Cissy Brady-Rogers
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Last night at the Hollywood Bowl, George Benson introduced his new female band member, Lilliana de los Reyes, as the daughter of a famous drummer. He noted that she’d recently completed her MFA at USC’s prestigious Thornton School of Music. You could hear the pride in his voice.

After playing percussion behind him all evening, she joined George front and center for a duet. Wow! She rocked the house. As soon as she began, a smattering of  “Oooo….ooohhh….aaaahhhh” murmured across the audience along with light applause.

At the end of their song, we let forth our biggest round of appreciation all night. Lilliana de los Reyes is a spectacularly gifted musician. And I imagine a very remarkable woman in many other ways. She’s also a young, tall, lean, long haired blonde, who fits the idealized American beauty standard.

George extended his hand toward her as the applause died down and said her name “Lilliana de los Reyes.” Basking in the glow of her first appearance at the Bowl, she bowed, waved to the audience and headed back to her drums. But then George ruined it for me. He jokingly compared her to her father who plays drums but doesn’t sing. And ended his comment with “Of course, her father isn’t beautiful like that either.” He chuckled sweetly as did many in the audience. And the show went on.

I felt intolerance surge from my gut into my chest. I shook my head and felt the strength of my Guardian midlife Warrior energy rise up. Another ignorant and “innocent” objectifying comment by a man who is continuing to play by the rules of an “old boys” system.

Translate the same engagement to a corporate setting and imagine how it would fly. At the end of a great presentation, the older male lead presenter turns to the room of business people and comments on how attractive his younger partner is??? I don’t think so!

I have no idea how Lilliana felt about the comment. And I suppose that is what is most important. Yet I feel protective. I realize now what I didn’t recognize when I was her age.  Comments by men in positions of power about a woman’s appearance aren’t as innocent as they sound.

My younger self appreciated being told I was attractive by older men. Like many women of my era, I didn’t understand the power dynamics playing out in the relationships between men and women. I enjoyed the power I felt in my sexuality, in my feminine beauty. I took it in and let it feed my Ego.

Then I grew older.

And less stereotypically attractive.

I cut my hair short.

I grew even older.

Then #MeToo happened.

And I began to recognize in ways I’d never seen before, the pervasiveness of gender inequality, male privilege, and the objectification and sexualization of the female body at every level of society and in most institutions. It’s everywhere. And for the most part we all just go along with it.

Like last night.

I wonder how many other audience members picked up on the comment. Did anyone else feel intolerance rise up?

I don’t blame George. And I didn’t let it ruin my enjoyment of the concert. I sent myself a text with George’s comment so I could write about it today. Then, like the Buddha taught, I chose to let the wave of intolerance and anger pass to the shore.

This morning I decided to revisit the wave.

Dictionary.com defines intolerance as unwillingness or refusal to tolerate or respect opinions or beliefs contrary to one’s own, or persons of a different social group, especially a minority group.

That makes sense in light of historical and current inequity and injustice.

But isn’t there something true and good and pure about intolerance that also needs to be included in the definition?

The Oxford English Dictionary my mom bought me back in the 1980’s begins their definition of intolerance this way: “impatience, unendurableness; the fact or quality of being intolerant; not tolerating or enduring something; incapacity of endurance.” Then it goes on to list specific expressions similar to the primary definition offered by dictionary.com.

I am reclaiming the use of “intolerance” in its purest meaning.

The refusal to tolerate or endure unloving, demeaning, dehumanizing, disrespectful language, attitudes and actions is essential for social justice.

The refusal to tolerate or endure objectification, sexualization and commodification of the female body is essential for gender equality.

In an interview for an Appearance Matters podcast, Philosopher Heather Widdows of the University of Birmingham talked about how beauty standards are a social justice issue. She suggested that instead of imagining a world where all beauty appearance pressures are eliminated, we need to imagine a world where all social injustice is eradicated.

I think she’s on to something important about beauty, identity and women’s empowerment.

As long as we go along with historically accepted norms that give George and other men a pass to comment on women’s bodies outside of a beauty contest, we perpetuate injustice at a micro-level. Every time we don’t call out micro-aggressions, we contribute to the perpetuation of macro-aggressions.

At some level, George’s innocent and affectionate remark grows out of the same soil as Harvey Weinstein’s reign of sexual terror.

A few weeks ago I vented with my friend Stephanie about my growing intolerance for ways of praying and worshiping that used to feed my soul. I told her how conflicted I felt about the dark energy arising in me. The next morning she sent me this word of wisdom. I don’t know who said it, but I’m carrying it with me these days as I reclaim the goodness of intolerance:

“I use the sword of my intolerance to cut deep and true.

I hold fast my vision and manifest it.”

How about you?

Is there an area in your life where you need to allow intolerance to help you cut deep and true?

If so, I’d love to hear about it.

 

In 2007 I began offering retreats, workshops and groups for women struggling to live in harmonious relationship with their bodies. Topics have included: dieting, fitness, health, beauty, perfectionism, sexuality, stress, mind-body connection, compassion, self-care and mindful awareness–just to name a few.

Sharon Song was an early adopter of the alive and well way. What began when she attended a Christ-centered yoga class back in 2007 has evolved into a shared mission to help women heal shame-based relationships with our bodies so we can love and enjoy being in our bodies, just as we are!

AWW VisionIf you relate to Sharon’s story, please visit our Alive and Well Women Facebook page.  We’d love to have you join us in creating communities where women can be ourselves, unconstrained by other people’s agendas for our lives.

Sharon Song

Sharon Song

Over-caffeinated, over-sugared, over-stressed and over-committed is how Sharon once described herself. She was on the verge of burnout and completely disconnected from what her body really needed.

“Alive and Well helped me learn to listen to my body–especially the stress that was telling me I needed better self-care. I learned that loving and caring for myself is a way to connect to God’s love for me.”

Sharon lives and works in South Los Angeles with an urban ministry community. Inspired by her own transformation, Sharon became a certified fitness trainer and is training to be a spiritual director. She’s committed to using what she’s learned to support others in living healthy, sustainable, urban spiritual lives.

For more from Sharon, please visit her blog “Live Move Be in the city” – a journey of South Los Angeles urban life. Featuring the Sonshine Shop thrift store and vintage items. Explorations on faith, fitness, fashion, food, fun, and more.

Lent commemorates the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert fasting, praying and being tempted by Satan with what my former pastor Darrell Johnson calls “the world’s trinity” – power, possessions and control. As one New Testament author wrote: Because he suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those being tempted. That’s the good news we enter Lent with: we aren’t alone in our struggles. God gets it. Lent is a time to reflect on our lives, acknowledge temptations to be conformed to the culture around us and take stock of our investments.

In our media-saturated, often too busy lifestyles, many people, things and opportunities invite attention. The internet is a vast network of lanes going an infinite number of places. Thanks to technology we don’t even need to leave home to engage with hundreds of people and travel the world.

Every day I delete dozens of emails from retailers and service providers I subscribe to and organizations I value. I’d love to investigate the new brain book that Amazon recommends or the workshop offered by the Center for Non-Violent Communication. But to do so takes me on detours that eat up time, energy and, potentially, money. I delete 90% of what enters my in-box, but don’t unsubscribe because I think “Someday, I might want to go down that path…”

I like to keep my options open.

Cissy, Marva, Kathy and Diane

Cissy, Marva, Kathy and Diane

But, as my prayer partner Marva’s dad so wisely counseled her on many occasions, I need to stay in my own lane!

When Marva came home, complaining about some person or circumstance over which she had no control, he’d say “Marva, you’ve just got to learn to stay in your own lane.”

For Lent, I’m choosing to practice staying in my own lane!

- When I find myself tempted to open a superfluous email or click on a link to who-knows-where, I’m going to take a deep breath and stay in my own lane.

- When I am on the road and become frustrated with how others choose to drive, I’m going to take a deep breath and stay in my own lane.

- When I feel irritated because my husband left crumbs on the counter, I’m going to take a deep breath and stay in my own lane.

A deep inhale, followed by a long, slow, pursed lip exhale, activates the calming system of my body and brings me back to center. It’s a quick way to down shift my nervous system when it starts to amp up in response to the excitements and aggravations of life. It’s a powerful tool to bring my attention back to myself, let go of what I can’t control and change what I can–my own response.

I know I will fall short. I’ll probably veer into  Dave’s lane at least once by the time we go to bed tonight.

Thanks be to God that in Christ, I am already forgiven. And that’s exactly what makes Lent possible–I can reflect on how far short I fall because I walk into my darkness with Christ at my side. Before me, behind me, to my left, to my right, over and under, all around me. Nothing can separate me from God’s love. He’s in my lane with me, ready to help me bring my attention back where it belongs.

That’s Great News for this driver!

 

 

Two commentaries on the challenges of being female in the church and in the broader culture came to my attention this week.

Andrea Heinrichs’ blog “What I Would Tell my 12-Year Old Self About Gender Roles” reminded me that in spite of great strides toward egalitarian relationships between women and men through groups like Christians for Biblical Equality, most of the church is still stuck in a binary model that assigns roles, capabilities and value according to gender. Similarly, in the culture-at-large women continue to be underrepresented in leadership roles in government, media and business. On top of all of that, media stereotypes about masculinity (“real men” are tough, stoic and violent) and femininity (“real women” are sex-objects) limit our options for moving beyond the binary model.

I first came across Laci Green when searching for videos for my human sexuality and sex therapy class. She began her public work on gender and sexuality as a sex educator while studying at U.C. Berkley. In her signature irreverently humorous style, her video “Why is Zero a Size Tho?” confronts multiple issues related to women’s embodiment As she points out, “zero means nothing…It suggests that a woman should take up so little space that she actually disappears.” A culture filled with both covert and overt messages that make staying small and taking up as little space as possible severely limit the possibilities for female empowerment.

Finally, I love the way Richard Rohr’s daily mediation this morning reminds me what my faith in Christ says about who I am and what it means to be a real woman or man:

The object and goal of all spirituality is finally the same for all genders: union, divine love, inner aliveness, soul abundance, forgiveness of offenses, and generous service to the neighbor and the world. Here “there is no distinction…between male and female” (Galatians 3:28). Mature Christian spirituality leads us toward such universals and essentials. Yet people invariably divide and argue about non-essentials!”

Amen!

Twenty-two years ago I chose not to have reconstructive surgery following my mastectomy. My reasons were psychological (I wanted to process the loss of my breast before adding anything new to my body) and practical (I figured I’d wait until after I had children then get both breasts done to match). There was nothing noble or moral or revolutionary about it. I just wasn’t ready.

I spent the next decade healing from my own disordered relationship with my body as I walked with others in the same journey. None of that was in my plan when I started graduate school training in marital and family therapy. Developing my own media literacy skills and teaching clients to critique cultural messages and social conditioning about beauty have played a critical role in deciding not to have reconstructive surgery, and to my commitment not to have cosmetic surgery of any kind in the future. It also plays a part in why I’ve chosen not to color my hair — although that is still negotiable as at some future date I may decide to go blonde or add an orange streak to my hair!

Why is having two breasts so important? Does having only one breast make me any less a woman or less sexy or less myself? Would I feel “more myself” and have greater love if I had two breasts? NO! And what about my softening neck or wrinkling eyes? Am I less beautiful with a sagging neckline?

Cultural critique was on my mind yesterday morning as I reflected on my experience at a self-help conference. The beauty and wellness communities are full of self-love messages. Ironically cosmetic surgery to alter self-perceived unacceptable aspects of physical appearance is often also viewed as an acceptable avenue to greater love and self-acceptance. How does “love and accept yourself” work together with choosing cosmetic surgery?

Clinical psychologist William Sheldon wrote that “Deeper and more fundamental then sexuality, deeper than the craving for social power, deeper even that the desire for possessions, there is a more generalized and more universal craving in our human make-up. It is a craving for right direction – for orientation. ” For youth and young adults, that orientation is about developing a solid sense of who they are, forming an identity that enables them to use their lives to create a better world for everyone.

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As I viewed Darryl Robert’s latest documentary America The Beautiful 3: The sexualization of our youth on Sunday night identity development was on my mind. The first two America the Beautiful films explored America’s obsession with beauty and body size. All three documentaries draw attention to the exploitation of basic human insecurities by commercial industries. Sex, slim bodies and beauty sell products from hamburgers to pharmaceuticals. Picture vibrant, slim, well dressed,  youthful looking middle aged couples in commercials for Viagra!

We want to be beautiful or handsome. It’s a basic human longing. We want to “look good.” Even before mirrors and photography people engaged in beauty enhancing techniques based on cultural norms. While across cultures the definitions of what is attractive vary, it seems that throughout history how one looks factors into identity development.

As a “chubby” child and early adolescent, I escaped the beauty, weight and sex traps by opting out of the game. I knew the rules: fat is not attractive. So rather than even trying to play the game, I mostly sat on the sidelines and played support crew for my more beautiful friends who were on the field. That isn’t to say I wasn’t deeply ashamed of my appearance – at least my body size. But I learned that my identity needed to develop from something other than how I looked.

Fast forward 40 years and I am grateful for the psychological insulation my fat provided. I learned that looking good (whatever that means) isn’t as important as being a good, kind, genuine person. I learned that being sexy was actually quite risky as I watched my “more attractive” friends suffer the slings and arrows of adolescent love games. Not to mention a few that ended up choosing to abort unwanted babies when they’d “forgotten” to use protection or the one who ended up marrying the father, moving to Oregon and becoming a teenage wife and mother.

Before I get on too much of a downer here, let me come back to what initiated this blog. My friend Chris Kresbach, who works in the film industry and knows all too well how messed up our cultural norms about beauty, weight and sexuality are, posted this video on Facebook today. It’s a wonderful tongue-in-cheek take on women, beauty and body image. All of which, along with sexuality, are central to the essential human need to know who we are. But they aren’t everything. We must find ways to love and enjoy our physicality and work with the inevitable challenges and changes, but not allow appearance to define us.

Let’s be at the forefront of reminding ourselves and each other about what is most important in life. Perhaps sharing this video with your friends would be a fun and simple way to do that!

Offered with my prayer that you will find ways to love and enjoy your body,  just as you are today!

I love poetry. But to read it or create it,  I must slow way down from my usual pace. My friend Stephanie (whose poem Disrobe I shared in my last post) is a junior high English teacher with lots of experience nurturing the poetic capacities in others. I captured a bit of my recent trip with her help on Labor Day.

The Cliffs of Mohr near my grandmother's birthplace in Lahinch, County Clare

Ireland

Fertile fields of wildflowers, grass and songbirds,
welcome travelers from faraway places.

Rolling hills, limestone castles, holy wells—
reminders of who I am, where I’ve come from and who I long to be.

Captured in precious but fleeting moments in ordinary days of urban life,
ever present in this sacred land my ancestors called home.

Golden silences broken by hilarious sounds
of nature’s delight in being alive!

by Cissy Brady-Rogers, Labor Day 2014

I returned home from two weeks in Ireland longing for more regular communion with open spaces, rivers, dirt, grass, trees, birds, wind, rain, clouds, rocks, cows, sheep, goats, bugs and the great outdoors. Spiritual director Christine Valters Paintner calls earth the “original monastery” – a place set apart to deepen our connection to God.

Climbing the 600 steps to top of Skellig

Throughout time contemplatives of all sorts have nurtured their spirits through communion with the earth. Previously uninhabited deserts and islands removed from ordinary life were natural sanctuaries. In the 6th century Christians built a monastic community atop Skellig Michael island off the coast of Ireland – one of the sacred places we visited during our trip. The 600 steps we climbed were just one of three paths the monks who inhabited the island between the 6th and 12th centuries built to navigate the steep climb from the Atlantic Ocean to their stone slab home 600 feet above.

Stone dwelling huts atop Skellig

In the 10th century St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote that the natural world is our greatest teacher: “Believe me as one who has experience, you will find much more among the woods then ever you will among books. Woods and stones will teach you what you can never hear from any master.”

On Monday morning one of my soul friends and I took a walk in Pasadena’s Arroyo Seco (Spanish for “dry gulch”). Best known as the home of the Rose Bowl, the Arroyo’s trails, native plants and wildlife remind me that even though I’m far from the green, moist, cool motherland that made my soul sing and skin ever-so-happy, I can still find ways to nourish my connection to nature. The desert beauty of the Arroyo held us as we shared our hearts with each other.

Afterward we wrote poems using an exercise from Poemcrazy: Freeing Your Life with Words. Spontaneous and birthed by intuition rather than efforts to write “good” poetry, we painted pictures of God’s work in our innermost beings. I wrote about my Irish roots while her poem perfectly captured the essence of our conversation in the Arroyo. Stunningly beautiful and rich with meaning, I asked her if I could share it here. It reminds me that sacred places aren’t just beautiful for what we can seen, but for how they give birth to the unseen ancient wisdom that we can only hear if we make space to listen.

Disrobe

The wide expanse of sky
echoes your own heart’s desire
and you glimpse for
a clear moment
the wings of your own soul soaring.

It is time to stop
tinkering with borrowed dreams
that you wear like an
Ill-fitting dress
stiff-collared, pleated skirt
your arms limited
by taffeta sleeves.

It is time to shed the layers
and slip into
your own luminous skin.

Tentatively, at first,
you begin to disrobe.

Cantankerous voices mutter
your behavior is offensive,
oblique. As you persist
in your unraveling
of thread and fiber,
buttons and lace
the rumble turns
to shouting
Should!
Must!
Don’t!
Do!
Angry venom bubbles over.
Poison eyes, clenched fists.

But you are fully naked now,
not a shred of the old dress left.
the voices are lost
in the rush of wind,
and you realize
you are flying.

A poem by Stephanie Jenkins, Labor Day 2014

Stephanie didn’t set out to be wise or compose a great poem. Yet when she first read this to me, it went deep into my soul. Reminiscent of Mary Oliver, I think it’s a masterpiece! Thank you Stephanie for allowing me to share it here.

Atop Skellig Michael with Little Skellig in background

Nature and creative expression are powerful sources of grace in our lives, yet can feel frivolous amidst all the ordinary demands of life. I pray that you may find what nourishes you and be fiercely committed to making time and space for those things. Even if it means walking in a dry gulch instead of on an Emerald Isle. Maybe you’ll discover you can fly!

As long as any boy or girl’s development of a solid sense of identity is limited by gender stereotypes, then we’ve still got a long way to go as a culture.

Last week was the 42nd anniversary of the passing of Title IX – the 1972 law that prevents sexual discrimination in higher education. In 1972 only 300,00 girls were involved in high school sports. Today that number is over 3 million.

In 1972 I was 10 years old and didn’t yet know how unjust the world was for females. I grew up with an attorney mother, a pretty forward thinking father, and a world where women were doctors and lawyers.  My great aunt Eileen Chambers, whom my mom and I visited each week at her nursing care residence, had been a doctor in her younger years. In addition, several of my mom’s best female friends were attorneys and my pediatrician was also a woman. In my idealized world a woman could be anything but a priest!

As a little girl I didn’t know that it wasn’t culturally acceptable for girls to play sports or dress in “boys” clothes. Unaware of gender stereotypes, I played “boy games” with my brothers and dressed how I wanted unless we were going to church or somewhere special. With two older brothers whom I adored and wanted to emulate, I loved being included in their rough and tumble games and wearing their hand-me-downs!

Then came school years when the gender rules became more clear
. But, I still played kickball with the boys while most of my female classmates played other games…although for the life of me I couldn’t tell you what. I was too busy enjoying myself to even notice what they were doing.

Thankfully, due to Title IX, throughout my school years I had equal access to after-school sports and organized team play. I wasn’t the greatest athlete, but I loved to play basketball, kickball and softball. In 4th grade I could kick the ball farther than most of my male classmates! Later on in junior high and high school I even played volleyball–the least favorite of my team sports. But I played because I loved the activity and the camaraderie of working with others and friendly competition.

The  “Always #LikeAGirl” video reminds me to be grateful I grew up in a gender neutral, supportive home where I was allowed to be me. None of my brothers or boy friends ever accused me of running, throwing or playing like girl. I don’t remember when I first heard that derogatory comment, but I’m pretty sure it was hurled at a boy by another boy on the elementary school playground.

Our task as supportive adults is to empower kids to be themselves, whatever that looks like. Rigid gender stereotypes don’t just harm girls, boys are equally victimized by cultural message about “being a man.”

Last month I posted a blog inspired by India Arie’s song “Just Do You.” Her’s is an important message in a world where binary definitions of gender limit authenticity and emotionally damage kids just trying to figure out who they are in a complex world.

Last month I met filmmaker James Colquhoun at a screening of his film Hungry for Change. This month I’m excited to tell you about his recently launched FoodMatters.tv – a website devoted to bringing the best information about food and health together in one place. They are on a mission to educate and inspire us to remember the wisdom of Hippocrates: food is medicine. In their vernacular: You are what you eat!

James and his wife Laurentine share my vision of individual responsibility for good health. “We believe that your body is worthy of good care and that no one is more suitably qualified to care for it than yourself.”  Amen!

Inspired by the healing of his dad’s chronic disease through eliminating a boatload of medications and introducing a plant-based diet, James and Laurentine are the real thing. I’m delighted to benefit from and support their efforts to help each of us become our own best advocates for good health.