The Virgin Mary, Body Image, and Her Story

I grew up feeling reverent toward the Virgin Mary. When my pregnant mom still hadn’t gone into labor a few days after my due date, she prayed to the Holy Mother for help so that the doctor wouldn’t have to induce her. My mom started having contractions just hours later.

My parents gave me Mary’s name twice—Marie is my middle name and Lourdes, which is a French form of the name Mary, is my baptismal name. Every night as a child with my mom sitting bedside, I would pray aloud: “Hail Mary, full of Grace…. Blessed is the fruit of diamond Jesus…”

I would say the word “diamond” with special emphasis because I thought it was so beautiful that there was such a thing as a diamond Jesus even though I didn’t know what that was. It wasn’t until I was 10 that I figured out that the words were actually “thy womb Jesus” and understood what that even meant.

Our Lady

The Virgin Mary was my one number one role model of a Catholic holy woman. There really wasn’t anyone else. The nuns who had become saints didn’t appeal to me much. The idea of wearing a habit did not sound fun and I didn’t want to give up TV or shopping (which I assumed they did) or pray all day (which I assumed they do). And while I admired Joan of Arc, I didn’t want to end up like her—burned at the stake.

I tried to be good like Mary, but hardly ever succeeded. Standing outside the confessional as a girl, I would get ready to declare my sins: Talking back to my mother for grounding me after I got a C+, not sharing my Barbie dolls with my sister, having a dream about Janet Jackson (Her album Control had just hit the radio waves. I was worried my dream meant I was a lesbian), and disobeying my father because I watched the movie Risky Business even though it was “R” rated.

I was even going to stay a virgin until marriage. That vow of chastity, however, was soon forgotten thanks to the influence of my female dormmates in college who would not stop talking about sex: how they weren’t getting any, how the sex they were getting wasn’t good enough, or how they were getting sex but wanted more sex. I just had to find out what the fuss was about.

Eventually, I gave up trying to be as good Mary. It seemed to me that she was just one more ideal that belonged to a faith whose values and ideas were beginning to seem less relevant to the realities of my own life.

It wasn’t until I read the book Mary: A Flesh-and-Blood Biography of the Virgin Mother by journalist and author Lesley Hazleton that I began to wonder if maybe the Holy Mother might not have been that different from me as a woman.

The first whiff of a bunch of aha moments in the making came when I looked at the cover of Hazelton’s book. Gazing back at me were the dark eyes of a dark-skinned young girl.

Mary Photo

Until that moment it never occurred to me that a woman as revered as Mary might have had skin coloring like mine. I’m Filipina-American, not Middle Eastern, which a real Mary would have been—hence the dark skin and eyes. But for someone who grew up seeing statues and paintings of Mary that were always of a blonde-haired, pale-skinned female (and who had internalized that white skin was the fairest color of them all), to see a brown-skinned woman cast as an accurate portrayal of what Mary could have looked like felt healing.

Hazelton writes about a very different Mary from the icon who became famous as the mother of the Son of God. Based on the time and place when she would have lived, if Mary was a real person, then “Maryam” (her name in Aramaic) would have been a 13-year-old girl who could very well have been schooled by her female relatives in the healing arts and midwifery. Born before the time of Christianity, her spiritual devotion would have likely been to the Goddess Isis, who was the Great Virgin of her time.

Hazelton also speculates that if, in fact, Maryam was a midwife, then she would have known how to easily terminate an unwanted pregnancy. This would mean that regardless of how the conception happened, Maryam’s decision about whether to become a mother might not have been as choiceless as the world has been led to believe.

That Maryam would have had her own experiences outside of being Jesus’s mother was a surprise to me. I had never thought of her in any other way. (I sometimes feel this way when I look at my own mother in that I find it hard to see her as the person she is beyond the context of being my mom.)

In paintings and murals of Mary kneeling at the foot of Jesus’s cross, she always looks so benign and resigned as she watches him dying. Hazelton dares to look behind the image to a much more plausible reality of a mother who likely would have been wailing, angry, and inconsolable. Then there would have been the challenge of learning how to keep living after outliving her son.

The idealized, perfect Virgin Mary of my childhood would have never behaved so humanly.

If Jesus died at 33 then Maryam would have been 46. Middle age didn’t look then the way it can now. As Hazelton points out, Maryam’s hair would have had lots of greys, her skin lined with her years and roughened by the weather. Yet in all the images created of the Holy Mother, she is never allowed to grow older.

Instead, as the stories go, Maryam just rises up into heaven, her body and youth perpetually intact. (These days, the only icons that get to stay forever young and beautiful are the ones who die way before their time—Princess Diana, Marilyn Monroe are two examples. Not only did Maryam forego aging but she got to bypass death.)

This makes me wonder, were the great artists like da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, and Rubens the ones making up the unrealistic female beauty and body image standards of their day? If so, then not even a real Mary would have been able to live up to their ideal of a never aging Madonna that they immortalized in so many of their great works.

As I imagined Mary as Maryam, I realized how important it is when honoring the female role models and heroines of today and years past—March is Women’s History Month—to also remember that there is so much more to each of them than their contributions, accomplishments, or what they mean to us personally.

Every woman who makes history also has a Herstory. This narrative of her own lived experience is so much richer and deeper than what is written in history books, captured in still images, or condensed into a news headline. Knowing this allows us to see and celebrate the real woman behind the idealized icon.

Reading about Maryam, the woman who could have been the real basis of the Virgin Mary, didn’t make the Divine Mother less pure or holy to me. If anything, experiencing the Sacred Feminine brought back down to earth as a flesh-and-blood woman allowed me to see my own divinity reflected in her humanity. I love her even more now.


54 Comments on “The Virgin Mary, Body Image, and Her Story”

  1. I can really relate to your Catholic upbringing chica. I was raised Catholic and even went to Catholic school. I didn’t relate to the Virgin Mary as a role model the way you did, however. I think I connected more with Jesus himself.

    Anyway, I will tell you that I always thought of nuns as being these very holy women who prayed all day too. That is, until as a young adult I worked at a summer program that helped at risk youth in South Central Los Angeles. A local convent put me and the other volunteers up for six weeks, and did I ever get a new appreciation of what it meant to be a nun. Yes, there were a couple of quiet, pray all day types, but the other nuns were fun and funky. It was a real eye-opener!! Celeste :)

    • diahannreyes says:

      LOL. I am am not surprised to hear that real nuns are way more interesting and multi-dimensional than the idea of them I had in my head back in the day. Sounds like you have a great story there that I’d want to know more about, Celeste :) Thanks for reading and commenting.

  2. Well said, Diahann. I suspect that if there’s truth to be found Hazleton’s depiction of Mary a far more accurate representation than that given by the Church’s, eh. And yes, far more admirable.

    • diahannreyes says:

      Thank you, Peter! It is interesting how we can so get caught up in the story that we can miss the bigger reality unless someone points it out. Hazelton’s portrayal definitely widened my eyes :)

  3. BroadBlogs says:

    For some reason I always grew up thinking Mary had brown hair and brown eyes– But light skin. Same thing with Jesus. But I hear from a lot of people who grew up thinking of them as blue-eyed blondes.

    It’s interesting to hear about your experience with Mary. One of the positives of growing up Catholic must be having a deified female figure like her to relate to, and as a role model.

    I guess we have our pagan friends to thank for that. Apparently when the Christians moved north into Europe the people continued worshiping the old gods and the new. And the old gods included some important females like Brigid. After a while, Christianity appropriated these gods and goddesses as Saints. And powerful and important goddesses like Brigid became “Mary.” But maybe you knew that.

    • diahannreyes says:

      Yes, having her there in a male dominated faith was definitely a positive, Georgia-and I am w/ you that her “lineage” extends way beyond AD and much broader and deeper.

  4. He who knows Christ Jesus owns a precious diamond he will never trades it for a piece of a rock.Blessings.jalMichael

  5. In Islam, there is an entire chapter of the Quran devoted to Mary. Its “Jesus, the son of Mary” in Islam, not “Mary, the Mother of Jesus” as it is in Christianity.

    According to Islamic tradition, Mary’s mother prayed for a child. She promised God that if she were given a child, she would dedicate it to the Temple. She was overjoyed when she got pregnant, but shocked when the child was born and it was a girl. Only boys were allowed to study at the temple. “Its a girl” she told God. “I know what it is” God replied.
    And so it was that Maryam was schooled under her uncle Zecheriah and became a scholar and mystic.

    It was because Mary was who she was that Jesus could become who he was to be…

    I love this version of the story so much because its implied message is that women who are well-educated become mothers of prophets– of men that are closely linked to God and committed to changing the world for the better. Indeed, the first university in the world was started by a Muslim woman.

    Ironic (and sad) that the Muslim world has devolved to such a place that women aren’t being educated at all in some places. But I guess we’ve got British colonial influence and the misogynistic Victorian/Protestant mindset to thank for that. The Protestant devaluing of Mary was a means to devalue women in general….

    • diahannreyes says:

      Jacqueline, I did not know any of that- and in the Quran, even- so unexpected. I love too what you said about how it was because of Maryam that Jesus could become. The book I read also talks about that- regardless of his gifts, he would have still needed a certain mother to help form him. Thanks for adding this piece of her story.

    • demonsking19 says:

      Actually, Its different and i explained this in my comments below from the exact verses of Quran from chapter Al-Imran . WHen Mother of Mariyam felt pregnant she wanted a boy so he can be a Prophet,Like her Husban Imran (In Arabic) peace be upon him was, And All People who were Prophets were Male, So She wanted her Offsrping to be devoated to the Most high God of heavens and the earth. She felt sad to see a girl, But She was wrong. God says i accepted ur Supplication,as u wanted a Pious and devoated offspring,And then Look How she grew up and turned, She Became the Most highest of All in Piety.Her Piety and Way of Living is so inspired in Islam that Most of Women dress up the way she used to dress up like ur Sisters in Church. But they dont have to stay virgin till their death cox we are humans and we people do have temptations.
      Its a sadness to know that we are not following our religion properly,Cox Our Prophet Mohamamd (Pbuh) said ” it is obligatery on every Muslim Men and Women to seek Knowledge” And it is one of the famous hadiths that every muslims knows. Its tragedy that due to darkness and Ignorance we donot follow it.Even our Prophet Wife, Ayesha R.A was a teacher.

  6. THis is such an interesting post, although it left me a bit confused about your name. Is it Diahann or Mary?
    I too was brought up by the nuns and we always had a procession in May in honor of Mary. I always yearned to be Mary in this procession but was never chosen.
    I really like the cover of this book, not only because it depicts Mary as someone other than white but the whole layout is very appealing.

    • diahannreyes says:

      Hi Carol, my name is Diahann but I have two middle names- Marie and Lourdes- Filipinos typically have at least one middle name, in addition to their mother’s maiden name :) and then a lot of us have a shorter nickname too.

      How fascinating to have been brought up by nuns. Have you done any writing about this? I’d definitely be interested in reading.

      • Hi Diahann-

        Thanks for clearing up your name :)
        At times my parents placed me and my two older sisters into boarding school when they traveled. As I was the youngest I was in one section while my two sisters were together in the older students’ section. It was a lonely time for me. I cried a lot.I was six then.
        Then another year I was old enough to share a bed in the dorm next to my middle sister. That made me feel more secure to have her next to me.
        I haven’t thought about this time in ages. I remember when I was much older telling my father how I hated boarding school and how it made me feel abandoned.
        He told me how sorry he was and that had he known the effect it would have had on him he never would have left. I believed him. He was really a great dad. :)
        That’s it for now…I could go on…you’ve opened up a Pandora’s box. :)
        I have to discipline myself with blogging; otherwise I don’t get any of my novel writing done. As you know. :)

        • diahannreyes says:

          Wow- I can imagine that would have been intense… and scary as a young kid.. and in retrospect as a writer probably fascinating too and rich with topic. I hear you about the blogging discipline- it can be so easy to get caught up in the writing and then the connecting!

  7. Reblogged this on metehan e. and commented:
    Bi ara okuyacagim.

  8. drshapero says:

    Another beautiful story. Interesting that I went to a funeral of a friend today and then opened up this inspiring story. You have let the beauty from within shine out. The Bible is rich with amazing women who were certainly important but even more so inspiring.

  9. demonsking19 says:

    Me being a Muslim,Love Marry (Mariyam) the Mother of Jesus.Quran has a chapter on Father of Marry as Surah Al-Imran and Chapter on Mariyam as surah Maryam. Im just gonna post few verses of Quran about Maryam (May peace be upon her )
    And mention, [O Muhammad], in the Book [the story of] Mary, when she withdrew from her family to a place toward the east.And she took, in seclusion from them, a screen. Then We sent to her Our Angel, and he represented himself to her as a well-proportioned man.She said, “Indeed, I seek refuge in the Most Merciful from you, [so leave me], if you should be fearing of Allah .”He said, “I am only the messenger of your Lord to give you [news of] a pure boy.”She said, “How can I have a boy while no man has touched me and I have not been unchaste?”He said, “Thus [it will be]; your Lord says, ‘It is easy for Me, and We will make him a sign to the people and a mercy from Us. And it is a matter [already] decreed.’ So she conceived him, and she withdrew with him to a remote place.And the pains of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm tree. She said, “Oh, I wish I had died before this and was in oblivion, forgotten.”But he called her from below her, “Do not grieve; your Lord has provided beneath you a stream.And shake toward you the trunk of the palm tree; it will drop upon you ripe, fresh dates.So eat and drink and be contented. And if you see from among humanity anyone, say, ‘Indeed, I have vowed to the Most Merciful abstention, so I will not speak today to [any] man.’ Then she brought him to her people, carrying him. They said, “O Mary, you have certainly done a thing unprecedented.O sister of Aaron, your father was not a man of evil, nor was your mother unchaste.”So she pointed to him. They said, “How can we speak to one who is in the cradle a child?”[Jesus] said, “Indeed, I am the servant of Allah . He has given me the Scripture and made me a prophet And He has made me blessed wherever I am and has enjoined upon me prayer and zakah as long as I remain alive.And [made me] dutiful to my mother, and He has not made me a wretched tyrant.And peace is on me the day I was born and the day I will die and the day I am raised alive.” CHAPTER 19 VERSES 16-33.
    We muslims believe that no women can be as pious as Mariyam (pbuh) was.
    Such a long comment. i hope u wont mind it

    • diahannreyes says:

      Not at all. Thank you for including the passage. I had no idea that she was part of the Quran. Thank you for expressing your own devotion toward her.

      • demonsking19 says:

        One of my fav Verse about Mariyam peace be upon her in Quran .
        “And [mention] when the angels said, “O Mary, indeed Allah has chosen you and purified you and chosen you above the women of the worlds.” chapter 3 verse 42.
        Mention is order to Mohammad (Phub) in Quran to tell us about Mariyam(pbuh),its fascinating that our Prophet Mohammad (Pbuh) had his own mother Aminah(Pbuh) but Quran didnt talk about her but Quran is saying that Mariyam is the Most high of all Women . She is mentioned more in the Quran[1] than in the entire New Testament and is also the only woman mentioned by name in the Quran.The nineteenth chapter of the Quran is named after her and is, to some extent, about her life. Of the Quran’s 114 suras, she is among only eight people who have a chapter named after them. Mary is specifically mentioned in the Quran.
        Thanks to u n ur post that i had to read Surah Al-Imran and Mariyam after a Month and your post n u were reason for that. Its Nice to Remember her .

  10. I put up the like even though I disagree that she likely would’ve worshiped the goddess bc the post was far deeper and richer than the historical discrepancy.

    “That Maryam would have had her own experiences outside of being Jesus’s mother was a surprise to me. I had never thought of her in any other way. (I sometimes feel this way when I look at my own mother in that I find it hard to see her as the person she is beyond the context of being my mom.)” Exactly. (Probably as a mother myself, and a s t ru ggling artist), I was thinking of our moms just before you said it. =)

    There is a Bible verse in the New Testmt that comes to mind: “but we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” The point is not one you were out to make, D, but it is possble to extrapolate in the context that our weakness and imperfection allow the beauty of the divine to shine more gloriously. This I have seen myself, watching heroes of the faith near and far, past and present, put one foot in front of the other on the hard road of joy, service, and worship. And yes, we are made in divine image.

    I thoroughly appreciated not only how you came to see yourself in her but the amazing insights on the artists of the renaissance who unwittingly may have immortalized her in an unrealistic way that women of their day could’ve felt they don’t measure up to. Not unlike the airbrushing modern photographers have done to perpetuate a myth of beauty.

    Bravo, my friend.

    • diahannreyes says:

      Diana, I’d love to know what you know historically- per above. Yes- I think it’s not uncommon to find it hard to see our moms as all of who they are- that relationship is so specific, tied, and charged in so many ways-but to think of what we may be missing when we don’t. Love what you said about how our imperfection let’s our divinity shine through- divinity is definitely not about perfection- it’s the totality. And yes- it was definitely eye opening for me to realize- how long has air brushing been going on, really? Then again, maybe not a surprise since women have been portrayed in images that capture a sliver of who they really are or place them in castable stereotype it seems-whether via writing or art or history since the beginning of time.

      • D, I actually don’t have the wherewithal to get into it as buried in RACE posts as I am, behind the scenes. The Bible is self-attesting. For believers, Scripture interprets Scripture – is consistent within itself (a statemt that is a whole other post or a book). Mary was a descendent of King David…she was part of the Messianic line that eagerly awaited their Savior.

    • Asherah, was the consort/goddess of Yahweh that the hebrews worshipped prior to the advent of the Yahwehist, that strove to make Yahweh the only god. Asherah is mentioned in the old testament and is another icon of Wisdom/Sophia. If anything Mary would have been a devotee of Asherah, who was also a goddess of fertility. I wrote a paper on Asherah, Sophia and the Tree of Life connection while in graduate school.

  11. Your words are incredibly moving, Diahann. Growing up as a Protestant, I found myself envying the Catholic tradition, with Mary being such a central figure of its religion. Of course we learned about Mary and her role as Jesus’ mother, but she always appeared in the background. Male figures, whether holy or evil, took precedence over the few females described in the Bible. It was only later that I found that the Gnostics considered the Holy Spirit to be female; they called her Sophia. And of course texts in the Apocrypha portray Mary Magdalene as Jesus’ favorite disciple. Though I’m no longer Christian, or affiliated with any religion for that matter, I still take great comfort in what Guanyin, the Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion and mercy, represents.

  12. I have always been to close to the virgen. As a matter of fact she is a central character in a play I wrote (although not seed), Rosa, y Juan la Virgen and Flan. I feel she is one of my spirit guides. Thank you for this lovely article. I have a statue of Mary in my bedroom, next to Buddha of course.

  13. sweetyshinde says:

    This is so well-written! Your review piqued my interest in the book too.
    Women and men’s fascination with their virginity…I wrote on a very similar topic on my blog. Do have a look. http://sweetyshinde.wordpress.com/2014/02/05/pregnant-nun-and-parthenogenesis-in-mahabharata/

  14. Reblogged this on Alpha Female Society. and commented:
    “But for someone who grew up seeing statues and paintings of Mary that were always of a blonde-haired, pale-skinned female (and who had internalized that white skin was the fairest color of them all), to see a brown-skinned woman cast as an accurate portrayal of what Mary could have looked like felt healing.” – Diahann Reyes

  15. HeartBound says:

    This was such a thoughtful and interesting post Diahann. I didn’t have a religious upbringing but I came to spirituality as an adult. I’m always really fascinated to hear other peoples’ stories about their childhood (and adult) experiences with religion, spirituality and faith. I especially enjoy hearing about the unique connections that people feel with certain mystical figures.

    I just want to mention how nice it is that you draw attention to Mary’s own personal story. With the way western society focuses on Mary solely as the mother of Jesus rather Mary as Mary, it really is easy to forget that she experienced the world as a unique individual before, during and after the life of Jesus. Also, remembering her personal story and questioning the dominant imagery that keeps her relegated to a certain time and place in his (the churches) story, it is easier to start feeling that she’s not just an historical figure, but a living soul who is here with us right now and forever.

    Oh, and I love how you used to say “diamond Jesus” – that really couldn’t be more perfect. My dad is a landscape painter, and whenever he went out painting, I used to say he was going out “lamb skating” instead of “landscaping”.
    :-)

    • diahannreyes says:

      Thank you, Cat. I really loved getting to share what experiencing her humanity gave me.

      “Lamb skating”- I love that.. I wonder if it was an early hint of the path you were going to take as an animal lover and vegan… I have a visual of a darling lamb swooshing by on a frozen lake in my mind right now.

  16. ISpontein says:

    I’ve saved this article to read later since a long time, I probably saved it when you published it. I read it now and it’s such a wonderful piece. And it’s also insightful and thought provoking.

  17. littleleese says:

    I absolutely love this post. Growing up Catholic, I was so fascinated by Mary. I found her mysterious and wonderful. I often wondered what she would tell me if she were my mother. To this day, she still brings me to a place of humble reflection.

    • diahannreyes says:

      Thank you. It’s really been wonderful to find out how she has resonated for other people as well. Seems as if she is very alive and well still even today :)

  18. After my brother, my mom had some physical problems and was told that she would not be able to have another child. She told me that she prayed every night to Mary asking to be able to have more children…because “the mother of Jesus would understand.”
    Mom also said that she promised that if she had a girl baby she would name her “Mary.”
    And here I am. Hearing that story when I was quite young, I have always felt close (and still feel close) to Mary.

    • diahannreyes says:

      Mary, I love that you are named for her and that your mother prayed to her for you to be born. Also, really love how you wrote this and I now just finished listening to you singing Ave Maria on your blog!

      • Thank you!
        I love all the new things technology allows us to do. Being able to reach out and talk to people all around the world is such a wonderful gift. But, I do wish the invention of new electronic things would slow down a wee bit. I am having a hard time keeping up!


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