With the advent of Caitlyn Jenner, Rachel Dolezal, and the US Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, Dictionary.com announced that the 2015 word of the year was ‘identity.’ As one of its top trending words, the website said it chose ‘identity’ because of the “increasingly fluid nature” of the conversations surrounding gender, sexuality, and even race.
What was once considered static is now believed to be malleable according to culture, desires, and more. This confusion is evidence of the deepest cries of the human heart. But when a culture is confused about identity, women usually pay the heaviest price.
A heart-wrenching video of UFC champion Ronda Rousey went viral after she admitted to talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres that she had contemplated suicide after her surprising loss to female competitor Holly Holm.
At the heart of her despair, she said, was her confusion concerning her identity. “What am I anymore if I’m not this?” she told the popular talk show host, referring to herself as a champion. She teared up over fears about her future and her personal worth. “No one is going to give a s— about me anymore without this” she told Ellen.
Helping a woman understand her personal identity is why I wrote Crowned: Created For Glory, Called By His Name, a five-week discipleship book for unchurched women. More than any other issue, new believers around me seemed to struggle the most with their personal identities – who they are and for what reason they exist. While I was busy teaching these women about the importance of tithing and church attendance, they were still trying to climb out of the well-laid pits of fear, inadequacy, and personal worth. I’m still haunted by how I missed those signs of despair, signs I see held by every day women in our church and culture. Crowned came out of my desire to see believing women hold fast to their intrinsic worth as beloved daughters of the King.
Alongside general confusion concerning their personal identities, the way in which women are asserting their identity is changing, too. According to the world, our identity includes not just how we define ourselves, but how others to view us as well.
Borrowing a trend from the consumer world, personal identities have become synonymous with “personal brands” or self-marketing. With the onset of social media, heralded by the advent of the mobile phone, women are the ones now doing the branding, curating how we package and sell ourselves to the public.
Not a day goes by when my social media newsfeed isn’t littered with workshops or articles such as “7 Ways to Brand Yourself” – demonstrating the great lengths we go to carefully craft an online persona worthy of garnering attention.
But this power shift isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Too often, women get caught creating personas that make promises we can never hope to fulfill.
This power shift is manifesting itself earlier and earlier. Other than the fact that I have obviously aged out of the current generation, I’m often left wondering why the tween girls in my Instagram feed pose for pictures with “duck faces” and over-exposed bodies.
No doubt, these young ladies are lovely, but they are also unwittingly (or not) branding themselves in the modern sense. And their posts are making clear statements about themselves – promises, if you will – that package themselves as ‘desirable.’
Ironically, when we seek to “brand ourselves,” we end up being branded as commodities – items useful for a specific purpose and exploited for personal use.
Tethering our value and self-fulfillment to the slippery anchor of usefulness (i.e. how many likes did I get on Facebook today? Why did that person unfollow me?) is not only a tiring task, it is also a futile one. Because as usefulness or attention fades, we must constantly reinvent, remake, and now “re-brand” ourselves to prove our value or worth.
There will be some, especially among my friends with daughters, who will read this post and decry it as old-fashioned or out of touch. They will say, “A woman shouldn’t have to censure herself simply based on how others take it. A woman should be able to dress and do what what she wants!”
I get that, and I agree to a point. After all, both mini skirts and denim jumpers can lead to forms of slavery, each no less despicable than the other. My purpose in writing this is not to shame or complain; my purpose is to encourage women to tie themselves the unmoving anchor of Christ instead of tying their hope to the changing tide around them.
In creating our online personas, let’s lead our daughters (and sons) not to treat ourselves or others as commodities, or brands, or anything other than sisters and brothers in Christ. Let’s reinforce their beauty and worth as bearers of God’s image, of the God who IS beautiful.
“For how great is his goodness, and how great his beauty!” Zech. 9:17
Hear me clearly! I’m not saying selfies are bad or advising you to stop taking them. I love taking pictures with my family and friends to document a good day, celebrate a hard-won victory, or laugh together over silly moments and silly faces. What I am saying is, let’s keep our lives in perspective. In other words, let’s not publish a 445-page book about them. Let’s not order our lives around packaging ourselves for public consumption.
This type of encouragement is called discipleship. It starts when older women in Christ lovingly encourage younger women in the art of wisdom. Ultimately, however, it starts with us – mature believers who have allowed themselves to be branded for Christ.
We, mature women, must first commit to guard our hearts against creating public personas that do nothing to elevate Christ in our lives and in the public sphere. Only then can we hope to disciple other women to view the whole of their lives – whether offline or on – to reflect the joy and purpose of being united to Christ, the stalwart anchor of our personal identities.
“But let him who glories glory in this, That he understands and knows Me…” Jer. 9:24
He is the one who makes us worthy by sharing his worth with us.
He is the one who gives us value by sharing his person and work with us.
He is the one who loves us by inviting us into the eternal fellowship with the Father, who is Love.
He is the one who makes life joy-filled and satisfying by sharing his kingdom destiny with us.
If we are to brand ourselves, let us be branded for Christ. His work on the cross and over the grave brands us for eternity, and his mark alone is edifying, liberating, and loving. All other marks – whether self-inflicted for forced upon us – brands us as slaves.
I don’t know what the word for 2016 will be. It seems our culture is more confused than ever on our personal identities. But in Christ, I can make a promise to you that will never fade or break: Christ is our Hope, our only answer to the world’s despair. Young disciples will only take this message to heart, however, if they’ve seen it lived out by strong and hope-filled women who have gone before them.