Friday, April 27, 2012

Strong is Beautiful

I am not normally an advocate of strength. I think our society misconstrues strength as a measure of worth or success, especially when it comes to men. The ideal man is physically strong. He revels in his own strength and seeks to demonstrate it over and against that of others. He proves his manliness by being stronger than others. In addition, although the modern man is allowed a limited amount of emotional display, he shows his emotional strength by not revealing his emotions. Being viewed as emotional is generally not acceptable in male circles. It will get you labeled as effeminate, which is about the worst insult a man can receive.

At the same time, women are supposed to be modest and demure. We are often uncomfortable with displays of strength in women. Somehow it strikes us as unfeminine. Perhaps this is one reason that women's sports struggle for acceptance: the idea of athletically-strong women seems to violate the feminine mystique.

For this reason I like the ad campaign of the WTA (Women's Tennis Association): Strong is beautiful. Of course the campaign aims to promote the activities of the WTA first and foremost and we will grant them this right. But I appreciate that they have chosen to accentuate that strength and beauty need not be mutually exclusive qualities in a woman. The pictures and videos produced for this series emphasize the combination of grace and and athleticism that these female athletes possess. I like the statement made by Caroline Wozniacki, one of the world's top tennis players:

“It takes so many elements to reach the top of such a competitive sport as tennis – strength of character, discipline and willpower. All of these things define who we are as people and as athletes. For me the new campaign captures the inner strength of players in a beautiful way.”

By contrast, I would not find a similar campaign on behalf of male athletes nearly so appealing. In fact  I think it would be unnecessary. We don't need to be told that “strong is handsome” because we already believe it. I think a comparable campaign for men would have to emphasize precisely the opposite. Society needs to hear the message for men that “humble is handsome” or something like that. But meekness doesn't really sell well for men in our society, does it?

Jesus' Kingdom is counter-cultural. In Matthew 5 he tells us that the meek are the ones who are blessed. But even within the church we more often celebrate strength in men and meekness in women. Are only women meant to be meek? Are only men able to show strength? Or should we not all display meekness, while also embracing the strengths that God has given us? Too often I have seen and heard the church celebrating only those women who project an appropriately feminine image of meekness and submission. We ask them to mute their beauty and stifle their strength because, we argue, this is more appropriate and spiritual for women. But is it? Does God's Kingdom have room for strong women? Does it have room for a woman to embrace the beauty God has given her – in whatever area that may be? I don't want us to fetishize beauty as our world has, but I think we send the wrong message as well by making beauty and strength into something shameful.

Conversely, I would like to see the Church celebrate true humility and meekness in men. I'd like to think that a man wouldn't have to be traditionally “manly” in order to find his place in the church. Each of us is unique and I believe that we should celebrate and promote that uniqueness in our churches. Rather than prescribing behaviour for men and women based on culturally-defined gender roles, let's give each person the freedom and opportunity to embrace and become the person that God made her or him to be. For some that may look a lot like the traditional image, but for others it may mean being a strong woman or a quiet man. The goal isn't to be what someone else thinks we should be, but to become the person God created us to be. Let's create an environment where that can happen in our churches, which includes admitting that for women, strong can be beautiful.

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