I think I'm mistaken. I hope I'm mistaken. So I mostly close my eyes and peer out out at him. Sure enough, the second he thinks my eyes are closed, he's turned again, staring, mouth ajar, right at my size double-D boobs. You'd think I was standing there in pasties and nothing else, the way he was staring. You'd think he'd never seen a full-chested woman out in public before. I began to feel dirty, as though I was existing solely for the titillation of this adolescent boy, for whoever is unashamed enough to turn and stare every three minutes, like clockwork, for the entirety of the 90 minute service.
I can see you, I wanted to say. I was tempted to tap his father, sitting next to him, on the shoulder and ask, "Excuse me, sir, but your pubescent son is staring at my body in a way that's making me very uncomfortable, and I'd like it if I could just enjoy worship without him agog at the sight of some mammary glands." I briefly fantasized about whipping my top up and yelling "Have at it, sucker!" and then fleeing the church premises, never to return.
But I don't do any of those things. I just sit there, silent, avoiding eye contact, my body burning like a built-in brand of shame.
I wonder askance at women who get breast enhancements to build themselves up to my bra size. Do you have any idea what it's like? I want to ask them why they're doing it. Is it to make men love them more? Because let me tell you, it's never brought me love or happiness. All the size of my chest had ever got me has been hollering from men in cars, being grabbed at by strangers in the supermarket, strangers telling me they'll "f*cking kill" me if I don't respond to their sexual overtures. I used to wonder why this happened to me - afterall, I'm not skinny. I'm not petite. I'm not really even "curvy." I'm bigger all around, big from every angle. Shouldn't this only happen to skinny girls? Shouldn't the perk of my body being unattractive to every eligible man in my age group be that I can at least be ignored by the unsavory elderly and the perverted young male component? If I have to be fat, shouldn't the one bonus be that I'm not constantly assaulted with disturbing instances of the gaze of men defining my worth? You'd think the bonus of being plus-sized would be that I'd cease to be objectified in a sexual way.** Long ago, I made my lot with ugly, with unwanted, with unworthy of affection. But here I am, in a world that tells me my body is my shame.
"Becca? Listen, I'm going to go get my sweater from my car so you can wrap it around your waist. Your jeans are just too tight, it's inappropriate for boys to see you walking around the room like that." A female youth leader has grabbed my elbow as I cross the sanctuary. I'm 18, a volunteer junior high counselor. After some lengthy negotiations, I am allowed to wear my own sweater around my waist, with a promise secured that I won't remove it for the rest of the night.
She walks away, hips swaying in jeans just as tight as mine, with four-inch heels to boost them. I sit, chastised, wishing she'd asked because I could have told her. I would have told her it's not that I wanted to wear jeans this tight. It's just that I've been gaining weight recently, and I can't afford to buy jeans a size bigger. But it really wouldn't have mattered anyway. My weight, my jeans, my butt, my problem, leading denizens of good church boys down the lane of unrighteousness with just one glance.
******It was four a.m a month ago, and I was awake, lying in bed, staring at the light from the streetlamp outside filtering through my slatted blinds.
I just kept thinking I am not beautiful. That no one would ever stop and stare in awe of my appearance. Fat, dumpy, ordinary. Worse than ordinary -- undesirable.
Oh, I thought I was over this. I really did. I thought I had embraced my full-figured, lumpy-thighed, pot-bellied existence. I thought I was learning to appreciate my body and embrace it and like how I looked. And then something comes along and cripples me once more, and I'm back in the throes of self-loathing and shame, oh so much shame.
If I could only be better -- if I could only eat better -- if I could only work out every day for a year -- if I would only buy an expensive array of tools to tame my naturally wild textured hair and straighten it -- if I had the right clothes, the time -- if I could only lose x amount of pounds -- if I whitened my teeth -- if I could just lose x amount of pounds --
It sucks me in. It's a vortex of despair. It hurts me.
I am in a cage, beating myself against the bars.
I am sixteen, at soundcheck for Sunday morning worship. I'm telling the soundguy "Up a little in my monitor, please. Yeah, I need to hear a little more guitar too, thanks," when a pastor's wife walks up the stairs in my direction.
"Hey, honey, I'm going to need you to get down off the stage right now," she leans in and murmurs in my ear. Confused, I mute my mic and turn to her.
"What?" That's the only thing I can think of to say. "Why?"
"Your outfit is really just not appropriate to be wearing in church, but especially on stage. If you want to sing today, you need to go home and change and come back."
I look at her in shock. "But...if I miss rehearsal, I can't sing for the service." She nods. She knows this. It's her rule, one she made up and implemented herself. She puts her hand on my shoulder.
"Well, maybe next time you'll think about it while you're getting dressed to come to church, mmm?" She smiles. "We just don't want anyone to be caused to stumble by you. People can see up your skirt, you know, if they look hard enough. Your whole leg is bare, too. And that top's just far too snug on your breasts. You understand, right?"
I nod, dazed, and climb down the platform steps, ignoring the call from the male piano player as I go. I look down to assess my clothing. Loose skirt, falling below the knee. Modesty shorts underneath that extend to mid-thigh. V-neck tee, but with two tank tops underneath it - one for length, one for cleavage coverage. My mother hands me the car keys so I can go home and change for the day. Sure enough, I'm not allowed to sing that Sunday.
All I can think of as I drive home is, Why would anyone be trying to look up my skirt? At church?
I am nineteen, just out of an appointment with a doctor where everything that is wrong with my body has been explained to me. Poly cystic ovarian syndrome. Causes weight gain, inability to lose weight, acne, cancerendometriosisheartdiseasediabetes if left unchecked. I left the specialist's office and cried in the hot car, before coming home and announcing the diagnosis to my parents.
"Oh, that's not why you're fat. You know why you're fat. It's because you don't eat right. If you ate correctly, you'd be fine." My dad floats on his back in our pool, the waterfalls creating a fuzz in my ears. They did rounds and rounds of blood tests, an ultrasound. I paid hundreds of dollars to hear the specialist deliver the news. But it's all wrong. I know why I'm fat. I know why. I know. I go inside and eat half a pint of Mint Chip and cry in the shower.
It's Wednesday night at youth group, my senior year of high school, I'm seventeen. I'm standing close to the low stage, hands raised and singing. A man taps me on the shoulder. "Hey, uh, Becca? Well, this guy over there, he was staring at your butt in those shorts, and, uh, doing things. We're going to need you to sit down." He looks just as embarrassed to be delivering this news as I am to be receiving it.
I retreat to the back corner of the room and sit down on the floor, pressing myself against the wall. These are my favorite pink shorts. They pass the hands-at-your-sides test. They're lose enough that I can slip them off without unbuttoning them. I am horrified at what my favorite pink shorts just caused a sixteen-year-old boy to do in the middle of a church rec room. Is it because of my butt? Are my legs shaped a certain way? Was it the color of my shorts?
I begin skipping meals again.
It's really no surprise that I have come to believe that my body is a shameful thing, meant to be hidden, covered up, backed into corners. It's no shocker that my conditioned response to men, young and old, openly ogling my body, is to internalize that shame, blame myself, and remain silent. It's not a surprise to me, either, that thousands of women brought up in the paradox of strict evangelical modesty/purity culture and the hyper-sexualization of American culture have developed such an unhealthy relationship with their bodies. Whenever I hear of someone else admitting that they've struggled with an eating disorder or self-harm, I don't think How awful! I think how normal.
It's not just girls with more curves. It's my size-double-zero friends, too. We range all over the spectrum of the scale, and we all hate our bodies. We bear them each day, our particular brand of shame. We're trapped inside flesh and bone, thinking the problem lies within our genetic makeup. I won't wear sleeveless tops because I hate my arms. My best friend won't wear shorts because she dislikes her legs. I have friends who haven't left the house without makeup since they were twelve years old.
Isn't it sad? Isn't it shocking? The main thing that taught me to hate and fear my body was the Church. I struggled with eating disorders and self-harm for most of my teenage years. Isn't it sad? Isn't it shocking?
No. Today, in the church culture I grew up in, it's not. It's normal.
Edit 5.30.13: I appreciate the discussion and response this piece has received. Thank you for the kind, encouraging words. My hope is that this is a good starting point for individuals to rethink their approach to modesty doctrine, as well as a healing read for those who have suffered similar experiences as me. However, I would like to ask that comments please refrain from discussing my appearance in my headshots and photos. Even if the comment is positive and affirming. while I appreciate the heart behind that, it's unnerving to see my body being dissected and commented on, as that is very triggering for me. Thank you.
Edit 6.7.13: To address the concerned emails and comments I've been getting: I am not in an abusive church anymore. I am not in an abusive home anymore. I haven't been for the last two years. Coincidentally, the last time I self-injured was about two years ago. I've been working with medical professionals for the last two years to combat my PCOS. Frankly, I shouldn't have to talk about this, but I also would like to point out that using one example of how an abusive situation drove me to binge eat does not equate to me currently being a binge-eater. I really would rather not have to include these disclaimers, but the volume of responses I've been receiving trying to advise me on all points adressed here is completely overwhelming. I appreciate concern, I'm sure it's well-meant, but please understand that I'm an adult and I've got a handle on things. Thank you.