Purity Culture Hurts

My heart hurts, tonight.

It hurts for my fellow women who were raised in a culture so steeped in purity culture and modesty culture. Who were constantly surrounded by it, who were indoctrinated into it from such a young age.

It hurts for those who have realized there is another way to live and have chosen to leave. For the struggle they continue to experience and all the thoughts and behaviors they have to unlearn.

For the unspoken messages that were learned. For those who learned that their bodies were shameful, dangerous things, and for the body hate that they learned. For the women who learned that it was normal for their bodies to be objectified by men and that it was their responsibility to protect men from the desire to lust. For those who feel the weight of that responsibility in a daily basis and struggle to bear the weight of it.

For the women who absorbed the implied message that sexual assault was their fault for having a body that is too alluring, too much of a temptation for men, and that the way they dressed was clearly too immodest and caused their assaulter to stumble into lust and sin. For the women who felt they were worth less because they no were no longer virgins, regardless of whether that virginity was lost by choice or by force.

For the women who learned to shy away from the slightest touch of a man. For the women who are now struggling to learn to accept the touch of a man, whether that is within the bounds of a marriage or a dating relationship. For the women who feel dirty or ashamed of their sexual desires, or are trying to learn how to speak for themselves and the importance of consent, which was never taught within the bounds of purity culture.

It hurts for the men who are afraid to even look at an attractive woman for fear of stumbling into sexual sin. For the joy it robs them of in everyday life, for the constant need they feel to guard themselves from every temptation. For the idea that is implied in purity culture that even the slightest feeling of attraction to a woman’s beauty must be a sin.

It aches for those who don’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth, for the heternormative ideas that make it so much harder and more confusing for them to understand and come to terms with themselves.

It hurts for those whose sexual orientations don’t fit into the neat virgin groom + virgin bride model put forward by purity culture. For those who learned that a marriage between a man and a woman is to be valued above all else.

We shouldn’t have to struggle with these things. We shouldn’t have to work to unlearn these damaging messages, whether they were intended or not. We should be able to find a sense of worth in ourselves as people, not in whether or not we still possess our virginity.

We should be able to enjoy getting to know another person without having to struggle with the ingrained rules of purity culture that try to govern our every move. We should relish those first, sweet moments of expressing affection for another for the first time, rather than simply rejoicing over being able to express any affection at all.

We should be able to go to the beach without worrying about if a swimsuit shows too much skin, or about being tempted by a lovely woman in a bikini. We should be able to express our gender or sexual orientation without the baggage that has been learned from years of heterenormative training and expectations.

This isn’t the reality that many of us live in, though. For many of us, unlearning these negative messages from years of purity culture indoctrination is a long and slow process. I won’t claim to have made it through this process, yet, because I know I am still far from it. One thing I have learned from the progress I’ve made so far, though; it is worth it. The struggle is worth it. The discomfort is worth it. Having to pause to mentally reassure yourself that what you are feeling, what you are wanting is okay is worth it. It gets better.

A few weeks ago, I was still uncomfortable with even chatting with gentlemen via email on a dating site. Simply walking into a coffee shop or restaurant to meet them on a first date took every ounce of determination I had. Even that has already gotten better, though. I’ve come to a point where I can enjoy getting to know a gentleman or lady via messaging and then look forward to meeting them, once we get that far. I still get nervous and a little uncomfortable about meeting them, but that is starting to ease, too. It hasn’t always been easy, but I’m confident that, if I keep working on it and challenging the assumptions I learned from purity culture, I can get through this and learn to truly enjoy having a relationship with someone else.

If you’re struggling right now, too, know that you aren’t alone. It gets better with some time and persistence. We didn’t learn all the thought and behavior patterns of purity culture overnight, nor can we unlearn them in a day. We shouldn’t have to deal with all of these hurtful ideas at all, but this is our reality. If we are patient with ourselves and each other, and offer support to each other, though, we can change that reality, one piece at a time. It won’t always hurt like this. To quote one of my favorite songs by Josh Groban, “Don’t give up, because you are loved.”

Adventures in Dating Sites, Part 4

There have definitely been a lot of adventures since I last updated this series! Some of the messages I’ve gotten have left me laughing, shaking my head, or just wanting to bash my head against my keyboard a few times. A few of the best and worst:

-Abs Guy was interesting. His profile pic is nothing but a shot of his abs (which really aren’t anything to write home about). His opening message was “Hey you are gorgeous and seem really cool. We should get to know each other”. After checking his profile and seeing that he’s looking for casual sex, I messaged him back and let him know I’m not interested in a casual relationship/casual sex. His response? “I understand. Would you be at all interested in cybersex? Not right away but after we have gotten to know each other.” It took about 5 minutes for me to pick my jaw up off the ground and stop sputtering at the nerve it took to send me that when I had stated I wasn’t interested in him and actually answer with a resounding “NO!”

-Then there was Lawyer Boy. His opening message was “Whats up beautiful?” and he hadn’t filled out any of his profile information beyond just the basic questions you have to answer to open an account. I won’t spend time on someone who hasn’t even given information on their profile so I can get an idea of if I might like them or not. Plus, as I was checking his profile and typing my reply to him, he sent me another message, “Lets work on getting your name out of my profile visits and into my inbox”. If I hadn’t been interested already, this would have been enough to chase me off, as it came across as fairly creepy. I resisted the urge to make a snarky comment about grammar and punctuation, but I resisted and sent him a polite, “Thanks, but I’m not interested.” When he made the mistake of sending me a reply to demand to know why I wouldn’t give him a chance, I gave in to snark and told him that if a lady politely says no, he should take the answer or else be prepared to be subject to a not-so-polite response, then told him exactly why I wasn’t interested (lack of punctuation/proper grammar, he wast too young, smoked, and hadn’t bothered to fill out his profile).

That was when things got REALLY fun. He replied back with a very insulting message about how he was going to law school and was clearly far more intelligent than I could ever imagine and no one on a dating site cares about grammar, plus threw in a few insults and told me I’m not a lady. I was thoroughly annoyed by this time, but I decided it wasn’t worth giving him a real response, at that point. So, I corrected all of the grammar and punctuation errors in his message and sent it back to him with the addition of “#BLOCKED” at the end (followed by actually blocking him, of course).

I’m pretty sure he responded by reporting me, because my account stopped functioning for a full week, after that. It appeared to everyone who had been messaging me that I had deleted my account. No one was getting my messages or my profile views for the next week and a half. I’ve been criticized for responding to his demand to know why I wouldn’t give him a chance, but this is out of line, in my opinion. I tried to be polite and he wouldn’t take no for an answer, so I was more forceful with my “no.” Okay, so maybe the last message was unnecessary, but he had it coming.

There were a couple of other mildly annoying or rude messages, but those were the worst.

As far as actual dates go, P asked me out on a second date and I was looking forward to getting to know him better, but then he backed out on me twice in a row. Neither were for earth shattering reasons, either. I decided he clearly wasn’t that interested and stopped messaging him, at that point. I haven’t heard from him since then, so I guess I was right about him not being terribly interested!

Things got really interested when three different gentlemen asked me out within a matter of days. I wasn’t sure how to handle having multiple requests and if it would be in bad taste to have multiple first or possibly second dates with multiple guys, but one of my friends whom I’ve asked for advice assured me that this is fairly normal for online dating, so I agreed to three different dates.

I went out with A first. I was intrigued by him from the moment I read his profile. He was very honest and open in it, which was a very refreshing change from many of the other profiles I’d been browsing. I discovered that he was a fellow bibliophile, Les Miserables fan and that we shared a number of fandoms. I sent him a message after I discovered that he had already “liked” me and we hit it off pretty quickly. After about three weeks after we started talking, he slipped in a very subtle invitation for a first date when I was teasing him about how I was wondering how badly he was mispronouncing my name, since he had never heard it. His comeback was, “Well, I’ve settled on Aubrey until we can have coffee and you can tell me how to say it correctly.” We settled on a date and found ourselves chatting over coffee just a few days later.

Of all the first dates I’ve had so far, this one was the best by far. Something about him put me at ease almost immediately (which is pretty impressive, if you’ve read On Purity Culture and Fearing Men) and the conversation flowed easily. We share a lot of fandoms and he’s a fascinating person with a huge range of experiences in his past. He’s also a good bit older than me, but I’ve noticed that I definitely tend to prefer older men. We kept the first date short, but parted after expressing a mutual interest in meeting again. If I hadn’t been headed straight to work and, therefore dressed in business attire and sporting some wicked heels, I probably would have skipped to my car.

We continued chatting for about the next week until I finally I got up the nerve to ask him if he wanted to meet up for lunch. I was pretty proud of myself for taking the initiative and asking, because that definitely wasn’t an easy thing for me to do, and is very counter to purity culture, where the man should always initiate! Alas, the morning dawned and he sent me a message saying that he had to cancel due to a major plumbing crisis that had to be dealt with immediately. He quickly apologized and asked if we could reschedule. When we actually got to have lunch a few days later, I was far more nervous about seeing him again. He is the first person to ever make it to a second date! It took me a little while to relax, but once I finally did, it was a very pleasant afternoon.

Our third date was this past weekend. I sent him a link of me performing “Diva’s Lament” from Spamalot on an April Fool’s concert, a few years ago. He quickly said that we would have to go Karaoke together, at some point, to which I eagerly agreed (a fellow nerd who shares my love of Doctor Who, Star Wars, AND Karaoke?! Hell yes!). It was a really fun evening and it was great to meet some of his friends, most of whom also embrace nerd culture and are part of the many fandoms I know and love so well.

I took another decisive step away from purity culture when A moved to hug me when he arrived at the pub. We hadn’t hugged or really even had any physical contact, prior to that. To be honest, I have a very difficult time with hugging most people. I’ve come to the conclusion that this is largely related to being sexually abused as a child – I developed an aversion to letting anyone but my most trusted friends touch me in any intimate way. Depending on who is hugging me and if they surprise me with a hug, my reaction is typically to feel anywhere between distinctly uncomfortable and totally freaked out. It’s not unusual for my skin to crawl for hours afterwards, especially if I felt like I had no way to get out of the unwanted hug. Add on to that the fact that hugging men is pretty much banned in purity culture and is strictly limited to quick side-hugs whenever they can’t be avoided altogether, and I can be very skittish when it comes to this sort of thing.

I’m incredibly proud of myself to be able to say that, despite considering declining his hug for a sliver of a second, I decided to go for it. Not only did I give him a hug without feeling the least bit discomfited by it, I also gave him a full hug instead of the side hug that is such a reflex for me. We spent a good portion of the evening sitting pretty close together, far more closely than purity culture would have ever allowed. The best part about it was that it felt natural and comfortable, even when he briefly put a hand on my shoulder or when I leaned in to the table to hear someone over the noise of the music and brushed up against him. As little as a year ago, I would have flinched away from even that innocent contact. Being able to not worry about it and simply enjoy talking, laughing, singing, and having heated debates about various aspects of nerd culture (e.g. whether or not the new Star Trek movies are blasphemous or genius, or who really died in the finale of Game of Thrones) was quite fantastic. It was almost two in the morning when we called it a night and headed out from the pub, parting with another very comfortable hug and a “we should do this again soon.”

Upon arriving home, I promptly deactivated my OkCupid account. I’ve found someone I’m really comfortable with, yet very attracted to, and who shares my love of the nerd life and my faith. I’m not sure where exactly this is going to go, but I’m ready to start a new in dating by spending time getting to know A and seeing where things lead. Whatever the end result, I have a feeling it’s going to be a lot of fun.

My Journey and Why I Left Purity Culture, Part 4

All the flaws I started to see in purity culture and its leadership lead me to start seriously questioning the ideals I had so blindly accepted for so long. I started to do my own research on the subject, both by searching scripture and also by reading the opinions of others online and via the numerous blogs that exist, both those that are pro-purity culture and those that are anti-purity culture. I read, I researched, I prayed and I sought to understand how purity culture truly started and whether this was truly something that was God-inspired, or simply another obsession fueled by the Church’s need to have a list of requirements and guidelines to check off to feel holy.

I started to discover blog posts that let me know I wasn’t the only one who had suffered greatly from the messages of purity culture, some of which are overtly stated and some of which are implied. Each woman had her own story about how purity culture affected her. Some stayed in abusive relationships because they felt they were “dirty” and that no one else would ever want them because they were now “damaged goods” because of the non-consensual things their boyfriends had done to them. Some women wrote about how they had spent so long denying themselves from any and all sexual desires that they didn’t even know how to let themselves enjoy sex within their marriages and how the resulting stress nearly destroyed their marriages. Still other women tried to cover up the sexual assaults they endured because they were afraid they would be seen as “impure” by the Church or by prospective suitors.

How could something that is supposed to be so good cause so much hurt and damage to women? As I researched and read more and more, I became increasingly sure that the Church had either warped purity culture beyond all recognition and into the hurtful belief system that it is, today, or it was never a God-inspired concept to start with. I began studying the Bible and seeking to find an understanding of the passages that the leaders of purity culture tout as evidence that emotional and sexual are so vital. I already knew the views of the leaders of purity culture from well over a decade spent embracing their viewpoint without questioning. I sought out other viewpoints, examined cultural context and weighed different ideas and thoughts carefully.

The more I researched and studied, the more I felt that the cultural context of the portions of the Bible that discuss sexual purity were key to understanding whether or not purity culture is truly biblical or something created by the Church. In the Old Testament, women were treated as property and marriage was a business contract between her father and the bridegroom. The bridegroom payed a price for her, which was immensely lessened if she was not a virgin. Why? Because her being a virgin on the wedding night was the surest way to guarantee the continuation of a bloodline and to have certainty that any children produced belonged to the bridegroom. Thus, a woman having sex outside of the constraints of marriage was hurting her father, as it lessened the bride price that he could charge for her. In the New Testament, when Paul addressed the subject of sexual immorality, it was always in the context of non-consensual sex, when you examine the cultural context in which his admonishments happened. I’m not going to go in depth on this subject for the moment, but please take a look at Samantha Field’s series, is it possible to be a sex positive Christian? for further insight on this.
I walked away from my studies feeling like the heart of the issue wasn’t having sex outside of marriage. It was having sex in a way that was harmful to someone else. In the Old Testament, a woman’s father was harmed by her having sex outside of marriage, because he couldn’t charge as high of a bride price for her. In the New Testament, Paul’s words were against non-consensual sex, not against sex outside of marriage in general. By focusing solely on the words and ignoring the cultural context, the founders of purity culture had skewed the intent and meaning of these passages until they fit this ideal of purity culture which they had created.

And so it was that I finally arrived at my conclusion that remaining a virgin until marriage was not a God-given mandate. After well over a decade of wholeheartedly embracing purity culture, I took a good, hard look at it and chose to walk away. I burned my True Love Waits card a few months later as a symbol of the fact that I no longer believed in or followed purity culture. Interestingly enough, the day I chose to burn the card was 15 years to they day from when I had originally signed the card. It wasn’t deliberate, but when I realized the significance of the date on which I destroyed the card, it felt like it had a nice finality and symmetry to it. A few weeks later, I asked my best friend what she thought I should do with all my old purity culture books. I didn’t want to sell them to a used bookstore, as I didn’t want the material that I now considered so harmful to fall into the hands of another young woman. She suggested burning them, not realizing just how many books I had. We made a mini-bonfire in her backyard and burned over two dozen books on purity culture.

I wish I could say that my journey ended there and that I suddenly experienced total liberation from the reactions and thought patterns that years of purity culture indoctrination had instilled in me. Telling you that would be a blatant lie, though. One of the greatest challenges I faced after choosing to reject purity culture teachings was to find some new sort of sexual ethic that I could turn to for guidance. After all, just because sex outside of marriage was no longer taboo didn’t necessarily mean that all sexual activities were okay.

For a long time, I didn’t even know where to start looking to try to come up with a new sense of guidance on what was and was not appropriate. I eventually returned to the scriptures that I had studied with debunking the ideas behind purity culture in search of a new ethic that was biblically accurate. From the Old Testament and the focus on how a woman having sex outside of marriage lessened the bride price she would bring in and, thus, had a negative impact on her father, I came to the conclusion that it was important that having sex wouldn’t have a negative impact on anyone involved. From Paul’s admonishments in the New Testament, I felt that consent was the key thing that he was trying to drive home. And so, after a great deal of consideration, study and prayer, these two elements became the foundation of the new sexual ethic that I adopted in place of purity culture.

When Purity Culture-Based Reactions Turn Out To Be True (but not for purity culture reasons)

Not that long ago, I wrote a post titled “On Purity Culture and Fearing Men” that discussed how purity culture has tainted how I relate to men and how it affected my brief acquaintance with C. Over the last few days, I discovered that the assumption that C was a jerk actually wasn’t that far off, but not for the reasons I originally thought.

Let me back up to earlier in the week. I was curled up in bed, scrolling through potential matches on the OkCupid app on my phone. I had taken out my contacts already, and my eyes do really weird things to focus when I don’t have them in. My spatial perception is fairly non-existent without contacts, and I attempted to click on the profile of a guy who I wanted to check out and missed. Instead, I clicked on the profile next to it, which was C’s profile.

In case you aren’t familiar with OkCupid, there is a function where you can see everyone who has viewed your profile. I thought of this at the time, but since I told him I wouldn’t initiate any further contact with him, I decided I would just hope he missed the profile view rather than messaging him a “sorry, it was an accident.”

Of course, I couldn’t be so lucky. A day or two after, he texted me and asked why I visited his page. I apologized and explained it was a mistake. A few texts later, he said he wanted to see me. I was pretty torn on how to answer that. I really did like him. I also messed up pretty badly, before. But I apologized and asked if he wanted to give it another try, and he didn’t answer me, so I learned from my mistake and moved on. After thinking about it, I hesitantly agreed and suggested meeting over coffee, figuring that coffee allows for a quick getaway or possibly for a longer conversation, if things went well.

His response was unbelievable. “I’ve been driving around all day. Come over here and hang out.”

Keep in mind that the entire fight we had last time was based on this sequence of events: he told me he wanted me to go over and have sex with him. I said no and told him I wasn’t even comfortable going over to his hotel. He asked me to go over and listen to the rain with him, the next night. I said no again, then proceeded to email him on OkCupid and chew him out royally for not respecting my boundaries of “no, I’m not having sex with you” and “I’m not coming over to your hotel.” He responded by telling me I was out of line and he hadn’t been trying to get me to go over again just so he could sleep with me, that he honestly just wanted to hang out and get to know me better.

Keeping in mind the lesson I learned previously that I shouldn’t just assume he was asking over to try and get me to have sex with him, I calmly replied, “I have said before that I’m not comfortable coming over to your hotel. If you want to get coffee on a day when you aren’t tired from running around all day, we can do that. Please do not ask me to come over to your hotel again, though.”

This time, he did acknowledge my message, but only with a “K.”

I was feeling fairly ambivalent about seeing him again, after that. I decided to wait and see if he decided to try and set up a time to meet for coffee. I had a lunch date with A the next day (more on that in a future post) and heard my phone go off while we were chatting, but I didn’t want to be rude, so I ignored it. I was quite glad that I hadn’t looked at it during my date, when I finally had time to read it later. It was pretty much one long rant. “Get over yourself and stop making me out to be some kind of creeper,” “What is your fricking deal??” and “I don’t need to hang out with you that bad, believe me!”

I looked at this when I got to my car, before I headed home from my lunch date. One of the surest ways to make me angry is to make me feel attacked or threatened when I’m trying to set a reasonable boundary, and I was absolutely furious. I had to wait a few minutes to leave the parking lot so I was calm enough to drive. On the way home, though, the years of purity culture indoctrination tried to kick back in, again. “See? You were right to be frightened by him asking you to go over to his hotel, the first time around! He clearly has no respect for you as a person or for your boundaries! If he doesn’t respect your boundaries, that means he’s going to try to take advantage of you!”

This time around, though, I could see that his message had nothing to do with the fear that purity culture has instilled in me. This wasn’t about him trying to subtly pressure me into having sex with him. This was a result of him not understanding that when I say “I’m not comfortable with coming over to your hotel,” it’s not a comment on him as a person, it’s a comment on the years of purity culture indoctrination that I’m still trying to overcome. It’s a comment on how I was told that it was never appropriate for a woman to be alone with a man until after their wedding, that even a public meeting required a chaperone in order for it to be appropriate.

Simply joining OkCupid and chatting with men was a bit of a challenge for me, at first. Under the same rules of purity culture that I grew up with, private correspondence with men wasn’t allowed. Choosing my own suitors wasn’t allowed. Walking into a coffee shop or restaurant to meet them for the first time took a huge amount of willpower. I had to expend a considerable amount of effort to keep myself from shutting down and going into total introvert mode. I had to consciously work to stay engaged in conversation and not let the discomfort that nagged at me get the better of me. I’ve made some good improvement in that area, but I’m still nowhere near being ready to allow a man into my home or for me to go over to his. That’s going to take time, building some trust with a gentleman, and getting to where I can stop fighting with purity culture indoctrination and be relaxed around him in public.

I wrote back to C and explained this to him. Once again, he has chosen not to answer me. At this point, I’m not going to agree to meet with him, even if he does message me at a later date. I need to feel like I can set the boundaries I need to be able to function and be marginally comfortable without worrying about how the other person is going to react. I have every right to expect this and any gentleman who is interested in me has the right to choose whether or not he is willing to go along with this. I totally understand that there may be some men out there who walk away as soon as they find this out. That’s fine with me and I’m not going to complain or try to vilify them for that. It has become pretty clear that C isn’t going to be able to build an environment of safety with me, one where I feel like I can freely voice what I am and am not comfortable with and where we can build on what I am comfortable with at a pace that works for me. Honestly, if I simply feel like I will be supported and respected if I ever say “this is too much for me, I need to take a step back,” I think I’ll be able to work through a lot of these issues in a relatively short amount of time. Any gentleman or lady who is truly interested in me will be willing to be patient with me and understanding as I work through these things.

Looking back at my original post about C, I feel like it would be easy for me to look at the conversation I had with him this week and think “But, see! This just proves that purity culture is right, I really should be afraid of men! They don’t respect boundaries!” It makes me very proud of myself to be able to look at this and say, “No, purity culture is still wrong, and I still don’t need to be afraid of men. Just because C turned out to be a bit of a jerk doesn’t validate purity culture teachings.”

I’m eager to move forward with some of my other budding relationships, at this point. I know there is someone out there who will be understanding and supportive as I work through things. And I know that will be a great time of discovery, challenges and learning for me. I’m looking forward to finding someone with whom I can grow in this way.

My Journey and Why I Left Purity Culture, Part 3

Trigger warning: Eating disorders

One of the first elements of purity culture that I began to question was modesty. While I was never in the “wear dresses that look like burlap sacks and hide any hint of curves” camp, I definitely tended to err strongly on the side of modesty. After all, I didn’t want to cause my Christian brothers to stumble into lustful, impure thoughts, as purity culture warned that the way I dressed could. I dressed conservatively, always picking the most tasteful one-piece swimsuit I could find and never wearing skirts or shorts that didn’t touch my knee.

My recovery from the eating disorder that I struggled with was a large influence on why I first started to walk away from the rules and constraints of modesty culture. Early in my struggle with the eating disorder, I developed a strong loathing for my body and appearance. I suffered from mild body dysmorphic disorder, as well, to the point where I was unable to see myself realistically when I looked in the mirror. At my lowest weight, I was able to buy jeans in the Girls Department of the store, again. I found a picture from this time period a few weeks ago and I was shocked and horrified by how painfully thin I looked. My wrists looked like they would snap with the slightest pressure and I had lost enough body fat that my chest was getting pretty close to totally flat. In the picture, I was clearly wearing padded bra, yet I still looked like I was hardly even an A cup. Even then, I looked in the mirror and saw a grossly overweight reflection staring back at me. I wasn’t capable of seeing my body as it really was. It worsened to the point where I could barely stand to look at myself in the mirror for long enough to brush my hair. Using a mirror long enough to put on makeup was absolutely out of the question and something I could only force myself to endure if I was performing in a concert.

Unlearning the body hate that was so ingrained was a long process in my recovery and I had to confront the root of that body hate in order to get through it. To be honest, rejecting that body hate and accepting my body is something that I am still working on. I’ve learned to appreciate how amazing my body is and all the things I can do with it because I feed it and keep it strong. I can haul 75 lb bales of hay, ride a horse through rough terrain for hours without tiring, and play highly technical piano pieces with incredible speed and accuracy. That’s pretty darn amazing! One part of learning to accept my body that I particularly struggled with was the fact that my breasts got bigger as I put weight back on. To me, having a nearly flat chest was a sign of triumph, of self-discipline, proof that I could starve myself to a point where I could get away with not even wearing a bra, if I wanted. It also meant not having to worry about if a particular shirt showed off too much of my curves or the slightest hint of cleavage. I had no cleavage, and what man would be tempted to lust after a woman who lacked womanly curves?

As I worked to overcome my dislike of my breasts, in particular, I started to challenge myself to stop hiding my changing body under nondescript T-shirts and hoodies. At first, it was very uncomfortable to me. Modesty culture had so ingrained in me the idea that I should do everything I could to avoid causing my Christian brothers to sin that the very thought of wearing anything that hinted at my new curves made me extremely uncomfortable. But I wore the (still highly modest) clothes that made me uncomfortable anyway, knowing that it was the only way I would ever get over my body image issues. Gradually, I became less and less uncomfortable with wearing clothes that flattered my shape just a little.

At some point, not only did I learn to accept the curves that came with returning to a normal weight, I began to enjoy the fact that I was no longer flat-chested. After years of refusing to replace my size 32 A bras, I finally wandered into the forbidden territory of Victoria’s Secret when the underwire of my final bra snapped. My mother had always been a very vocal opponent of Victoria’s Secret, commenting on the scantily clad models on their posters and declaring their annual fashion show to be “soft porn.” I’d always nodded and accepted her judgment, never setting foot into the forbidden stores, despite my curiosity. But I had no idea how to find a bra that would fit properly and decided to brave this strange land of scantily-clad models to get a fitting and find something that would be comfortable to wear.

I walked out of the store that day with two very plain bras that both fit well and flattered my shape, and with a new sense of confidence in myself. Once I got over the initial shock of finding out that I was a 38 C, I started to notice just how flattering the new bras were. This was the first truly positive thought I’d had about my body in years. I challenged myself to build on that, buying a new shirt or two that emphasized my shape. I felt wonderful in them and started to see my new curves as a symbol of my recovery, rather than a symbol of my failure of my eating disorder and a sign of weakness. I slowly added to my collection of bras, branching out to include one or two pretty, lacy ones that made me feel attractive (a very odd feeling, after years of hating my body!), and some new shirts that pushed beyond the strict limits set by modesty culture. As I did so, I started to develop an appreciation for my body, beyond just its functionality and ability to accomplish tasks. I had moments where I almost liked the reflection that stared back at me from the mirror. It was a very new and wonderful concept to be able to look at my body with some sliver of acceptance, rather than the hateful, self-loathing that had become so typical during my eating disorder.

At this point, I was still reading books on purity culture, even though Leslie’s writing on mental health issues had planted a seed of doubt in my mind. One thing I found from almost every book on purity culture that I read – they all condemned me for the clothing choices I made in my journey of learning to accept my body. Every time I opened Authentic Beauty by Leslie Ludy, or And the Bride Wore White by Danna Gresh, I was faced with text that called the clothes that I was using challenge myself as “sinful” and labeled me as a stumbling block to my Brothers in Christ. They declared that I was dressing this way because I wanted to draw attention to myself, to my body. Yet I knew that the later wasn’t true. In fact, I hated getting compliments on how I dressed. It was enough to make me want to throw an over-sized hoodie on over my clothes to hide myself. I was wearing these clothes because I recognized that the hatred I had for my body wasn’t normal, wasn’t healthy, and I saw an opportunity to work on this by wearing clothes that accented the one part of my body that I was capable of appreciating.

With time, as I grew more comfortable with my body and learned to be less concerned of the opinions of others on how modestly I was dressed, I started to realize just how self-conscious modesty culture had always made me feel. I was far more focused on how I dressed when I was following the rules of modesty, always worrying about if what I was wearing was modest enough, or if that little bit of skin showing on my shoulder/my knee, etc. would cause one of my Brothers  in Christ to stumble. With the clothes I was choosing to challenge myself with, I typically had to struggle a bit to wear them even at home, but that was usually a 20 minute battle with myself and then over, rather than a constant worry that pursued me everywhere I went. Once the initial struggle was over, I seldom had any issue with putting the same outfit on again a few days later. As I became less critical of my clothing and focused more on being comfortable in my own skin, I started to realize just how much body shame I had learned from modesty culture.

Women are taught that their bodies are a source of constant temptation to men and that they are responsible for guarding their Brothers in Christ against temptation to look at them lustfully. The unspoken message that I learned from this is that my body is dangerous, that I should be ashamed of how it causes men to stumble and hide it under mountains of fabric. I began to realize that this same body shame and hate laid the foundation for the eating disorder that could have killed me. I started to question how something that had been so harmful in my life could possibly be biblical. As I researched to find the answer to this question, I found that I am not the only woman who learned a crippling sense of body shame and hate from this movement. I discovered that the movement is largely based on a few verses written by Paul in the New Testament that have been grossly misinterpreted and taken out of context (I’m not going to go into a detailed discussion on this, for now, but please take a look at Kate Schell’s blog series on modesty culture for a more thorough discussion).

One of the verses most often quoted in support of the modesty culture movement is the verse where Paul exhorts the church at Corinth to not cause others to stumble by exercising their freedom in Christ by eating meat that was sacrificed to idols. The things that struck me is that abstaining from eating this meat would not been likely to have a negative effect on the Christians who were avoiding eating this meat because it might cause the “weaker” Christians to sin. For me, though, I was faced by an enormously negative effect (a.k.a. body shame and hate that contributed to my eating disorder) by trying to dress in a way that wouldn’t cause Christian men to have impure thoughts. As I pondered this verse and the intent behind it, I started to wonder: Do other Christians have the right to ask me to adhere to a certain standard to avoid tempting them when that same standard will cause a tremendous amount of struggle in my own spiritual, mental, and physical health? Was I really so out of line to expect them to take responsibility for their own thoughts so that I am not left in a crippling and constant struggle with body shame and hate? If my body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, why should I treat it in such a way that leaves me feeling like a temple of garbage?

I pondered these questions for some time, still struggling with guilt over the idea of causing men to stumble with how I dressed. After a great deal of thought and prayer, I came to the conclusion that I had a right to stand up for myself and my needs. I chose to stop letting the expectations of this one facet of purity culture have such a detrimental effect on my life and to treat my body as a temple of the Holy Spirit – something to be celebrated, respected and cared for, not hidden away under mounds of fabric. I, the girl who always allowed herself to be used as a doormat for others to walk over, took a stand. I stopped worrying about if I was showing a little too much skin, or wearing something a little too form-flattering. I started wearing what I am comfortable in, what I feel good in. An amazing thing happened – I found that I no longer dreaded getting up in the morning and getting dressed. For the first time in over ten years, I enjoyed shopping again. In the last few months, I’ve reached the point where I can put on makeup and actually enjoy it, rather than feeling like every moment I have to look at myself in the mirror is torture. I’m starting to accept all of my body, not just the parts that I like, and move past the shame and hate that has plagued me for so long. It has been a wonderful and miraculous journey, and it’s one that I can’t wait to continue.

They say that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. And so my journey away from purity culture began with a single step away from one of the basic tenets of the movement I had lived in and embraced for so long.