Feminism, Commercialism and the War Against the Female Body

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

“And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:23)

“And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.” (Genesis 1:31)

A number of writers have recently been alerting evangelicals to ways in which their thinking has become captive to Gnostic-type ideas about the body. Instead of treating the body as something good, which is in the process of being redeemed (Rom 8:23), it is easy for Christians to slip into the trap of talking about the body as if it is a prison from which we must ultimately escape. (See the ongoing series we have been doing on Gnosticism and Evangelicalism.)

But it is not only in religious communities that we find these types of pessimistic approaches to embodiment. A theme that keeps reemerging in the wider secular culture of the West is an underlying angst concerning the body. Indeed, if current trends in transhumanism, technohumanism and postgenderism continue, Christians who understand about the goodness of creation may soon represent the last hold-out in affirming the goodness of the body.

Troubled By Embodiment

In her book Eve’s Revenge: Women and a Spirituality of the Body, Lilian Calles Barger shares some of the ways modern women are deeply troubled by the fact of their embodiment. She shows how the quest for a disembodied spirituality has left women strangers to their own bodies.

Influenced by feminism, women have been subtlety encouraged to see their body as a barrier to true fulfillment. A woman’s body, once a source of pride, is now often seen as a curse, a barrier to true liberation as we seek to construct identities independent from the fixities of material creation.

Barger illustrated this in a fascinating section of her book where she describes a conversation she had at a Midwest feminist conference, Barger attended some fascinating panel discussions about gender, sexuality and feminine identity. Afterwards, Barger had the opportunity to have coffee with a young lesbian, who had ‘come out’ at fourteen. Barger reflects,

“It was a pretty heavy conversation, I must admit. But the simplest question was the one that seemed to confound us the most. What I asked, and am still asking, was ‘Do our physical actually existing bodies matter in all this?’

…in our search for meaning and a more authentic identity, our bodies have become obstacles to be overcome. But as we seek transcendence, can we radically sever who we are from the body? It appeared that in the panel discussion about gender identity and sexual orientation, sex itself was wholly disembodied. No references to the body were made except as an appendage to the discussion. There was no questioning whether our sexed bodies provide any information regarding the nature of our sexual identity.

I asked the young lesbian whether she had ever considered her body as informing her identity. I wondered whether it said anything about her and how she was to live. She was ready to affirm that her race was important in informing her identity, but she hadn’t thought about her sexed body in quite the same way. She wasn’t sure she wanted to go there.

Like most people, I have trouble thinking about the body without thinking about the mess of it. It is a complex set of needs, yearnings, and assumptions, overlapping in physical and cultural space, that continually limit our possibilities. In our attempts to transcend our social situation, we do not want our body to define the content of our life whether by race, age, sex, or disability. But to talk about sexual orientation and desire without talking about the bodily field in which they are expressed is to engage in dualistic thinking that will forever keep us from having a coherent understanding of ourselves. As unfashionable as it may be, the reality is the my body informs me every day not only about my place in the world but about what is needful for my life to flourish. How we view the body and our own body ends up directly affecting what type of spirituality we will embrace and how we see our relationship to the Divine. The current formulation of how the body, specifically a woman’s body, is related to spirituality has set us up for disembodied spirituality.

In fairness, the type of feminism described above is only one type, yet it is gaining traction and is a powerful influence on young women. At best, it teaches them that the body is irrelevant to personal identity; at worst, it teaches that the body is an enemy to true fulfilment that must be overcome.

 A Body, a tomb

In hundreds of different ways, women today are pressured to see their bodies as a barrier to the liberation of their true self. Echoing Plato’s statement from the Gorgias (“soma sema” – “a body, a tomb”), they have come to look upon the material body as a prison house from which we must escape. This finds expression in feminists who see biological realities like pregnancy as the last frontier for feminism to conquer.

Even in more subtle forms, however, feminism has left women feeling like strangers to themselves. This state of affairs was articulated by Susan Bordo in her book Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Bordo writes that “What remains the constant element throughout historical variation is the construction of the body as something apart from the true self…and as undermining the best efforts of the self.”

Commercialism and the War against Women

Feminism isn’t the only culprit to blame. Commercialism has also played an enormous role. Commercialism dehumanizes us through industries and technologies that democratize our concept of beauty. In the process, beauty becomes unattainable to the vast majority of women; if it were attainable, all women would be squeezed into a homogeneous mold since there is an increasingly limited range of options we are told can count as true beauty. In this way, the idolatrous claims of commercialism turn out to be a cheat: while promising to release our individuality and fulfil our self, these idolatries actually do just the opposite, removing our individuality and homogenizing us.

In Geoffrey Jones’ book Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry, Jones shows that the emergence of the beauty industry led to unprecedented homogenization of beauty ideals throughout the world. The industry thrives on sudden shifts in fashion and fads, which create new markets by disrupting incumbent positions on what is and is not beautiful. Entrepreneurs build brands and markets which define the aesthetic and ethnic boundaries of human beauty. These boundaries are reinforced by Hollywood.

The type of commercialist ethic that Jones describes in his book has led to the commoditization of the body. This commoditization implicates a subtle dualism in which the body is separated from the self. This Gnostic-type dualism turns my body into my natural enemy.

The crypto-Gnosticism of our age has done enormous harm to women, for it comes with a false, yet appealing, narrative of fall and redemption. If our ‘fall’ is represented by those aspects of our body with which we would rather change, then redemption is found in our release from the body’s limitations through products and services that promise to transcend our limitations.

Powerful commercial forces have an economic incentive to continue and perpetuate these false redemption motifs and the ongoing ‘cold war’ against the body that naturally results. The assumption behind these products is that if the body can be released from the constraints of creaturely embodiment, then the true self within can be saved. True individuality is thus seen as the ability to construct our identity for ourselves, to be completely autonomous, unconstrained by the fixities of outside reality, including the reality of the body.

Just think about it: if a girl doesn’t like the color of her hair, there are products that can fix that; if a girl doesn’t like the size of her breasts, there are processes that can change that; if a girl doesn’t like the size that she naturally is with a healthy diet and lifestyle, there are products that promise to fix that and make her unnaturally thin; if a girl doesn’t like her face, there are products and processes that can change that; if an elderly woman doesn’t like her age, there are products that promise to make her look young again. In short, the body becomes infinitely malleable under the dominion of raw will. The net result is that women are predispose to find their embodiment in time, space and flesh a hindrance rather than a gift.

Mass Produced Beauty

The problem with the commercialist ethic is not simply that it holds out unattainable goal posts regarding the quantity of beauty it is possible for real people to exhibit; it also offers a wrong qualitative understanding of beauty. Much of what falls under the stereotype of ‘the beautiful woman’ is a decontextualized, mass-produced idea of beauty that is disengaged from other aspects of personhood that have historically always been understood to play a part in contributing to a woman’s beauty.

Feminism and commercialism are not the only factors at blame in encouraging women to see their body as the enemy. All too often men have behaved in ways that implicitly linked physical appearance to moral worth. When this is combined with unrealistic ideals of female beauty, women are left deeply troubled about accepting the goodness of their own bodies. In the modern world this is finding expression in a growing number of women who do not even want their husbands to see them without any clothes on.

The Goodness of Creation

This state of affairs is lamentable, but it provides an exciting opportunity for the church. Building on passages such as Genesis 1:31 and Romans 8:23, Christians are able to whole-heartedly affirm the goodness of creation. And that includes our bodies. Indeed, the body and all that it involves—hands, eyes, legs, brains, bottoms and breasts—is genuinely good.

Christ could have been resurrected as a ghost, but he wasn’t (Luke 24:37-39). Christ’s physical body was renewed and transformed. Those of us who are united to Christ can expect that our physical body will also be renewed and transformed, not something to be cast off as a hindrance to true liberation.