Another reason I wanted to start a blog was to join the blogosphere of people who survived Christian fundamentalist upbringings. My childhood church wasn’t strictly fundamentalist, but has many beliefs and cultural traits commonly found in fundamentalism. A good collection of these blogs is here: The Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network.
One of the current topics of conversation in this circle is Clare’s Story, about being kicked out of prom for her dress, despite her dress being within the rules set by the dress code.
A rallying cry of sorts has risen surrounding this issue in the article Here’s To Girls Who Have Been Made Ashamed of their Bodies: Pearl’s Story on Homeschoolers Anonymous –
…if enough girls tell their stories there is no way that homeschool parents can say they are exaggerating, or that they have some kind of malicious vendetta, or that they deserve to have their reputations damaged.
– and I’d like to add my voice, for anyone who’s interested, if anyone finds it.
Trigger Warning: Slut shaming, references to sexual assault (at a very young age).
If you are viewing this page on a desktop, you should be able to see a little worm on a hook to the left (with the current theme, at time of posting). If you continue reading and reach a point which is triggering for you, clicking the worm will take you back to the top of the page.
My church and family were not explicitly involved with purity culture, but “modesty” was certainly a big issue in both, much of the same language was used, and many of the same cultural markers were present. It was harmful for me, too, as it was for the many people who are now speaking out, and I would like to share a few stories demonstrating this in my personal experience.
When I was 11-12, I had the wonderful fortune of having access to a horse in our neighborhood, despite being in the suburbs fairly close to the city. Unsurprisingly, I would get very warm and sweaty while working in the pasture and riding, so when I was given a well-lined backless halter top (it tied behind the neck and across the back), it became my most frequently worn article of clothing. I didn’t really have breasts at this point, so going braless wasn’t much of a concern to me, and it was lined well enough that what concerns I did have were effectively taken care of. It was comfortable, and I could spend the day on horseback without a wet t-shirt stuck to me. As far as I was concerned at the time, that was heaven. However, my parents were seemingly not comfortable with this particular article of clothing. Nobody ever actually confronted the issue, though. Instead, the top became known as “the napkin shirt” and I would get awkward, vaguely shaming comments and “jokes” from my family when I wore it, and eventually “the napkin shirt” simply disappeared from the mountain of dirty laundry.
I probably wouldn’t have thought much of it, had this been the only thing that disappeared, but then there was the tiger swimsuit. I had a really hard time finding bottoms or one-pieces that fit comfortably that year, because most smalls were cut in a way that rode up on my body or were cut too high or narrowly in the back (which made me feel very exposed and would have led to constant adjusting), but most mediums would sag in a way that looked to me like I had pooped in my swim bottoms (and at that age, this was far more of a concern to me than sex appeal). After much searching, I finally found two swimsuits at the same store which I fell in love with. One looked like it was made of denim with a nice wide band under the bust and wide sides with big turquoise buckle-like accents, and the other was black with a tiger embroidered on the side of each cup and a flame print on the ties of the top and sides of the bottom. Between these two suits, I had one that I simply loved, and one that I could comfortably and confidently swim and play in; I was ready for summer vacation and couldn’t have been happier about it. However, this was fairly quickly ruined for me. My sturdier swimsuit, which I had chosen very consciously to feel secure in and meet my comfort level and personal sense of modesty, was met with countless passive aggressive comments, most especially from one relative in particular who quite memorably and semi-publicly asked me if I was “trying to win the tiniest bikini award at camp this year,” and the tiger bikini, much like the “napkin shirt,” simply disappeared. Other things began disappearing, too – mostly some other shirts and undergarments. I think my parents (or possibly just my mom – I’m not sure if my dad even knew this was happening) thought I just wouldn’t notice, or would assume I had simply “lost” all these articles of clothing, despite how much I loved them?
I would find out later, the tiger swimsuit in particular was thrown in the garbage because my father had found an advertisement featuring the same swim suit (but with the string bottoms) on a much older model sitting on a motorcycle and apparently found the photo quite appealing. Looking back now, I can recognize that the swimsuit had many pin-up like elements, and that particular photo emphasized this – but at the time, I saw some badass tigers and flames that reminded me of Hot Wheels (I was very fond of Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars). I wasn’t seeing sex appeal, but it was apparently the only thing that the adults around me could see, and the lack of confrontation and explicit conversation made it all even more confusing. Especially confusing to me at the time was why I had been allowed to choose and buy my own clothing at all if it was just going to get thrown away. Looking back, I think my parents knew they didn’t want to be controlling in this way, but didn’t have a way to reconcile allowing me this freedom with the belief in the modesty doctrine, and the related belief that “immodest” clothing leads to getting raped.
These experiences are markedly different from the bulk of experiences others have been sharing in the lack of confrontation, but I think they stem from very similar beliefs and had similar effects. The body policing is still present, but was executed discreetly and without explanation. The shaming is still present, but happened in a passive aggressive way, and again without explanation. However, between these particular experiences and countless smaller comments and conversations combined with lessons in church and the church’s school program about “modesty,” the message that my body was “inappropriate” and that my clothing was supposedly responsible for the thoughts and actions of others still got through loud and clear; I was raped within the year by an older boy in the neighborhood, and thoughts of “the napkin shirt” frequently came to my mind when trying to understand what had happened and why (however, what the rapist himself told me was that it was my braces which attracted him to me, leading me to bitterly resent having braces and feel inescapably “immodest” the whole time I had them).
Another experience related more directly to this subject comes from my time in high school. I attended a co-ed boarding school, run by my family’s church. For winter formal (comparable to a winter dance in “normal” schools – but, no dancing) my freshman year, I wore the dress I had worn for Christmas Eve a year or two earlier and for my eighth grade graduation (which was also an in-church event). I loved this dress. I still remember exactly what it looked like, smelled like, how it felt on… I loved this dress.
After formal, the girls were summoned to a dorm meeting. We were told by the dorm supervisor – exact words here; I remember them VERY clearly – that we “looked like a bunch of sluts.”
“Humiliated” is not a strong enough word. I listened to the whole shaming lecture, and spent the entire time wondering if my dress one of these “slutty” dresses. I wondered if I looked “like a slut” every time I’d worn it, or if I had outgrown it and that it was now “slutty” because it was too small. I wondered if my pastor thought I was a slut, or my grade school teacher, or if all the other people who saw me wear it for graduation thought I was a slut. I asked the supervisor privately if my dress had been ‘inappropriate’ – she answered affirmatively. I concluded that I was “a slut” and that nothing I ever did would be able to overcome this, because I had been trying so hard to be “appropriate” that being told I had failed felt like complete and absolute failure. I had been so sure that dress would be fine after having worn it in church so many times – but it didn’t matter. To make matters worse, after this occasion a dress-policing letter was written up – which was reused (although possibly in a revised form) for at least several years. That letter, every time, was a reminder that we were “a bunch of sluts” who couldn’t be trusted to dress ourselves.
Thoughts of “the napkin shirt” returned. I felt certain that I was forever doomed to sluthood, and all the sexual harassment and abuse and humiliation that supposedly came with it. I would be harassed and assaulted various times in various ways by various people over the years to come – and I wouldn’t report any of it.
I’m not sure if my experiences are exactly relevant to this wider conversation, but I think at the very least they demonstrate why this conversation is relevant to the wider world. Even without the trappings of purity culture and the explicit exercising of body policing, there are similarities, and there is harm. Very tangible harm.