I read Captivating by John and Stasi Eldredge when I was a sophomore in college. A lot of my friends had read Wild At Heart, John’s companion book for men. I can pinpoint these two books as the main influence for why I fell deep into gender roles during college – I refused to ask guys out; I refused to be the pursuer.
What this resulted in was a version of me that was not true to who I am. It was a Dianna who attempted to be demure and failed, who tried to hide affections and…failed. It was a Dianna who felt a deep burning shame over the complete lack of reciprocation to her crushes, and who didn’t know how to put things into context or to actually use my words to clear the air and make good choices. I was attempting to force myself into a box where I was meek and mild and quiet and submissive as a woman. This is a box that those of you who know me know I would never ever fit into.
It was also during this time that my body image was probably at its worst. I felt, because of the modesty teachings I was absorbing all over, that I had to hide myself, hide my body and anything remotely scandalous made me panic. I tried to learn how to do make-up to hide faults, to cover up around the people I liked and offered this weird, fake version of myself.
Even then, I was intimidating. I was still “too smart” for the men around me, too ambitious (I went to Oxford my junior year and got into a pretty highly-rated graduate school during my senior year). I didn’t fit into the gender roles John and Stasi Eldredge had laid out for us. No one called me “pretty” (except family). No one valued my looks – which is what John and Stasi Eldredge had told me was my “deepest question” as a woman. No one even referred to me as “inwardly beautiful.” I was too much of something that made Christian men uncomfortable, and it made following the gender role prescribed for me… well, impossible.
Men in this situation did not fare much better. Eldredge bases his teaching about men in fairy tale ideas of knights rescuing princesses. The man is the knight searching for purpose, searching for a damsel he can rescue and then lead (spiritually, financially etc etc). The man pursues; the woman is pursued. This creates a situation where neither gender (as always, assumed heterosexual and cisgender) is comfortable in their roles.
Men, positioned as knights, have a lot of pressure to be the go-getters, the leaders, the winners. This prevents relationships from developing naturally. People can just start having actual conversation about their dreams and desires, because for a woman to be open about her desire for a man is to be untoward – she is the prey, he the hunter, after all. And most prey doesn’t stand up and say, “HEY OVER HERE!”
(At least, I’m pretty sure that’s not how hunting works. I’ve not shot a gun since I was 12.)
Having to take on the role that the Eldredges prescribed, while also wondering if you’re doing the whole Christianity thing right, keeping pure, and trying to avoid situations where you could be tempted … It’s exhausting. Downright exhausting. It forces men and women to be policing every little interaction, every little boundary, straining friendships and making mature, Christian adults worried about sharing a car with a member of the opposite sex.
Purity culture does not exist without gender roles - they are an endless recursive set of stairs building upon each other. Purity means following your role as a woman and following your role as a woman makes you pure. Purity means following your role as a man and following your role as a man makes you pure. Rejecting gender roles in romantic relationships means rejecting at least a major part of purity culture. Becoming a woman who asks men out on dates makes you aggressive, which is immodest and impure. Becoming a man who allows his romantic partner to lead every so often makes you weak and therefore more susceptible to temptation - and therefore impure. It's an endless recursion in the logic.
Gender roles teaching – starting, for my generation, with the Eldredges, but certainly not limited to them – create people who see themselves as cogs in a machine as opposed to fully functioning, fully human adults who have interests and opinions and ideas for themselves. It forces women to sublimate their ambition and forces men to perform a role that is outsized even for men suited to leadership. Such roles restrict the Body of Christ, reducing us to perceived traits as opposed to a giant vibrant amazing populace and liberated individuals. Trying to conform to these rules makes it harder for people to know themselves and to understand their lives.
[Photo via Images by John K on Flickr, Creative Commons]