For the past decade or so I have been fascinated by the history of the enormous circuses that criss-crossed the country by rail in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Posters from that time period tended to shamelessly exaggerate the unique qualities of people and animals on display, as you can see from these examples of the famous elephant “Jumbo” exhibited by PT Barnum. Here is what the 11 ft tall Jumbo actually looked like next to his trainer.
He was large enough to carry a few people on his back
But by the time the poster artists got busy on him, he towered mightily…
And could carry a crowd on his back!
So when I first saw this poster below in a book about those old-time circuses, I assumed it was an example of those extreme caricatures.
That sort of distortion of the human body seemed entirely impossible.
Well, I was right. It was an exaggeration…but when I finally saw photos of the flesh and blood tribeswomen in the 1930s who were being represented, I was still stunned.
This sort of distortion looks impossible, but it isn’t. It’s no doubt gone on for centuries among the Padaung (Kayan Lahwi) people of Burma. And 85 years after those circus exhibitions widely introduced the western world to this strange custom, the custom is still going strong, as you can see by the modern photos below. The process starts with girls before puberty (sometimes LONG before puberty, at five or six…or even according to some reports, as young as two) who have a length of heavy coiled brass placed permanently on their necks.
As they get older, the length of the coiling is increased…
By full maturity, the total weight of the brass can be fifty or sixty pounds.
At first it was thought by anthropologists and medical folks back a century ago that this process somehow “stretched” the spine, elongating the neck. Turns out that this is just an illusion. The weight of the rings actually pushes down the collarbone and upper ribs, eventually distorting them to an angle of 45 degrees lower than normal. This gives the illusion that the neck has been elongated.
Let me emphasize that down through history this has been a permanent thing…these girls and women live 24 hours a day (in the heat of Burma!) in these devices. Look at it from the side…I cannot IMAGINE tolerating this for more than five minutes!
But I guess it’s what you get used to. It was thought at one time that they could not remove them because the muscles of their neck would be so atrophied they would be unable to hold their head up. Turns out this was an error too, as you can see in this photo.
Some young tribeswomen in recent decades, like the one on the right below, have been choosing to remove their rings permanently, so that they can blend into the larger society around them.
But many prefer to remain true to the ancient custom. And actually, the presence of the “giraffe-necked women” in their villages is a big tourist draw, so it can be partially a matter of finances!
To many of us in western, allegedly “Christian” civilization it seems barbaric for parents to subject their children…generation after generation…to major, deliberate disfiguration of their bodies. And force them to “get used to” living with what would under normal circumstances be extremely uncomfortable objects of adornment. What person in their right mind would just start wearing a fifty pound necklace for ANY reason? It’s the sort of thing ancient civilizations might have done as torture for prisoners of war!
But of course this is not the only “body warping” custom in the world.
Consider these pretty little three-inch long slippers, that look like they would fit on a child’s big baby doll.
See how tiny they are compared to a woman’s foot?
Well, compared to a “normal” foot that has grown in the “normal” way feet grow.
But there are some women’s feet they will fit. If “fit” is the appropriate word to use for this fashion statement.
These are “lotus slippers,” that were designed to fit the feet of many Chinese women who, up until Communist rule in China brought the thousand-year gruesome custom to an end, were subject to “foot binding.”
The process would begin at about the age of four or five. The mother, or a professional foot-binder, would literally break the toes and arch bone of a little girl’s feet, bend the toes under the foot, and tightly wrap the feet so that they were “shortened.” As you see in this Xray.
For a period of two or three years, they would re-wrap them several times a week, doing re-breaking if necessary, until the damage was permanent. Here’s what the feet of an adult woman looked like whose feet had been treated this way. Yes, she is pointing to the permanently “curled under” toes of her left foot.
The ultimate goal was to fit the feet into lotus slippers by the time the young woman was eligible for marriage.
There were many reasons given for this atrocious process, including the fact that women with such hobbled feet had an appealingly mincing, dainty walk of tiny steps, considered sexy by the men of the culture. In addition, such feet “became an alluring symbol of chastity and male ownership, since a woman was largely restricted to her home and could not venture far without an escort of the help of watchful servants.” (Wiki: Foot binding)
This whole business started out over a thousand years ago as a status symbol for the rich. Women with crippled feet could be women of leisure, showing the wealth of their husband. But that didn’t last long … the custom worked its way down into lower and lower classes for many centuries, until it became common among all but the lowest of the peasant class. A woman with bound feet was believed to be likely to get better marriage offers.
Again, to people in western, Christian societies this seems like such a “heathenish,” ungodly custom—basically torturing their own children, and disfiguring the body that God gave females, just for what appear to be foolish reasons. Indeed, it was the appearance of Christian missionaries to China in the 19th century, who condemned foot-binding, that began in earnest the process toward eventual death of the custom.
Although back in the late 1800s when they were busy berating the Chinese for this atrocity, some Chinese retorted that this was pretty hypocritical, given a widespread custom in Christian countries that had some distinct parallels to the foot-binding matter. A custom that even most American Christians embraced.
The first hint I ever had about this historical American custom was when watching Gone With the Wind. Perhaps you remember this scene early in the movie too, with Scarlett holding on to the bedpost for dear life as Mammy tightens her corset…
Scarlett wants to wear her low-cut green flowered dress to the picnic at Ashley’s mansion. But the only way it will fit is for Mammy to pull the corset laces tighter … because the dress’s waist is 17 inches.
I know that at the time I didn’t give a second thought to that number. Scarlett was supposed to be about 16 years old at this point in the movie. It didn’t dawn on me to think through just what a seventeen inch waist would mean. Hmmm. At age 16 I wore a size 6 dress to my high school prom. I was considered very, very slender…and my waist was 24 inches. To consider putting on a belt at that size…and then trying to “cinch it in” another seven inches is now mind-boggling to me.
And think of it this way…if a circle is 17 inches in circumference, its diameter is only 5 ½ inches! Only in the past couple of years have I thought through the ramifications of these numbers, and wondered if Scarlett was just a fictional freak of nature. And then I did a little googling.
Years ago I used to enjoy looking at vintage Sears Roebuck and other catalogs from the turn of the last century. The women’s clothing sections were fascinating.
I always thought, just like with the giraffe-necked women circus posters, that these kinds of illustrations were exaggerated for effect. Silly me. Turns out there were photos from the same time that would have disabused me of my assumption.
I had thought that corsets of the 1800s were just slightly stiffer versions—with whale bone or metal “stays”—of the “foundation garments” popular when I was young in the 1950s and 60s…before a significant proportion of the female population abandoned even those constricting items and opted for a more “natural” look. Those were (and some still are) made out of elastic material that could smooth out lumps and bumps, and make you fit into MAYBE a size or two smaller than you could normally fit into. But a seventeen inch…or smaller…waist for a full-grown female??
Some corsets were indeed quite a bit like the later girdles and such. But for over 80 years, from the 1820s until after the dawn of the 20th century, the most fashionable ladies followed a “custom” called “tight lacing.” Because what had come into fashion for American females (and much of western Europe)…allegedly to please their menfolk…was the “wasp waist.” And since virtually no-one on earth “naturally” has a figure like this…
…women were required to start young and endure misery similar to that of the giraffe-neck Burmese and bound-foot Chinese in order to “get used to” such gross bodily distortion so they could get and keep their man.
Just as there were Xrays of the warped bone structure of the Chinese foot, there were Xrays made by concerned physicians of the warping done by tight-lacing.
For not everyone approved of the custom. Health lecturers used diagrams to show just how messed up your innards got if, like Scarlett O’Hara you became a slave to this fashion.
They were mostly wasting their time, though. Just as the Burmese and Chinese women “bought into” the customs of their culture in spite of the insanity of them, American and other Western civilization women bought into the absolute “need” to perpetuate the custom. Not just for themselves, but starting with their young daughters. How young? Have a look at this ad.
That young lass can’t be any older than four. But she was already almost too old to “start” corseting. Check out this ad…yes, that is a toddler in the front.
And let me be clear…you and all the young ladies in your family didn’t just wear these corsets for special occasions. You wore them ALL the time. That included in the hottest days of summer … and hottest nights. For indeed, most women even wore them to bed. Although the manufacturers were kind and offered special “summer” corsets that would be cooler. I guess…see what you think—this item was advertised as a “summer corset.”
And it wasn’t just already-slender teens and young women of “marriageable age” who needed to have a wasp waist. Even the stoutest of women aspired to the smallest waist possible.
And you were NOT excused if you were pregnant. You were expected to keep your “baby bump” disguised as long as possible with the illusion of a trim figure via a “maternity corset.”
Perhaps you have thought that wearing a corset back in the heyday of the style was just a custom for a small proportion of the women of America—middle-or-upper class, fashionable women from metropolitan areas like New York or Chicago. Not so:
Laura Ingalls Wilder was an American author who wrote a series of children’s books based on her childhood in a pioneer family. Little Town on the Prairie is set in 1880 in South Dakota in an area recently settled.
Despite being on the frontier, the women and, in particular the girls, were expected to behave according to the norms of the times. …
The family had three daughters, Mary, Laura, and Carrie the youngest. Mary, the eldest, tries on a dress that is found not to fit until her corset is laced more tightly, leading to the following exchange.
“I’m glad I don’t have to wear corsets yet,” said Carrie.
“Be glad while you can be,” said Laura. “You’ll have to wear them pretty soon.” Her corsets were a sad affliction ho her, from the time she put them on in the morning until she took them off at night. But when girls pinned up their hair and wore skirts down to their shoe tops, they must wear corsets.
“You should wear them at night,” Ma said. Mary did, but Laura could not bear at night the torment of the steels that would not let her draw a deep breath. Always before she could get to sleep, she had to take off her corsets.
“What your figure will be, goodness knows,” Ma warned her. “When I was married, your Pa could span my waist with his two hands.” [Source]
And that, of course, is what much of the custom was based on—making a man feel more macho because he had a “little woman” who was so petite he could span her waist with his hands.
Here’s an actual photo of the Wilder girls (Laura on the right) which is likely around the time the older girls had to start wearing corsets.
And here’s a drawing of an older Laura that no doubt shows her encased in her corset so she could Look Like a Proper Lady.
Of course many young women today still dress similar to this in tightly form-fitting dresses for special events like a high school prom—or their wedding. I don’t doubt lots of them use firm foundation undergarments to be able to squeeze into the smallest size dress possible, hoping to look their best. For a day, or an evening.
But to think that you had to dress this way ALL DAY, EVERY DAY for the rest of your life would no doubt freak out most modern young women. To say nothing of having to wear a tight-fitting corset ALL THE TIME, EVEN TO BED.
We don’t have to guess what young…and older…women thought of the practice back in its heyday, though. From the mid-1800s to the early 1900s, there was a running debate in the public press in America and England about the practice of “tight lacing” of corsets to create extremely unnatural wasp waists. All sorts of “experts” weighed in about the harmful effects of the practice in articles, editorials, and letters to the editor of magazines and newspapers. And all sorts of women-on-the-street chimed in with their own stories and opinions in response. Here is just a small sample of such published letters from that period of history.
I have been abroad for the last four years, during which I left my daughter at a large and fashionable boarding school near London; I sent for her home directly I arrived, and, having had no bad accounts of her health during my absence, I expected to see a fresh rosy girl of seventeen come bounding to welcome me. What, then, was my surprise to see a tall, pale young lady glide slowly in with measured gait and languidly embrace me?
When she had removed her cloak I understood at once what had been mainly instrumental in metamorphosing my merry romping girl to a pale fashionable belle. Her waist had, during the four years she had been at school, been reduced to such absurdly small dimension that I could easily have clasped it with my two hands. ‘How could you be so foolish,’ I exclaimed, ‘as to sacrifice your health for the sake of a fashionable figure?’
Please don’t blame me, mamma,’ she replied; ‘I assure you I would not have voluntarily submitted to the torture I have suffered for all the admiration in the world.’
She then told me how the most merciless system of tight-lacing was the rule of the establishment, and how she and her forty or fifty fellow-pupils had been daily imprisoned in vices of whalebone drawn tight by the muscular arms of sturdy waiting-maids, till the fashionable standard of tenuity [thinness] was attained. The torture at first was, she declared, often intolerable; but all entreaties were vain, as no relaxation of the cruel laces was allowed during the day under any pretext except decided illness.
This letter to the editor was followed up by one from the seventeen year old in question herself…
I quite admit that slender waists are beautiful – in fact, my own waist is much admired, and that I sometimes forget the pain I underwent in attaining it. I am also quite ready to confess that I am not in ill health, though I often feel languid and disinclined for walking out, nor do I think a girl whose constitution is sound would suffered any injury to her health from moderate lacing; but I must beg that you will allow me to declare that when stays are not worn till fourteen years of age, very tight lacing causes absolute torture for the first few months, and it was principally to deter ladies from subjecting their daughters to this pain, in similar cases, that mamma wrote to you.
Every morning one of the maids used to come to assist us to dress, and a governess superintended, to see that our corsets were drawn as tight as possible. After the first few minutes every morning I felt no pain, and the only ill effects apparently were occasional headaches and loss of appetite. …
Generally all the blame is laid by parents of the principal of the school, but it is often a subject of the greatest rivalry among the girls to see which can get the smallest waist, and often while servant was drawing in the waist of my friend to the utmost of her strength, the young lady, though being tightened till she had hardly breath to speak, would urge the maid to pull the stays yet closer, and tell her not to let the lace slip in the least.
Still another, from the 1860s:
A letter recently unearthed from a trunk shows that in the sixties of the last century, principals of girls’ schools thought they were fitting the girls for society by urging them to retain small waists. Accordingly, they offered prizes to the girls having the smallest waists. The girls were put through a course of training for reducing their waist measures. The conditions of the contest were that the corset should not be removed on retiring at night and that each pupil must be inspected every morning to make sure she had not loosened her corset. One of the persons who engaged in the contest afterward wrote of it:
“Some of us tried hard to be permitted to retire from the contest, but we were rebuked … and accused of making fools of our principals. On the following morning, the undergoverness, with her maid, came as usual to superintend everyone getting ready for the day, and after satisfying herself that each lace was drawn in to the utmost, she fastened it in a knot at the top and, passing the ends through a piece of card, placed her own seal on them, so that any attempt to loosen the corset during the night might be infallibly detected in the morning.”
I did not commence to lace tightly until I was married, nor should I have done so then had not my husband been so particularly fond of a small waist; but I was determined not to lose one atom of his affection for the sake of a little trouble. I could not bear to think of him liking any one else’s figure better than mine, consequently, although my waist measured twenty–three inches, I went and ordered a pair of stays, made very strong and filled with stiff bone, measuring only fourteen inches round the waist. These, with the assistance of my maid, I put on, and managed the first day to lace my waist in to eighteen inches.
At night I slept in my corset without loosing the lace in the least. The next day my maid got my waist to seventeen inches, and so on, an inch smaller every day, until she got them to meet. I wore them regularly without ever taking them off, having them tightened afresh every day, as the laces might stretch a little.
They did not open in front, so that I could not undo them if I had wanted. For the first few days the pain was very great, but as soon as the stays were laced close, and I had worn them so for a few days, I began to care nothing about it, and in a month or so I would not have taken them off on an account, for I quite enjoyed the sensation, and when I let my husband see me with a dress to fit I was amply repaid for my trouble; and although I am now grown older, and the fresh bloom of youth is gone from my cheek, still my figure remains the same, which is a charm age will not rob me of. I have never had cause to regret the step I took.
1889, letter from a maid …
I hope you will pardon this letter, but reading the Hon. Mrs. B’s article on tight lacing, I thought one from a lady’s maid might interest you, as we see a great deal of this sort of thing. I am living with a young married lady at present, who is most particular about her figure and appearance, and her husband is always talking to her about slim waists and lacing, as he admires it very much. She is tall, about 5ft. 8in, and well made, so you can imagine what a business it is pulling her in to 17in; but she has a splendid figure when she is dressed.
She always laced tight, but never below 19in till she married a year ago. Her husband then persuaded and bothered her into reducing her size. People little think of what pain she is suffering when they admire her trim waist and tapering figure; but she is pretty, and has a very pale, good complexion, and white soft hands and pretty feet, so her female vanity supports her.
At 9 o’clock I lace her, after her bath, and a housemaid helps me to squeeze her waist well in. As I tighten the lace she looks very white, and her lips often twitch as we pull her in. She never lunches, and does not walk very much. At night she wears a softer corset with a 19in waist, as she says it is more painful to allow her figure to expand completely, and then lace it up again, than to keep it always about the same size.
1888 Boston Globe letter:
…I know many mothers who are not only enthusiastic lacers themselves, but are very strict in employing this article of dress in the foundation of their children’s figures. Each of my own daughters — I have four — on her seventh birthday was provided with a snugly-fitting pair of corsets, which she wore from that time out, by night as well as by day, unless in case of decided illness.
As the child grew, more bones were added, and the chest and hip measure was increased, but no alteration was made in the waist, and no expansion being allowed during the hours of sleep, a narrow waist was retained and there was no necessity of resorting to tight-lacing, which becomes requisite where corsets are not worn until the figure has grown large. It goes without saying that I wear corsets myself, and though I have left youth far behind I still have a figure that provokes admiration …
With American young women making comments such as “I would not have voluntarily submitted to the torture I have suffered for all the admiration in the world,” and with the reality of the sort of permanent physical damage tight lacing was doing, can you perhaps see now why some Chinese sneered at Victorian American and British Christian missionaries who berated them for the “heathen” cruelty of the custom of foot-binding?
Gratefully, fickle fashion led western women by the second decade of the 20th century to abandon wasp-waist corsets entirely. The change came quickly. I have a facsimile copy of a 1908 Sears Roebuck catalog with a full selection of wasp-waist corsets…all are available in waist sizes from 18 to 30 inches. Except for the “Armorside Abdominal Reducing Corset,” which came in waist sizes from 20 to 50 inches. All looked pretty much just like this one.
Then I have a facsimile 1927 edition. What a difference two decades made! Oh, the fashion industry made sure women still needed corsets to get the “fashionable figure” required by the times. But that figure was no longer a curvacious hourglass shape. It was the totally curve-less shape of the “flapper” style.
And the average woman didn’t have THAT shape any more than she had the hour-glass shape. So she absolutely had to have one…or more…corsets like this standard one, to squash her own unique figure into the required cookie-cutter shapeless shape!
Strangely enough, a century after the demise of the hellish, long-running tight-lacing phenomenon, it has made a return among a small “sub-culture” of women fascinated by what they consider the “romantic/sexy look” of the Victorian times. Here’s one of the most extreme examples, a woman from Germany who took three years of tight-lacing to “train” her body down into a 16 inch corset.
That’s her below on the left “before” her transformation, with her natural 23-inch waist. She is thrilled with her look now, on the right, in spite of the fact that it is so grotesquely unnatural that it repels many folks.
But at least she doesn’t have children of her own that she is forcing at a tender age into adopting Mommy’s look!
No, normal American parents these days don’t physically torture their female children with heathenish practices like neck extension, foot-binding, or corseting to prepare them to attract a mate.
Although there has been, for many years, an unspoken, subtle “influence” in American society that may have led some young girls to aspire to unhealthy body imagery…
Oh, wait … that’s not who I had in mind!
Did you think that is a photo of the earliest version of the all-American Barbie doll? No, that’s a photo of her predecessor, the all-German Lilli doll. Before she was a doll, Lilli was a cartoon character, starting in 1952, in the German “tabloid” newspaper Bild-Zeitung.
For German politicians, it’s a necessary evil. For German journalists, it’s mandatory daily reading. For the German desperate, it’s a daily dose of high-resolution soft porn. And for millions of Germans, it’s the primary source of news.
Bild Zeitung, Germany’s answer to the British tabloids the Sun and the Daily Mirror, serves up tripe, trash, tits and, almost as an afterthought, a healthy dose of hard news seven days a week. It serves almost 4 million readers — including those vacationing in Mallorca, Istanbul and the Canary Islands. But unlike the National Enquirer in the US, Bild doesn’t rely too heavily on stories it invents in house — instead, it prefers to twist even the slightest news item into a world changing event threatening life as we know it. It often goes too far. In 2004, the paper — whose motto is Bild Dir Deine Meinung (which can be loosely translated as “we form your opinion so you don’t have to”) was reprimanded by German press watchdog Deutscher Presserat no fewer than 12 times.
Sleazy from its beginnings, it got worse as the years went by. From 1984 to 2012 it had featured “topless” pictures of bosomy young women on its cover (and more inside…more than 5,000 over the years.) Along with no doubt many more pics of “scantily-clad” young women.
One of those scantily-clad young women was “Bild Lilli.”
Reinhard Beuthien was ordered to make a “filler” to conceal a blank space in the Bild-Zeitung of June 24, 1952. He drew a cute baby, but his boss didn’t like it. So he kept the face, added a ponytail and a curvy woman’s body and called his creation “Lilli”. She sat in a fortune-teller’s tent asking: “Can’t you tell me the name and address of this rich and handsome man?” The cartoon was an immediate success so Beuthien had to draw new ones each day.
Lilli was post-war, sassy and ambitious and had no reservations talking about sex. As she had her own job she earned her own money as a secretary but wasn’t above hanging out with rich men (“I could do without balding old men but my budget couldn’t!”).
The cartoon always consisted of a picture of Lilli talking to girlfriends, boyfriends, her boss (“As you were angry when I was late this morning I will leave the office at five p.m. sharp!”). The quips underneath the cartoons handled topics ranging from fashion (to a policeman who told her that two-piece-swimsuits are banned: “Which piece do you want me to take off?”), politics (“Of course I’m interested in politics; no one should ignore the way some politicians dress!”) and even the beauty of nature (“The sunrise is so beautiful that I always stay late at the nightclub to see it!”). The last Lilli cartoon appeared on January 5, 1961.
In 1955 Bild Zeitung capitalized on Lilli’s popularity by coming out with a Lilli doll. NOT a doll designed as a child’s plaything, but as an adult “novelty,” sold in venues such as newsstands, bars, and tobacco shops. The sort of gag gift you’d give to a guy at a “bachelor party.” (That you’d buy these days in the US at a Spencer’s Gift Store in a mall.) Some 1950s fellows even perched Lilli dolls on the dashboards of their cars.
… Lilli was available in two sizes: 30 cm (12 inches) and 19 cm (7.5 inches). … The doll was made of plastic and had molded eyelashes, pale skin and a painted face with side glancing eyes, high narrow eyebrows and red lips. Her fingernails were painted red, too. She wore her hair in a ponytail with one curl kissing the forehead. Her shoes and earrings were molded on. …Each Lilli doll carried a miniature Bild-Zeitung and was sold in a clear plastic tube.
Lilli came dressed in a variety of fashionable…and mostly sexy…styles.
… Many parents considered her not appropriate for children. Ariel Levy refers to her as a “sex doll” in Female Chauvinist Pigs and in interviews on the Lilli-inspired Barbie doll, Eve Ensler refers to Lilli (without elaboration) as a “sex toy”. A German brochure from the 1950s states that Lilli was “always discreet,” and that her wardrobe made her “the star of every bar.”
Although the doll was originally not designed as a children’s toy, she eventually became popular with children. Doll houses, room settings, furniture, and other toy accessories to scale with the small Lilli were produced by German toy factories to cash in on her popularity amongst children and parents. Lilli and her fashions were sold as children’s toys in a number of European countries, including Italy and Scandinavian states. Lilli was as high-profiled and successful as a toy as she was as an adult novelty, although outside of Germany she is mostly remembered in the latter guise.
Which brings us to why she is significant to American society. It is no “coincidence” that you might have assumed that her picture above was of a Barbie doll. Because she was the direct model for Barbie.
Ruth Handler, co-founder with her husband of the Mattel Toy Company was visiting Switzerland in 1956 when she first saw a Lilli doll. Although she realized it’s somewhat shady reputation in Europe, she decided it would make a delightful plaything for her daughter … Barbie. Up until then, most dolls were baby dolls. I remember having some adult-style “fashion dolls” when I was young in the early 1950s…but under their fashions they had the bodies of a ten year old. And their costumes were usually very demure—I remember having one dressed to look like Queen Elizabeth, in an elaborate ball gown.
Until Ruth Handler came along, no one seems to have thought of actually having an “anatomically correct” mature female doll—one that wore stiletto heels and a bra and girdle and low-cut dresses and so on—for little girls to use to act out more mature pretend themes.
Ruth bought three Lilli dolls, one to give to Barbie to play with, and two to show to the craftsmen at Mattel so that they could create an American version. As you can see from the photos, they made very few changes to the sex-pot Lilli. Same unrealistic curves, same impossibly tiny feet in stiletto heels, same coy sideways glance, same pony tail, similar pouty lips, same makeup and fingernail polish. (That’s the very first Barbie doll on the right, from 1959.)
And thus for the next sixty years young American girls have had as one of their “role models” in the play room…an Americanized sex-pot. You can decide for yourself it that is good, bad, or indifferent, but it is a basic statement of fact.
And one reality that this fact brings along with it is how unrealistic a role model this babe has been.
At about 5 ft 9 inches tall, her neck would be twice as long and six inches thinner than the average woman. She would be incapable of lifting her head. And let’s face it..her neck looks JUST like that of a Padaung woman!
Her waist would be 16 inches around, smaller than her head.
Her wrists would be 3. Inches around…she’d be incapable of doing any heavy lifting.
She’d have a child’s size 3 foot, and would be unable to walk upright on her own.
Again, you’ll have to decide for yourself if this part of our “culture” has had ANY influence on the attitude of young women toward their own body features as they enter their teen years, any influence on such issues as anorexia or bulimia. I do know that there have been many folks over the years who have strongly suggested that it has had a subtle but significant influence.
But whether or not Barbie herself has contributed to the problem, there is no question that far too many young women in modern times have accepted a cultural standard for “beauty” that emphasizes unrealistic expectations, and led to low self-esteem, depression, and very unhealthy choices. All in the name of wanting to be accepted by others…particularly males…as appealing. And marketable for marriage…or at least dating relationships.
Have you noticed that all these cultural customs (whether in societies that western nations have considered “heathen,” or in the so-called Christian society of Victorian America and Europe) when you get down to it—are dictating to females what they must do to be “acceptable” to a male as a fit bride?
And therein is a spiritual lesson.
In the Bible, Christians are told that they are going to be the “Bride of Christ.” Some day He will come back to earth to set up a Kingdom, and He will marry that Bride, and preside over a “Wedding Supper.” The analogy of bride and bridegroom shows up in the parables of Jesus and elsewhere in the Bible pointing to a relationship with God.
And since early in Bible times right up to the present, there have been men who made it their business to tell others just EXACTLY what God expected of them in order to be acceptable to Him. No, God Himself did not appoint them to that job—they took it upon themselves. And convinced others that they were experts in the topic.
The Pharisees of Jesus time were one such group.
Convinced that the simple scriptures regarding any given topic related to godly living weren’t sufficient to make sure people were living up to God’s standards, the Pharisees, and the Hebrew Sages before them, created an elaborate system of detailed instructions to pin down all the details. For instance, the fourth commandment of the Ten Commandments said to “keep the Sabbath Day holy.” But that left people wondering just exactly what you could and couldn’t do on that day to please God…and keep Him from getting mad at you. The Sages worked all that out…exactly how far you could walk, exactly how much weight you could lift—leaving nothing to chance.
Jesus didn’t have much good to say about this approach.
“Woe to you experts in religious law as well! You load people down with burdens difficult to bear, yet you yourselves refuse to touch the burdens with even one of your fingers!” [NET Bible]
But Christians have been ignoring His criticism for the past 2000 years. Many “experts in Christianity” have developed into Christian Pharisees, and are still busily “loading people down” with details on exactly what they have to do to be “accepted” as part of the Bride of Christ. And all too often they leave the “average Christian” in perpetual fear that he or she will not measure up, and will be “cast into outer darkness” when others are invited in to the Marriage Supper.
Here is an example of the fruit of some modern Christian Pharisees who have created their own list of expectations for a person wanting to become part of the Bride of Christ:
I have a website I call the Fieldguide to the Wild World of Religion. On it I share my many years of research regarding religious groups and teachers that use deceptive or abusive methods to attract and keep followers. It includes overview profiles, documentation, and commentary on many such groups and individuals, along with explanations of a variety of religious ideas and doctrines which may be unfamiliar to the average reader, such as being “slain in the spirit” or the difference between prophecy and apocalypse.
I’ve had almost a million visitors to the site since I put it up. Most come as the result of a websearch on the name of some group or teacher or doctrine. Occasionally a visitor will send me an email—some to thank me for the material, some to rant at me for documenting something negative about their favorite religious teacher, some to ask for more information on a topic.
A few years back I received an email from a man asking if I would be willing to carry on an email dialogue with his wife, to help her work through a traumatic experience she had had. He had come to my site as a result of looking up the topic of “speaking in tongues” on a websearch. I have a profile of that phenomenon, along with information on the Charismatic and Pentecostal movement in general. His wife had been extremely troubled by an experience in an exclusivist Pentecostal cult. He had shown her my material, and she seemed receptive. I agreed to chat with her, so she wrote to me privately to discuss some of her concerns. As a result of her horrifying experience in being in and then leaving the cult, without anyone to help her sort through her confusion, she was terrified that God was going to now reject her.
Her poor 12 year old daughter had had a literal nervous breakdown and had to be hospitalized when she became terrified that she might unwittingly commit the “unpardonable sin.” The poor child had been taught in the cult that once one had the “Baptism in the Holy Ghost with the evidence of speaking in tongues,” if you EVER sinned again in any way (including even just wearing jeans if you were a female!) you were a backslider and damned to an ever-burning Hell for all eternity, with no chance of repentance. Both the mother and the girl HAD experienced what they believed to be “speaking in tongues,” and were really joyful for a short time. But then the young girl became terrified that she might accidentally tell an “untruth” (not even meaning to lie), would be judged by God as a liar, and thus be doomed to Hell. And she became so obsessed with this fear that she would not speak AT ALL.
I wrote back and forth to this woman for days, answering her Biblical questions about the “proof texts” that the Pentecostal group had shoved down her throat in order to convince her of their doctrines. After several exchanges with her, I didn’t hear from her for a while. And then one day I got a lovely thank you from her husband…he wrote:
“Just wanted to drop a line of appreciation for the help you have given my wife in her search to find the truth in the aftermath of her “holiness” church experience. She has corresponded with quite a number of ordained ministers, including the Billy Graham Association, trying to find answers for those troubling Bible verses the “holiness” church has built its entire edifice upon. You seem to have reached her on a personal communication level the others were unable to initiate. I’m so happy I found your web page and introduced her to it.”
The little girl finally recovered from her mania, and was back to a normal life. OUTSIDE the spiritually abusive group she and her mother had been part of.
Somehow this woman and her daughter had been turned away by “church teachers’ from such scriptures as this one…
“Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” [Matthew 11:29-30 NASB]
The Pharisees in the cult that had terrified the young girl taught her that Jesus’ yoke is very, very difficult and the burden he expected her to accept to become part of His Bride was very, very heavy.
Obviously that little cult is not the only place where Pharisaism thrives in modern times. Many, many groups…from little cults like that of 100 or fewer people, to large, mainstream denominations of millions, have their own “customs” that have risen to the level of “law.” They each have their own idiosyncratic “list” regarding everything from what a person may—or must—wear, to how they may spend their leisure time, to how they must structure their day, to how they may make love to their spouse, to how they must pray or worship, to how much money they MUST give to the church organization. And on and on it goes.
You might say that these modern Pharisees metaphorically construct a “garment” in the shape of all these laws, conforming to the corporate list, that every single person must fit into. And since no one really fits into it, each person must contort their body, bind tight certain parts that “stick out” too much, and hold their breath carefully while squeezing into the garment. Once it’s on, they must continue to breathe very carefully and shallowly so that they don’t disturb the smoothness of the garment. Sounds an awful lot like a tight-laced corset, doesn’t it?!
In most cases, trying to “put on the list,” trying to “clothe yourself” perfectly in “rules,” yields a face like this.
But the Bible never tells Christians to clothe themselves in a man-made list. Instead the Apostle Paul wrote…
So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
If you “clothe yourself with Christ,” what will you look like? It has nothing to do with whether a woman does or doesn’t ever wear jeans, or wears slacks to a “church service” instead of a dress. It has nothing to do with whether a man does or doesn’t wear a baseball cap turned backwards, or wears a suit and tie rather than casual clothes to a church meeting. The Apostle Paul put it this way:
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.
Yes, the characteristics of Christ aren’t the characteristics of a man-made list. They are characteristics of godly character, godly qualities.
By the way…just what does it mean to “clothe” yourself with Christ? What does the Greek word translated sometimes “clothe,” and sometimes “put on,” imply?
It comes from the Greek word enduo that means literally to “sink down into a garment.”
You certainly don’t sink down into a corset! You are squashed in and tightened down!
What you sink down into is a robe.
THIS is what “putting on” or “clothing yourself” with Jesus means.
And if you do it, THIS is what it looks like, not a list of does and don’ts.
Clothing yourself in Christ leads to exhibiting the Fruit … and these things are NOT painful.
If you find yourself now, or in the future, in a “church culture” that keeps you in fear that you must be tight-corseted by their man-made list in order to be an acceptable bride, I suggest that you strongly consider whether God might be nudging you to move on to find a healthier spiritual environment.
Clothing yourself with Christ will NOT make you look like this …
It will make you look like THIS …
“Put on” the love and character of Christ and reach out to the world with it…
…and you will be living proof that when believers
are “clothed with Christ,”
“One size” truly does “fit all”!