“But you’re young and healthy. Why not?”
This was my mom’s shocked response the first time I told her I didn’t want to wear a bikini.
I, in turn, was shocked. I stared at her. “Mom.”
My mother—she who is conservative in dress and movie preferences, prudent with words and careful of her reading selections—was frowning at my choice to wear a modest swimsuit that summer. How could she not understand me? But then I had to consider she grew up in the 70’s, on the heels of the sexual revolution and women’s strikes for equality.
“Mom, I want to show I respect myself. And I don’t want to lead anyone into temptation. This is something I want to do.”
This is something I continue to want: to dress modestly out of love for my brothers and sisters. To preserve what is good and protect what is holy, because our bodies are temples. God asks us to honor them.
For women this is especially important.
For, women, we know.
We are being watched.
Nearly every moment, every day, we are being watched.
From the very beginning, it has been this way.
In the beginning, Adam looks at Eve. He exults in her. He sees her with the eyes of God, and knows at the same time he is seeing God in her. As a good friend of mine remarked when reading Fulton Sheen’s “World’s First Love”:
We are united in God, which is pure love because God is existence itself—He is the pure essence of being. God is constantly loving all things into reality. He is loving us and willing our good so perfectly, so powerfully that that’s not just something He does but that in a sense is what He is. Our love is not our own, it is God Himself. Your love for me is God’s love for me, through you. That’s why I say you are God’s love to me, a gift. When I see my own love for you I cry, because I see the face and beauty of God. And I can’t contain my joy.
Imagine being in the place of Eve, receiving the love of a person who cannot contain their joy at you and their joy in God. Imagine this person facing you, their eyes convey sincerity, attention, and care. Without a word, they are saying: “You are good. I see the good in you. You are good, I want that potential of greater good for you.”
Then your soul cries out, much like Adam on first seeing Eve, ‘At last! Bone of my bones! Flesh of my flesh! I am seen! I am known! And I see you. I know you: the Spirit in me recognizes the Spirit in you.’
This is how we are called to look at one another.
We, as men and women, are made to see each other with pure intention and have the swelling desire to fulfill good for the other. We are created to behold one another with wonder as Adam and Eve first did. They were free of doubt in one another’s character, free of any stinging anger, free of frustration. They, our first parents, were swept up in an ‘original state of holiness and justice,’ sharing in divine life (CCC #375). Adam had inner harmony with himself, there was harmony between he and Eve, and together they were in harmony with all of creation (CCC#376).
Adam and Eve initially rejoice in one another—and in God—in the Garden. They gaze at one another in total self-giving. They walk shadow-speckled Eden beneath soft, brilliant blue skies and soaring trees. They feel the embrace of sun on their skin, and know it is a mere echo of the secure warmth of one another’s presence.
And then comes the Fall.
Then comes a flood of pride, jealousy, and greed into the world.
Then the human gaze changes. Man can no longer look at man as a co-partner in working the earth, as we see with Cain and Abel. Man can no longer trust God with all of himself, as we see when Adam and Eve hide in their nakedness. Man can no longer look at woman without also thinking of his own gain.
My mom grew up in a time when both men and women were thinking of their own gain, in terms of freedom with their bodies and within the law. She was going through school just as Cindy Sherman, Carolee Schneeman, and Martha Rosler were beginning to break female stereotypes in the art world. In the late 20th century these artists challenged the very thing my mom accepted: they recognized women were compelled to fashion themselves according to sexualized imagery in the media in order to garner attention, and they sought to change this pressure in society. These artists took action against the common portrayals of women as lazy, passive, or inert objects for pleasure. They challenged male artists by mimicking the imagery and art media men used, to critique men’s use of the female body. Instead of illustrating powerless women, Sherman and her contemporaries styled women as autonomous, feeling, and striving for their own aspirations.
In doing so, Sherman and others countered ‘the gaze.’
In the story of Genesis, we first read how Adam gazed at Eve in wonder. This gaze was pure, unwavering, filled with love. His view of Eve, and her view of him, then becomes distorted when sin enters the world.
The change wrought by the Fall is evident in human society, and it is evident in art.
‘The gaze,’ which Sherman, Schneeman, and Rosler counteract, refers to sexual objectification of women, in fine art and other forms of media throughout history. The term indicates the long tradition of paintings with female subjects, paintings commissioned by and executed by men for the pleasure of other men. In classical works women were often portrayed as property, inert (reclining), or models posing as subjects for the male viewers. Women were treated as objects of desire.
This treatment continued into the 1900s. Until that time, female artists had been discouraged from portraying themselves and the reality of being women. Virginia Woolf and her fellow writers commented on it in the earlier half of the 20th century. Woolf, in her ‘A Room of One’s Own’ acknowledged the oppression of women. She felt that women were pressed into being in the public eye, always—even in the home. The women’s role was to be in public: a woman was to be seen and not heard, to tend to children, to cook and clean. There was no time for women to visit one another, in private, and share the female experience—nor was there the time or privacy to write of their experiences. So Woolf stepped out and spoke of the need for women to express themselves. She gave women a voice in a new way. Sherman, Schneeman, and Rosler continued her kind of movement several decades later, crafting a new image of woman whom had power, ability to speak, and hopes—with the freedom to attain her dreams.
Why, though, would men continue to objectify women? We see it today in our ads and films. We see it in the fascinations society has with the female body.
‘Have you any notion how many books are written about women in the course of one year?’ Virginia Woolf writes in “A Room of One’s Own.” ‘Have you any notion how many are written by men? Are you aware that you are, perhaps, the most discussed animal in the universe?’
Yes, women. It is because we captivate the world. And we sense, from the earliest of our days, the world is watching us.
John Berger, in his 1972 “Ways of Seeing,” writes of this:
From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her… She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another.
These writers reveal the truth of womanhood in the literary world. Woolf admits our value as beautiful creatures. Berger—an English art critic, novelist, painter, and poet—acknowledges the truth we women have known since the beginning of time. We are creatures, which inspire greatness or desire. Our identity is, ultimately, rooted in someone other than ourselves.
We see this with Adam and Eve in the garden. Eve appears, Adam beholds her beauty, and he cries out with joy! She has aroused in him his meaning, his purpose: she is made from him, for him, so the two of them may serve together. Her identity comes, in part, from him.
It is due to God and His goodness, though, that she is made.
St. John Paul II and Fulton Sheen, like these artists and authors, knew the worth of women. The two great promoters of human love show us how to counter society’s twisted images of love and the human body, more perfectly than Cindy Sherman or Virginia Woolf do. They give us guides on how to see one another with that pure and sacrificial gaze, the kind with which Adam and Eve once beheld one another.
‘Love cannot be built without sacrifices and self-denial,’ John Paul II tell us in “Love and Responsibility.” Love is never something ready made, but a journey along which man and woman are set: men and women are to be partners in learning generosity, patience, and good will. Thus we are to consciously seek the good with others, to subordinate ourselves to the good of others, and to strive for good because of others. This pursuit of goodness for others involves speaking and looking at each human person with respect.
Fulton Sheen, in “Life is Worth Living,” specifies that:
When a man loves a woman, he has to become worthy of her. The higher her virtue, the more noble her character, the more devoted she is to truth, justice, goodness, the more a man has to aspire to be worthy of her. The history of civilization could actually be written in terms of the level of its women.
He says, too, “We become like that which we love. If we love what is base, we become base; but if we love what is noble, we become noble.”
We all want this kind of nobility, whether we are men or women. We all yearn for this kind of love.
I felt the call to urge others to such nobility that first spring I told my mother I would no longer wear a bikini. I was old enough to have an awareness of the gaze—the male gaze Cindy Sherman confronted—and I wanted women to be held in higher esteem than their surface value. Women deserve that, as daughters of God.
Men, we women desire to hear a man say, and to see in his gaze, “I want to love you as Christ loves the Church. I want to serve you. I want to serve with you. I want to cherish you all the days of my life, and be cherished by you. You are a gift. A treasure. God has preserved you—for me. Flesh of my flesh! Bone of my bone! At last.”
Women, men crave to be accepted. When they overflow with love and they express what is on their hearts, treasure what they have shared. Allow them an opportunity to open their hearts more to you, whether in friendship or discerning marriage. Call these men strong. Acknowledge their bravery. Serve them, and serve with them. Know men, too, are a great gift.
Women, we are made to inspire greatness and give life to the world. Men, you are made to help us in that mission and to draw up to the great warriors you were made to be.
We are made for this. We are made for the love of Christ. We are made to be held in His loving gaze.
In His gaze is our identity.