Were you ever made to read Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther? I tossed out my copy long ago, but I vividly remember the scene where the appalling young hero almost wets himself as he ogles sweet Lotte, a pure and virginal young maiden who has a knack for nurturing children. For him, she thrillingly combines the best of both worlds: a pristine and blushing virgin maidenhood and a full-throated, full-blooming, rosy maternity; and he finds her all the more desirable because she's engaged to someone else.
Of course he's a self-absorbed sturm-und-drang Romantic whose head is so firmly lodged up his own grandiose sense of self-loathing that he can't do anything about any of this, because that would ruin everything. So he drags himself around for a while, suffering, and then eventually -- spoiler alert -- shoots himself. I think he's buried under a linden tree. I forget why that's important.
Who cares about Werther now? I do, because I see him every day. Only he's not a velvet-frocked Romantic pining for his sweet goddess of virginity and motherhood. He's a modern American, and he's caught in an even more absurd dilemma: the dilemma of sexiness. Who's sexy? Who's not sexy enough? Who's too sexy? Who's trying too hard to be sexy? Who's making people feel like they have to be sexier? What about sexy mothers? What about sexy grandmothers? What about sexy babies?
It's not just men who are confused, of course. If anything, women are a thousand times more tangled up about what it means to be sexy -- what it looks like, what it does to men, and what it's for. And so we have little girls associating tawdry and revealing clothing with success and popularity. We have the age old question of whether or not it's a mortal sin to watch Olympic beach volleyball. We have women protesting that public breastfeeding is beautiful, and that graphic Victoria's Secret bra ads are demeaning -- and making their point by passing around a cartoon which very graphically portrays one of those ads (seriously, I have boys in the house -- I couldn't even open Facebook for a couple of hours!). And we have the pathetic spectacle of aging women schlumping through Walmart in purple tiger-stripe stretch pants, netted tank top and feather earrings, because the only way they know to be pretty is to be sexy.
We have a waspish editorial wondering why more postpartum women didn't submit their pictures to the "love your belly" campaign, designed to prove to women that their separated abdominal muscles and stretch marks are just as sexy as Jillian Michaels' rock-hard bod, because they just have to be, because if they're not, then aren't we saying that mothers have no value?
We are so dang confused about sexiness and motherhood.
"The Tyranny of the 'Sexy' Mom," which recently appeared in Time, puts this modern nuttiness on full display:
Twenty years ago, it seemed like a huge step forward for women to be considered sexually attractive and a good mother at the same time. Prior to that, studies showed that being desirable and being maternal were considered mutually exclusive. But then in 1991, Demi Moore went and broke about thousand taboos by posing nude and pregnant for the cover of Vanity Fair, saying she hoped it would give pregnant women “permission” to be sexy.
It was the dawn of the age of the sexy mom, and there was no going back. “Reversal of the traditional separation between maternity and sex has exploded onto the scene in recent years as the media is full of hot mammas … yummy mummies, knocked-up knock outs,” writes Kelly Oliver in the journal Hypatia. She points out that what started as a kind of feminist liberation for women is now slipping into old-fashioned objectification ... Suddenly that permission to be sexy and motherly turned into a mandate.
Okay. Can you take some advice from an old married woman? In the words of therapist Bob Newhart: Just . . . stop it. Stop thinking about it. This is the advice that I would like to impart to people twisting themselves into pretzels over how to solve the problem of sexiness -- what it is, what it's for, who has it, who needs it, who deserves it, and so on. Never mind having permission to be sexy. I give you the permission to stop worrying about it for a minute.
Stop it. Just . . . stop it.
Men like to look at women's bodies. Women like to show their bodies to men. According to our state in life, we should all strive to keep our eyes, and other parts, where they belong. We should only look and show when it's appropriate. Easier said than done! Finding the balance can be a decades-long struggle. But still, the proper reaction to all of this is not to freak out, and make any grand pronouncements about What Women Ought To Be Like. Freaking out, I'm learning, is almost never the proper reaction.
The proper reaction is to give thanks to God for making life so frickin' interesting -- and to thank Him for giving us marriage, where we can work out the problem of sexiness and maternity together over the decades. In the words of one of my favorite healthy all-American hymns, "Give thanks there was sunshine, give thanks there was rain. Give thanks we have hands to deliver the grain. O let us be joyful! O let us be grateful to the Lord for His blessings."
In other words, yes, this whole sexual attraction thing can be a lot of work, even kind of a burden. We go through seasons of our lives when it's hard to know what to think: sometimes we're all on fire, but no one needs the heat right now. Sometimes there's kindling aplenty, but you can't get a spark going. And sometimes, if you're lucky, praise God, there was sunshine, and then there was rain . . and then, lo and behold, it's harvest time, and there you are with hands -- so go to it.
Sexiness is, at heart, a means to an end. It's super fun in itself, and is amazingly entertaining, because your concept of what is sexy can change so much over the years. It changes as your confidence in yourself waxes and wanes, changes as you develop new ideas about what is valuable. But no matter what "sexy" means to you, one thing is true: it's not something that can or should be sustained at all times, in all places, at all costs. That's crazy. That's like saying your favorite chord is C sharp minor, so you think that all songs should be nothing but C sharp minor over and over and over again. That's not a song! That's a nightmare.
Listen to me, you young lad and lasses. You can laugh at these goofy romantic heroes with their drippy non-problems. But truly, Werther was a pioneer in the worst way: he blazed the trail for the full blown foolishness we have today. At least the poor sap knew enough to go away and shoot himself. Today, he's probably have a blog.