Welcome to week 2 of Expand. It’s been a delight to see the way this series has developed and the voices that are emerging. For those of you catching up you can find the first post here and the second post here.
Allow me to introduce you to Erin. Our paths crossed for the first time a little over a year ago when she stopped by the retreat center I work for. She was curious about how the retreat center was run, as she was interested in retreat ministry. Fast forward almost a year later, when she volunteered to offer spiritual direction at a conference at the center. I saw such a fun, playful side to Erin, in addition to her gifting as a spiritual director, and thought to myself: I want to be friends with her! It’s been a joy getting to know her more this year and I’ve enjoyed having another woman to talk with about what it means to be female and Christian.
“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar.
This was not a very encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, “I-I hardly know, sir, just at present-at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”
“What do you mean by that?” said the Caterpillar sternly. “Explain yourself!”
“I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid sir,” said Alice, “because I’m not myself, you see.”
“I don’t see,” said the Caterpillar.
“I’m afraid I can’t put it more clearly,” Alice replied very politely, “for I can’t understand it myself to begin with; and being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.”
-Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll
For the first 32 years of my life, Alice could not have described my experience as a woman any more succinctly. Despite the accuracy, I am keep-me-up-at-night-sweating-trembling-and-in-tears terrified to explain why. You see that requires I be honest about myself in ways that I am unpracticed in, in ways that are taboo, and that means, I’m making myself vulnerable. I’m afraid that for each person who reads this and sees honesty and courage, another will see pride. One applauds, another chastises. For every woman who reads and feels encouraged, another will see a mirror reflecting back to her a self she doesn’t like. That imbalance scares me. It always has. That’s why for so long I’ve been a shape-shifter; a quick-change artist. I want everyone to feel good and to like me. That has meant living as distortions of my true self and it’s exhausting. It’s a sad history that I don’t want to be my future. So here’s the truth….
I’m the girl you love to hate, and I know it, and it makes me hate myself. (*Note that even in that sentence I referred to myself as a “girl” rather than a “woman.” This makes me less threatening, smaller.) Here are the cold hard facts. I’m tall, attractive, slim without trying, but curvy in “the right places.”
Hate me yet? Wait for it.
I never had acne or braces, and my vision is 20/20. I’m funny, quick on my feet, and articulate. I am socially successful, a natural leader, and highly intelligent. If that’s not enough, I’m also happily married to an incredible and handsome man. We are financially comfortable and secure. We have three beautiful, talented, smart children (and one on the way) whom we homeschool well. I am simultaneously a graduate student and excelling academically. I’m involved in ministry, we have a church and small group that we love, friends we spend time with, and I would describe myself, my marriage, and my family as thriving in all of it.
You may be wondering why this stuff is so hard for me to talk about. After all, these are external things that would become obvious if you knew me for any significant time. All this has been so far is a huge list of blessings; things that most days I’m thankful for and humble about. These are also all things that I have explicitly and implicitly been told my whole life that I should act sad about. Things that I should apologize for or diminish to lift others up. Things that might be true but that I ought not acknowledge to myself (pride), much less talk about with others (arrogance).
So I change sizes by being quiet even when I have something important to say. I do it by never showing all of myself at any one time. I just keep shrinking and expanding so that hopefully, in the moment you look at me, you’ll like what you see. I strangle and cut off facets of myself and hope that somehow the parts I show will receive enough love to nourish my whole being. It never works out that way. If I can’t be loved for the obvious parts that I can’t help but present, how can I begin to believe that I’ll be loved for the messy, dirty, sinful, in-process parts of me that are so easy to hide?
I, like many women, have bought into the lie that showing love to another woman requires hating some part of myself. So I pretend like I’m not competent, just well supported. I pretend I’m not intentional, I’ve just had a run of dumb luck. I pretend like I didn’t hear you put yourself down by comparing yourself to me or what I’m doing. I pretend that I didn’t finish that conversation feeling like I did something mean to you by leaving the house this morning. I often let the fact that other women obviously need some encouragement slide, because I don’t want to play the “who can put themselves further down” game. It seems that as women, we have become unable to celebrate differences. We automatically qualify and rank ourselves, seeking desperately for the role by which to define ourselves in relationship to each other, instead of just being confident in our intrinsic value as a person. As Alice said, it’s confusing to try to be so many different sizes in a day.
So I’m stopping. I’m trying to figure out my actual size. I’m learning to accept the fact that some people will find me too big to handle, others too small to care about. I’m trying to be okay with the fact that being my true self will mean both more joy and more pain in my life. It will mean deeper, but fewer great friendships and accomplishments. I’m also finding hope that I’ll be loved for all of me, and hope brings freedom. Freedom for myself, and freedom for others. If you and I meet tomorrow, I hope you find freedom in the ways we are different and that we can celebrate our diversity instead of comparing our incongruities. I hope that my daughters find freedom to love themselves because I modeled it for them. I hope that I find freedom to allow God to love all of me, to bear and erase my shame as completely as He has my sin. I hope all these things for myself, and I genuinely hold hope of all the same for my fellow females, because I’m realizing that one of the crucial things I need to be a better woman, is other women. I need sisters, and I need to be a sister, and we can’t have those relationships if we are afraid of ourselves and unable to be vulnerable. One size does not fit all, we are all custom fit, and it’s better that way.
Erin is a thirty-something So Cal wife, mom, and student who spends most days slack-jawed by the overwhelming evidences of God’s grace.