On Tattoos and Female Sexuality
I’ve wanted a tattoo since I was sixteen years old. There were many reasons why I have desired to have charis, the Greek word for “God’s grace,” inked on my wrist
1. I think tattoos are beautiful, funky and cool.
2. They are a fantastically intimate creative endeavor.
3. God’s grace has redeemed me, saved me and given me overflowing joy (the root of charis-- chara-- means “joy” in Greek). I loved the idea it being etched into my skin, a word that embodied my freedom story adorning the body that He gave me.
In high school, I confided in a girlfriend that I was thinking about getting a tattoo. We were eating dinner at the Old Spaghetti Factory when I told her of my plan, to which she put down her fork and stared at me, horrified. “Kristin, tattoos ruin your purity,” she said. “I thought about getting one once. But then I realized my body was meant to be saved-- holy, blameless and pure-- for my future husband.”
I was stunned. Her words fell like arrows on my moral conscience, an attack on my spiritual compass. Though they sound immature when I think about them now, back then I was a high schooler who clung desperately to an idealized portrait of marriage-- if I just stayed as pure as I could be then my husband and I could become “one flesh” and our marriage would be just like the movies-- and completely bought in to what she was saying.
That night, I was so "convicted" by what my friend had said that I abandoned my plan to get inked. Further, if a tattoo could damage my purity, I couldn't imagine what might happen if I did anything remotely sexual. Her comments were simply added to my long list of "rules for purity." For eight years, I had sat in youth groups and listened to pastors tell me what I needed to do to stay a "pure Christian woman." I believed "modest was hottest" because I didn't want to "cause my brothers to stumble." If I felt I needed to wear a tank top, the straps should be “at least three fingers thick." Was I thinking about wearing a short skirt? I should be able to “Bend over in front of my grandfather and not be embarrassed.” Before I left the house, I had to remember to raise my arms above my head to check for a belly mid-drift. And every year at summer camp, I had to remember to pack a dark-colored t-shirt to wear over my two-piece bathing suit in order to hide my body on lake days.
My list didn't stop there. When it came to dating relationships, I was told men were sexual and women were emotional. Period. End of story; when it came to life and when it came to sex. As a single woman, I believed I needed to do everything in my power to keep from tempting the men in my life. I read in books that when I was a married woman, I'd need to keep my husband's sexual appetite fed; no ifs, ands or buts about it.
I remember sitting at a purity conference and hearing one of the female speakers tell us that we could either be "trashable" Styrofoam cups or "delicate" teacups when it came to our dating relationships. One misstep-- like not leaving room for Jesus while dancing-- could lead to us becoming damaged goods. Further, when dating, I was taught that I shouldn't ask the question "How far is too far?" but "How pure can I be in order to save myself for my future husband?"
In her article entitled “Naked and Ashamed,” Amanda Barbee describes a similar set of guidelines. She discusses a middle school retreat in Georgia in which a youth pastor was attempting to explain the importance of dressing modestly: “The youth leader held a box of donuts at his chest where the donuts were not visible. To illustrate what happens to a boy when he can see a girl’s cleavage, the man leaned over, exposing the clear top of the donut box so that everyone could see the donuts inside… Like most discussions of male sexuality within the purity movement, the objectification was seen as normative; rather than teaching middle-school boys to respect the bodies of their female peers, these girls are being taught that their bodies are dangerous and tempting.”
It is only now-- six years after putting my tattoo dreams on the back burner and one year after getting married-- that what I thought was keeping my purity undamaged was also damaging my self-image. The purity movement created a dichotomy of two polarizing women: the Proverbs 31 virgin and the devious whore. I resonate with the words written by blogger Elizabeth Esther: “Christians say that the world objectifies women through immodest dress and a permissive sexual ethic. However, by idolizing sexual purity and preoccupying ourselves with female modesty and an emphasis on hyper-purity, Christians actually engage in reverse objectification.” We've brought up our girls to believe their sexuality is BAD BAD BAD, and then expect them to find it GOOD GOOD GOOD the moment they get married. But here's the thing: A woman's sexuality is not a switch to be flipped overnight. In July, I married a wonderful man who loves and cherishes me, and with whom I am finally able to and want to be emotionally, spiritually and physically intimate with; and yet over the past year I have had to actively choose to bare my soul and my body because for so long, I was told to hide them.
Why have we centered the Christian dialogue around female sexuality on shame and blame? Why are we teaching young women that their bodies and sexuality are inherently sinful and something to be kept under wraps because it will inevitably harm others? What are we telling young women when we give them two options-- a Styrofoam cup or a china teacup-- one of which can be crunched up and thrown away and the other of which can be easily shattered?
We are perpetuating a narrative about women’s bodies that is harmful and destructive. We are expecting newly married Christian women to be fine with being risqué and sexual the moment they get to the honeymoon suite, when every year prior to that, we tell them that Beyonce's music videos and Angelina Jolie's movie roles are dirty and sinful.
I am glad I was married before Beyonce and Jay-Z put on their sultry rendition of "Drunk in Love" at the Grammy's this year. Following their performance, Christians across the spectrum voiced their outrage over the performance, in which the couple made marriage look fun and sexy, a "hot display of marital lust," as described by Laura Turner. By then I had been married for six months and had seen the ways in which keeping my sexuality completely in the dark for 22 years had affected me in my marriage. I watched Beyonce own her sexuality up on stage in front of millions of people-- dancing with her man and on her own-- and marveled at her grace, power and confidence. Alyssa Rosenberg has also offered her thoughts on the performance, saying: "It’s a song about flirting, about going out and partying, about having fantastic, adventuresome, totally enthralling sex–with your spouse. That’s a far, far better argument for marriage than the pseudo-scientific case for holding onto your oxytocin by not having sex before you say your vows on the grounds that such conservation efforts will make your first time better."
That pseudo-scientific case has been debated in an article that’s gone viral over the past two weeks over at xoJane, in which Samantha Pugsley details her journey of waiting until her wedding night to lose her virginity and wishing she hadn’t afterwards. Waiting didn’t give me a happily ever after,” she writes. “Instead, it controlled my identity for over a decade, landed me in therapy, and left me a stranger in my own skin. I was so completely ashamed of my body and my sexuality that it made having sex a demoralizing experience.” While I don’t agree with Pugsley’s final conclusion-- I was a virgin on my wedding day and would do it again if I had to--I do think she starts to get at a fundamental shift that needs to happen in the Christian dialogue on female sexuality.
A woman's body is not something to be ashamed of. When God made Eve, He called her good. He named her ezer kenegdo, a Hebrew word that appears in three different contexts, according to popular blogger Sarah Bessey, “The creation of women, when Israel applied for military aid, and in reference to God as Israel’s helper for military purposes… God created the first woman out of Adam’s side, and he named his daughter after an aspect of his own character and nature… Women were created and called out right at creation as warriors.” By changing the language we use to talk about Christian women, we can foster a healthy, gray area in which women are not relegated to either virgin or whore. God created women as sexual beings; strong, ezer warriors whose bodies were created in the image of God. Women who can stand holy, blameless, pure, and sexual before Him as His beloved daughters.
If my friend from high school were here now, I'd have that conversation with her about the tattoo all over again. This time, I'd tell her that purity is not a standard or a list of rules, it is a posture of the heart that cannot ruined by what a woman does or does not do with her body; that I don't have to hide or fear the things that I do with my body.
This is all a part of my continuing freedom story, the one God has written on my heart over the past year. Which is why, at the age of twenty-three, I did what I’ve been wanting to do since high school. With my husband and best friend beside me, I laid on a bed in a tattoo parlor and felt as a machine tore like a knife at my skin-- the word charis etched into the body He gave me-- all joy, grace and the fullness of freedom spilling out.