Cigarettes & the Female Body (most of all, you've got to hide it from the kids)

When I was a kid growing up in a small missionary community in the Amazon basin, we had a well-cared-for concrete swim ramp that went down into a large oxbow lake called Yarinacocha. And because we had this really nice ramp and a ten-by-ten-foot wooden raft that floated about fifty feet off shore, other people liked to come there to swim, including the rival missionaries from the Swiss Indian Mission, which did not have a lake of its own.

They weren't really "rival" missionaries, exactly, but in case you weren't aware, Switzerland is in Europe and Europeans are, shall we say, less than shy about baring their birthday suits to the world. The Swiss were deferential enough to our sensibilities that they wouldn't full-on skinny-dip at "our" lake, but when it came time to change into their swimmers, they had no qualms about going buck wild. And although I never once ever heard anyone say anything overtly negative about it, there was always a sense that those Swiss folks were a little... um... different.

Or licentious, depending on whom you asked.

That's the environment I grew up in, and that's why I can understand the application of lace doilies to the legs of furniture to protect their virtue. It's weird, yes, but I know where it's coming from. They call it "modesty," and hail it above all other virtues as a hedge against "Sin," which, when capitalized like that, was considered interchangeable with "Sexual Sin," which was of course the source of most of what is wrong with America and "The World."

Let's move away from that quotation-mark-rich environment, though, to the picture I posted in that thing I wrote about Why the Christian Church is not a Safe Place for an Artist: a self-portrait by a former student of mine in which a certain harshly-sexual word was written on a piece of tape that was stuck to her face. I wrote the piece, in part, to express my annoyance that a picture like that had been censored from our school Art Show.

One of my friends commented that he wouldn't have wanted to have to explain to his daughter what that word meant, and at first (because of my missionary-kid background, perhaps) I sympathized more with where he was coming from.

But then I didn't. 

Because I got to thinking about it, and the more I thought about it, the more I didn't like the idea that a woman's sexuality and her feelings about how she's perceived are things that need to be hidden away behind a lace doily.

I get the whole modesty thing, and it's obviously not particularly helpful for anyone to walk around wearing a flashing neon sign that says "Available for Boinking," but the problem is that "modesty" is a slippery concept that exists in the heart, not the fabric. It's also stupid to lay all the onus on women, just because men can be slimeballs.

Balderdash! Bull-excrement! 

The human body is a wonderful thing that, yes, has a inherent sexuality to it. Bing-bing! It's how we reproduce! But that's not all the human body is nor all that sexuality is, and it's ridonculously un-helpful to create a culture that focuses on sexuality over everything else, and acts as though female sexuality is where the STD/unwanted pregnancy/rape issues all originate. It takes two (or sometimes one, despicable man) to tango, and the human body is beautiful for so many more reasons than just sex. It is, really. And if we had our hearts in the right place, we could all just strip off all our clothes right now and go live in nudist colonies, as God intended.

Now, you don't want that, and neither do I. I like a little mystery, and nudity takes that away.

Also, human nudity is funny-looking. 

What isn't funny is a culture that tells a woman that her body and her sexuality is something that she should be ashamed of, and then shames her even more when she tries to honestly express in a work of art how that shaming makes her feel. I know the whole "slut-shaming" thing has become an emotionally-loaded cultural buzzword that acts as an excuse for people to stop listening to each other, so I don't really wanna go into it too much,* other than to say that I think that the ostensible goal of much of religious instruction to teach kids to "cherish women" is a noble one.


I don't believe it is ever justifiable to use shame as some sort of correctional tool. Nor do I believe that it is ever appropriate to try and force someone to be the sort of person you want them to be. Moral policing is an ugly, prideful thing, and people who try to do it should be drug into the street and shot (ironic wink).

I have a six-year-old son, so I get the whole thing about not wanting to expose your kids to more than they're ready to handle. In fact, just the other day I steered my son away from something that mentioned orgies because, well, I didn't want the headache of having to explain the whole sexual thing in the context of something that I consider to be a not particularly healthy expression of it.

Here's the thing, though. It's not like my son isn't already aware of his own burgeoning sexuality.

Isn't it possible that all my squeamishness is really doing is depriving him of a responsible adult voice as he tries to make sense of it all?

And furthermore, it's not like he's not being exposed on a regular basis to something that is always harmful and always ugly -- violence. Violence is in the cartoons he watches, the games he plays, and the bully-punches he sometimes endures on the playground. But I don't see anyone frantically trying to pretend to him that violence doesn't exist, until such time as he's old enough to properly contextualize it.

To my friend who wouldn't want his daughter exposed to the word "slut," I would ask this: would you be just as bothered if she was walking through that gallery and she saw a drawing some kid had made of someone karate-kicking someone else in the face? Because here's the thing... she would have seen violent images in that gallery. Not outrageously gruesome ones, but some that were in fact less mild than the perhaps slightly sexually-charged images that got censored. In fact, there was one particular young man who made several pictures that were rather dark and somewhat violent, and not only were they not censored, but I actually had to twist the school's arm a bit to get them to take seriously what I thought might be the possibly suicidal subtext to the work.

Which brings me to the point I really want to make, which is that it isn't even so much the censorship itself (their venue, their call) as it is what the particular items they chose to censor tends to indicate about the focus of the Establishment... which is to create an environment where no one has to think about the fact that females have bodies, and that those bodies are inherently sexual.

That, and cigarettes. Because if there are two things the North American Protestant Evangelical Church has traditionally enjoyed looking down on, it's female sexuality and cigarettes.

Cigarettes are, after all, an obviously easily-kickable and very visible (and smell-able) vice, and we all know that Sexual Propriety is pretty much the sole responsibility of the woman (she had it comin', etc.).


Words fail me, so I'm going to go yell at stuff, after leaving you with some of the other pictures that were censored from that show. Beautiful works of art that were apparently inappropriate for the white-washed, sepulchral walls of a church.

by Carly S.

by Carly S.

by Emily H.

by Emily H.

by Emily H.

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*Personally, I think we live in a hyper-sexed culture where women are used like objects, and where corporations looking to make a buck create a false "ideal" with which to manipulate them. On the flip side, even though I'm something of a feminist, myself, I also think that some angry strands of feminism (in their desperation to force men to atone for some of the more egregious sins of the patriarchy) end up contributing to their own dismissal as sexual objects. But I'm certainly not going to yell at them for going overboard in their efforts to right a wrong that I, no doubt, help to perpetuate.

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A FINAL NOTE: Good writing isn't magic. It's hard work, and the greatest reward for that work is to share it with others. So if you enjoyed this little (ad-free) piece of my brain... please share the love on your social internets. And pick up a copy of my Short Story Collection, whilst you're at it. You can get it as an ebook for less than a fancy cuppa coffee, and it'll last waaay longer.


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