When I was about seven, I remember going to a revival service with my grandmother. The preacher at one point launched into a sermon on women and makeup. He said, “Makeup isn’t bad, but remember, ladies: you paint the barn, not decorate it.”
Those words haunted me throughout much of my life. Even now I can remember them and the way everyone laughed. But it underlined the spirit of my upbringing in a charismatic church and how they saw women’s bodies. We were unclean and sexual. Our bodies led men to sin. We were less than men because of the many weaknesses our bodies contained. We must dress in ways that didn’t make men lust after us.
In some bizarre twist, I was also taught that my whole purpose in life was to get a man. And strangely enough, it wasn’t my purity that would lure men, but my purity coupled with beauty. Thus I must dress in ways that made me attractive, but not sexual. I must be thin, not fat. I should wear makeup tastefully, not like a “tart.”
In essence, I was taught the duality of women: virgin versus slut.
I left the Pentecostal church when I was eighteen. But religion would continue to haunt me.
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Finding the Feminine Divine
I went on to study religion in college and encountered religion as an academic as opposed to a practitioner. I found women all over the world in a variety of roles. Of course, I often found them regulated to the sexist duality I’d learned, but I also saw them challenging those roles while existing within them.
Figures such as the Virgin of Guadelupe challenged very simplistic ideas about women. While a representation of the Virgin Mary, she was also an aboriginal woman who came not to the colonizing priests but to an aboriginal man in a position of power complete with a list of orders. She has since this time become a symbol unto herself beyond the church’s definition. Guadelupe, like many images, can be interpreted in a number of ways, from a symbol of queer expression to a surfing goddess riding the waves. I learned that people shape religion in creative and unsanctioned ways.
Soon I realized that my yearning for religion did not have to be at odds with my desire for radical body acceptance. I could shape religion in order to create a new way for myself. I stood at a crossroads, one I suspect many who yearn for spirituality or religion as well as body positivity often find themselves at. In my case, I found myself at the not so young age of 43.
Reaching Beyond Christianity
After I left my church, I spent a few months as an atheist. Even as I felt a cynical disgust towards religion, I also longed for something spiritual in my life. At the time, the idea that religion could exist outside of Christianity was, I’m embarrassed to say, a radical idea. But then I found neopaganism and Wicca (a nature-based religion incorporating elements of witchcraft, reverence for the cycles of the seasons, and Goddess worship).
I’ll admit my initial attraction to neopaganism was that it seemed like the polar opposite to Pentecostalism. But over time what I found was so much more valuable than a rebellion. I found a new way to think about my body as holy.
In the safety of an amazing group of people, I learned to explore my body’s sexuality. My desire for other humans, both men and women, was not judged as sinful. Instead I was encouraged to celebrate sexual pleasure as a joyous part of my existence.
My earlier experiences with sex could hardly be called pleasurable; half the time they were barely consensual. I looked at them through a lens of shame and repulsion for an appetite I didn’t think befitted a woman. The first time I looked at a woman and realized I was attracted to her, I thought for sure I’d go to hell. I buried those feelings deep. But with neopaganism sex was a gift. My desire to give and receive pleasure, be it with a man or a woman, was never met with disapproval. When I realized my resonance with the goddess Inanna, also known as the Whore of Babylon, this elicited no surprise or judgment from my coven.
My body, instead of being a container of filth, seemed a thing filled with light—a gift that I could give to others as well as myself.
I left Wicca when I began to study religion. My studies made me question some of the teachings and I felt alienated. Learning how religion was a social construct challenged many of my mystical experiences. I turned away, but I yearned for that spiritual “something.” As the years passed, I realized I carried much of those early years with me. Neopaganism shaped me in ways that propelled me into greater ideas of acceptance.
The Three Faces of the Goddess
As part of studying Wicca, I learned about the idea of the three-fold Goddess. The Goddess in many traditions has three aspects: maiden, mother, and crone. Just as I learned to move in tempo with the cycles of nature, I also learned to flow with the cycles of my body. I found myself celebrating my period (even though at times I bemoaned its coming) because it was a part of that cycle. When I became a mother for the first time, I mourned the maiden I left behind, but I also knew to look ahead towards this new shift. I’d become the Mother now, and my body grew with the roundness of my womb and my breasts filled with milk. Just recently I told someone, “I can’t wait to be a crone. Bring it on already.” I smiled to myself later, realizing I didn’t fear the aging of my body because that, too, was something holy.
At that moment, I realized I’d never wandered too far from neopaganism. The sheer joy it taught me about my body was something I wanted to nurture and whose seedlings I wanted to hand to my own daughters. I could shape neopaganism, I realized, just as the women I studied shaped their religions to suit their purpose. I’d try to return to Christianity during the time I spent in study, but those wounds were too deep. The scars still ached and no matter how much reshaping I did, I could never find a comfortable fit.
Spirituality and Body Love
As funny and odd as it may seem, accepting my weight came to be the focal point that pushed me back to the religion of my early twenties. For years being fat was something I saw as the worst thing ever. It was seen as something sinful in both my family and church to the point where they engaged in programs designed to help lose weight with god. But over the last few years, I find myself looking at pictures of prehistoric Goddess figures and seeing in them my own body. How can I fault a body that someone, sometime, thought divine? In my curves, I could see the vastness of the ocean or the solidity of the earth.
Seeing my body as holy, even without the added benefit or baggage of belief, challenged me to not use words like “disgusting,” “ugly,” “clumsy,” “gross,” and so on. Those words do not describe this holy temple. When I am feeling down on my body, I think of the Goddess who destroyed the world beneath her dancing feet. The Goddesses who devoured men even as they spared the women. The Goddesses who loved without shame.
It’s easy to see how religion oppresses; it absolutely does. It can be filled with shaming and damning ideas about our bodies and our desires. But we can also transform those ideas, shaping them into radical ideas about ourselves.
(Feature Image: A photograph of the profile of a woman, standing with her head raised up and her arms thrown back as if in ecstasy. She stands before a magnificent ocean sunset, her body visible only as a dark shadow against the brilliance of the pink and orange sky.)