Sweat, Shame, and Salvation

Reflections from Perspiration Nation

Having a body is a tricky thing. Or rather, being a body is tricky. We don’t inhabit a DNA-constructed bag of water. We are that bag of water. And sometimes (usually) that water leaks out against our will.

I inherited several things from my dad: a narrow jaw, blue eyes, Pittsburgh Steelers fandom, devotion to butter, and a susceptibility to sweating copiously. While my mom’s genetic material only causes her to glisten, my dad and I are the kind of people for whom items like light gray t-shirts, natural deodorant, and the entire season of summer are problematic. Most of my wardrobe is black, not because I’m trying to look cool, but so I don’t garner glances of disgust from the other people who do not understand what it’s like to be a sweaty citizen of “Perspiration Nation.” All black clothing allows me to strategically disguise my sweat in any number of personal or professional contexts in which my biology betrays me. These situations can include but are not limited to: work presentations, first dates, second dates, paying with cash, having a hard conversation, having a normal conversation, trying to parallel park my car while someone is watching, etc.

In middle school, I had just gotten a new khaki-colored shirtdress from the Gap, which I was very excited to wear to school. But by seventh-period (band class), the dress and my genetics had betrayed me. I tried to play my flute with my arms clamped against my sides so my peers wouldn’t see my pronounced pit stains, which I had tried to (unsuccessfully) eliminate earlier by aggressively dabbing the underarms of the dress with a wad of 1-ply toilet paper. I felt like I might as well have attached a scarlet letter A — or perhaps S — to that Gap shirtdress. S for Sweaty. S for Shameful.

I hated being a sweaty person, especially a sweaty girl. I had it in my head that girls shouldn’t sweat very much, if at all. Anything outside of glistening was gross and grotesque. Even the antiperspirant aisle reinforced my self-consciousness: the biggest brand in women’s deodorant is called SECRET. For the entirety of my teenage years, I tried to keep my shameful sweat a secret. I bought clothes that wouldn’t show my pit stains. I tried clinical strength deodorant brands and even asked my doctor if there was something wrong with me. The doctor assured me that I was just genetically predisposed to perspire more than I desired to; nothing was wrong with me. At least, physically. 

While it was good to know that my sweat was not indicative of a physical health problem, I still felt wronged by my biology. I wanted to be calm, cool, and collected — not a sweaty mess whose inner emotional life manifested itself in an outwardly unpleasant manner.

Everyone has their own secrets that they’ve spent years trying to aggressively blot out with 1-ply toilet paper so that no one will think ill of them. But anyone that has used 1-ply toilet paper knows that 1-ply never fails to fall apart, break down, leave the self-conscious user a frustrated mess. It doesn’t work well, and by design, it isn’t even made to work well.

Whether it be body positivity culture or hustle culture, self-care or self-harm, the solutions society suggests to soothe, combat, cover-up, or overcome our insufficiencies, anxieties, and embarrassments about ourselves are never good enough or strong enough for the job. Shame feels like it’s coded into our DNA and bound in our biology, influencing our psyches, our relationships, our embodied lives. Shame makes things stink, and that natural deodorant we saw on an Instagram ad is not designed for the job of eliminating it.

We need something better and stronger.

In Curt Thompson’s The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves, he writes this about shame: 

Those parts of us that feel most broken and that we keep most hidden are the parts that most desperately need to be known by God, so as to be loved and healed … God came to find Eve and Adam to provide them the opportunity to be known as he knows anything else. For only in those instances when our shamed parts are known do they stand a chance to be redeemed. We can love God, love ourselves ,or love others only to the degree that we are known by God and known by others.

While Thompson’s point sounds great, it left me with a question: How do I go about becoming known by God and known by others? In her book Embracing the Body: Finding God in Our Flesh and Bone, Tara Owens suggests that “the very weakness we feel in our image of ourselves is the place God will meet us most deeply […] a place that God’s love and presence can meet us—if we’ll open the door.” Thompson and Owens both rightfully emphasize the practice of confession as one way to “open the door” and allow us to know and be known. But the fact remains that for many of us, our doors — front, back, and side — are all firmly locked. What then? 

What happens to the person who doesn’t want their weaknesses, secrets, physical maladies, and anxious afflictions to be known? Opening the door to be known by others and by a God who can feel so distant from our present reality seems like an insane solution when we feel safer with it locked. But the startling yet ultimately good news of the Gospel is that the Resurrected Jesus does not wait until we open the door for him — he walks right through walls. The Resurrected Jesus walks through our walls of shame, fear, embarrassment, and despair — walls we’ve fortified for years. The Resurrected Jesus knows our doubting thoughts before we even confess them to him and shows us his nail-pierced hands anyways. The Resurrected Jesus understands our afflictions, the betrayals of biology, the implications of embodiment because he was a man, too. If, as Thompson suggests, “God came to find Eve and Adam to provide them the opportunity to be known as he knows anything else,” the Resurrected Jesus came to Earth to show the lengths God is willing to go to, in order to free us from the seductive shame of the Serpent.

Believing that I’m fully known and fully loved by God makes me feel a lot like the father in Mark 9, whose child is afflicted by a demon: The father of the child cried out and said with tears, ‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!’ Like that man, though I know I’m a child of God, I also live in the tensions caused by my embodied existence. I am a sweaty, swearing, self-conscious, surly sinner who seesaws between debilitating doubt and sure-fire faith. I am also a child who has inherited something that is much better than the less sweaty armpits I desire — I received the gift of growing up in a home where I was known and loved. Being a Christ-follower is not a genetic trait, but because of the family I was born into, I was able to hear, believe, and receive the good news about the Resurrected Jesus.

The best part about this good news is not just for me — it’s also for you. It’s for the Secret Deodorant executives and the Native Natural Deodorant social media coordinator, for the confident career woman and the anxious teen in band class, for the one who glistens and the one who sweats buckets, for the one who believes and the one who can’t believe right now. The good news of Jesus’s resurrected body assures us that sin, shame, and anything that afflicts us in our embodied existences will one day be fully blotted out, no 1-ply toilet paper necessary. Even citizens of Perspiration Nation — children who are currently clothed in sweaty, black clothes — can believe, belong, be baptized in Christ, become heirs. The joy of Isaiah 61:10 is our inheritance:

I delight greatly in the Lord;
my soul rejoices in my God.
For he has clothed me with garments of salvation
and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness,
as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

Maybe I really will glisten after all.

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