Without question, much of that shaming comes from standards that were set by men seeking the impossibly “perfect” woman. But it is neither empowering nor honest to say that they are solely responsible for that; we set the same—sometimes worse—standards of “perfection” and continue to demean ourselves into thinking they’re reality.

In the same way, even if we look in a mirror and make the sincere decision to love our bodies’ appearance, popping a pill so we can enjoy a man’s body—and be enjoyed by it—is not empowering, either. It’s debasing and objectifying. It’s telling us that, by taking a magic pill to suppress the bodies we claim to love, we can use our sexuality to physically enjoy ourselves “trouble-free,” and be the experience that man wants for his Saturday night.

Taking that a few steps further, it’s not empowering to be able to abort a pregnancy created by that Saturday night—it’s the opposite. As mothers, we bear the burden of telling that man about an unwanted pregnancy. That sharing role should be a blessing, not a curse; we should be able to joyfully tell the men we’ll always love, and who’ll always love us, that our children are on the way. But an unplanned pregnancy out of wedlock robs us of that; instead, we must face a near-stranger with life-changing news or, worse, must face a man we thought we loved as he reacts with disdain. We are blamed for not taking a pill on time or reminding him to use a condom. And we are told, “Go to a clinic and get this taken care of.” That is an unjust shame.

Even if that man offers to be “supportive,” we must take the pills that make us cramp and bleed for hours, or lie down and open up for a doctor who will violate our most private space with steel instruments and tubes that literally cut and suck the life out of us.

There is nothing empowering about abortion. For some women, it is forced upon them by a “partner” who refuses to support a pregnancy. Others feel forced by economic circumstances, uncaring families, or their own doctors. Regardless of the reason, women often feel isolated and panicked—neither of which will help them make a decision they’re truly, lastingly comfortable with.

Sometimes it’s selfishness, yes—and that’s a reason for another blog post. But more often than we’d like to think, women get abortions because they feel they have no choice at all.

If you’re concerned about equality in the workplace but don’t see inequality in a woman saying “I can’t stay pregnant because of my career,” you’re missing something important. To be sure, being a parent will infringe on the amount of time you can commit to your career. But pregnancy doesn’t require parenthood—adoption is always a compassionate and merciful option—so that’s not really the argument here. The point is that, if employers aren’t offering sufficient prenatal care and accommodations to their female employees, we have a problem.

And speaking of adoption, there’s some kind of stigma around that, too, isn’t there? Adoption is an honorable, selfless thing. Abortion is violent and degrading. Though certainly not as severe a stigma as it once was, no woman should be embarrassed to say she’s given up a baby for adoption. Is it painful? Of course. But she accepted the consequences of her actions, took care of her baby while she could, and chose to give him or her the best life possible—not to mention giving two people desperate to be parents a family of their own. It’s hard to find a greater gift than that, and there should be no shame in such generosity of heart. How anyone could ever argue that a child will be worse off with a happy, loving family than they would be never being born at all is beyond me.

As women, we have so many unique gifts to give and share with the people we love. Instead of focusing on how we can or should look or what we should and shouldn’t do, we are capable of using those gifts to make this world a better place. Shame, violence, and stigma aren’t going to help us do that.

Love must come first. Not shame, pain, convenience, or ignorance. Only love.

Barbie, Bikinis, and Body Image

The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition came out this week. If you’re like me, you’re gearing up for several weeks of cringing at the same photos of basically naked, airbrushed, underweight supermodels appearing in the media repeatedly for no real reason except “sex sells.”

But this year, SI has given us a new kind of cringeworthy: Barbie, with her hair perfectly fluffed, her swimsuit perfectly cut, her feet perfectly buckled in risqué stilettos, and her impossible figure stretched across a glossy page published for 36-year-old men seeking soft porn to gawk at.

Yes. That happened. A doll marketed for 3- to 7-year-olds is all mixed up between layers of real, objectified, female skin.

Why? Oh, haven’t you heard? Barbie’s “#UNAPOLOGETIC” now. She doesn’t care what people say about her, with her impossible standards of beauty and her materialism. In the face of real criticism about her effects on body image, self esteem, and young girls’ physical and mental health, she’s decided to go the sexy route. Because that makes sense.

Because teenaged boys and middle-aged men browsing their annual not-quite-Playboy should definitely be thinking about the health and wellness of young girls while they “read” about this year’s biggest swimwear trends. And they’re definitely going to glean a new understanding of an “#unapologetic, strong, and independent” new persona for Barbie, too.

Makes sense.

There are few things that frighten me more about parenting than the task of overcoming pop culture—especially today, when every aspect of media is chock full of garbage and every man, woman, and child is berated with it 24/7.

Diaper changes, late-night feedings, and tantrums I can handle. I haven’t been there yet and I know those won’t be pleasant rituals, but all parents endure them and the best ones learn to find humor in it all. I think that, with my husband’s help and a little faith, I can do that. But the responsibility of out-screaming, so to speak, the messages our society sends our children is a truly intimidating one.

When we’re repeatedly told that casual sex and good looks offer more life experience than commitment and human connection, we’re in trouble. I want my daughters—and my sons—to know that they’re worth everything. Their value isn’t determined by their fondness for vulgar music or their propensity to break rules or their skills in any physical endeavor whatsoever. I want them to know that their goodness is in their personalities, their intelligence, their hearts, and their faith. I want them to be loyal without being called “naïve,” committed without being called “desperate,” and generous without needing to give their bodies for someone else’s concept of “fun.”

Our children should be given the chance to understand what beauty really is. They should be taught that sex is the ultimate expression of love and unity—not a means to just anyone’s (or their own) pleasurable end. Our daughters should be treated like sisters, not objects—and they shouldn’t need to starve, Photoshop, or berate themselves to meet an unrealistic, societal “requirement” of acceptance. Our sons should know that they are whole people, not hormone-driven animals, and that they can and should be appreciated for the real gifts they can give those around them.

I recently heard the phrase, “We complain about society, but we are society.” That’s the honest truth. And I hope we all think about it deeply. How can we influence those around us to make this world a better place for our children? How can we change the way we behave so that we begin and end every pursuit with love, not selfishness, lust, or ignorance?

It takes a village to raise a child. I hope I’ll surround myself with the right one. And I hope you’ll help me do it.

Praise to Blossom