I was cutting a pepper when my knife slipped. It sliced a neat smile in my pointer finger, and I’m sorry to say that I swore before taking my wound to the sink.
As I opened up a Band-Aid, my two-and-a-half-year-old niece cautiously approached and asked, “Can I see your hurt?”
My instinct was to keep the cut close to my chest, but I held it out for her. A little garnet bubble formed when I took the pressure off it. “See? It’s bleeding.”
“Oh,” she said, wide-eyed.
“It hurts, but it’s not too bad.”
“Not too bad,” she repeated.
I then wrapped it up and explained that it would heal. She was sweet and empathetic. Other times she’ll reach out, smile, and touch a scrape or a bruise because that’s what all her grown-ups do when she reveals a hurt to them. She likes to see what comes from inside us, acknowledging a pain, as far as I can tell, mostly for the joy of healing by ice, bandages, and especially, expressions of empathy.
It is largely through physical neediness and injury that my niece is developing a sense of reverence for the body. She senses that she is a gift for others in attending to them, and that she is worthy of gifts when we attend to her. Craving intimacy as we all do, physical wounds present an opportunity to express and develop it with people she loves.
This summer on the Huffington Post, Sarah Koppelkam gave advice on how to teach girls that their bodies are good. The article recently popped up again on my newsfeed. Its persistent popularity suggests a festering cultural wound: For more reasons than I can give here, women hate their bodies. The balm? Push image concerns, like hip-to-waist ratio, right off the map of conversations to have with daughters. Supplant with self-acceptance and zealous activity. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?
Koppelkam advises, “Encourage your daughter to climb mountains because there is nowhere better to explore your spirituality than the peak of the universe.”
Well, a mountain peak is at least a good place for this, though I wouldn’t say it’s the best sine qua non. There’s something Genesis-esque about overlooking the created world God has charged us with stewarding. Koppelkam continues on by prescribing a series of physical activities, the purpose of which is to endow girls with adrenaline and awe at the power of their bodies. Yes, a woman’s body is capable of amazing things.
Yet I caution against resting self-worth on personal abilities any more than on personal appearance. Two twin idols rear their hideous heads—Independence and Strength.
Ah, the golden allure of Independence. America buys it every day. In part, rightly so, as humans are rational free agents whose good is self-governance. Little girls and boys develop creative skills and eventually (hopefully) are capable of reasoned, independent choices and actions, without the oversight of Ma and Pa. That doesn’t mean Ma and Pa are out of the picture. Once rational self-governance is attained, it ought to have a communal orientation. Independence, as an idol, is freedom from needing others; as a good, it is the freedom to think and work in a community in which one both gives and receives. For some feminists, Independence sadly excludes men from the community. I implore you to answer me—where is Dad?
Playing golf? Working? Is he with another woman? Koppelkam writes, “Prove to your daughter that women don’t need men to move furniture.” But I ask, why isn’t Dad moving his daughter’s furniture? A woman’s ability or lack thereof to move her heavy dresser is almost irrelevant. Out of reverence, a man should employ his strength in service. Women ought to joyfully anticipate this, and give thanks. It is good to be strong—for women and men. A man’s physical capacity is greater than a woman’s, as a woman’s emotional acuity is often greater than a man’s. Every skill is a potential gift. Let him be a gift, as you are in so many ways. If my niece offered to bandage my wound for me would I refuse her because I, too, am capable? No.
If Dad is out of the picture, I’m truly sorry. Know that his absence cannot be amended by any impressive feat of strength on Mom’s part. Girls feel deeply the lack of fathers, an awareness that often manifests itself in a low sense of worth. In learning that their bodies can be good and strong, women needn’t scorn men, which only leads to further emotional damage. Sure, prove that you can move furniture. Prove as well you have the grace to receive joyfully. Especially from men, if you have trouble with it. They are good, too.
The golden cow of Independence is twinned with a second idol: Strength. I know, I know, I just said it was good. And it is. Physical strength, mental strength, emotional strength—they’re all good. Yet Strength is not the All-Good. We are rather paradoxically privileged in Weakness, a false devil of today.
Strength, even framed as health or fitness, is a type of power. Pride hangs on the coat of power with its greasy thumbs. Pride leads to Hell. In Weakness, you are forced to look outward and upward. There, you may very well find God.
Alice von Hildebrand makes an eloquent huzzah for weakness in Man and Woman: A Divine Invention. According to her wisdom, weaker sex is a term to boast of rather than deny:
It is easier for a woman to acknowledge her weakness than it is for a man to acknowledge his weakness, and this is, no doubt, a great advantage she has over him. Moreover, women, being physically weaker than men, are more conscious of their creaturehood. Creatures are metaphysically so dependent that they are constantly in need of help. The Church teaches that the world would collapse back into nothingness if it were not for the sustaining action of God. How easily the words “Help me, O Lord, lest I perish” come to a woman’s lips. A woman who is in labor prays because, in this supreme moment, she experiences—through a striking paradox—both the amazing privilege granted to her and the humbling precariousness of her situation. In giving birth, she faces death, both for herself and for the beloved fruit of her womb. . .
No, wise women will not be offended by being called weak. What is offensive, however, is the implicit claim that men are superior, which is definitely unwarranted. Victory is always achieved by individuals, not by one’s sex. . . . Whether man or woman, the person who never loses sight of his weakness is clearly on the way to victory because he will, “in season and out of season,” beg God for help. In Him, “We can tread upon . . . high places.” Weakness is, then, a universal limitation of humanity. A recognition that one needs help is an act not only of humility but also of sanity.
Von Hildebrand is a feminist champion for humility. She does not suppose her worth rests on power and strength, as some strains of feminism suppose. One problem with the ethos of these latter ladies is that in breaking through the glass ceiling a huge temptation arises to keep on running, straight through the golden floor of heaven where they’ll hoist themselves, with cleverness and gusto, upon golden thrones. My dears, God will give you a house in heaven, and the way to it is to bow low on a dusty ground, offering Him your wounds—the wounds of your sex, the wounds of your spirit, and every other scratch.
Well-intentioned as it may be, advice like Koppelkam’s leaves devastating gaps. Sickness, injury, and age, are real and unavoidable. Beyond these realities, women face physical and emotional weakness monthly, for a number of days. We should not hate ourselves for that, but take these times as opportunities to grow in humility and holiness. The “Rosy the Riveter” attitude has merit in its fortitude, but will cause a girl—and boy, for that matter—to be confused if it is not supplemented with a more tender and communal doctrine. We must speak about our wounds.
Christ rises with his wounds glorified. He shows us his hands, his feet, and his stricken side. He is beautiful and good. His wounds are beautiful, and ultimately, good. He invites us to look upon, to touch, and contemplate his hurts. For he has contemplated and touched ours. So should we do for others, seeing goodness in frailty above power.