During the very tumultuous pre-teen years of a young girls’ life, I attended a conservative Christian school in the deep South. I use the term “Christian” generously like I do when I butter my bread, but I can assure you that my experience in this school was not as smooth or sweet.
My first bitter taste of junior high and one that shaped my view of sexuality and my body, occurred within the first week of the start of school, and was when I met Miss Davis, the dean of women. I was sitting in math class trying to understand what a hypotenuse was when I felt someone tapping on my shoulder. I turned and saw a dark green, almost black, dress with a head that popped out from the white collar like a Pez dispenser. Her arms were crossed, and she bent from the waist to whisper in my ear, “I need to see you in the hall.”
Every eye under the age of thirteen burned on me as I clumsily made my way out of my seat, tripping over my book bag. Heat started at my neck and spread to my ears and face and I felt as if I was developing a fever as I walked out of the classroom with this serious looking woman. What happened? Did I do something wrong? Or worse, did something horrible happen to my family? Are my parents OK? Did my parents die in a fiery car crash? Will my sisters and I be orphaned and sent to live with family members?
My heart felt like it pounded out of my chest and the sound filled the quiet hallway. Miss Davis’s stern face turned, and a flash of anxiety crossed her face. Her round face didn’t smile, and her hair was cut like a boy’s, as if someone had put a bowl on her head and snipped around it. She wore no makeup to cover the dark veiny circles underneath her big brown eyes. Her dress was buttoned all the way to her chin and went below her knees, showing off a pair of black clod hoppers.
“My name is Miss Davis and I’m the Dean of Women. You might remember me from orientation?” She didn’t wait for me to reply. “Well, I talked with your mother,” Miss Davis began.
Oh, thank God, my mother’s alive! What about dad?! I looked eagerly at her face waiting for the bomb that would forever change my life.
“She’s coming to pick you up.” She paused, tilted her head, crossed her arms, rested her chin in her hand, like she was trying to figure out how to tell me something and as my eyes filled with tears she asked, “Do you have a full slip? Your dress is entirely too see-through.”
For what? The funeral? For my dad’s funeral? Oh, my daddy!
I stammered, my voice shaky, “Um, a whole slip? Yes, um, no, I mean, I’m not sure, I just wore what I had.”
I was confused, nervous, and self-conscious. I looked down and pulled at the front of my dress, hoping to hide anything that might be showing. I started to ask about my dad, “Is my dad…” but she kept talking.
“Your dress is too uh, how can I say it” she looked around the hallway, then her eyes darted right at mine like a missile and she said, “revealing. The boys can see your bra, I had someone complain to me about it, and here at this school, we promote modesty. Young women must dress with discretion and purity. They must, at all times, cover their bodies, never tempting anyone to sin.” She pursed her lips, like my mom does when she disapproves of something, and blew air threw her nose and said, “Didn’t you read the school handbook? Our dress code is clear about what is expected. Your mother is on her way to pick you up and take you home so that you can put on something more appropriate.”
I blinked. So, my dad’s OK?
Miss Davis broke into my thoughts, “Are you listening to me?”
When it registered what she was talking about, relief washed over me that my parents were alive. But then I felt exposed. I felt naked. I couldn’t wait for my mother to come rescue me. My shoulders slumped, and I felt so ashamed. How could I have gone out like this? I’ve been walking the school halls in this sheer smock?! But my mother dressed me! She bought me this outfit! How could she have been so wrong about it? I’m horrified to think of all the boys that have seen me and what they must think of me.
I asked, on the verge of tears, “Can I go wait for my mom in your office?” I was hoping she’d offer to go get my things in the classroom. I’d rather die than go back in there, considering I was walking around half naked in the school and causing who knows how many boys to think ungodly things. She agreed to that and offered to get my things for me.
When I got in the car with my mother, she let loose. “I can’t believe this! They sent you home because of your dress?! Your dress is fine. I can’t believe I had to leave work for this. Ridiculous!” I felt a little vindicated, but I was still embarrassed. What would I tell the kids tomorrow when they asked where I went? I’ll just tell them I had a doctor’s appointment I’d forgotten about.
Later, at home, with red puffy eyes from crying, lying on my bed, something started bothering me. I thought, “Why are the boys looking at my dress and my body like that? And why aren’t they getting in trouble for looking? Aren’t they in charge of their own eyes and where they look?” And besides, there was really nothing to see! But I knew I couldn’t stand against this authoritative regime, so the fight in me died down and in its place was planted an intense desire to please my elders. I accepted the premise that not only was I responsible for my own sexual purity, but also for all the boys in my school, and all the boys in the world, for not causing boys to look at me, to lust after me, because how in the world could a boy be held responsible to control his thoughts if I wear a dress that’s faintly see-through and he looks and sees my bra, albeit a training one, and has an impure thought? I must take better care for how I portray myself.
The teaching that the female was and is the sexually responsible gender was as fundamental a teaching as the rapture. Pressure was put on girls to be pure, a virgin, wear white on her wedding day, modest, sexually uncertain and shy, while the male counterpart was fully expected to be assertive, sexual, animalistic, carnal, and sensual. However, his strong and vile desires were to be restrained, tempered, and tamed through the untainted and chaste portals of a “good woman.” If he didn’t have a good woman in his life, any exploits he may have would be understood and explained away as “in his nature.”
At eleven years old and throughout my adolescent and teen years, I, too, accepted this duty upon my shoulders, although I didn’t understand all the implications or the problematic thinking or the incorrect biblical teaching behind it. It would take decades for me to understand the faulty foundation upon which I had built my life of “faith.”
The seeds of hating my body and my womanhood were planted and nourished by my mother’s own self-contempt that was handed down to her from her mother, her church, and her world, like an orb and scepter. I accepted, too, the church’s teaching that modesty is a woman’s job, and without it, a man’s sexual acting out can be sympathized with and understood in light of her lack of propriety and overlooked with an apologetic grin and a wink.
Cultural images of what was determined to be sexy bombarded me and my girlfriends, as we soaked up beauty magazines, creating a deep internal battle within us between what we thought was “right” and “wrong”. Instead of engaging that battle with truth and honesty and integrity, and learning healthy self-control and self-image, the church’s answer was to shut down the battle by declaring that all female sexuality is dangerous and should be denied, or worse, killed off.
Forty-two years later, I confess that I’ve been guilty of body shaming myself and blaming women for crimes against them. Why did she dress like that? Why was she walking down that dark alley? She was asking for it. If you don’t want to get raped, don’t get drunk at a party. If you choose to be a lady of the night, that’s the risk you take.
Thank God, and I mean literally, I thank God, that He showed me that Love never asks those questions, it doesn’t think like that. It doesn’t condemn or dishonor a person because of how they are dressed, what they do for a living, or their gender, and it never blames a victim for a crime against them. Love embraces and heals and helps and protects. It is not a woman’s fault if she is raped. When a woman says no, she means no, even in a tube top. My incorrect conservative “Christian” beginnings had me on the wrong path, but thank God, He rescued me from all that and I’ve been corrected and freed and can see the world through eyes of love and understanding and care and protection.
I have no idea where Miss Davis is today, but I hope she was transformed and set free by the real Jesus, instead of remaining in a lifeless deathtrap of religion. In spite of her attempts, she couldn’t completely hide the strength and beauty in her big brown eyes.