The Proverbs 31 Woman on Campus

I have the best job in the whole wide world.
        
Okay, maybe if I could be a best-selling author, make a lot of money, go on book tours, and be an English professor at George Fox University,  that might be a slightly better gig.  But I don’t really like to fly all that much, and I’d miss my kids while I was out shilling my books, and I can’t think of what I’d do with more money (except maybe buy a newer car, and another pair of comfy sweat pants), so honestly: I have the best job in the whole wide world.
Being around college students all the time is a big part of the reason working at George Fox University is so great. I love my students. I love their earnestness and their playfulness; I love getting to read their stories and listen to their minds. As a writing teacher, I am allowed a glimpse of their inner selves, put down on paper, and I love reading about their hopes and dreams and insecurities.
Which is why my own heart breaks—just a little—when I stumble across things like the Live 31 site, hosted by students at Baylor University. Because I’m reminded, once again, of how hopeful and earnest my own students are, how many of them long so much to be the person God wants them to be. And I’m reminded, again, of how often they receive messages that strike me as destructive, because they poke at my students’ insecurities. Because these messages suggest living a life in Jesus means accepting certain gender roles. Because some young people will see in these messages an ideal they will never, ever be able to emulate, and will feel incomplete in their seeming failure to be what, apparently, the Bible wants them to be.
The Live 31 movement was started by Baylor student Alex Eklund, who says in the site’s introductory video that he had an epiphany: That he would “rather have a Proverbs 31 woman that a Victoria’s Secret model.” The movement was formed from Eklund’s earth-shattering thought—you know, that there are only two kinds of women in the world, those who are virtuous and those, like a Victoria’s Secret model, who are sluts. (Not sure why Victoria’s Secret, or its models, are taking the hit here . . . do we know that all Victoria’s Secret models are unworthy, just because they pose for a catalog?) 
In the video and on the Live 31 site, we learn who this enviable Proverbs  31 woman should be. So that college students can begin looking for the “wife of noble character,” they are told they should use Proverbs 31 as their guide. Eklund encourages young women to be Proverbs 31 women, and tells the young men in his audience that they should look in their mate for a Proverbs 31 woman, that they “shouldn’t settle for anything less.” The divorce rates in this country will go down, Eklund promises, because people will be marrying on something other than just the Victorian Secret aesthetic.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m all about critiquing the Victorian Secret aesthetic. We are all damaged, in some ways, by the pop cultural images of gaunt women with plastic breast enhancement (no matter how biblically acceptable, according to Mark Driscoll). In the video, Eklund notes that the young women around him express constant insecurities about their appearances because of events like the Victoria’s Secret fashion shows, and I totally get that. But his response to the ideal image presented by Victoria’s Secret is to argue, instead, that women need to set their sights on something else—on the woman of virtue found in Proverbs 31—and use that as model for rightful living.
What Eklund doesn’t seem to realize is that there’s a different kind of pressure, mostly unacknowledged, in taking that approach. I’ve written in other posts here on the blog about the myth of the Proverbs 31 woman: how evangelicals have interpreted that passage to suggest that women need to be all things to all people: beautiful and strong; virtuous and docile; an extraordinary housekeeper who does everything for all people; a savvy business person who works from home, in order to also tend to children and husband; a woman attuned to health and fitness, who wears the right fashion with modesty and grace. Websites and books on the Proverb urge women to live by its principles, and entire industries have sprung up to help women live the Proverbs 31 perfection, selling purses and whatnot from home with babies hanging off both modestly covered breasts.
But now that pressure to live in Proverbs 31 perfection has filtered down to college students, who must hear from their male peers that they are to be women of constant virtue, doing everything possible to live a right life—not necessarily for themselves, but for the men who are looking for them. If I was a young woman looking at the video and its companion website, I might be tempted to think “Well, crap. Now there’s a bunch of other stuff men are going to judge me by.”  And then I’d feel totally un-Proverbs 31 for saying crap.
Apparently, though, people are eating up the Live 31 movement. On the website, a number of young women are sharing their stories, about how their dating lives, their faith, their entire being has been transformed by the idea that they should become Proverbs 31 women. Some of the testimonies are truly aggravating: in one, an 18-year-old teenager admits she’s been looking a long time for love, and now that she’s dedicated her life to Christ, “he has blessed me with the man of his dreams, the man he felt best suited for me. He sees my beauty through the love I have for Christ.” I feel for the young woman—at 18, what can she know about the man best suited for her and the rest of her life?—and I cringe at the rhetoric she uses, because as I note in my Valentine’s post, that kind of language is so destructive to those who haven’t been blessed by Christ with The One.
The writer goes on:  “Being a Proverbs 31 woman is very important to me and the (sic) I have. As a teenager I pray that living as a Proverbs 31 woman will inspire other girls to do the same and not conform to this day in age.” It seems, though, that this teenager is swapping one kind of conformity for another. Instead of trying to be beautiful like the Victoria Secret model, she is seeking the standards given her by the evangelical movement—by young men like Eklund who will tell her what it means to be godly.
Other writers on the Live 31 blog share their stories of love and love lost, of having never dated (another apparent attribute of a Proverbs 31 woman: she courts rather than dates), of waiting for The One who will appreciate everything about the woman, and who will give her a lifetime of sunshine and roses. One testimony is heartbreaking in another way: a young woman writes that she “hates life,” but that the Live 31 site “makes it bearable.” I want to reach out to the woman and tell her what will make life bearable is probably some counseling, as well as a different message entirely: that striving for a model of perfection—whether the Victoria’s Secret model or the Evangelical one, misappropriated from the Bible—will not change your life. Exploring who God wants you to be, apart from an 18-year-old Baylor undergraduate’s interpretation of the Bible, may have a better chance of giving you the better life you are seeking.
At any rate, the Live 31 movement is gaining momentum. Larger Christian publications are featuring the movement, and—in an ironic but PR-worthy twist—a former Victoria’s Secret model, Kylie Bisutti, has taken up the cause, telling her story of giving up Victoria’s Secret for the Proverbs 31 lifestyle. She’s been interviewed by Good Morning America and Glenn Beck, Fox News, and CBS This Morning, because the Live 31 “message is so biblical and Christ-centered, and it is exactly what I’m striving to be.” (You can read more about Ecklund’s campaign, and Bisutti’s own testimony, at World Magazine.)
Part of me wants to support a campaign that encourages women to worry less about their appearances and to focus on living more purposefully. Of course that can be a good thing. But the larger part, the part who loves being around college men and women every day, thinks the Live 31 movement only rehashes too much damaging ground: that there are only two kinds of women in this world, and you’re either a slutty model or a Proverbs 31 saint; that women need to rehabilitate themselves primarily for the spouses who will marry them; that the standard to which women must aspire is one that focuses on submission, caring wholly for others, and sustaining the virtue of her home and family, kinda like the Victorian Angel in the House.  (Victorian principles of womanhood, Victoria’s Secret: is there some kind of connection here?)
Honestly, stuff like this makes my head want to explode. So I’m thinking of starting my own campaign. It will be titled something like the “I’d rather not be pigeon-hold into one of two possible gender stereotypes, Thank You Very Much.” Not as catchy as the Live 31 blog’s catchphrase, but I’m willing to keep working on it. Anyone with me?