Monday, July 18, 2011

Can a Christian Woman Get a Hotel Room While Showing Cleavage?

Thunderstorms in Boston and Newark delayed my first leg of air travel home. I, like many other stranded travelers trying to get to Seattle, needed to find a place to sleep other than concourse benches. My journey at that point included 14 hours of travel time and knew I had at least another 16 hours before I would get home. I was frustrated. Exhausted.

As I approached the front desk, my dusty backpack and roller bag in toe, the clerk's eyes roamed over my body. From my face to my shoes, he slowly looked up and down, pausing in leering enjoyment at my chest each perusal over my body.

At that point I smiled. It was not a friendly smile, but a patented Pacific Northwest variety of smile that can easily be translated into "#$@* you very much." Only after I smiled did he acknowledge that I was at the desk.

His reaction was par for the course that day. I had made a classic travelling error. I wore a shirt that showed a hint of cleavage. The over shirt was sleeveless, see through material, with polka-dots. It also breathes well and is cool in the hot summer months, so I can add a layer of formality without sacrificing comfort. So when I was stuck on the tarmac for an hour in Boston in this travel outfit, I wasn’t sweltering. It’s a fun flirty shirt that is not enormously provocative, but makes me smile at the hint of curves that it shows when I wear it.

You see, I love my body. As a 25 year old woman who spends most of her year in Southern California stating how comfortable I am in my own skin is a startling revelation. I love the color of my hair and I am thrilled that I am inheriting my mother’s sparkling grey. I love the fact that only the right side of my face can curl into a sarcastic half smile. I love the gentle curve out of my stomach, because it means that I am healthy and have enough to eat. I love my mismatched feet. I even after years of awkward self-conciousness love that hint of cleavage.

This is not me speaking from narcissism, but an appreciative gasp of thanks for the miracle of my body. Thank you, God. Thank you for this body and the life that comes along with it.

This prayer is defiant. My body is not something that I am supposed to like. My native and corporate culture can’t sell me creams, make-up, and get thin quick cookbooks if I actually like my body as is.

As for Christianity? Historically, the body has been an embarrassing footnote to the theologies of spiritual salvation, an accident that needed to be conquered by true faith. And being in a woman’s body? Well that was an indication of spiritual unwholesomeness that is to be blamed for the whole sinfulness of humanity. So while you have Paul and Augustine praising women for their spiritual leadership and capabilities, you also have them suggesting that women need to cover themselves to not inspire lustful thoughts of angels or cause spontaneous erections in men. I shouldn’t be so proud of my womanly curves, I should hide them so I do not invoke any hint of sexuality.

Wearing a shirt that even remotely suggests my body is feminine means that I am now allowed to be viewed as a sexual object. This is probably why the clerk at the desk felt that it was acceptable to ogle me. After I handed over my identification and credit card, the clerk walked over to his manager. “Should we let her have a room?” he audibly whispered to his supervisor. The clerk kept a raised eyebrow pointedly directed at my chest.

The supervisor looked over at me and smiled broadly. “I think so. She has an innocent face,” he said to the clerk. “But if we have a loud party we will know where it started.” He chuckled inviting me to share in the joke.

Half way through my journey, exhausted and frustrated, I had just been called a whore. I flushed in anger, embarrassment, and gratefulness that I had a place to sleep that night. I swore that I would never wear that shirt again.

That is the sneaky part of sexism. It makes you blame yourself for the horrible treatment of others. I went to bed that night thinking that the behavior of the clerk was my fault for showing cleavage and standing out while I traveled. I looked at my breasts in the mirror and sighed at the unwanted attention the garnered yet again. I forgot that my body was a miracle. I went to bed without thanking God for this blessing.

The worst part of this story is that I forgot that my body is a gift. Sexism, and the theologies that stem from it, are in direct conflict of my understanding of God’s universally applicable love for us as God created us. Scripturally, there are many verses that uphold that a body as being lovingly created by God or in the image of God. Women are either explicitly mentioned, or can be read into verses that celebrate God’s creation. Many feminist theologies address this consideration of the body, and emphasize the importance of the feminine body in the face of prejudice or violence. It’s hard to remember this when you’re scared or frustrated, but the underlying and deliciously subversive message of these Christian's woman's depicitions of the beauty of the body is this: I am a child of God, made in the image of God and I will not feel ashamed because choose to travel in a shirt that makes me smile.


Anna said...

Hey Ruth, we haven't talked for a while, I didn't actually know you had a blog, but this is a lovely piece you've written. I didn't know you were such an eloquent writer, although I'm not surprised.

Ruth said...

Anna! How delightful to hear from you! I hope you are doing well.
Thank you for your kind words. I blame my professors for any of my eloquence. In seminary I think I will write approximately 1000 pages and learning how to write was mandatory for survival.
As for the piece itself – I’ve learned that there are two kinds of protesting. There is the instantaneous gratification of flipping off the clerk. Or there is the opportunity for thoughtful reflection and the hope that educating people about sexism and the body will give them the opportunity to not be intimidated when this occurrence may happen to them in the future. I would say that maybe it might get someone who has ogled a woman to rethink their actions, but that seems more than a little optimistic.

Megan Ernst said...

Or as a third option: flip off the clerk, write this post, and then write the hotel chain detailing your experience (with quotes) and that you won't be frequenting their establishment again. That hotel needs some feedback on how they treat their paying customers.

Katie said...

I like Megan's idea of contacting the chain and letting them know how disappointed you were in your experience!

Amen to your beautiful thoughts about your body. Keep speaking that truth--we need it. As well as the telling of the truth about the experience of being an embodied woman in a world where there is still so much work to be done to eliminate sexism.