I can’t remember not being an athlete. From the time that I could walk, I participated in sports and extracurricular activities. During my earliest years of life, I danced. I did gymnastics for several more years, though I wasn’t good at it. (I was too tall and flimsy to control my body.) By the time I was 11, I started racing competitively, and that’s where I found my niche. I was fast and strong with nearly a perfect hurdle technique. I worked hard. I won often. I grew confident.
As I reflect on those small wins in life, I think about the women Olympians I looked up to over the years … gymnasts like Dominique Dawes and Mary Lou Retton. (As a young girl, I actually met Mary Lou at a “Healthy Mind, Healthy Body Winning Without Drugs” event.) I looked up to track stars like Jackie Joyner-Kersee, the late Florence Griffith-Joyner (“Flo Jo”), and of course the star hurdler, Gail Devers.
These women athletes are God’s image bearers who display his confidence and character. They remind us with their physical ability and strength that our bodies are good. With their performances, they sacrifice not only for personal honor, the team, or our country, but by disciplining their bodies, they honor their creator who is the Lord.
As they perform with neatly placed hair and perfect makeup (I never did that), they celebrate God’s beauty in the masterful creation that is the human body. They acknowledge that God does care about our bodies and participating in sports is one way we can celebrate its beauty.
Our bodies are created to worship. With so many negative images bombarding our young women today (see the video clip below), it is important that we raise our voices to share a different message. Young girls need to know that they are not simply a consequence of what they wear, their body size, what they eat, or how men (or other women) view them. The airbrushed images in magazines and commercials should not define them.
I am calling now for a release … freedom … a proclamation that young girls everywhere have a choice to take on positive images. I am not implying that we encourage more self-help or self-esteem building techniques. I am rather stating that we should encourage girls to value the mind, body, and soul, realizing that they are not separate entities from each other.
By the time I entered college, I was meditating on passages like the Apostle Paul calling all Christians to approach life as a runner who desires to win a prize. In order to win, Paul says we must all go into strict training (1 Cor. 9:24-27). Strict physical training requires countless hours of focus, dedication, and hard work. It requires personal sacrifice and a reordering of priorities if you want to win. With that understanding, this passage provides a simple truth: focusing to develop physical discipline (particularly early in one’s life) can correlate to the development of spiritual discipline. Disciplining ourselves in mind, body, and spirit is as an act of holistic worship toward God since we are called to do everything as unto the Lord.
God’s image bearers should reflect his character and the reality that his creation is indeed good. God’s image bearers should reflect his desire for creativity and honor and excellence. Encourage girls to honor God with their bodies for “the body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body” (1 Cor. 6:13b, NIV).
We can honor God through physical conditioning; therefore, in the words of that great motivator Edna Mode from The Incredibles, “Go! Fight! Win!” Let the girls run, jump, spike, throw, leap. Let them sweat, burn, and sacrifice. Let them honor God with their bodies. Let them play sports.
Lena Dunham, creator of HBO’s Girls (Photo Credit: All Access Photo/Newscom)
First, let me apologize.
I formed an opinion about you without really examining your work. All I’ve been able to see from your critically-acclaimed comedy Girls is clips from YouTube. Since I didn’t exactly know what to make of them, I mostly ignored and moved on. But since hearing of your casting Donald Glover as a black Republican boyfriend – even for just two episodes — I thought to myself, “maybe I should give her another chance.”
So looking for an entry point, I watched your feature film debut, Tiny Furniture. And I was impressed by its emotional honesty. While I’m glad that it helped me to get a broader sense of your cinematic voice, I can now say with certainty that many of my initial instincts were correct.
You and your costars, the progeny of successful, famous people, have inspired quite the backlash from critics and bystanders – a potent combination of curiosity, incredulity, and let’s be honest, plain ol’ Haterade. There are many reasons for this, but one stands out:
Lena Dunham, you are, quite literally, a living embodiment of white privilege. (By the way, that “literally” was spoken in Rob-Lowe-as-Chris-Traeger-voice.)
Now I realize that in 2013, privilege is no longer the exclusive domain of white people – just ask Rashida Jones – but yours is a situation that specifically illustrates the advantages in the entertainment business that are granted by growing up amongst the liberal, hypereducated upper class.
And none of this is your fault, really. None of us asked to be born into our families. But I say this only so that you can understand how grating it can sound to struggling artists and filmmakers – of any race, really, but especially of color – when you say, as you did in last year’s NPR interview, that you “wrote the show from a gut-level place, and each character was a piece of me or based on someone close to me, and only later did I realize it was four white girls.” You should take plenty of credit for the freedom and boldness that it takes to write from such a gut-level place. However, the ability to express those gut-level fears and anxieties in the context of a commercially successful television program on a premium cable network? As President Obama put it, you didn’t build that. That ability came straight from your invisible knapsack.
I’m sure none of this is news to you, so don’t think of this letter as an indictment, but an encouragement. Your fledgling success actually gives me a measure of hope, because I see parallels in your story to another writer whose work I really respect. For now, we’ll call him Paulie.
This guy Paulie also came from a Jewish background. His upbringing was also steeped in privilege – a privilege that he understood and fully owned, even though he eventually grew disenchanted with it. And even though he could be intellectual and systematic, he wasn’t afraid of showing his real self, warts and all. He wrote with a raw, visceral intensity. He once implied that vegetables are for weak people, he referred to his enemies as dogs, and once sarcastically told some of his critics to cut off their own junk.
But as far as I can tell, there’s one important difference between Paulie’s story and yours. Paulie had an amazing encounter with the Christ, one that quite literally opened his eyes to the world around him (after being temporarily blinded), and eventually transformed his entire worldview.
And you know what the kicker is? All the stuff that I just mentioned… he wrote all of that after he became a Christian, not before. Though he hated Christians and actively tried to undermine everything they stood for, after having really encountered Christ, he went just as hardcore in the other direction.
Now if you’ve made it this far, you might be wondering – how is this relevant, exactly? I’m not a Christian. Well, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to change that. I want everyone to experience the forgiveness and freedom that comes from having a relationship with Christ.
But that’s not my main objective here. I want to call your attention to a specific aspect of my man Paulie’s story (okay fine, nobody calls him that, I’ll just call him Paul). See, when Paul became a Christian, he didn’t run away from the privilege afforded by his upbringing; instead he leveraged it. He wrote and spoke with firsthand knowledge and experience of the cost of following Christ as one of the Hebrew elite, and his resulting message was credible and resonant. As an apostle, someone who traveled to various churches in various places, Paul understood that God had given him a unique platform. By writing from a dual perspective, both inside and outside of his culture, and by doing his best to be all things to all people, he reached many with his writing.
(I would apologize for the cliché, but Paul’s the one who started it.)
My guess, Lena Dunham, is that with Girls, you’re trying to use your story to speak resonantly to people beyond your core demographic of disaffected, upper-middle class, twentysomething women. In my opinion, that goal, admirable as it is, only happens if you can demonstrate enough grace and humility to reach out and learn from others beyond the scope of your upbringing. And it starts with realizing that you need other people to help you get there.
In Paul’s case, the love of Christ compelled him to do so; in yours, perhaps Nielsen numbers would suffice? Either way, I hope you learn how to cross those cultural boundaries. Your professional output will be better for it. If you do, could you share some of that grace and humility with Cathryn Sloane? She’s probably ready now. You can reach her on social media.
With the annual hype surrounding New York’s Fashion Week winding down, I’m reminded of a news story from the beauty and fashion industry from earlier this year. Back in July, Seventeen magazine editor Ann Shoket announced the implantation of a “Body Peace Treaty” in which she and the her magazine’s team pledged to “never change girls’ body or face shapes” in published images, explaining that they will “leave body shapes alone, reserving Photoshop for the stray hair, clothing wrinkle, errant bra strap or zit.” She also promised that they will only feature “real girls and models who are healthy.”
The treaty came in response to the campaign of Julia Bluhm, a 14-year-old activist whose online petition against the magazine’s use of airbrushed images garnered more than 84,000 signatures. In the petition, called “Give Girls Images of Real Girls,” Bluhm implored the magazine to keep it real. I consider this to be very impressive and it shows some of the influence of online networking and social media, not to mention the grit and character possessed by many of our young people today. (Julia’s pro-Real Girl movement inspired a separate campaign targeting the publishers of Teen Vogue.)
Frankly, though, I doubt Seventeen will stick to its promise.
My cynicism is based on the magazine’s response in the article and my knowledge of the image-making industries (like the ones we’ve seen out in full force during Fashion Week). Here are a few quotes from a Washington Post article about the issue:
A 14-year-old Maine ballet dancer who led a crusade against altered photos in Seventeen magazine now has a promise from top editor Ann Shoket to leave body shapes alone, reserving Photoshop for the stray hair, clothing wrinkle, errant bra strap or zit.
According to the article, a promise was made. Great.
“Shoket’s promises are included in a “body peace treaty” that also commits the magazine to always feature healthy girls and models regardless of clothing size.”
Okay. The editor may have submitted some promises to the “Body Peace Treaty” but the above promise mentioned in the first quote is not in there and neither are any that require Seventeen to do anything.
“Shoket did not identify Julia by name in her full-page declaration, which also denied the magazine ever changed the shapes of bodies and faces.”
Whaaattttt? So the editor promises to leave body shape alone yet denies ever changing the cover models’ body shapes and faces? So, is Seventeen really admitting to anything?
RED CARPET REALITY: In July, teen protesters demonstrated in front of the Times Square headquarters of Teen Vogue, demanding that the magazine’s publishers use real girls, healthy looking models, and unaltered images in its pages. (Photo: Richard B. Levine/Newscom)
My first job after graduating college was as a graphic designer at an international relief and development organization. Back then, Photoshop was used only by designers because it was expensive and had a huge learning curve. This organization received a photo from the field that included an adult male with shoulder-length hair. The group was concerned about its conservative donors’ reaction to the hair length, so my supervisor asked me to give him a Photoshop haircut. I was happy to oblige, just to show off my skills.
Well, I scanned (who scans anymore?) the photo, altered it, and placed it in one of the org’s publications. The young man eventually saw the photo and became upset. He felt we had no right to alter his appearance. That was my first foray into the ethical issues of altering photos of people for publication. Although magazines have been airbrushing for years, and have professional contracts with its models/celebrities to do so, Photoshop allows for detailed retouching that pushes it over the boundary of reality. Consequently, I stopped trusting the images I see in magazines.
Also, the “Body Peace Treaty” on Seventeen’s page is good but most of it does not mention what the magazine itself is willing to do.
If the quotes from Washington Post article are true and the treaty is more of a therapeutic “love-myself” list for girls (which is not a bad thing), my concern is that Seventeen’s editor is not being completely honest. It sounds like all the heavy lifting will still be done on the reader’s part. The disturbing thing about this is that many of these magazines know they are selling an illusion but won’t admit to it. They portray it as real life with article titles layered over the photo (“Get This Body in 5 Days,” “The New Grass and Twigs Diet,” etc.). Over time, as the young activist said on a morning news show, these words and images are harmful. I can tell my daughter not to buy the magazine, but there is a larger issue at stake here.
A few questions to ponder:
• Why is the sexualization of girls not an issue in our society?
• Beyond getting girls to love themselves, what does it look like for the image industry to feature healthy girls and models regardless of clothing size?
• When we laugh at the way celebrities are exposed in tabloid magazines, have we bought into the illusion that every body must look the same way?
When Alissa was only 16 years old, she met an older man at a Dallas convenience store. In the amount of time that it took for her to step inside for a Diet Coke and a pack of Newports, the man talked Alissa into giving him her phone number and walked her back out to the car, even opening the driver side door for her. Over the next few weeks he wooed Alissa, taking her to expensive restaurants and complimenting her fragile beauty. Those first few weeks were filled with expensive gifts and a promise of a better life. When Alissa’s new boyfriend asked her to move in with him, she said yes without hesitation, her eyes filled with the promise of safety and security.
Instead of finding security in her new home, Alissa slowly broke to her new boyfriend’s control. He began to beat her, forced her to watch porn so that she might become a “better lover,” and even made Alissa get a tattoo of his nicknames, further branding her as his own. Soon, this man convinced her to begin escorting other men on dates and having sex with them for money. Further expanding his enterprise, he posted prostitution advertisements on the Internet and demanded that Alissa have sex with the men who responded to the ads. This boyfriend turned pimp easily kept Alissa in line. With an assault rifle in the closet and a combination of verbal and physical abuse, he brandished complete control over his captive.
Alissa’s story serves as a mirror for countless others throughout the United States every day. The United States legal system defines sex trafficking as, “commercial sex acts induced by force, fraud, or coercion or commercial sex acts in which the individual induced to perform commercial sex has not attained 18 years of age.” The Polaris Project reports that though the number is largely indistinguishable, hundreds of thousands of US citizen minors are believed to be at risk for commercial sex exploitation. The same report noted that 40 to 70 percent of youth runaways fall into prostitution as a way to meet their essential needs. Most often, girls are only 12 years old at their time of entry and boys, only 11. In all, it’s been estimated that there are between 100,000 and 300,000 prostituted children in the United States.
The Pervasiveness of Human Trafficking
Human trafficking doesn’t only exist within the confines mentioned above or the boundaries of the United States. According to the Polaris Project, examples of human trafficking cases cover everything from sex trafficking in India and Latin America to exploitation of the workers in the shrimp industry in Thailand to the use of child soldiers in Burma. To further put things in perspective, it’s estimated to be a $32 billion industry and impact 161 countries across the globe.
We generally believe we’re safe here in the United States. We teach our children the basics — don’t talk to strangers, don’t take candy from anyone you don’t know, only play where we can see you. Yet, Alissa’s story is one that follows a common pattern learned by traffickers in the sex trade industry. When examined more closely, many follow similar recruiting and “seasoning” strategies designed to sell the illusion of love and security before conditioning their victims with a new lifestyle and belief system of blind obedience and abuse.
We’re making steps towards recognition. According to 2011 Human Trafficking Hotline Statistics, “2,945 victims of human trafficking were connected to services and support.” Of that number, “calls from self-identifying victims increased by 61 percent,” showing that the hotline number is reaching those people that need it the most.
These statistics help show that there is an increasing awareness and response to the human trafficking crisis. Just this past summer, a child prostitution crackdown — dubbed “Operation Cross Country Six” — occurred from June 21 to June 23 in 57 cities across the nation. Local and federal law enforcement officers worked with the FBI to arrest 104 suspected pimps in the operation. They also freed 79 children who were being forced to work as prostitutes. These children were found at hotels, truck stops and storefronts, some barely over 13 years old.
Overall, prostitution isn’t what it often seems. It isn’t a thrilling lifestyle chosen by women (or men) to expand their sexual portfolio or cash in on ritzy perks. As evidenced above, most barely even have a choice in the matter. Take Patricia’s story, for instance. As a child of Chicago’s South Side, she had witnessed her share of poverty and crime. Her father was a pimp; her mother, a prostitute. When Patricia was a suitable age, her father tried to purchase her. Finding this out, her mother took her and ran. Patricia was later molested by her mother’s boyfriend and forced out onto the street at only 12 years old.
With nowhere left to turn, Patricia engaged in “survival sex” for nearly two decades — very often by no choice of her own. With the help of advocacy groups like the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, Patricia has worked hard to find a rhythm of normalcy in her life. Today she works in the food service business at her first job outside of prostitution.
Shining a Light on the Issue
A wide range of other organizations in the United States exists to bring awareness to the injustice of human trafficking and provide education and empowerment. Nicole Marrett, the owner and founder of Radiant Cosmetics, seeks to raise awareness by raising funds for victims and those involved in leading the movement forward through her cosmetic sales — 20 percent of her company’s profits go toward assisting victims and educating the public on the issue.
Marrett first dreamed about starting this social venture while spending time in Thailand for missions work with the World Race. “I became friends with a prostitute in Thailand, and my heart broke for this woman,” said Marrett. “Walking Bangla Road, home to over 200 bars and countless women who’ve been trafficked, I felt alive. A vision began to form.”
It was from that vision that Radiant Cosmetics sprung forth. With 80 percent of the sex trade industry comprised of women and young girls, Marrett hopes to rally this generation of women to fight for their fellow sisters, “one lipstick at a time.”
Many in the Christian community have been instrumental in calling attention to the sex trafficking issue. In fact, many local churches have added groups ministering around the issue to their missions budgets. And Christian academia has realized the important role that education and empowerment must play in fighting trafficking. Earlier this year, Moody Bible Institute announced a new four-year undergraduate major designed to equip students to work with victims of sexual exploitation. During their time in the program, students will learn about contributing factors (both societal and spiritual) and familiarize themselves with human trafficking organizations in the area. They’ll also have the opportunity to participate in a six-month, off-campus internship between their junior and senior years. Internships can either be with domestic or international organizations, depending on the student’s preference.
Courtney Fillmore, an incoming Moody Bible Institute student, is entering the program this fall. She heard about it from a friend who knew of her passion to fight this injustice.
“Last year, God led me to spend three months in Thailand with Youth With A Mission (YWAM). It was here that I saw first hand the tragedy that is sex tourism, sex slavery and human trafficking,” said Fillmore. “We would go into bars at night and just talk to the women that worked there. It changed my life. I knew that I couldn’t go back to America and continue to ignore the issue.”
Since being back in the United States, Fillmore states that she’s seen how human trafficking is just as prevalent here as it was in Thailand — maybe not as outwardly noticeable, but flourishing just the same. It’s a filigree of secrets and lies, a cobweb in a dark attic corner. Women like Alissa may be our neighbors, students, waitresses that top off our cup of coffee every morning. But darkness can’t survive once it’s brought out into the light. And just as Fillmore has refused to ignore the issue, it’s up to us to respond to the crisis.
How You Can Help
For more information on how you can directly take action, please visit The Polaris Project to find info about volunteering, attending events, advocating on the state or federal level, or even reporting cases of human trafficking.
For further reading on this topic, please check out these recent books:
I lay the flat iron down next to the sink, and when I lean in close, I see the gray is creeping up again. I wonder if I should do something about it, thinking of all the ways I’ve worn my hair through the years, how my hair tells the story of my life.
My earliest memories include collard greens and thick cut bacon and sitting on the floor between my mother’s legs — or my cousin’s or aunt’s legs — as she sat on the couch or on the glider on my grandmother’s porch and worked the comb through my hair.
Whoever got the honor of trying to get me to sit still that day would spread a glob of hair grease on the back of her hand. She’d part my hair and with her index finger, run a line of hair grease down that part, pulling my hair tight into cornrows, or just three braids. Or four. It was years before I knew the white girls didn’t use hair grease and that it was best to keep that information to myself.
Eventually, I started getting my hair pressed. I don’t know how that started or why, but I’d sit in a kitchen chair while my mom heated up the comb on the red-hot eye of the stove. At least an hour passed getting my hair to go from natural to straight while hair grease sizzled and smoke rose up to meet the ceiling before slipping out the window into the air outside. The first time I told a White girl I don’t wash my hair every day — or even every week, for that matter — I thought she’d fall right over. So I stopped telling people that, too.
One year on summer break from elementary school, I let my hair go. Wore it just the way God made it. And when my mother took me with her to visit at a nursing home, the woman in the corner asked my mother about her son. My mother doesn’t have a son. And my hair was soon forced back into compliance.
In middle school, my mother took me to Mrs. Spicer’s house, where a hair salon was set up in the basement. I guess Mom decided it would be easier on everyone to pay someone else to press my hair instead of fighting with the hot comb in the kitchen on a Saturday afternoon. So, twice a month after school, I’d get dropped off for the washing and the drying and the combing out and the pressing, and I was lucky if I got out of there without having my scalp burned at least once.
Eventually, we caved in to the chemicals that mark the point of almost-no-return, and relaxers became the order of the day. I would keep my hands away from my scalp on the day I knew I’d be getting a touch-up, a necessary precaution to keep the lye from burning my scalp. For years, I treated my hair this way because it was easier to wear my hair straight than to deal with the people who wanted to know things like, “Can I touch it?” or “Do you use a pick for that?” or “Does your hair even get wet when it’s like that?” or “Can you hide things in there?”
In my thirties, I let my hair go again. And it was good. It was very good, and I wore it like that for years. When I finally changed it, it was because I wanted to and not because of the questions or the fears. I just wanted Halle Berry’s haircut for a change.
I keep staring at my reflection and the gray that’s creeping back, and I think it might be time to let it go again and wear it just the way God made it.
This essay originally appeared at The High Calling, an online magazine about work, life, and God. It is reprinted here by permission.