Mary somehow didn’t measure up to my culture-washed notions of feminine beauty and strength
But there were real-life role models, too: my mother’s four younger sisters, all of whom I idolized for their exotically beautiful Italian-Irish features, which, tragically, I had not inherited. When the younger two of those glamorous aunts were still teenagers, and I was no more than eight, I would sneak into their shag-carpeted bedroom to admire the contents of their closets and drawers, jewelry and cosmetics. On one snooping adventure, I discovered what I believed held the mysterious power of womanhood: a stack of Cosmopolitan magazines. Though I couldn’t have understood much of what I tried to read, every cover and headline screamed that grown women should be focused on clothes, make-up, careers, and—ick—being sexy for men.
When I was an older, wiser, third-grade bookworm, my native-Georgian grandmother mailed me a hardback copy of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. At 1,037 pages of small print, it was a big book for a little girl, and it swept me right up into the old South: dazzled by the antebellum social balls, horrified by the misery of slavery and Civil War battlefields, dazed by the carnage of broken dreams and hearts. And yet, rising above it all was the determined, charismatic, and intelligent character named Scarlett O’Hara, who, for better and for worse, would become my first adult-book-heroine.
In defense of my nine-year-old naivete, the story’s opening line—Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful—at least got me thinking that maybe physical beauty wasn’t the only thing a girl ought to have. Nonetheless, at that age it was certainly lost on me that my new heroine was essentially a selfish, conniving, and vengeful woman who bulldozed her way through people to acquire her personal and professional wants.
Indeed, longing to be like Scarlett and those Cosmopolitan women, I entered my teen years preoccupied with looking pretty for boys, pleasing my teachers, and controlling the people and events around me as best I could. Such was my recipe for female power well into college, even as I occasionally caught myself thinking, seemingly out of the blue, about that one decidedly counter-cultural image of female potential: the Blessed Virgin Mary.
For many, loving Mary is as natural as breathing, and so I’m reluctant to admit that my earliest memory of Mary—a simple, white figurine with a mournful face on a shelf in my bedroom—seemed so ghostly that it terrified my preschool self, especially in the eerie shadows of bedtime. Later, learning the Rosary and traditional Marian prayers at Catholic elementary school, I braved that babyish fear of Mary by placing the figurine prominently on my dresser.
Still, there was resistance. I knew I ought to love Mary, and I truly wanted to love her—but I wanted more to run away from those haunting eyes that had witnessed the horrific suffering of her own child on the cross.
Interestingly, images and stories of female saints, even those martyrs tortured or mauled by wild animals, were less disturbing to me. I could reason that, in choosing to die for their faith, those women had evinced some control over their lives; whereas Mary had seemed so—I don’t know, passive? Too much like God’s victim?
Whatever grounded my logic, Mary somehow didn’t measure up to my culture-washed notions of feminine beauty and strength.
If you’re a native Mary-lover, or someone who overcame your own obstacles to fully understanding Mary’s divine purpose, you may think I’ve just needed a little time and guidance in coming to my Catholic senses on the subject. The truth is, despite years of reading and desiring and praying, my relationship with Mary is still evolving. There are, I suppose, reasons both simple and complex in my personal history that render this area of my spiritual journey a sluggish one; but I take comfort in the feeling that, ironically, it is Mary’s very nearness that keeps this evolution a priority in my heart.
One thing has become as clear to me as Angelus church bells: The Mother of God’s patience, humility, and selflessness are ever-so-slowly building up mine. The New Eve, my new heroine, is unashamedly, authentically, and wholly female—with a strength to die for.
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