“At what point do our cultural norms prevent both men and women from becoming the fully human persons God intended them to be?” (Gordon Fee)
A lot has been written about the unrealistic body proportions of Barbie so this year Mattel has responded with new Barbies: with three new body shapes, a variety of hairstyles and skin colors and with flat feet (instead of feet permanently shaped for heels). It’s the first time since her 1959 debut that Barbie will have a different shape—representing an actual woman who has enough room in her torso for all her organs. Many are celebrating what this represents for women.
But much less has been written about proportions of male dolls. A significant example is GI Joe. If the GI Joe doll of 1964 were a real human, he would have a 32 inch waist, 12 inch biceps and 44 inch chest—definitely muscular but attainable for a normal man. By comparison, if the GI Joe of the 90’s were a real human he would have a 55 inch chest and 27 inch bicep, dwarfing even Arnold Schwarzenegger in his top form. I find it interesting that the female doll is becoming more realistic while the male doll is becoming less.
Unexamined Expectations of Men
My interest is not in dolls or even body image but gender ideals. While women have many opportunities to consider what it means to be a woman and are moving towards more realistic ideals, men are just beginning to ask similar questions. Meanwhile the culture continues to bombard them with more and more caricatures of masculinity.
But surely this is not true in the church? Surely the church is one place where men are free to find their true, human identity? Sadly, in some corners, the church only furthers the unexamined cultural expectations of what it means to be a man. And it’s doing damage to men—and women. The church only furthers the unexamined cultural expectations of what it means to be a man. Click To Tweet
In response to his recent blog on the subject, I’ve been in conversation with a local megachurch pastor (who I count as a brother and co-worker in our city) and from what I understand, here’s the basic flow of thought:
- The church has become too feminine and doesn’t appeal to men.
- The culture is too influenced by feminism and has become imbalanced.
- Church should be counter-cultural and affirm masculinity to welcome men.
This response seems to fulfill the church’s call to be counter-cultural. But being counter-cultural doesn’t mean simply reacting to what we perceive the culture to be doing, rather, it means reshaping the conversation to imagine something bigger and more beautiful. Being counter-cultural means having a renewed vision, restoring God’s ecosystem—a way of life which allows us to live in harmony with him, with Creation and with one another.
There are certainly scriptural distinctions of maleness and femaleness. Even within the promise that in Christ there is no male and female, we also see how God created men and women to be unique—two halves of His expression of himself on earth. There’s something beautiful and powerful about what is essential to maleness and to femaleness (by which I mean both genders are inherently powerful and beautiful—not all beauty is feminine nor all power, masculine) and all good things can be abused. And so, as they do with so many good things, the beauty, advertising, entertainment and fitness industries have taken those God-given characteristics and created caricatures which no actual man or woman can be.
Research is finding that these caricatures are doing very real damage to men:
A documentary called The Mask You Live In explores why, compared to girls, “boys in the U.S. are more likely to be diagnosed with a behavior disorder, prescribed stimulant medications, fail out of school, binge drink, commit a violent crime, and/or take their own lives.” The trailer for this film, which begins with a litany of messages we tell our boys—“Stop crying!” “Be cool!” “Be a man!”—goes on to quote psychologist and educator Niobe Way: “They really buy into a culture that doesn’t value what we have feminized. If you’re in a culture that doesn’t value caring, doesn’t value relationships, doesn’t value empathy, you are going to have boys and girls, men and women go crazy.”
And a recent New York Times article reports that from infancy through age 4 or 5, boys are more emotive than girls, that early relationships between boys can be deep and just as emotionally honest and intimate as relationships between girls. However, something changes as boys reach their teenage years: “We socialize this vulnerability out of them.”
A More Human Church
What could it look like for the church to be a place where we all—men and women—can be human? Where men can find a way to be whatever it means to be a man without compromising what it means to be human?
When I became the first female lead pastor of our congregation, I felt pressure to be strong. How could the men in my congregation take me seriously if they truly saw me? So I worked to hide my fears, weaknesses and emotion. But that soon showed itself to be an inhuman burden and, simply because I couldn’t keep up the facade, I let myself be seen—to preach with tears when the bible passage moved me, to talk about my joys and anxieties, to share when I was unsure of the way forward or I sensed something from God. And then something surprising happened—men in my congregation began to find healing. As I talked about the discomfort of trusting God’s strength in my weakness, men began to approach me and say, “Thank you for showing how God can be revealed in your vulnerability. It’s giving me permission to deal with the ways I’ve felt pressure to be strong.” I’ve heard how it’s helped men to grow in their faith, their marriages, their roles as sons and fathers, and in their ability to be whole human beings.
And so l long for the church to be a place where men can be human. Where they can set aside the culture’s pressure to be impenetrable and be welcomed as whole beings—whole beings who may be physically strong, who may feel called to protect and provide for their families, to dig holes and climb mountains and who also sometimes need to say “I don’t understand” or “I’m afraid” or “I need God.”
Over-pumped 1990’s GI Joe and over-cinched 1950’s Barbie may look human but they’re not. It would be easy to say they’re super-human but maybe they’re sub-human—unattainable, cartoon versions of the way we are intended to be. Not better for being more extreme.
It’s time to set aside our infatuation with caricatures, to end reactionary responses, to begin conversations about what it truly means to be men and women. We may find we have more in common than we think. And we may find that our healing is interwoven. Let's set aside caricatures for conversations about what it truly means to be men & women. Click To Tweet