Like so many others, I’ve been irresistibly drawn to Rio’s 2016 Olympics. An indiscriminate viewer, I’ve relished all the events, marveled at the prowess, dedication, and teamwork of the athletes, and shared their anguish and exhilaration. Full disclosure: I was particularly intrigued by the women’s competitions. For a Christian feminist like me, there was a lot to ponder.
Let’s start with the complete lack of self-consciousness these female athletes display about their bodies. Whatever their age, height, weight, or skin color, these women rocked their physicality. I’m in awe of that, raised as I was in a Dutch immigrant CRC community in the 50s and 60s. Modesty in dress and appearance was prerequisite to any other goal a girl might consider. Conformity was prized above individualism; self-aggrandizement frowned upon. Participation in sports was discouraged for a host of reasons—cost, Sunday observance, “worldliness.” I speak this truth about my childhood without rancor. I now understand more sympathetically (I didn’t always) that every constraint stemmed from a sincere communal drive toward a pious Christian lifestyle.
But how affirming now to watch strong women pit their bodies against limitations! Such a healthy antidote to the endemic self-loathing that afflicts countless girls and women. I loved watching Canadian gold medalist Erica Wiebe, a wrestling warrior, sweat dripping from her hair and face, raw aggression contorting her features. As a child, I could never have conceived of a woman acting that way.
Sadly, ambiguities about women’s bodies still arise even at the Olympics. Young female gymnasts, spangled and sequined, perform phenomenal tumbling routines spiced with mildly suggestive dance moves. The women’s synchro swimming teams are glamorous in their iridescent bathing suits and perfectly applied waterproof makeup. Before their routine even begins, the women spend 30 seconds posing at poolside. A female broadcaster remarked frankly, “I don’t like it.” There is certainly nothing comparable at any male event.
I was miffed to observe in beach volleyball that women wore bikinis while men were in athletic gear. But then I learned that the women can choose what they want to wear. Plus female athletes everywhere at the Olympics sported lacquered nails, bold lipsticks, sparkly headbands, and hair dyed in trendy colors.
Perhaps my aversion to this emphasis on appearance is antiquated, a holdover from the revolutionary bra burning days of the early women’s lib movement. If some female athletes are drawn to pearls and curls, glitter and lace, so what? It doesn’t seem to affect their drive to succeed. Maybe it can even be applauded as a win for women, freedom to embrace their own style.
The 2016 Olympics are now history. Pulling my attention away from Rio, I contemplate the heroic women in my own life. It’s immediately clear that their size, shape, and appearance are wholly irrelevant. The women I admire and want to emulate are those of resolute character and valiant faith who represent not their country but their Lord. The social activist with unflagging determination, the conscientious elder who serves despite opposition, the widow mining unfathomably deep for the daily courage to carry on, the teacher exemplifying consistent professionalism throughout a long career, the hostess opening her home and her heart to the lonely and troubled.
And mothers. So many self-sacrificial mothers. Mothers who pray. Mothers who love even when the loving hurts, when the love is taken for granted, misjudged, or spurned. Cruciform mothers who pour themselves out like Jesus for the sake of their children, whose very lives testify “Love never fails.”
Suddenly out of nowhere comes my old girls’ group verse, a motto recited from week to week: “Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised.” Yes. A thousand times, yes.