HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Lily” is a pseudonym.
Trigger warning: this post contains references to eating disorders and self-harm.
“You may not wear that.”
This phrase, and others like it, made up a large part of the soundtrack of my journey into womanhood. Modesty, and all of the accompanying clothing restrictions, were part of the homeschool community of “keeping our daughters pure until marriage.”
As young girls, my sister and I were told that dressing modestly was important, in order to not be a stumbling block to men. I remember hearing modesty talks and going to modesty “Fashion Shows” as young as 10 or 11. Before my body even began to develop into that of a woman, I was told it needed to be covered up. Why? To protect the eyes, minds, and hearts, of men.
Of course, I was only in middle school, and my sheltered self didn’t understand the idea of sexual attraction. I was skinny and developed relatively late, and so the legs, chest, and shoulders that I kept covered were those of a child. Before I even developed womanly curves, then – I learned to be ashamed of my own skin.
I have long, thick, dark brown hair, and my aunts and other extended family women will joke about the blessing and the curse this thick dark hair is for all of us – because it grows everywhere. Face, chest, sideburns, arms, legs, stomach, eyebrows. As I turned 11, 12, 13, 14, even – I grew more and more self conscious of my hairy legs and dark upper lip. I would timidly ask my mom how to take care of it, embarassed by my own body.
“You’re still a little girl. That would look awful if you plucked your eyebrows. You would look so bad.”
Athletics became unbearable – not just because of the long, knee-length shorts that stuck out from the crowd – but because of the dark, thick hair on my legs. “It’s time to pluck the stache!” joked one of my girl friends at a homeschool co-op gathering – not knowing my shame and embarassment that came from not being allowed to.
Makeup, shaving, and tweezing would have made me look too adult-like, said my mom. Looking too adult-like was an aspect of immodesty. Immodesty was a stumbling block to men, and I should be ashamed of myself for the way that I was leading boys on. My mother once told me that the fact that my hair smelled good was a valid reason for other homeschool mothers (of boys) to be angry at me: after all, I was a stumbling block to their children.
I stopped eating, quit athletics, and ran alone in my neighborhood. My 96 lbs at 5’4″ at age 14 dropped down to close to 80. The dark hair on my body grew finer and more plentiful, and my breasts stayed almost completely undeveloped. I hid food every chance I could, and threw myself into school and more homeschool co-ops and extracurriculars so that I would be able to skip meals and say I had already eaten. My nose started bleeding about twice daily, and I bruised easily – even from small bumps, I developed large bruises that stayed for weeks.
Feeling embarassed and ashamed of my body was now a regular part of my life, and self-abuse became a way to deal with those feelings. I started cutting my upper legs – a place that I knew would always be hidden away from the world, thanks to modesty restrictions. My parents explicitly didn’t believe in privacy for teenagers, and I began to cut myself more and more because it was the one thing that I could keep secret. Although I was allowed no control of my own body, the secret scars I left underneath my modest clothing was something that I could control.
When I confided in a male friend about my self-injury, my parents immediately found out thanks to heavily monitored spyware on my computer. At this point, I weighed in the mid-80s and look and acted incredibly depressed and unhealthy, but my parents saw my issues as rebellion against their authority that should be broken instead of mental and emotional issues that needed to be treated seriously. They loved me dearly, but refused to admit that self-injury and anorexia were “real” disorders. The few times that I went to the doctor during this period, they strongly reccomended my parents allow me to attend sessions with a medical therapist – but they refused, as they saw no potential benefits from a medical professional hearing about my “rebellion”.
I was 14. My mother started coming into my room immediately when she saw me leave the shower and make me take my towel off so that she could check my naked body for scars. If I was in public with her and wearing shorts, she would pull the fabric of the shorts back on my thighs to see if I had cuts on my legs, or pull the waistband of my shorts down to check my hips.
I started showering less, wearing clothing that was harder to remove, and cutting myself in even more “private” places. As it got less convenient for her to check my fully naked body, and more time passed since she had found cuts, she stopped remembering to check – but it was much, much longer until I stopped cutting.
As for my weight, she mostly dealt with it by telling me how awful I looked. “You’re sickly,” she told me.
As I went through high school, I got better, mostly from interacting with parts of the homeschool community that simply didn’t know about my self-harm. I played music with a successful band and worked hard for leadership in academics, and eventually graduated and was able to cut financial ties, and subsequently a lot of the manipulation in my life.
I have three points from this story.
First of all: If you are struggling with self-injury, an eating disorder, or anything else: get help. Get medical, professional, help. One of the resources that children in the public education system have is private, personal access to guidance counselors who are trained to recognize problems like this and point children in a direction where they can get help. In a homeschool situation, well-meaning parents are not always able to understand or recognize the mental/emotional issues behind things like self-injury. When there are no other adults present who are able to help a child/young teenager and parents have ultimate authority, it can be hard to find help sometimes.
Get help though – any way you possibly can. One thing that I learned after graduating high school was that my mental issues almost always should be discussed with a medical professional, as well-meaning church elders who I talked to would almost inevitably point me back to my parents. Self-injury is not something that can always just be “fixed” by praying to quiet your “rebellion”. It is real, and as a human being, you deserve real help. Don’t be afraid to seek it out.
Secondly: To anyone who is struggling – it gets better. Someday, you will be on your own, with access to clothing and makeup/skin care stores that you can purchase from, free from guilt. Someday, you will have friends who never would have known that you had a dark unibrow. Someday, the way you look will be your choice, and you won’t have to be ashamed anymore. It gets better. I know what it feels like to be shamed into not being beautiful. I know what it feels like to be told that your simple desire for hygiene and feminine attractiveness is slutty, sexual, and wrong.
It’s not wrong. Wearing a v-neck is not wrong. Wearing makeup is not wrong. Plucking your eyebrows or waxing your upper lip is not wrong. It is not wrong for you to want those things, and it is wrong for them to make you feel ashamed of wanting those things. You shouldn’t have to lash out at your own body because you are ashamed of wanting those things.
Finally: I am an undergraduate education major, and I teach young students and teenagers in the public schools on a regular basis – and, let me tell you, conservative, non-distracting clothing is not what the homeschool community or the Modesty Survey or Josh Harris or anyone says it is. If you want to dress conservatively and not be distracting, dress professionally. Wear those heels and dark jeans and a sweater. Wear dress slacks and a button-down shirt, and guess what? It’s okay if it’s form-fitting! It’s okay if it makes you look attractive! It’s okay if you’re wearing lipstick! After multiple years in the real world interacting with real people, I am finally beginning to realize that conservative and “modest” clothing is not what we were told it is, and it can bring about real, serious, body-image emotional and physical harm to girls who have never learned to love their own bodies.
I hope that one day I teach my future daughter(s), who will most likely also have dark hair all over, small breasts, and a great smile, how to dress in a way that makes them feel attractive. I hope they feel confident enough around me to ask me for makeup or shaving or clothes advice, and I hope that I am able to help them learn how to dress attractively and appropriately for all situations.
Maybe, just maybe, they will grow up a little bit more comfortable in their own skin.