I grew up drowning in purity culture. The kind where at the beginning of summer camp the girls would get an extra “talk” without the boys present on how to dress and not tempt them. I heard that I had to protect my “brother’s” eyes, that I should cover up my boobs and never show off my butt. I got the message that my body was powerful, dangerous, and if I showed it off – bad.
Now, to a perfectionistic young girl with an over-active conscious, these messages wreaked havoc on my view of my body. I took them WAY too seriously. And too far. I remember shopping for an outfit for a wedding and refusing to wear a sleeveless shirt. Not a tank top, spagetti strap, strapless, halter top – but a sleeveless shirt. Whenever I went swimming I wore a one-piece AND a cover up over it. I was constantly worried about showing off. I hated bras because they meant that my boobs were getting bigger.
It didn’t take long before I was completely uncomfortable with my body. My church didn’t help this message. They applauded all my efforts at being the most modest person in the entire world. They older women would tell me how good I was, especially compared to the other youth group girls, who sometimes wore low cut shirts and tight-fitting clothing. And I judged them right along with everyone else in the purity world.
Now, you may be thinking – sure, everyone does stupid, somewhat extreme things in junior high and high school. Well, my extremity didn’t stop there – it just changed a little. In college, now ok with tank tops, I still didn’t like my body. I heard about freshman floors, where the girls would run around naked together, or do something I thought sounded like the most appalling and embarrassing thing I could think of – communal naked body painting. Like, where you use your naked body to paint…I was horrified.
I didn’t want people to see me naked. I was supposed to save that for my husband, right? But the thing is, I wasn’t even comfortable being naked when it was just me. I would cover up as soon as possible. I didn’t like how my body looked, and seeing myself naked made me feel ashamed. After all those years swimming around in purity culture, I was a believer. Because I was a woman, my body was something to be ashamed of.
That’s not an easy message to unlearn. After college I lived by myself for a year, and I did something drastic. I ran around my house naked. I tried to embrace myself and my body, and lose the shame and trailing messages of danger and power and badness.
Even after several years of full-fledged feminism, I still catch myself slipping back into purity-mode. I wonder if I’m showing off to much. I feel ashamed for being a woman. I judge other women for showing some cleavage. I look back at those youth group girls in admiration. In a lot of ways, they loved their bodies more than I loved mine. They were comfortable with their womanly humanity.
I still have so much to unlearn. And so much relearning too.
I’m guessing that I’m not alone in this. Maybe we should start a purity recovery group: PAA (Purity Addicts Anonymous). Then we can face the reality of churches teaching us shit about our bodies together.
What about you? How have you experienced purity culture? Ready to join PAA?