Like every woman I spent years suffering from the cultural expectation to lose weight, look flawless and live up to a sex-oriented ideal. I thought I’d never be thin enough or pretty enough to achieve ‘perfect womanhood’. I focused so much on the pressure of being a woman that I neglected the beauty of it. But the modern ideal of womanhood I was striving for was not the same as the womanhood God originally intended.
In recent years we’ve been given the invaluable gift of Pope John Paul II’s ‘Theology of the Body’ – a theology which has utterly revolutionised the Catholic teaching on women. I discovered this teaching almost by accident – as even today it remains little known to the majority of Catholics – but it has completely transformed my perspective on femininity and my life as a woman! So, I want to share with you just a snippet of what encountering JPII’s wisdom has taught me about womanhood…
In the beginning God created heaven and earth, day and night, sea and sky, animals on the land and in the sea, and finally He created Man. But God saw that it wasn’t good for Man to be alone, so He created Woman: the culmination of all Creation. Woman wasn’t the result of a fault in the mould. She was created with intent to build on Man and enhance life on earth. She wasn’t an afterthought, she was what the rest of Creation had been leading up to. From the very beginning, God gave Woman inherent value.
That inherent value is displayed in authentic femininity. A femininity which doesn’t require adornment or adaptation to meet expectations, but which allows women to be confident in who they were made to be.
Women, by our very nature, are receptive both physically and emotionally. During sex the female body is receptive to the man’s. In everyday life it is typically women we go to when we need to pour out our troubles, and women who offer affectionate hugs as an instinctive greeting rather than the stereotypical male handshake.
In the Garden of Eden, Eve violated that nature by grasping at the object of her desire instead of trusting God to provide her deepest needs. Eve was tempted by the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. She lusted after that which she was not instead of taking joy in that which she was, and as a result she initiated the fall of humanity.
But, luckily for us, there was a second Eve… Mary! When Gabriel appeared to her, Mary didn’t say ‘I’ll do what you’ve asked’, she said ‘Let it be done to me’ – she was receptive to the Holy Spirit at work within her. But in her willing acceptance of God’s plan for her, Mary wasn’t just a passive vessel for a man’s work – she was the active deliverer of Christ to the world. The incarnation of Christ hinged on Mary’s ‘Yes’: the entire future of humanity was placed in her hands. “After a long period of waiting the times are fulfilled in her, the exalted Daughter of Sion, and the new plan of salvation is established.” (CCC, 489)
Mary’s ‘Yes’ atoned for Eve’s ‘No’ to God’s plan. Eve became a temptress, Mary became a redemptress. Just as Eve’s misused femininity triggered the Fall, Mary’s embracement of her femininity enabled the redemption of humanity. Again, the inherent value of a woman was recognised and engaged in God’s work.
“The moral and spiritual strength of a woman is joined to her awareness that God entrust the human being to her in a special way… This fundamental vocation speaks to women of the dignity which they receive from God himself, and makes them ‘strong’.”
(Mulieris Dignitatem, no. 30)
As women today we retain the choice to misuse or embrace our femininity. We have the choice to bow to the pressures of our secular society or to defend God’s original vision of womanhood. We CAN be confident in our identity, we CAN fulfil our God-given vocation, and most of all we CAN recognise that being a woman is purposeful, a privilege, and a JOY. And that’s exactly what authentic femininity is about!
“It’s about being ourselves, our real and best selves. It’s about reading the writing on our feminine souls – writing engraved there from the moment God formed us in our mothers’ wombs – then living what that writing proclaims.” (Emily Stimpson)
Esther is a final year Psychology student at Oxford University, UK, with a particular passion for empowering women to be who God made them to be and the complementarity of new feminism. She blogs at For Such a Time as This