Archive for February, 2009

Spiritual girth, bust size and two inches of holiness

February 28, 2009

Measured appeal?

The students at my particular right-wing school were measured in all sorts of ways on a regular basis. The principal or his wife (beehive hairdo!) would walk into class for a dress code check, for example, and everyone would stand. For boys, hair had to be a half-inch above their shirt collars, or something like that. For girls, skirt hemlines had to fall at least two inches below the knees. Then the wardrobe & hair check would be over, and we returned to studying our conspiracy-theory curriculum about how the United Nations was a plot to spread communism to the United States. All in a day’s education.

When the hour for Christian Charm Class rolled around, though, the Charm Marm really kicked the measuring stick up a notch. One page of my workbook includes instructions about how to accurately measure your bust, waist, hips and so on, with a chart to fill in the numbers. A handy note advises that “Bust and hips should be equal, with waist ten inches smaller. A variation of two inches is allowable.”

So … Jesus wants us to be pin-up girls?

The next page asks how we measure up spiritually, with checklists to report on our use of “spiritual vitamins” and our “healthy appetite for God’s word.” (I guess one could get a little overly voracious and end up spiritually chunky?)

The real stroke of madness comes on the page about “spiritual proportions.” Another checklist awaits the maidens under the heading, “Am I in perfect form?”

  • Is your head of moderate size? Or do you act as though you know more than others?
  • Are your shoulders broad enough to bear others’ burdens? Do you cheerfully lighten the load of those around you?
  • Are your knees limber, ready to kneel in submission?

Yes, it really says that. I swear on my holy measuring tape that I’m not making this up. We’re evidently to believe that God wants us to take our spiritual vitamins, so that our bust, waist and hips are in proper proportion. Then we’re to be sure the rest of our body is performing admirably as well: Our head mustn’t be big enough to reveal that we know more than others, our shoulders must serve the sole purpose of bearing other people’s burdens and our knees must be limber enough to show submission on a dime.

In other words, we’re supposed to look voluptuous but only speak or move when we’re humbling ourselves or helping others. It’s this kind of thinking that led the early church fathers to invent the story about Mary Magdalene being a prostitute. We’re to be as meek as Mary the mother of Jesus and as alluring as Mary the mythical hooker. Can you say “hooker with a heart of gold”? I think I need another spiritual vitamin.

Undo the Charm Marm: Whatever body you have, it’s none of the Charm Marm’s business. Besides, I’ve been told that you’re shockingly beautiful.

That aside, wouldn’t the Charm Marm also have to admit, according to her beliefs, that God seems to make bodies in quite a few shapes and sizes? And if we’re following the Bible here, didn’t Jesus say to love not only others but also yourself? Oh, and wasn’t there something about not judging? That seemed important at the time.

So let’s rethink the list about heads, shoulders and knees.

  • I’ll tell you what’s important about your head: Pay attention to your ideas, and share them. Act on them.
  • As for your shoulders, take on the responsibility of your own happiness, which will include avoiding situations with harsh measuring sticks.
  • I’m not sure what to say about your knees. Symbolism should only be taken so far. Go ahead and keep them limber, I guess, so you can keep walking after you turn 100. Take your calcium and vitamin D, too.

Instead of worrying about having proportions that will make you the next Pin-Up for Jesus, give yourself a good proportion of care. Leave the criticism, um, behind. Because believe me, two inches never mattered so little.


Hair: It’s not just what’s on your head anymore

February 5, 2009

The next lesson in the Christian Charm Manual reveals the answer to one of the great spiritual mysteries pondered by mystics and theologians through the ages: Which hairstyles are God-approved? And does God have one favorite hairstyle?

In the tried and true method of Cosmo, the Charm Marm gives the girlies a multiple choice quiz on this page. The questions:

  • Should I be overly concerned with my hair?
  • What should be my motive in striving for lovely hair?
  • Should I choose an extreme or elaborate hairdo?
  • Should I change the basic color of my hair?

With the right answers, we can get to chopping and curling immediately! Holy approval is only a visit to a beautician away! Forget a nunnery – get thee to a beauty salon!

The wrong answers – and there are decidedly wrong answers – are as interesting as the right ones. The upshot of the quiz is that since “if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her” (have I thanked you lately for that one, Apostle Paul?), some time should be spent to keep hair “clean, well-groomed and attractive.” A girl should be careful, though, that her motive is not “to outdo the other girls” or “to attract attention” but rather to be admired so that her “influence will count for Christ.” Naturally, this leads to “modest, simplistic” styles.

I think we know where this is going – a girl’s hair should be mostly straight but not overly straightened. One doesn’t want the eye to linger. It should have enough wave to hint of a smile and to suggest an upbeat demeanor. But beware of unchecked curls that may appear untamed.


Fourth & final holy hair mystery revealed!

Finally, the quiz reveals that God is the only qualified expert to determine your proper hair color. The fourth question discloses that in coloring your hair, you gain nothing and lose your “unaffected naturalness.” In addition, the false color might make you appear to be unsure of your personal worth. Ah, there’s the catch. Whether you really feel worthy (enough to attract attention, perhaps?) isn’t the point; it’s whether you appear to feel worthy that matters.

In other words:
Appearing to have confidence: Good!
Actually having enough confidence to make bold choices: Bad!

Attracting attention: Bad!
Being admired in order to attract attention for God: Good!
Blending in: Also good!

Appearing to care about appearance: Bad!
Caring about appearance: Good!

In addition to the skewed version of beauty and why it may or may not matter, this approach encourages a basic if subtle dishonesty and a disconnection from your true self. And listen, kitty cats, even if you’ve long stopped believing obviously absurd notions such as that Jesus prefers your hair a certain way, those underlying beliefs can remain in your subconscious patterns.

Undo the Charm Marm:
However nice it may be for your hairstyle to reflect something about who you are, I’m 100 percent sure that Jesus never had any rules about it. I have no objection to lovely hair. I own more than one comb, and I condition my locks regularly. I expect corporations to encourage me to have an inordinate preoccupation with my hair. I expect them to conduct scientific tests and haul out experts who will try willy-nilly to get me to buy their products in an onslaught of ads. But religious hair instruction is more insidious than media assaults on a girl’s self-esteem.

As Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English point out in For Her Own Good: Two Centuries of the Experts Advice to Women, when experts and official figures give advice, they nearly always over the decades have pointed women toward domesticity with “the solemn and intimidating authority of science to back them up.” In Christian Charm Class, science gets replaced by God (just refer to the six-day creation story taught in my school’s science class), and the pressure to appear a certain way gets all muddled together with whether a lake of fire is in your eternal future and whether you’re disappointing your ultimate authority figure with every stroke of your brush.

So here’s a new quiz for you, Charm Marm:

  • Do you have a clear sense of what makes you a unique person?
  • Do you have the confidence to express that part of yourself, even if it involves (gasp!) attracting attention?
  • Does your passion for life come through in all sorts of ways, maybe including your hairdo and maybe not?

Fair enough.

SNL’s other church lady

February 3, 2009
Julia Sweeney's show

Julia Sweeney's one-woman show

Today’s charm school break is sponsored by atheism.

I’m so happy that Julia Sweeney’s Letting Go of God is finally out on DVD. The former Saturday Night Live star’s story about giving up her religious views after trying first to reclaim them is smart, touching and funny. (It was first performed as a one-woman show in a few cities and then was available as an audio book, which you can still find on iTunes.)

I love this performance. Anyone who’s only seen the writer-actress as Pat on SNL might be surprised at her intellectual curiosity; she’s more than just a funny girl as she digs down to find out for herself what’s at the heart of the teachings she once accepted. The result, full of both sweeping commentary and tiny moments of discovery, is brilliant.

While recounting her path away from the church, Julia (may I call her Julia?) is conversational and uplifting – ironically, she proves to be as inspiring as any self-help guru could want to be, even though she debunks New Age thinking right alongside traditional religion.

Even if you’re not interested in letting go of your beliefs, this monologue is a must-see, must-listen kind of performance. Just experiencing her ride vicariously is a liberating sensation.

The Charm Marm wouldn’t approve, but I certainly do.

View trailer & such (music auto-plays at this link)
Letting Go of God DVD, $14.99