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Welcome to the Dollhouse

April 2, 2010

*This review originally appeared in June of 2009 on a blog that shall not be named. [That’s right, Voldemort’s blog.  Nerds.]

Shaunti Feldhahn’s recently successful book For Women Only has found an enthusiastic audience among young evangelical women.  This spring, my Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS) group was invited to join a “Bible study” that was focusing on this book for six weeks.  (I’m sure Ms. Feldhahn would be shocked that her work had been so quickly accepted into the canon of Biblical texts—most of which were written thousands of years ago—but given how loosely we use the phrase “Bible study” these days, I was not surprised in the least.)

Before we even read the title, we know the book is meant for women because it has several bright-colored stripes across the cover, the kind of palette one finds on tampon boxes and the like.  The premise of the book is stated in the subtitle, “what you need to know about the inner lives of men.”  Feldhahn has conducted a study on the thoughts and feelings of men and women everywhere would be wise to pull up a chair.  Yet despite the highly coveted Beth Moore endorsement quote on the cover, this book offers little more information than a cleaned-up Cosmo article.

Woman vs. Nature

Feldhahn begins with several disclaimers and apologetics for what you are about to read.  First, like most authors of Christian living/self-help books, Feldhahn is not a psychologist.  She admits this openly, and gives us her credentials as a researcher and analyst.  She has surveyed hundreds of men around the country and the design of her study was crafted and validated by scientific minds.  She also goes on to set “ground rules” that will preempt any objections or questions you might have about her claims.  One of these is that: “I’m addressing what is normal inside men, not necessarily what is right in their outward behavior.”

And this is the land where my first flag is raised.  As many of us know, for most Christians, our lifelong struggles are inside.  Mastering the outward disciplines like helping old ladies across the street as opposed to nudging them out of your way is a skill we acquire early on in our spiritual journeys.  It is precisely the inside that needs the overhaul.  It seems this journey is about identifying the problem without offering any real opportunities for solutions.

Secondly, Feldhahn is writing a prescriptive book, one that she expects will offer women advice on how to respond to the men they love appropriately.  Yet, our behavior is not to be guided in any way by theirs.  We are taught how to cater to the “natural” instincts of men, without prejudice or expectations of reciprocity.  I am genuinely disappointed to see a book that confirms all of the worst instincts in men: lustfulness, greed, jealously, and pride, and yet encourages women to react positively and with affirmation at the displays of such internal carnal meditations.

Men are stupid.  Oops.  Was that not “affirming?”

Most of the early chapters focus on a man’s need for affirmation.  Men need our respect and they often don’t get it from their wives.  Besides falling into the cliché trap of assuming that every wife is a nagging wife, these chapters also assume that men are ego-loaded children whose feelings are crushed if their wives question their directional abilities while driving.  Take this piece of sage wisdom in the chapter on respecting your man: “The next time your husband stubbornly drives in circles, ask yourself what is more important: being on time for the party or his feeling trusted.  No contest.”

I think my husband would prefer to get where we’re going based on my directions than to be the ever-circling buffoon.  If I question my husband’s decisions en route to grandma’s, I trust that he knows I am in no way saying he’s a bad father, poor husband, or an idiot in general.  I guess we just have a dysfunctional dynamic.  While I earnestly believe in speaking words of life to our husbands and men and showing them our genuine love and admiration, I find it incredibly offensive to say that men need such delicate ego-stroking in order to function in the world.

Even more than an insult to women is the suggestion that men have to hold on to some perceived notion of being in charge even if it’s only perceived.  Feldhahn injects her own father’s words into the discussion.  She asks him what sort of teasing might indicate to a husband that his wife has no respect for him.  He replies, “anything that seems to show that the man is not in control or not getting respect from his wife.”

Men know when our praise is sincere.  They do not need to be given stickers or applauded for accurately hitting the toilet.  Feldhahn’s advice does not go to the root of these issues in a marriage, and that is, are both partners respecting one another?  Are they doing as recommended in both the Old and New Testaments and treating others as well, if not better, than they would expect to be treated?  Indeed, there is no encouragement from Scripture on this count (even when there’s source aplenty, even on the nagging wife bit).  There’s only pith and platitude that accommodates pride and selfishness.

XXX-ray vision

Feldhahn goes on to explain the commonly held belief that “men are visual.”  This phrase is code for “men like to look at hot women.”  She dedicates the early chapters on this subject to defining the scope of men’s mental imaging capabilities.  Feldhahn cites both the Bible and some research in her understanding of the male psyche and its frequent admiration for the female form.

She also makes the delineation between temptation and sin.  She goes on to reassure women that a man’s temptations in this area do not reflect upon his feelings for nor attraction to his wife.  And while this is, if only momentarily, reassuring, Feldhahn proceeds to make statements that undercut the security of these promises.

Women are told they can be supportive of their men in the struggle against sexual sin by maintaining an open and honest relationship, praying for her man, and upholding standards of physical modesty.  Good counsel, indeed.  Then Feldhahn adds that men can also be supported by following the HALT checklist (because where would we be without an acronym to help us?).  Men are more likely to slip if they are Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired.  So I guess the advice here is feed them, smile at them, sit with them, and never let them lift a finger, ladies!

Did you get that one for bowling well or is that the Mrs.?

While Feldhahn says that straying is not your fault, she explains in another chapter that women should keep themselves up for their husbands.  She dismisses the fantastical ideals that typically make women insecure, but goes on to say that “this chapter is only dealing with weight, fitness, and appearance issues that we can healthfully do something about.”

So what health tips do we gain in this chapter from Feldhahn and the men she interviewed?  One is to hit the tanning bed.  One man remarked, “Look, when we were teenagers…if our girlfriends needed a ride to the tanning salon, we’d drop everything and drive them in a heartbeat.  We’d even give them money to go!”  Thanks, hon.  You love me enough to give me skin cancer.

Bada-bing

Feldhahn reports that men want to be “proud” of their wives…in their appearance.  Several of her study subjects tell her, “Every man has this innate competition with other men, and our wives are part of that.  Every man wants other men to think that he did well.”  So wanting other men to covet your wife is a good thing now?

We are also told that while we cannot and should not want to be Barbies, our appearance is expected to help our husband stave off sexual temptation: “We need to see that you care about keeping our attention on you—and off of other women.  Sometimes it’s hard for us to look away.”  Well, ladies, if we’re competing with the likes of internet porn, airbrushed supermodels, and that teenage girl leaning over a motorcycle in Transformers, I don’t like our chances.

Please move to the shallow end of the pool

At this point in the book, I’m wondering what happened to the Christian part of the “Christian living” section.  The last time I read it, the Bible spoke of God looking at the heart of a man while the world looks at the outside.  And given that we are to be imitators of Christ, it seems like we shouldn’t be behaving so superficially—particularly to the people to whom we’ve pledged lifelong “for better or worse” kind of love.
Feldhahn is unswayed by this reasoning.  She acknowledges it as she writes,

“Think of how off-limits it is in a church setting to emphasize the importance of a woman’s physical appeal. ‘God looks not on the outward appearance, but on the heart,’ we say, and expect our husbands to do the same.  Because our own husbands have pledged their faithfulness…we can easily migrate to the idea that what’s outside doesn’t matter.  But what’s on the outside does matter.”

So when confronted with Scripture, we should just dismiss it.  It’s what “we” say, after all.  Time and again, Feldhahn affirms that the “natural” state of men is right and good and that the key to happy, holy matrimonial co-dwelling is to accept and embrace all of those manly qualities.  Pride, shallowness, and lust are just part of the package, even for overcoming believers.

Some of this book offers polite and familiar counsel, but it does more damage than it’s worth in affirming the worst about humanity and proclaiming marriage an institution for developing those sinful tendencies.  Feldhahn does little to encourage true intimacy between men and women and instead settles for a culturally-palatable modern revision of the life of the beautiful and dutiful June Cleaver.

As the men in her study suggest, you should always judge a book by its cover.  I guess when I picked this book up I should have expected I’d be getting a sanitary, cushy feminine product.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. nikki permalink
    April 23, 2010 11:38 pm

    So I think a bunch of my old friends in MD read this in book club a couple of years after we moved down here, and they all told me about it excitedly. As a result of reading it, well, some crazy things have happened in their marriages. It’s too long/personal for a blog comment, so we should discuss on the phone sometime, but in the meantime, I was very glad to read your take on this.

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