Like everyone else, I’ve been thinking a lot about gender issues lately. The Caitlyn Jenner story is everywhere, of course, but it’s difficult to say anything meaningful about that drama because it just seems, to me, like all flash and no substance. Caitlyn isn’t really sharing anything genuinely personal about this journey, and the media can’t stop fawning long enough to ask any interesting questions.
But LaVern Vivio, a Nashville traffic reporter and commercial personality for TheBlaze TV wrote an article that I thought was truly brave, honest, and insightful. More importantly, I think it highlights something we, as Christians, can do to help prevent gender confusion both in our kids and in society itself.
LaVern is a 52 year old mother of 4 wrote penned a piece called, “I wished I had been born a boy.” I encourage you to read the whole article, but here’s a snippet.
I wished I had been born a boy. Probably until I was well into junior high and maybe even high school I was fairly convinced God had simply mixed me up with John Mark, the name my parents had selected if I had been born male. I am over 6 feet tall and very large-framed. I wear a size 13 shoe. My hands are as large as any man my height. I was always told I had a pretty face but because of my height I was able to carry a lot of extra weight without looking fat and the fullness on my frame tended to make me look less pretty and just attractive. Still I never felt pretty or much less feminine. So for many years I wondered. Did God make a mistake? …Back then when a girl like me came along they called me tomboy. For the guys the term was sissy or girlie. I suppose it was probably easier to be a tomboy rather than a girlie or sissy guy, but maybe not. Just like the guys opposite me, I was having trouble finding comfort in what God made me to be.
LaVern eventually made peace with the fact that she is a woman–exactly the woman God wants her to be–but it was not without enduring a lot of hardship, taunting, and pain.
As I read her story, the thing that stood out to me is her tremendous agony from not fitting the feminine stereotype in her looks or her preferences or her demeanor. As one friend puts it, “You’re practically a dude.”
When I hear stories like this, and as a counselor, I hear them fairly frequently, my heart breaks because people like LaVerne are tormented, not because there is something wrong with them, but because there is a lot wrong with the culture we live in and the way our culture defines masculinity and femininity.
Masculinity & Femininity: False Definitions
For the most part, our culture defines masculinity and femininity in functional terms. People tend to think that women are women because they think these ways and do these things and enjoy these preferences. Likewise, men are men because they think these other things and do these other things and enjoy these other preferences. But even if these stereotypes are true for a significant number of men and women, they aren’t true for all men and women–even a lot of men and women.
The Myth of the “Male” and “Female” Brain
For instance, autism researcher, Simon Baron-Cohen, famously developed the theory that autism spectrum disorder was the result of a person having an “extreme male brain.” But this language is misleading. Speaking of a “male brain” or a “female brain” is just a popular (and, to my mind, confusingly unfortunate) way to refer to Baron-Cohen’s actual categories of “Systematizing Brain” versus an “Empathizing Brain.” Statistically, more males have a primarily Systematizing brain type and more females have a primarily Empathizing brain type, but (and I have corresponded with him about this directly) Baron-Cohen, himself, asserts this says little about individuals. Why? Because a significant number of men (about 30%) have a more Empathizing Brain and about the same percentage of women have a Systematizing Brain. Beyond this, another (roughly) 10% of men and women have brains that are both equally systematizing and empathizing. Furthermore, men who have primarily Empathizing (“female”) brains and women who have primarily Systematizing (“male”) brains are not more likely to be homosexual than the general population.
Unfortunately, I speak with a lot of men and women who feel that there is something wrong with them because they “don’t fit the mold” whether because they have the “wrong” brain types or are more or less empathic than others of their gender, or happen to be attracted to certain gender atypical pursuits or careers. These cultural, functional, definitions of masculinity and femininity fail them, but they have been led to believe by parents, coaches, teachers, and friends that they are the ones failing the “norm.” Many, many problems related to self-image and sexuality begin with this deeply felt disconnect between “who I am” and how “the world says I should be.”
The Truth About Gender
The Theology of the Body offers a wonderful alternative way of understanding gender differences. Rather than indulging in the functionalist trap that defines male-ness or female-ness by superficial attributes, TOB sees masculinity and femininity as gifts. They simply ARE.
Men ARE men–and manly–because of their male body. They don’t have to do anything to earn their masculinity or “man up” so to speak. There is no “norm” to conform to, except the norm that comes with the male body and the maleness that emanates from that. Likewise, women ARE women, and womanly, because of their female body. Period. The TOB perspective is that people are best served when they stop trying to fit themselves into cultural stereotypes in order to try to “become” more of something they already are. Develop the body and mind God gave you to your fullest capacity and celebrate the respective masculinity/femininity that emerges as the fruit of that effort. Stop worrying about what you’re not and be what your body proves that you already are.
TOB vs. Feminism
In the course of discussing this with a friend of mine, she suggested that, in some ways, TOB and secular feminism had a lot in common. She noted that the secular feminist movement of the 70’s asserted that women can be effective, as effective as men, in the career of their choice–so we shouldn’t call people “mailmen” or “postmen” or “firemen.” That’s true as far as it goes, but there’s an important difference in that secular feminists denied the reality of the body. They said that women could be whatever they wanted because the body didn’t matter.
By contrast, TOB says that women can be anything their body allows them to be and still be feminine just as men can do anything that their body allows them to do and still be masculine. In fact, a woman doing a “man’s job” could be perfectly competent but still approach it in a different and feminine way than a man would. Likewise for the man doing a more traditionally “feminine” profession. That embodied, inescapable difference defines the “feminine/masculine genius.”
Secular feminism and TOB both have functionalism as a common enemy, but while the former destroys the body as a means of combating unjust functionalist limitations, the latter delves more deeply into the mystery of the body to develop a fuller meaning of its multifaceted significance.
The take-away from all this is that people in general–and parents in particular–need to stop defining their own masculinity or femininity (or their children’s) by what they do, how they think, or what they prefer. We need to recognize that masculinity and femininity are free gifts that flow naturally out of the body God gave us. There are many ways to be masculine and they are all perfectly manly just as there are many ways to be feminine and they are all beautiful. Trying to force yourself or your child into a stereotype just leads to alienation, self-doubt, misery and sometimes even serious sexual confusion.
I do not mean to imply that this cultural, functionalist perspective on gender is the cause of things like same sex attraction or gender dysphoria–no one can honestly say what all the factors are that contribute to these phenomena–but I am convinced that the attempt to pigeonhole men and women into superficial, trait and preference-based categories does real damage to a person’s psychological and sexual well-being. Parents, especially, do well to teach their children that whatever they look like, whatever they enjoy, and however they feel, they are exactly as God intended them to be and perfectly masculine or feminine just the way they are.
To learn more about raising children to exhibit a healthy and holy sexuality, check out Beyond the Birds and the Bees: Raising Sexually Whole and Holy Kids.