August 2012


“For Far too long we have been seduced into walking a path that did not lead us to ourselves. For far too long we have said yes when we wanted to say no. And for far too long we have said no when we desperately wanted to say yes.”

–Terry Tempest Williams, When Women Were Birds

Have you ever heard or said the words: “Well, she’ll have to learn the hard way”?  I heard them a lot growing up, but being the overachiever, play-by-the-rules type, they weren’t usually applied to me.

Enter Adulthood.

As I shared in my last post, I came into my first two jobs with the strong impression that to be successful I had to strive to be the best and to fulfill other people’s expectations of me.  However, no where factored in that equation was a healthy balance of taking care of myself.  It was a system that worked really well in school–having only to please my professors–but worked miserably in the real world.

I only began to realize how badly my system worked, after I turned twenty-five.  At that point, I had been at my second real job for about a year and a half, when all of a sudden, it seemed, everything went to crap.  My boss was moving up, people were resigning, and all of a sudden I felt like the duck on the Aflac commercial–who, when he discovers that he is on a sinking boat, thinks it is his responsibility to plug all of the holes.

Though I wasn’t alone, I was going down.

Two months of “plugging holes” went by, when our team was blessed by two new additions to our staff.  All of a sudden the boat seemed to be floating again, and I thought everything was going to be OK.

Then November came around and I got bronchitis.  I lost my voice for at least a week.  Imagine trying to run a program and teach 60-70 Jr. High students, without a voice?  Yeah, I am sure many people have done it, but:

December: bronchitis and no voice for a least a week

January: bronchial pneumonia and no voice.

February: bronchitis and you guessed, no voice.

March: it was getting old.

On one of my many visits to the doctor for antibiotics, I asked her “is there anything I can do to not get sick this much?”  She looked at me with a blank stare.

One thing that isn’t talked about enough is that when we stop listening to our inner voice that’s telling us to take a break, our body often starts speaking in a voice we can’t ignore.  By February and March, I knew I couldn’t live this way.

I had been journaling and praying to God about all the changes that were still happening in my job, my recurring illness, the feeling that I was still carrying so much on my own, and “oh, Lord, I am still single, remember?”  Finally, in March, I reached my breaking point. I didn’t want another date with my doctor in April,  and I was ready to hear what God had to say:

YOU’RE NOT GOD, Melissa

Ok, He didn’t exactly say that, but close.

As I sat in bed, journaling–home sick for what felt like the millionth time–I began to feel God showing me that I was trying to live into impossible expectations.  There were things that I thought people expected of me that they didn’t, things I expected of myself that superwoman couldn’t achieve, and expectations that some people had for me that weren’t healthy–and I was trying to succeed in them all! 

As I thought all of this over, I began to feel God show me one more thing. He said:

“Live into my expectations.”

All of a sudden, my “to do list” and “people to please list” shrunk significantly. All I had to do was begin to ask the question “what is God expecting of me?”

Some of you may be thinking: “easier said than done” and maybe “yea, like God is going to give me a to do list every day?”

But as I thought about His simple words, I realized a few things:

  1. Because God created us, He knows what we are capable of, even better than we do–so His expectations are going to be doable.  
  2. When we are in relationship with Him, everything that He expects of us, He expects us to do with His help.  
  3. The second commandment is to love others–if I am doing my best to love (not please, there is a difference!) the people God has put in front of me, I am living into His expectations.
  4. God created us to be in community, so we don’t have to “do and be it all.” I had people in my life who could help me not only plug holes, but help our ministry thrive.

Now, these truths freed me–but not overnight.  (A few months later, I landed myself in the hospital with a gallbladder issue and acid reflux). I needed the help of friends, mentors, and a counselor, to begin to undo all of the patterns of striving and people pleasing that were part of my way of doing life.  I needed to learn how not to live into the unhealthy expectations others and I had placed upon myself.

Whose expectations are you living into?

 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

–Jesus, Matthew 11:28

This past spring, my parents finally did it: they asked me to clean out the boxes I had left at home that were full of the stuff of my childhood–more accurately, of my years in High School.  So, when I was home, I sat cross-legged on my parent’s living room floor and sorted through embarrassing photo’s, passed-between-class notes, 9th grade art projects, and mementos that fall under the category “why did I keep this?!”

As I sorted, one thing continually struck me:

My whole life as a High School student had been about success.

All four years, I strived academically, working myself into ninth place in my graduating class. When I applied for college, I had to attach four pages to answer the question “what extracurricular activities were you involved in?”  I knew by freshman year that I was never going to fit in the “popular” crowd, so I settled for being the most liked: my senior class superlative? “Best Personality/Most Friendly.”

Yea, I was that girl.

I was a goodie-goodie, overachiever, and sorting through my high school “time-capsule,” made me feel a little sick.  Why? Because all of that striving had made me successful by the world standards, yet I wasn’t taught how to be successful at becoming and accepting myself. It set me up to enter college, trying to become the “perfect picture of a successful woman,” by fulfilling other’s expectations for me.

My ideas of what “success” meant, shifted and changed through college and then into my first two jobs. But my tendencies to push, to fulfill other people’s expectations, to strive–were all still very present. I was good at people pleasing and yet it left me very empty, and I found myself in a very broken place around the time I turned twenty-five.  Thankfully, however, I was blessed with some very cool mentors, and one of them said some profound words. He said:

“Melissa, whenever someone tries to become more than who they are meant to be, they always become less.”

If we were to name things in our culture that we treat as “gods” (think small carved statues), success would be right up there with apple products and caffeine. We are raised to value and work hard for success; however the true definition of success for a woman is very difficult to interpret.

Historically we have been the Keepers of the Home, and Mothers of Future Generations. More recently, however, our roles have become muddled.  The media gives us constant, contradicting personalities to aspire to–as if it is possible to cook like Giada, decorate like Martha, mother like Michelle Duggar, run your own mega corporation like Oprah, and yet be a supportive and strong wife like First Lady Michelle Obama.

Where does the pressure to be all of these things at once, come from?

(“whenever someone tries to become more…they become less…”)

All of my striving actually made me feel less and less like the person I wanted to be, and more broken.  Through the help of friends, mentors, and some counseling, I started on a journey that I am still on, to figure out how to be me–nothing more, nothing less.

If we are going to Redefine Female, we need to redefine success, and its new definition will need to make room for the truth that being “a success”  will look different for each of us.

All of the women we aspire to are usually really amazing at one thing, and good at a few others. Who we are meant to be is something special, so why do we feel the need try to be a bunch of people rolled into one?

“The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.”

Anna Quindlen, Author

This Friday’s Fabulous Female is an author, civil-rights activist, a mother, an actress, an educator, a playwright and much more. Yet perhaps what makes her most famous is her poetry that she has recited in venues all over the world, including President Bill Clinton’s inauguration.

I was first “introduced” to this incredible women in High School, when, for summer reading, I was assigned her book, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.Today’s Fabulous Female is none other than Dr. Maya Angelou.

In my own immaturity, the summer I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, I couldn’t understand why our school would have us read a book in which someone experienced so much brokenness. In the book, Angelou chronicles the first seventeen years of her life in which she was a victim of racism and rape, in which she struggled to find her voice, and in which she became a single mom at the age of seventeen.

What I didn’t understand then, was that Angelou was giving us an incredible example of what it looks like to not only survive the brokenness we all face in life, but to continue singing even when we find ourselves caged in. And she has continued that example by going on to live an awe-inspiring life.

As a young woman, she toured Europe as an actress, studied modern dance, and was a part of the Harlem Writers Guild. For a year she lived in Cairo, Egypt, where she was the editor of The Arab Observer. A year later, she was in Ghana, teaching at the University of Ghana’s School of Music and Drama, writing for The Ghanian Times, and serving as feature editor for The African Review.   She mastered French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic, and the West African language, Fanti.  During her time in Ghana, she met Malcom X. She served with both he and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Civil-Rights movement.

Later, she wrote I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, and over 30 bestselling fiction and non-fiction books.  She has written screenplays and scores, and appeared in Famous Films such as Alex Haley’s Roots and Poetic Justice.  She is now eight-four years old, and she is not done living.

When I read her biography, I couldn’t help but think of St. Irenaeus’s words when he said “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.”  Maya Angelou has lived and served humanity all over the world.  She has given us an example of what it means to be a strong, feminine leader who shares her gifts and talents fully.  When she recites her poetry, she gives voice to the human condition, touching people where they feel their greatest pains, joys, injustices, and victories.

There is much more to her story,  and I don’t feel a blog post can fully capture it. So I believe it is best to leave you with an invitation to see her interviewed, and to hear her recite her poem, “Phenomenal Woman” that celebrates what it means to be Fabulously Female.

On Monday, I asked: “What would it take–not just to love our bodies–but to actually like them too?” And I promised to share one way that I have begun a cease-fire with the battles I have waged with my body.

In the past eight months, I have begun to “wage peace,” by asking a simple question:

What can my body do? 

It all began when my husband–who is a lot more athletic than I am–wanted us to begin exercising regularly.  I agreed, knowing that exercise can make you feel good and better about yourself.  But then, when we started, all these thoughts came flooding in: “How many calories did I burn?”  “How often will I have to work out to lose weight?”  “Maybe I can be thinner for my sister’s wedding?”

These thoughts started to become consuming, I was at war once again.  And when I am at war, I start praying.  As I prayed, some better questions emerged:

“Why does exercise always become about losing weight?”

“What does it look like to take care of my body without obsessing over it?–Without trying to make it into something it’s not?”

and finally:

“What does it look like to Celebrate What is?”

In the past, when I tried exercising, I always gave up because it was about becoming something I am not–rather than celebrating and taking care of what I am.  This time however, it has been different. My focus has shifted.

When I am at the gym it’s not “How many calories can I burn?”  or “How fast can I run?” (which still isn’t fast) It is “What can I do today?” and “Can I do more than I have before?”

This practice of shifting my focus onto what I can do, has not only helped me with exercise, it has also shifted how I see my body in all areas of my life.

I have two legs that can get me where I need to go.

I have two hands that can bake bread to feed people.

I have two arms that embrace those that need a hug.

I have a body that is healthy, which means I can enjoy new experiences.

When I focus on what my body is and what it can do, all of a sudden it is my friend again. My reflection in the mirror is no longer my enemy.  The battle has ceased.

Does this mean the war is over? –that I am successful at this every day? No.  But it does mean that by Celebrating What Is, there are more battles that I have won.

What do you have to celebrate?

 

This past weekend I went clothes shopping.  I walked into one of those stores where you admire the clothes on display upfront, and then make your way to the clearance section in the back, because those prices are a little more realistic.  But before making it to the back, I found a display for “skinny” jeans whose style names were “pencil stick” and “matchstick.”  And all I could think was:

“When are they going to start making clothes for real people?”

Because our culture has elevated one body type above the rest, our worth and beauty has been boiled down to a number on a scale and the size of our clothes. Never mind that our body weight is always fluctuating, that clothing size is relevant to the store its found in, and that God decided to create us a in variety of body types–it’s still, always “less is more.”  The lower the number on the scale, the “skinnier” the pair of jeans, the better.

Really?

You and I have gone over this before (just not together). We know in our heads, on some level, that this system of measuring our beauty and worth is faulty, and yet–we live as if it is Truth.

Some of us are conscious of our weight all the time.  Some of us have developed coping mechanisms in which we try to ignore our bodies as much as possible.

Up until about four or five years ago, I could have won a gold medal in that latter category.  Some days, I could still at least win a bronze.  What I have found to be the problem for me, is that by buying into our culture’s limited definition of beauty and what it means to be a woman, I have turned against myself.

By believing that beauty looks like fitting into skinny jeans–I have taken the possibility of being beautiful, off the table. I have turned my reflection in the mirror into my enemy–because it won’t squeeze into a pair of “matchsticks,” no matter how much exercise I do or food I don’t eat.  In this frame of mind, my body and my spirit are at war.

For years, my body was something I hated, something I hid under large shirts and sweaters. I became really good at taking care of other people so that I didn’t have to take care of myself. And the interesting thing is that my story is a common one.

Whether you have ignored your body or never taken your eye off the scale, have you too, been at war?

What would it take for us to call a cease-fire within ourselves?

What would it take–not just to love our bodies–but to actually like them too?

If we are going to Redefine Female, the journey begins within.  It begins with what we choose to believe about beauty and our own bodies.

Wednesday, I am going to share one way I have begun a cease-fire within myself, and if you have any ways that are helping you, I would love to hear them!

An important part of any journey is celebration. Every friday, here at Redefining Female, I want us to do just that, by celebrating Fabulous Females–some that are living and famous, some that have passed yet made their mark, and others that I have been privileged to have a part of my life.

As it is the week of the Olympics and they are saying that this is “The Year of the Women,” to kick off our first Fabulous Female Friday, I thought how better to start than with the story of a woman competing in this year’s Olympics.

At twenty-two years of age, and the third women ever sent to the Olympics by her country of Afghanistan, sprinter Tahmina Kohistani is competing today in the 100 meters.  What stands Tahmina apart is both what she has overcome to get to the Olympics, as well as who she is competing for.

Like all Olympians, Tahmina would practice daily.  Unlike many Olympians, however, many times, she practiced to the sound of hundreds of jeering and abusive men. In Afghanistan, they don’t believe in women playing sports, and so groups of men would show up to the track in Kabul to vehemently discourage her from continuing on.

One day, according to The Telegraph, after Kohistani’s coach approached the crowd, a brawl broke out.  It was enough to make her decide to quit, but not for long.  She told the Telegraph:

“Whenever you want to do something you are faced with some challenges and some problems…There is always one person who has started the way. I thought if I stopped maybe whenever the other girls come they would also get stopped. I should face up to this problem and change something in my society.”

Tahmina knows this is not just a fight for herself, but also a fight for all of the women in Afghanistan. She told Today:

“If I got a medal, I think I will start a new way for the girls (and) women of Afghanistan,’’ she said. “They will believe themselves that they can do everything they want.’’

For all of the women in her country, Tahmina is competing to redefine what female looks like, and she is doing it in her own way.  She will compete today, wearing the traditional head scarf (hijab), along with her uniform.  She is both honoring her faith and her tradition, while at the same time refusing to succumb to the belief that women cannot be athletes.

For these reasons and more, Tahmina Kohistani is today’s Fabulous Female.

To see her interviewed on the Today Show, click here.

I am a little behind.  The book Fifty Shades of Grey has been out for a while, and Magic Mike, has been in the theaters for at least a month.  But, I couldn’t not write about this “new” craze that people are calling “mommy porn,” better known under the genre of Erotica.  So, here it goes.

Whether we are aware of it or not, books and almost every form of media have become solely about entertaining us.  Very often, when choosing to see a movie or to read a book, we are thinking about the experience it will give us–Will it make us feel good? Will it make us feel a part of something? 

Perhaps we are too trusting of the media industry, or we value keeping up with the times too much. Perhaps, like I mentioned, we are caught up in how it makes us feel.  But my concern is that we don’t stop and ask “how will this effect me?”  or my favorite question:

Will it make me more whole?

This post isn’t about judging those who have read the 50 Shades trilogy or were the first to see Channing Tatum as “Magic Mike” the striper.  But rather an invitation to discuss what is becoming a culture-wide phenomenon.

Are these things building us up as women?  Are they making us stronger?  Are they strengthening the relationships that we have with the men in our lives?

The Media, deeming this “Mommy Porn,” is equating these things with an incredibly large pornography industry that traditionally targeted men.  However, statistically, one in three visitors to every porn site is a woman. It is a growing issue for both genders, with effects that we may not realize.

When speaking about the negative effects of male usage of porn in marriage, Rabbi Schmuley, in this article says that “Porn portrays all women in one of four degrading, dehumanizing categories,” and that it is a form of sexism. It “makes men get bored with their wives,” and it “cultivates a single standard of beauty that no real women can live up to.”

If this is what happens when a man uses porn, how is Erotica going to affect our relationships? Is it creating a standard of masculinity that real men can’t live up to?

For those who aren’t aware of the hype, Fifty Shades of Grey is about the character of Christian Grey, who convinces a recent college graduate to sign a contract in which she becomes his sex slave. From what I have read about the book, it gives us a picture of sex and love in which the woman is in bondage.

True love and sex in its best form, was created to free us, not enslave us. It was created to connect us with another human being, and to make us more whole.

Fifty Shades seems to be an invitation to disconnect from the world and the men in our lives, and in a sense, become enslaved in a fantasy.

You may disagree with me. You may still feel it is just a guilty pleasure.

But is it making you more whole?

 

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