From the Basement

May 22, 2010

On the latest Miss USA scandal

In college, I triple majored in English, Politics, and Women’s Studies. I mostly don’t blog about politics or feminist issues; I’ve mellowed over the years and opted to make faith and life transition the focus of this blog rather than using it as a platform to discuss issues.

But, even though I’m a little late to the party on this one, I couldn’t help but put my two cents in.

Over the last ten days or so, scandal has erupted in the Miss USA world (again) as two racy sets of photos were released about Rima Fakih, the latest winner. One set features Fakih competing in a stripper pole contest at an event held by a Michigan radio station; the judges were strippers, the audience was female, and there was no nudity. The second set – if I’ve done my research correctly – was released by the pageant itself and featured Fakih in lingerie, at times topless.

And so the media finds itself once again between a rock and a hard place, alternately celebrating and stigmatizing the actions of hypersexualized beauty queens, while the public reacts in outrage that “such a woman” (not quoting anyone directly there) would be uplifted as a role model and as a representative of the United States. Both sides seem to ignore their complicity in creating a culture where this behavior thrives.

Quite simply, women in beauty pageants are in – do we honestly need to be reminded? – beauty pageants. In that industry, good looks are currency and good presentation is a deal-breaker. I have a cousin who was a child beauty queen (was Little Miss [state], as a matter of fact), and my uncle pulled her from the pageant circuit when he saw how deeply it was affecting her even at ten years old. That’s anecdotal, and it’s not meant as exclusive evidence but rather to help prove a point: most of the women in Miss America and Miss USA pageants did not enter on a dare but rather were brought up on the pageant circuit, being bred for these very contests.

They are raised in a hypersexualized atmosphere that values them for their body – that gets them public acclimation, money, and awards if they win. But when these women take charge of their bodies, whether it’s on a stripping pole or in a sensual photography session, we vilify them. (Though whether they’re taking charge or are delving further into their prescribed roles is a matter of debate).

In short, the media feigns outrage when they’re well aware that they fuel the atmosphere these women thrive in.

Quotes from the film Miss Congeniality come to mind when I try to put myself in the contestants’ and contest organizers’ shoes. “This is not a beauty pageant; this is a scholarship program!” And I do not doubt that many of the women in the pageant are remarkably intelligent, accomplished, and driven. There’s no way they’d get where they are if they weren’t.

It just so happens that the vehicle they’ve chosen (or perhaps, their parents chose) to propel their success is one that, first and foremost, values them for their bodies, for their beauty, for their ability to physically appeal to a mass audience.

For me, the issue is not that Fakih posed or stripped. She’s an accomplished woman who – more to the point – is an adult woman who is perfectly capable of making her own decisions (the level of how much they are culturally informed by the beauty industry is another discussion). The issue that sparks my indignation is our reaction as a culture, the blatant hypocrisy, the stinking self-righteousness as we set these women up to take a “fall.”

I’ll close with a quote from Donald Trump. When asked about the racy stripping and lingerie photos, he said “It would be foolish to consider anyone other than Rima to represent the USA.  The photos taken from our website are no more provocative than those on the Miss USA website.”

Exactly.

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April 26, 2010

Sexuality & Youth Group (part one)

So for those of you who were counting on me just blogging about writing, the job hunt, and the occasional encouraging scripture, well… no. I’m all about full disclosure. So let’s start talking about an issue that is close to my heart.

Sexuality and youth groups – specifically, youth groups in America today. This is a subject I could write a book on. Heck, make it broader – sexuality and the church. Specifically, women’s sexuality and the church.

Okay, too big. Narrow it back down: sexuality and youth group. Sexuality and girls in youth group.

I have been involved in several youth ministries throughout my – err, youth – and I’ve found that, in almost every one, sexuality was a taboo topic. This is my interpretation of the various youth leaders I interacted with:

Oh. My. Gosh. You have sexual desires? Evil! Evil! Sex is bad until you get married, don’t you understand? Stay away. Do not kiss. Do not touch. And for God’s sake, don’t get involved with people who aren’t Christians. Only Christian boys will understand that you need to have certain physical boundaries. Since they are Christian boys, they will never pressure you to have sex. But oh, we forgot to tell you, they are visual creatures and God help you if you wear anything larger than an A or B cup bra, because everything you wear is going to make them stumble. Not just skirts with slits that go up to the knee. No. Turtlenecks will make them stumble – yes, that includes the kind you wear that you think are okay. But let me tell you something: clunky knit turtlenecks are NOT OKAY! Boys have no control. Protect your brothers’ eyes! Don’t make them stumble!

And in the meantime, we are going to completely disregard any discussion of your sexuality because you a girl and thus you will not have sexual desires until you get married at which point God is going to flip the ON switch and then suddenly, you are going to become a tiger in the bedroom. Which will be okay, since you’ll be married.

*look at other youth group leaders* Have we avoided any actual discussion of these girls’ sexuality? *sigh in relief* Thank God!

Get the picture?

I recognize that plenty of people have different experiences, more positive experiences. But what was written above is, honestly, not too far removed from what I was told in the various middle and high school youth groups I both participated in and visited. Yes, that includes the bit on clunky knit turtlenecks.

In the interest of avoiding an overly long entry, I think I’m going to break this subject down and visit it periodically. What I want to talk about today, though, is what I believe to be the most common oversight in youth groups today:

Who, girls? Not our girls! Girls do not struggle with sexual desire.

Oh, yes they do. Not every girl, of course – girls are people, too, and in every group of young women, you will find a variety of struggles: pride, envy, jealousy, lust, perfectionism, a need to control, bullying, foul language, drinking, drug abuse, eating disorders – and the list goes on. But it is absolutely crucial to acknowledge that, yes, teenage girls (and even pre-teen girls) may very well struggle with their sexuality.

Youth leaders are doing their girls a grave, grave disservice if they neglect to discuss this topic with them. Girls may struggle just as much as boys in keeping physical boundaries up. While “don’t have sex” is certainly a common-ish discussion in youth groups, I can almost guarantee you that many girls in youth groups today have never heard their female leaders talk about masturbation, porn, and/or erotica. Guys in youth groups get these talks (or so my boyfriend tells me). Girls don’t. As a result, girls who struggle with this may operate in a world where they think they are abnormal, weird, disgusting, dirty – they are under the misconception that these things are normal and okay struggles for guys but oh my gosh, how could they be struggling with this? How do they handle it? They think, what’s wrong with me?

I know this because I was one of those girls. I struggled with sexual addictions throughout high school and into college, addictions that felt like strangleholds, chains. They were sources of shame and guilt that, at times, crippled my spiritual walk. In the last few years, I have been recovering, thank you Jesus. It’s been a long road.

But I also know this because I co-led a women’s bible study for two years on my college campus (I was in it all four years), and I shared my testimony on this subject several times.  I was often met with surprise (from girls for whom this wasn’t a struggle) and quiet understanding (from girls for whom it was). Over the years, I have had multiple young women approach me saying, “I don’t know who else I can share this with. I thought it was just me.”

I have tears in my eyes as I write this. I think that freedom from this sort of struggle could begin so much earlier in young women’s lives if they were told up front, by their parents and their youth leaders, “God created you as a sexual creature. These desires are normal. This is not something to be ashamed of. This is not something you lock away. This is a part of you, just like your emotions and your mind, that you give to God. This is a part of you that He created, that He loves, and that was made to be good. You are not alone.”

There are lessons of self-discipline, surrender, and spiritual growth that go along with that message, but telling girls that is a start. Quite simply, we fear what we don’t know. And when sexuality is never discussed, when it is taboo, when it is a mystery, goodness sakes – we’re almost asking for trouble in our youth groups. We forget that the perfect love of Christ casts out all fear. Lord, give us the freedom to walk in that conviction.

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