It’s interesting to me how in certain moments, no matter how small and seemingly insignificant to the outside, our whole perspective our place in the world is changed. I mean, we’re always experiencing things in our day-to-day life and they teach us, but there are those specific moments that really stand out as game changers. Your perception on where you stand is either reinforced or challenged.
I remember being no older than fourteen laying awake shaking in a severe panic attack on the couch in the middle of the night with my mom for nearly two hours because I was afraid to go to our homeschool commencement. I had heard too many whispers and felt too many looks already and I was on edge. I wanted to be pretty, but it felt like I couldn’t and I had to hide behind clothes that make me feel frumpy because it was the right thing to do. I ended up going in a tank top (with three inch thick sleeves) and a knee length jean skirt, which was both modest and pretty, but whether it was my projection or a reality, I felt judgement as tangible as I feel the keys of my Macbook now. I avoided most of my male classmates because I was scared that their mothers would feel like I was seducing them somehow. I looked at the other more modestly dressed girls and wished that I were more like them, because they were safe and revered as ‘good girls’. If only my skirt were a little longer, or my shirt a little looser… If only.
How I felt like people saw me
I remember specifically going out of my way to clean up the reception afterwards because I was hoping that they’re see that I had a good heart and good intentions, but I felt no such relief. Nothing was ever said directly about that incident and I filed it away under: it doesn’t matter what you’re intentions are. Only what people think about how you look on the outside matters in the end.
From then on, I determined I wouldn’t give anyone cause to talk about me. I would be perfect. I would be position myself in such a way that no one would notice me. I would look exactly the way I needed to be safe from sidelong glaces.
I started buying clothes that were too big for me to hide my body. I trained myself to walk in such a way that my butt wouldn’t move at all, and I learned to stand so my chest never stuck out. I cut off all my hair in a shapeless, unflattering bob because I knew boys didn’t like short hair and I thought maybe this would help me fly under the radar.
I absorbed the mindsets and turned a critical eye on other girls who weren’t as chaste as “us”. I became that legalistic, unforgiving standard who made excuses for other people’s disrespect and sin because “she was asking for it with that outfit”. As for bathing suits, what bathing suits?
I wore tshirts and mens’ gym shorts to the beach for years on co-op days to avoid any gossip. (I didn’t have to if we weren’t at co-op, so that taught me that in order to fit in with the ‘good people’ I had to perform.) I felt heavy and hideous while I was swimming, but at least I was safe. I watched the girls who were prettiest, who dared to wear some makeup to our homeschool classes, be ostracized and gossiped about.
What do I learn from all this? I learn that trying to look pretty is dangerous, beauty is sinful, beauty will be used against you.
Outside of my homeschool group, I also had a job and eventually started going to Community College classes. In these circles I was considered a prude.
Everyone made fun of me for my cardigan sweaters (which I really loved) and the tank tops that I put on underneath formal dresses to avoid cleavage. There was really no place where I could win, because no one was ever really happy. If I wasn’t such a people pleaser I would have been able to realize that I myself wasn’t happy, either. But that wasn’t what mattered. I had to keep myself safe from other people’s opinions and all boys because, bless their little hearts, they were visual creatures and they just couldn’t help themselves.
The guy I liked at that time never got near me and always made sure there were pillows between us on the couch. I was eighteen and I was still wearing clothes at the beach because I had to respect his weaknesses. Literal coffee dates were held without eye contact because of the temptation it posed.
Oh, the things we do to each other while we’re trying to “do the right thing”.
There was a flicker of doubt in my uber modest lifestyle one day during the thick of it. I was walking into the mall in my men’s tuxedo pants after work one day and in the reflective glasses I watched a grown man turn to stare at my butt (which was basically indiscernible in the pants) and I wondered how he could break the rules like that. I mean, I was covered up! Hidden! How could he look at me like that?
When I went away to college I was surprised to learn in our female dorm meeting that shoulder blades were a turn on for guys and wouldn’t be tolerated. That was a new one for me. Everything else about finger tips and cleavage and midriffs was like remembering the words to the songs you used to sing as a little kid. I watched the faces of girls that were clearly only sent to this school because their parents refused to send them to a ‘secular’ school contort as they heard these foreign sounding words and I just sighed and looked at the ceiling and waited for it to be over. I know this all already.
At this point, I not only had drank the koolaid about modesty, but I’d also picked up that all girls who are pretty, dress to be pretty and make an effort in general to be pretty were shallow and stupid and they deserved everything bad that happened to them.
I made sure no one made that mistake about me. I wanted to be known as kind and hardworking and smart, and I couldn’t be any of those things and also look pretty. Obviously. Shout out to my gauchos and my dad’s sweatshirt for keeping me company those semesters. I dressed up on occasion, but it made me so uncomfortable because everyone would inevitably make it into a big thing because I rarely looked human. One day I did my hair and makeup and wore a skirt and tank top and I literally had to coax myself out my dorm door by repeating, “It’s not a sin to look pretty”, a million times. After the reactions I got from friends (who meant so well) and guys I ‘sort of’ knew, I didn’t do that as much.
There was a guy that I was talking to at one point who kept shaming me for wearing shorts and commenting on my Facebook pictures telling me to “put on some pants”, so that didn’t help anything. I borrowed my sisters green prom dresses for a formal event and everyone made comments about how they couldn’t believe my chest looked like that. I tugged on my dress all night and turned sideways in every photo so no one could see my boobs.
By the time I got to LA, I officially had less rules for my clothes than I’ve ever had and I finally felt safe to jump into the lazy, bohemian look that I really loved—I mean, it’s Los Angeles.
Who’s going to comment on my clothes? No one, but I there was a girl I knew that always would talk about how guys were looking at me and objectifying me any time I was with her and that helped build the walls of my complex higher. This was also the first time a bathing suit picture of me made it to the internet, nearly six years after I first got Facebook.
I was twenty-one. I was trying to make sense of the world outside of the rules that used to make so much sense and it was a little jarring. I felt both free and lost all at once.
Whether it was projection of internalized shame at failing to measure up to some unspoken rule or the criticisms of others, or a little bit of both, it messed me up.
BUT tune in next week to hear about how I realized that I get to evaluate my experiences and that I don’t have to accept everything as the truth and now I just live my life not crippled by fear.