The Virgin Mary, Body Image, and Her StoryPosted: March 31, 2014
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.
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.
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.