The Vagina Monologues and Body Shame

 

A few weeks ago I attended a production of the Vagina Monologues. Watching actor after actor deliver a monologue about her vagina was a bit of a culture shock; just a few hours ago, I was on the bus coming from my Christian fellowship at the Trinity Forum Academy, where the topics covered in the Monologues aren’t usually discussed.

Under the influence of this culture shock, I instinctively cringed a little at the show’s vagina preoccupation. But I starting warming up to it— until one girl began yelling for men to respect her vagina, because that would mean respect for her. I saw her point, but raised an eyebrow at the conflation of her vagina with her identity. Eventually the flamboyant celebration of a woman’s sexual appeal began to feel a little excessive. The discomfort in me was saying, “This provocative way of dressing and walking is irresponsible and naïve. You are setting yourself up to be objectified.”

It is not as if the VM’s creator did not care about the objectification of women. Several of the monologues were about the horrors of sexual assault. So why did the general response seem to be to flaunt one’s sexuality in a provocative way?

At the end of the show, each actress spoke briefly about why she participated in the VM. It all clicked when the last girl spoke. She was clenching back angry tears as she spoke about her rape by a current classmate who still walks the campus, unpunished by school authorities. She was by far the most sexually flamboyant actor of the night. I began to wonder about the connection between her performance and her story, about whether her performance was a way for her to reclaim and celebrate a part of her – her sexual body – that may have felt tainted after the rape.

A friend explained it to me, “By dressing however she wants, it is her way of saying that it is not her fault that she was raped. If she alters how she dresses, then she is effectively saying that she was, in a very small way, responsible for what happened.”

While her sexual freedom is still something that I would not imitate, it was admittedly free of a shame that can characterize some Christian attitudes toward the body. Given the high premium Christians set on virginity and the general squeamishness about body talk throughout much the church, the vagina can easily turn into a little bit of a shameful body part that is seen mainly as a potential setting for sin until one gets married.

The traditional Christian response to the objectification of women is to tell men to control their lust, and to tell women to help men out by dressing more conservatively. Thus if one is single, one might as well lock the vagina up, as it is “not in use” and so there is “nothing to see” (there was a monologue about this). The vagina becomes invisible and is covered by embarrassment. This is certainly not what God had in mind when he declared, “And it is good.”

[Image of VDay Logo Courtesy of Wikipedia]

About Sarah Ngu

Sarah Ngu (@sarahngu) graduated in 2012 from Columbia University with a degree in American Studies. She was a fellow at the Trinity Forum Academy, and now works in New York, where she is part of the thought leadership team at LRN, a company that advises organizations on values within leadership and culture.

  • http://catholicthoughts.com Matthew

    Alas, when God declared “And it is good,” he certainly did not intend for vaginas to be covered up out of embarrassment. However, after the first sin, Adam and Eve became aware of their nakedness and felt shame. As John Paul II pointed out in Love and Responsibility, this shame has its roots in a fear of being made into an object of use. It’s disappearance in the face of love is due to the fact that those who love each other well have no fear of being used by one another.

    Shame, in view of concupiscence, is an appropriate emotional response to the making public of things that should be kept private. It is unfortunate that Christians often misunderstand it to mean that sex, or sexual body parts, are “bad.” The solution, however, lies not in abolishing shame, but in educating Christians to recognize its meaning.

    • sarah ngu

      I can understand how concupiscence breeds fear, but shame? Do explain.
      I’m trying to think of comparable examples. If I were to walk down a street that was notorious for muggings, I’d certainly fear for my own body, but I wouldn’t be ashamed of it.

      • http://catholicthoughts.com Matthew

        Well, the question of whether or not concupiscence breeds shame is clear from the Bible. The question of how takes some speculation. I’ll give it a go.

        Genesis 2:25 says “Now, both of them were naked, the man and his wife, but they felt no shame before each other.”

        Then, there’s the narrative of the first sin. After that, 3:7-8 says, “Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they realized that they were naked. So they sewed fig-leaves together to make themselves loin-cloths.”

        Okay, so, before the Fall, men and women being naked in front of each other was no problem. Then, afterward, they felt ashamed about being naked in front of one another and so they clothed themselves.

        So, concupiscence breeds shame. But how? Well, what is concupiscence? It’s a disordering of the will. The will, according to Augustine, is a “weight.” It directs itself towards that which the intellect recognizes to be the greater good among a group of goods. A concupiscent individual is one who, in the language of Augustine, loves wrongly. For Augustine, there is a proper order of loves. Some things are to be loved above others. The original man and woman loved properly, they loved things in the right order.

        Okay, so, what is there to love in a man or a woman? Well, many things, but it is clear that the sexual characteristics of men and women bear strong attraction to one another. But what is more important, a person or his/her sexual characteristics? To love properly, you should love a person first, and the sexual characteristics second. The sexual characteristics are what enkindle romantic love between men and women, but unless that love be subordinated to a genuine love for each other as persons, men and women are only lusting after one another.

        Now, I’m going to take a break and distinguish between shame and fear. Aristotle made a simple distinction between them: when you experience shame you turn red and when you experience fear you turn white. Okay, what things make you turn white? Things that make you fear for your life. So, when you encounter the street with a lot of muggers, you aren’t really thinking about your body. You’re afraid for your life. What kinds of things make you turn red? Well, the kinds of things that should be personal, but are made public. If you took the street and replaced the muggers with lustful men who were staring at you, you’d probably feel inclined to cover yourself up a bit more. You’d feel shame.

        Why do you feel shame? Well, because the man aren’t “loving” you properly. Your sexual characteristics are supposed to be personal because it’s very easy – given our concupiscent nature – to love them more than the person herself. If, however, you encounter a man who loves you properly, and you are in a romantic relationship with him, you will most likely not feel shame on your wedding night. You will probably look forward to revealing yourself to him – all because you can be sure that he loves you for you and your sexual characteristics, for him, only make him appreciate you more.

        I’d like to point out that this also explains why it doesn’t make sense to say that women cover themselves because society teaches them that their bodies are “bad.” If that were the case, then why would they want to show themselves to their husbands?

        Anywho, that’s all I got on this subject. I hope it made sense. Please forgive all the use of feminine pronouns all over the place; I was extending your example and using you as the subject of this thought experiment.

        • sarah ngu

          I’m with you but I’d like to probe more. So let’s say shame is the feeling that prompt me to cover some part of me up from the view of others. Why would I do that? Either because I feel guilty about that part of me, or because I feel wary about others might relate to that part of me. It is interesting that if a mugger values my possessions more than me, I would want to cover up my possessions, but I wouldn’t feel that they were affected in anyway by the “mugger’s gaze.” If I encountered a lustful looker instead (alliteration intended), you’re right in saying that I would want to cover up my body. All that has changed is that instead of hiding my possessions I want to hide my body, but that switch can make a world of difference. Lots of girls (and guys) struggle with a certain amount of self-hatred or self-wariness about their bodies due to either negative comments or objectifying glances by onlookers, as their bodies come to be seen as mainly a site of unwanted attention and thus only a problem, never a blessing. The lustful gaze is internalized in a far deeper way that the mugger’s gaze, especially if that is only attention that the body is getting. And a possible result of that internalization is shame of the unhealthy kind, where one is covering up not just to defend/protect, but because of feeling ill-at-ease within one’s body.

          You’re right in that within the context of marriage, all clothes come off, but even then, there is sometimes a healing work that needs to be done in order to repair and re-affirm the value of the body.

  • http://catholicthoughts.com Matthew

    I agree with everything that you said, and I think that mostly what you did was point out alternate manifestations of the psychological effects that I described above. I described the things in essence and you’re now dealing with some accidental details. It was useful, since it helps us both to come to a fuller understanding of the issue, but it doesn’t seem that I have anything left to say at this point, since there doesn’t seem to be any disagreement and since I already laid out my thoughts.

    Nice discussing with you!

  • Nate

    I came across this blog through Trinity Forum website. I applied about two years ago for the Forum. I interviewed and was able to meet the staff. I had a great experience up there in Maryland. All in all, I ended up returning to grad school in NC. While I didn’t do the fellowship, I have a great admiration for the kind of education and program that is being run by Grady up there.
    I saw the VM while I was in undergrad. I could attend it for extra credit. I ended up being turned off by the idea. I understood the intention behind it, espeically related to rape. This in some ways justified the idea of speaking out. I am hesitant to condone the title and the approach. While men’s sexual jokes are seemingly normally and way too accepted in today’s culture, I would rather see women’s seemingly more modest habits of talking about their sexuality as a good example rather than something that women would feel the need to lower themselves. To me, the women lower themselves to the men’s standard, which isn’t good.
    I am now a teacher at a community college in North Carolina, and last week some students put on the Vagina Monlouges. I didn’t go because of what I’ve said above. I certainly respect women having a space where they can openly talk about the extreme seriousness of rape. However, I guess I disagree with the solution of lowering themselves to talk about sex in a way that men have seemingly accelerated.
    All that to say, I like the breakdown of your article and I am glad that you writing about how feminism and Christianity interact with one another. I assume you are writing your thesis on something like this?

    Thanks for writing. Nate


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