HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Pearl” is a pseudonym.
I’ve been loosely following Clare’s viral blog post about getting kicked out of her homeschool prom. The story resonated with me because it was similar to things I’ve experienced growing up in conservative homeschool/purity culture. Unfortunately, some homeschool parents gave a really ugly response to her story. They felt that, since she had used bad language, and put purity culture in a bad light, that it would be OK to publicly share unsubstantiated claims about her behavior the night of prom. They didn’t like her individual narrative, so they replaced it with another individual narrative they did like, because, well, any girl who would use curse words must also be a liar and a slut.
I thought they were supposed to be adults, but all bets are off when you step out of line in their eyes.
Fine, if they won’t believe Clare’s story I’ll share my own.
Growing up, my mom put a lot of importance in how I appeared to others. We had a lot of conflicts about her wanting me to dress in a way that would look good to her friends. For example, wearing a dress to Thanksgiving dinner at a friends house even though I knew I’d be playing outside all day. When I started wearing bras she bought me a really uncomfortable bra that she would make me wear on Sunday. I hated it because, besides being uncomfortable, it had thick seams through the cups that showed through every top and made me very self-conscious.
I still don’t understand how breasts can have a Sunday-appropriate look.
There was such fuss about bras and how they made my breasts look that I started slouching badly to try and hide my breasts entirely. At 17, she bought me a hideous dress that didn’t fit for a special occasion at church. I didn’t have a choice, I had to wear it because it made me look “nice”.
The emphasis on modesty really began around 11 or 12 when I began puberty. Whenever we went shopping my mom would examine clothes on me in the dressing room to make sure they were modest enough before purchasing. (Or have me come out and model for pre-approval in the case of hand-me-downs.) I would see clothes other girls were wearing, and naturally wanted to dress in a way that made me feel cute and like I fit in with other girls my age. Around age 13 I would try choosing clothes at the store, but when mom gave them the once over in the dressing room they rarely passed the modesty test. Shorts had to go pretty much to my knees, shirts had to be loose enough to create a straight line down my sides. If clothes I chose didn’t pass the test I had to stand in front of the mirror and look at myself while my mom pointed out all of my undesirable body parts the clothes were supposedly drawing attention to.
It was so humiliating I eventually took the easy route and started dressing like a boy.
The grunge era was only about 5 years past, so you could still buy flannel shirts and baggy jeans for girls. I stopped wearing shorts entirely around age 14.
My mom would always tell me that I just couldn’t understand because I didn’t understand how boys think. Boys, she said, think about sex all the time, and I could cause them to stumble (lust after me) by dressing immodestly. I couldn’t possibly understand, she said, because girls don’t care that much about sex, they really only want love. I became very ashamed of my body and for the most part tried to hide it. If I ever felt a burst of confidence and wanted to wear something cute and feminine I would usually have it pointed out to me that someone would see the shape of my breasts, or the curve of my waist, or that my bra was showing, or that these shorts or skirt were too short and any thing more than an inch or so above the knee was too tempting.
By the time I was 19 years old I had a job and had saved up some money and started going shopping for my own clothes for the first time. The clothes I chose were kind of tacky, because I didn’t have any practice dressing myself. But by nearly anyone’s standards they were very modest. I didn’t even wear shorts, I was still too ashamed of my legs, but I did wear skirts to church. The skirts I chose always went below my knees. I didn’t wear tank tops, most of my shirts actually had collars. The shirts were fitted, and except for one not tight.
The first fitted, collared T-shirt that I brought home made my mom cry.
She said she could see the curves of my waste and the shape of my breasts. I felt cute and feminine for the first time in my life, so I didn’t allow myself to be guilted into giving it up. I started standing up straight. I also bought bras for myself, and chose some with some amount of padding because I felt more covered in case of cold weather. My mom saw one out drying after I did laundry, and brought it to me to show me how the padding made my breasts look bigger, and that was immodest. I had a pair of shoes I’d wear to church that had one and half inch heels. My parents expressed concerns that they were too sexy.
A few months after buying my own wardrobe, my parents came to me to tell me that an elder in our church had approached my dad to tell him the way I was dressing was causing his sons to stumble.
My parents made me show them each piece of the clothing I had bought so they could decide whether it was modest enough. Very few pieces passed their test. The rest they ordered me to put up in my closet until I was married and it was my husband’s job to decide how I dressed. (Fortunately my wedding was only a few months after that.) In the meantime, I bought a few baggy T-shirts to get by on; it would’ve been too humiliating to go back to the flour sacks I had to wear before.
Modesty/purity doctrines and body shaming are an unfortunate realty of conservative Christian culture. They may or may not be directly related to homeschooling, but I have yet to find anyone who believed these things that wasn’t a homeschooling parent. There is nothing girls in these situations can do. Once someone has told you you are causing them to stumble you have to change your clothes, no matter how humiliating or unreasonable it may be. To do otherwise would be tempting someone on purpose, because now you know that you’re causing them to sin.
Growing up hearing these things made me very ashamed of my body. It took years after getting married before I was even comfortable wearing shorts. Making a girl ashamed of her body is a horribly cruel thing to do. It’s not like there isn’t enough pressure to look and dress certain ways from mainstream culture.
So that’s my story. It won’t be a viral success, but 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.
So here’s to girls who have been made ashamed of their bodies.
You are a person, body and soul, your body is you. And you don’t have to be ashamed of having a female body. It is beautiful, don’t hide it.