Trigger warning for Hurts Me More Than You series: posts in this series may include detailed descriptions of corporal punishment and physical abuse and violence towards children.
The Mask of Modesty: Jerusha’s Story
HA note: Jerusha’s story originally appeared on her blog on October 8, 2014 and is reprinted with permission.
When I was a girl, my mother made modesty a top priority. She discarded all my shorts, all my pants. God had made me female, so I needed to look like the woman on the restroom sign. Dresses it would be from then on.
I was never quite sure if Mom reached this conclusion on her own, or if it was Dad’s decision for us, or if they worked it out together. I wasn’t happy about it, but then, I wasn’t consulted.
There were no more pajama outfits, only nightgowns. The sunsuit that had replaced my swimsuit was not replaced with a calico dress. Yes, I wore a dress in the lake. A dress on my bike. A dress in the sandbox and on the swings. I wore a dress in the garden, to the orchard, on a hike. When I went sledding, I wore a long flared wool coat over my snowpants. Later, I wore snowpants or sweatpants under a long, loose, flapping skirt. After a few runs down the hill, the snowy skirt would stiffen around me like a bell.
For modesty, I wore homemade knee-length bloomers over the tights.
They were usually white, longer than shorts, and they had eyelet ruffles below the elastic cuffs. The woman who first showed my mom how to make them called them “pettipants“. We quickly shortened that to petties. The petties were so modest that I would often strut around my bedroom in them.
“I could go out like this and most people would think I was already fully dressed,” I must have said to my sister a hundred times as a teen–before pulling a skirt or jumper over my loose-fitting shirt. No way would I leave my room in just my petties. They were a secondary undergarment, like a camisole. They should never be missing, but they weren’t meant to be seen.
If Mom told it once, she told it a hundred times–the story about an evil man who had tried to molest a young girl in her neighborhood.“He asked if he could see her underwear!” The girl had refused him, she said, but the situation had been traumatizing. Knowing that such predators existed was motivation for us to stay covered.
Once at a hotel, Mom was anxious that we close the drapes because some of the girls were already in their nightgowns. “Bad men might see me?” my little sister inquired sweetly.
Over the years, I spent many hours sewing dresses and petties. Mom bought elastic by the yard and I fished it through the casings with a safety pin. Those little girls’ diapers and underpants must never show, no matter how hard they played. My brothers must never see how their sisters’ bodies were different. (We girls could change diapers of either sex, a privilege not permitted to the boys.)
By two years old, my sisters were no longer dressed in rompers–they wore dresses and jumpers and pinafores. When they went outside in the snow, we shoved the handfuls of fabric down the legs until the girls looked like pink or green marshmallow people. But the downside of dresses was the risk of accidental exposure. So petties were ubiquitous. Rarely visible, but ubiquitous, nevertheless.
My sex education was spotty at best, but one message I got loud and clear was, “Keep men away from your underwear.”
Whether playing outdoors or sitting on church pews, our bodies were kept hidden under layers of cotton. At IBLP training centers, we joked about boys not knowing that girls’ legs separated before the knee. When I started wearing shorts on occasion as an adult, I felt a twinge of betrayal, pondering whether God intended for my thighs to be displayed in public. Would they, as my friend’s grandma warned her, “make men think bad thoughts”?
Even when I married, I took my petties with me, accustomed to the secure and familiar feeling of soft cotton wrapped around my legs. And as Mom and I sewed dresses for the four sisters who were flower girls in my wedding, I never questioned that coordinating petties were an essential part of the ensemble.
What I didn’t realize then was that there was one glaring exception to the inviolable rule of modesty:
I have many memories of being spread across Dad’s lap and struck with a belt or stick of wood. But my memories are always fully clothed. It was bad enough (and much more painful) when Mom hit me, but as the modesty rules tightened, something felt increasingly dissonant about a part of my body that was never supposed to be seen or talked about suddenly becoming a man’s target. (The last time he hit me, I was about 13. I had the body of a young woman and was wearing a long wool skirt. Being ordered to lie across his legs, I felt violated. Since it never happened again, I assumed it made him uncomfortable, too.)
However… when my father took one of his younger daughters into a bedroom and closed the bedroom or bathroom door, many times he would lift that modest dress. He would pull down her petties, exposing her panties. (I am uncertain when my parents adopted this invasive approach to “discipline”, but their pastor, also an ATI dad and a certified character coach, taught it in detail during a Sunday service years ago.) Sometimes Dad would pray aloud for “Satan to be bound”.
Only then would he raise the wooden spoon that was the implement of choice, bringing it down hard against her thinly-clad flesh again and again. I heard the cries of anger and pain, and later saw the dark bruise lines when I bathed the girls and helped wash their hair. I didn’t like the reminder of my own younger experiences, but I believed it was necessary. I had survived spanking, and now I was a responsible young lady. It never once occurred to me that our patriarch, the “priest of our home”, might be looking at his little girls’ backsides in their knickers.
The petties protected us all, didn’t they? They were a kind of magical garment, shielding us from prurient men and guarding men from lustful thoughts. Allowed too close to the natural shape of our bodies, any male might be overwhelmed with desire sufficient to become a pedophile. That was what we feared.
Though Dad slowly relented on parts of the family dress code, permitting his daughters to wear slacks, pajamas, and modified swimsuits, I had already absorbed the modesty mantra into the warp and woof of my being. So much so that it took a decade to silence my mother’s voice in my head every time I went shopping or opened my closet door.
But these days, I think very differently about those who would dictate how females dress.
I also think differently about inflicting intentional pain on children’s bodies to root evil out of their hearts.
And I feel more strongly than ever that if parent-teachers, in the sanctity of a child’s home, are permitted to remove her clothing at their whim for the purpose of making her good, they put a hurdle in the way of her learning self-respect.
Let me take a moment to unpack all the harm I see in this scenario.
1) Our parents rigidly defined our roles as females. We were subject to rules and dangers that didn’t apply to our brothers.
2) In our home, everything was sexualized. Books, from our encyclopedia set to our Bible storybooks, had white stickers covering illustrations that were deemed indecent. We left the beach if a bikini showed up. The dining room seating was arranged so that the boys would not see the teen girls across the street washing their car.
3) Threats of physical violence by adults against young children were normalized in our home. We called it “spanking”. It involved a weapon, and it left marks.
4) As if being painfully punished on the bottom with a stick was not enough, having one’s required covering forcibly removed was a special humiliation.
5) We were told constantly to be “modest”, but as soon as we were perceived as “independent”, “rebellious” or “talking back”, our modesty was no longer valued. Indeed, our value as females was directly linked to our obedient, submissive, and chaste spirits.
6) That my father, in our insular world, had the privilege of exposing his own daughter’s panties underscored his tremendous authority. He was the top dog. The rules that applied to others did not apply to him, at least not when we had been defiant or lazy, or had spoken out of turn.
7) On occasion, my parents also spanked their daughters on bare buttocks. When Mom was particularly upset (she was often very cool while she beat us), she threatened to call Dad in to spank a girl’s already-bare bottom. That girl still remembers the horrible threat.
So tell me,
If a young child is made to feel dirty when she says “no”,
Or if her resistance to pain is met with threats of something worse,
How can she be expected to enforce healthy boundaries in relationships when she is grown?
In Mom’s story, the would-be molester asked a young girl to show herself to him. But our parents made this sound shameful, and then demanded it of their own daughters.
Sorry, Mom and Dad, you can’t have it both ways. You abused the “blessings” that filled your quiver. And you wonder why we struggle to respect ourselves now.