Pin Up Girl

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Photo by Jamie Sutter

Women should be lambs in the kitchen and lions in the bedroom.

A real woman is part Betty Crocker, part librarian, part porn star.

Women over the age of 35 are obsolete in today’s culture. Women are only as valuable as they are sexy.

Speaking of sexy, only waifs and Pamela Anderson lookalikes are sexy. Beauty is a number on a waistband, a cup size, and a wrinkle-free face.

Feminism is just a way for ugly women to get attention.

Unless you are a Christian. In that case:

Women should adorn themselves with a quiet and gentle spirit.

A woman’s beauty is seen in her submissive attitude and her modesty.

If you bare your shoulders, you’ll be what the boys are thinking about when they are masturbating tonight.

Women are helpmates and homemakers. Your college education will be a major asset to your homeschooling.

It’s pretty harrowing as a Christian woman to try to navigate things like self-image, self-esteem, purity, beauty, sexuality, purpose and equality. Some of us naturally fit one or more of the standards set for us. I know lots of amazing homeschooling, gentle, submissive women who are beautiful and strong. But I also know a hell of a lot of women who hear these messages, from culture and pulpit, and are keenly, painfully aware that they don’t measure up on either scale. They aren’t strippers giving happy endings, and they aren’t Sarahs comfortable calling their husbands “master.” In fact many of us can’t find a place to fail in these categories; we don’t even make it through the entrance as single women on the sad side of thirty.

My heart is broken by the stories of women I know who have been stripped of their value, their faith, their purpose by teachings and systems meant to crush them, to keep them lower than. At the same time I’ve wept over the debilitating self-loathing most women I know carry around inside themselves. Moms who are sure they are failing at every turn. Wives who are too exhausted to play Martha Stewart during the day and Debbie Does Dallas at night. Educated women with no idea how career and family aspirations coincide.

Over and over we talk about how much we hate our bodies, our weaknesses, our limitations. We don’t understand how to live as followers of Jesus when we feel so ashamed of our cellulite and emptiness. I have friends who are terrified of aging because they see it as fading into the background of life. Women who spend every minute hating the stretched-out parts of their bodies that have changed as they’ve carried new lives in their wombs. We are drowning in lies about what a woman should be and have no energy left to discover who we are.

Much of my life I’ve hated the body that houses my soul. The first time a boy told me I was beautiful I hid my face in his neck and refused to meet his eyes. It took months of him insisting before I started to believe him. I’ve been romantically rejected by Christians for not fitting a mold, and propositioned by men outside the Church for the same reason. I’m told by the Church that I’m beautiful and valuable in theory, but their other messages contradict this to the point of making it a fraud. The world tells me to be aggressive, fight for equality, forge my way, then calls me a bitch for doing so. I’m a token at best and a heretic at worst in the Church. I don’t even know what I am in the world.

During a tattoo appointment the artist and I were discussing what I might get next. I really appreciated his ethic, professionalism, and craft so I’d never considered going anywhere else. He challenged me on that; people should definitely get work done by multiple artists. He also suggested I stop getting word-heavy pieces done and try something classic. Everyone should have a heart with a banner through it, he said. As we were talking I was scanning the drawings on his wall of pieces he’d done in Sailor Jerry’s style. When he mentioned classic pieces I happened to be studying a page of traditional pin-up girls, one for each branch of the military.

I started thinking about the image of the pin-up girl back in Jerry’s time. Cute, dressed in uniforms typically reserved for men, playful. Body types that were more Marilyn Monroe than Abercrombie and Fitch. Tastefully sexy. Searching for pin-ups today can lead to some…ahem…highly suggestive images. The traditional designs are almost classy.

The more I thought about it, the more significant these aspects of the design concept became. I thought about what it would look like to reclaim ideas of sexiness, beauty, femininity, woman-ness. More than the heart and banner, more than the eagle or the Texas rose, this was the classic design that meant something to me.

A friend referred me to an artist a few hours away and the quality of his work was phenomenal. We started emailing about what I wanted in the design. I was by far pickier this time than ever before. Unfortunately I also had absolutely no idea how to articulate the vague symbolism in my mind. He was incredibly patient with me as I explained that I wanted her to be covered but sexy. Most pin-ups have some sort of theme (cars, baking, pirate); I wanted mine to be intellectual but to avoid the sexy nerd/sexy librarian/sexy teacher clichés. Maybe she could be wearing a graduation cap? Maybe holding a book, or surrounded by books? I sent him a list of titles to include if it would help. I wanted it on my thigh which meant a vertical line, but it’s hard to convey tastefully sexy in a standing pose. She should have glasses, Bettie Page hair, and heels.

It was painful. When I first saw the design he had come up with, my heart sank. He was trying so hard to meet all my weird quirky specs, and the design itself was great. I just didn’t want it on my body. She was facing out, at the viewer, with this huge grin. A book in one hand and a pen in the other with glasses on her nose and square shoulders in a red dress that altogether made her look like a manic schoolteacher from the 1950’s. So we started tweaking. What if she was engrossed in the book, not smiling, fully engaging this story? He changed it to a profile, soft face but no smile, and the hand with the pen was now distractedly in her hair. We made the dress sleeveless. Added a few other details. But so much of the original design was perfect. Sitting on a stack of books? Perfect! The cut of the dress, and the way it’s slipping up naturally? Loved it! The hair was exactly right. I was doubtful about the color scheme until it healed; I am so glad I trusted him with it.

In some ways the piece is an homage to the amazing women I know. The book titles include favorites of one of my dearest friends, a bibliophile who has a better sense of herself as a woman than maybe anyone else I know. She is strong, crazy talented, ridiculously intelligent. She’s also nerdy and quirky and independent and vulnerable. She’s made really hard choices to preserve her identity as a woman in the face of disabling circumstances. She represents much of the strength of womanhood I wanted this tattoo to reflect. The piece also represents some of the things I find most beautiful about myself, a love for knowledge and intensity and boldness. I wanted to see my best, sexiest, classiest version of woman in this piece. She is my statement of what I believe to be feminine and beautiful and alluring, self-contained and all her own.

Some people have made the offhanded comment that this tattoo is different from my others “because all the others have meaning.” The assumption that the pin-up girl is less symbolic is a little hurtful, but also confirmed that it was the right piece to get. God came to earth, slipping on skin and existing as a man. Incarnation is a terribly important reality, and we so easily dismiss the ways in which we physically exist in this world. Beauty, even sexiness, are His idea. It’s absolutely imperative that each woman, really each person, reclaims that significance within her own identity. It’s an issue I have spent my entire life struggling with, one that seems universal among the women I know. When I see my pin-up in all her distracted beauty I remember the things I find meaningful about being a woman, the things that I believe are beautiful. She gives me the courage to be what a woman is, rather than striving to reflect the lies I’ve been told about what we should be.

When we are free to embody our woman-ness, we can become free to move beyond gender to coexisting with each other as human beings. When I stop criticizing my own body, I stop comparing it to yours. When you stop hating your life, you stop resenting me for mine. When we all stop fighting each other over gender, we can truly live out the Oneness we are offered in Christ Jesus. And there is nothing more beautiful than that.

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