My headspace is still swimming in Leviticus. It’s Thursday when I open one of the many e-newsletters from the day before, decrying, condemning, and mourning: six Asian women dead. Atlanta massacre, some headlines read; one of the latest in the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes, others are quick to judge. I click on and on, trying to understand what has happened. It’s not rage that washes over me, like the times I read a Black person is gunned down by the police. It’s an ache. Altogether familiar, com-passionate/suffering-with, gut-wrenching kind of ache, like watching your mother break down in sobs. I don’t let myself wipe off the tears. The murdered women’s names, their Chinese and Korean syllables, spill onto my paragraphs, answering with their lives my hypothetical question from the paper still unfinished. What happens when metaphors and rhetorics about the female body, in service of male control and desire, become literal? 김순자 (69), 박순정 (74), 유용애 (63), 冯道友 (44), 현정 Grant (51), and 谭小洁 (49), a violent end to their lives, a ripping of their persons from their living bodies. That’s what happens.
Churches teach more/other than the gospel
Our conversations flow seamlessly to memories (or the lack thereof) of talking about bodies in a Christian context growing up. “Girls are hypersexualized because we are somehow responsible for our brothers, you know, help them not stumble into sin. But at the same time, we cannot be sexual beings in our own right. We can’t talk about our own bodies,” says Tamara. I ask where the sense of shame comes from.
“Gnosticism,” she replies without hesitation.
“Purity culture,” explains Koritha.
Much has been written about this strange and sinister culture in the North American evangelical (read: white) churches, obsessed with controlling girls’ bodies. While I am of the generation that grew up on I Kissed Dating Goodbye, the effects of dominant Christian culture on immigrant churches and communities of color are not uniform. Race and class also come into play. My Korean father working two jobs throughout my high school years was not about to escort his daughter clad in a white dress to a “Purity Ball”; he didn’t even know that I went to prom. I certainly had not actually heard “No sex until marriage!” preached from my Presbyterian church pulpit. Bodies simply did not make a proper sermon.
“Patriarchy,” Joyce adds to our conversation another nuanced layer. Many Asian immigrant churches continue to preach conditioned female virtues couched in filial piety. Women belong in the kitchen, her pastor dad would say. D puts it bluntly, “A lot of shots have been called on women’s bodies by men. And in my context, it’s Indian men ... Whether it’s my dad, uncles, grandfather, neighbors ... they’re the ones who call the shots in terms of how women should be.” She then promptly gives me her version of the South Asian dress code she grew up with, which includes modesty as well as complimentary colors for one’s skin tone. Koritha recalls something similar, “[As a girl in the Philippines], I was taught to be obedient, to not speak.” Once Catholic, Koritha’s family joined a local Protestant church when she moved to the States. It was in that Filipino American church, a confluence of race, geopolitics, and religious culture, where she began to hear a more explicit message about her identity. “To be under the umbrella of being Asian American was to be perceived as inferior, subservient. For a while, that’s what I believed I had to be.”
I see that the purity culture of U.S. evangelicalism alone does not account for our experiences with body shame as Asian American women. Old-school sexism of male superiority and authority over women’s autonomy, bodily and otherwise, in various Asian traditional cultures makes for a ready soil for white supremacy to grow. If women only have significance in relationship to men — as Joyce defines patriarchy — then women’s bodies only have significance in being available for and serving men, their comforts, their use. In other words, women and our bodies have no value on our own. Whiteness transposes onto this hierarchy of Black and Brown bodies at the disposal of white bodies. And among racialized women, we are all conditioned to strive toward white femininity because the bodies closest to that ideal will enjoy the largest fraction of humanity accorded by white male ones. D explains what she’s experienced as the standard of beauty in India, “When you have a certain feature, you keep getting pushed down, or if you have certain features, you keep getting pushed up. It’s only in the past five years that curly hair in India is being embraced; everyone just straightens their hair ... and my skin color, I’m brown. In India, there are women who are light-skinned, who have your skin color,(1) and that’s looked upon favorably.”
So when all of us are brought onto American soil, we hear what the churches of our motherlands have been preaching all along, and then some. After all, what is there to talk about regarding non-white female physicality if not in relation to (perhaps as the downfall of) white men? How dare we draw attention to and assert ourselves as if we have needs and wants of our own other than fulfilling those of our fathers, husbands, brothers? What impropriety, what disgrace to the Heavenly Father to let Black and Brown female bodies be our own subjects.
What Tamara said: church history 101
Gnosticism is a millennia-old heresy. Its central doctrine claims that a secret knowledge given to its initiates would lead them to escape the evils of this material and bodily existence and be reunited with the divine spirit. At its peak in the second century CE, the Gnostic movement brought about fierce battles among church fathers and apologists before slowly losing its adherents. But not without leaving a permanent mark on what would come to be known as Christianity’s core doctrine. In the early first-century church, or in Judaism, contempt for bodies as a base material separate from the “higher functions” of mind and spirit did not make up the theology of sin. In fact, Gnosticism forced Christians to defend the inherent good in creation and God’s plan for bodily resurrection. At the same time, the uniquely Christian argument for goodness of creation and therefore the body — still lacking, says systematic theologian Willie Jennings — did not stamp out the gnostic fusion of misogyny into Christian writings. Purity culture, the lovechild of the Christian West and Gnosticism, is alive and well today.
All the brilliant apologists, bishops, and their theologizing could not reconcile the full humanity of Christ and the hope for bodily resurrection from condemnation with liberation for all human beings, including women. Instead, iterations of male authorities debating the matter eventually made sense of the deep contempt for women and bodily reality in Greek dualism and the patriarchal bent already within the church. If sex could be without pleasure and desire! pined Augustine; If only everyone could be virgins! hoped Origin. Throughout the Middle Ages, menstruants could not receive communion elements nor come near the altar. (D compares her mother forbidding her communion to the Hindu practice of isolating women in their periods and keeping them from entering temples.) As recent as the 1960s, mothers after giving birth went through a special ritual to be welcomed back to church lest their blood, vaginal discharge, and sexual fluids remained and tainted them forever.(2) (“Period is messy, but more so to men, it’s disgusting to them,” Tamara reminds us.) It is the work of many centuries by churchmen, artists, and the ones who wield the power to consciously shape the religious imagination that Eve becomes interpreted as the harbinger of evil, Sarah, Leah, Rachel, and Hannah wombs for male seeds, Marys the virgin-whores.
What has God to do with it?
“I viewed my body as something to be ashamed of, something to cover up,” says Koritha. “I don’t think I’ve felt very comfortable in my body even throughout college. There was guilt if I had worn something nicer.”
This begins to change when she becomes pregnant with her first child. “Having my body go through changes brought me to be grateful for things I was capable of physically.” I want more confirmation of this reality, and for those of us who have not birthed children, and frankly, never will. But the struggle, more often than not internal, is an ongoing one regardless of where or how we find ourselves. “I’m a progressive, educated, capable woman, yet I still struggle with being open about and exercising my sexuality,” confesses Tamara about her current romantic relationship. “It’s like, you have to be asexual if you’re a woman in order to exercise any leadership in the church.” And she is one of the most self-possessed women and the closest thing to Big Dick Energy that I know in real life.
Joyce relates in another way, “One of the things I noticed going to a predominantly Korean American/Asian American church in New York ... it’s a comparison thing. There are so many well-dressed people. I feel really conscious in my body in Asian American spaces like that.” She knows these standards aren’t healthy and that gender norms take active work to bring down.
All of us are seeking other ways to be, confronting the internalized self-censorship and double standards about gender and sexuality. For some of us, it’s through counseling, for others, friendships with other sisters, chosen and biological. I also wonder how these women look to God, or not, to make sense of it all.
Koritha defines womanhood as carrying the weight of a lot of things, simply by being present and aware of all the needs of all the people in the room. And those needs are not always said! I tell her this sounds like a superpower. To be socialized to be so attuned to the ways we appear to others, especially to men — to the point of feeling ashamed at times — maybe forces us to be that much more aware. But a male body needs not filter or think about as much. If this weight lifts, will that make us able to focus on other things more? Have more bandwidth? And will that impact the way God feels accessible to us? Why aren’t more people, men and women, concerned about these barriers? Who benefits from limiting women’s access to the Divine?
I am reminded of the Levitical laws once again and those priests who wrote them in their utmost zeal to guard the Holy of Holies — to protect the Divine from contamination and the people from death by exposure to such holiness. And I can’t help wonder if God, the one I know as YHWH liberating God’s people, the one abounding in lovingkindness, the one born to Mary in flesh and blood, really fears more intimacy with us women. Or if it is another self-interest that needs women to be in perpetual fear of transgressing the human-divine boundary. After all, the six Asian women died so that one white man might ease his guilty conscience, to rid himself of “temptations”. To be closer to the Holy of Holies with all that is womanly could have been imagined differently outside male fantasy. It didn’t, still does not, have to be deathly; it could be life, as Christians profess in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
As we wrap it up, I am thinking of the conclusion to Isabel Wilkerson’s magisterial chronicle on the Great Migration. Speaking of the three Black Americans who have left the South, and everything they’ve known, she concludes, “Each found some measure of satisfaction because whatever had happened to them, however things had unfolded, it had been of their own choosing.”(3)
I imagine that is what breaking free from these warped theologies of body and sex (and bringing down patriarchy and white supremacy along the way) may look like for us women and girls, trans- and bi- and asexual, all femme-identifying persons: free and able to choose. Bodies, careers, sexual partners, families. Making our own choices toward life, and essentially, our full humanity.