still place my hand on my chest when I bend over.
It’s an instinct, an old ritual practiced so many times before. My brain can’t catch up with my body. I need it to tell my hand that I no longer have to grab at my shirt, that those rules belong to my past — not my present, not my future. The threads are too tightly wound though. The words of my old pastors remain etched permanently on my skin. I find myself pinching the fabric against my will, clawing for cloth and attempting to hide my body. Did anyone see me? I look up. Did a man catch a glimpse? I search for his eyes. Even when no one is there, I feel shame. Someone could have been looking.
I learned to fear my body at the same time I learned my ABC’s — early on and at the small Baptist church tucked behind evergreens in the Sierra Nevadas. My preschool was in the church basement, and I spent most of my childhood playing hide-and-seek in the hallways, memorizing Bible scriptures.
By the time I was an adolescent, I was every Christian girl, complete with WWJD bracelets and posters of Jesus-loving pop bands on my bedroom wall. I believed what my parents believed, and I adopted the teachings of my small-town Baptist church. I learned to love God will my whole heart and save sex for marriage. When I was 13, I slid a silver purity ring on my left ring finger.
Summers meant church camp in an oversized t-shirt that ballooned in the swimming pool, and two-finger tests to ensure my tank top covered enough of my shoulders. While my parents didn’t know much of what went on in the nineties in Christian culture — they were newly religious and busy figuring out how to rear four children — they believed in the authority of the pulpit, as well as the pastors that stood behind it. If some spirited preacher said young girls should cover their bodies, then it must have been biblical.
And so, I learned. The messages were repeated and then repeated a million times more. My body — born female — was a weapon; a product of Eve, the mother and temptress. It could lead boys into sin. I learned from my youth pastors and all the Christian books that boys spend all their time fighting sexual thoughts and temptations. They couldn’t help it; God made them that way. The last thing they needed was some blossoming girl to show off her cleavage and cause them to think dirty thoughts, or worse, masturbate.
By the time I was attending a Christian university in Los Angeles, I too was regurgitating messages about modesty. I wasn’t like some of the girls on campus, the ones who rebelled against the rules and hiked up their skirts just to stick it to the man. I believed the narrative, and it was empowering to choose modesty for myself. While I didn’t wear long skirts like the infamous Duggar women, I was careful about the swimsuits I wore when going to the beach with friends, and I measured the length of my shorts and dresses. By vowing to keep my body covered and pure for Jesus, I felt bold, like I was a zealot. At youth group, we learned that Jesus cared more about our holiness than our happiness. God isn’t concerned about your comfort, I scribbled in my notebook.
I was also passionate about saving my body for my future husband — I’d learned to keep him at the forefront of my mind. I was a virgin and flaunted my purity ring, proclaiming my vow of abstinence. I was saving myself for this man. And I hoped he was saving himself for me. In the meantime, I could honor him by hiding my body from other boys. I could ensure I wasn’t exposing too much skin. This was especially important around married men. I’d heard the horror stories about young girls dressing provocatively and leading married men astray. I knew better than that.
In college, I met a boy who applauded my modesty choices. We were both virgins and poster kids for purity culture — the nineties movement that championed abstinence before marriage. We began dating and enlisted accountability partners — other Christian friends who ensured we weren’t going to any of the bases.
One afternoon at the mall, my boyfriend and I walked past Victoria Secret. I warned him the store was coming, and he shielded his eyes while I guided him around the corner to safety. This was normal behavior for our friend group, and it wasn’t unusual for the boys to avoid secular magazines or PG-13 movies.
Not only did they fear the female body, but they feared their own. Boys couldn’t trust their physicality, or so they were taught. Our youth group pastors claimed boys were like animals, just waiting to lash out at the smallest sign of cleavage. They weren’t able to control these sinful and innate desires, so it was our role as girls to help them.
Two months before my twenty-first birthday, I married my modesty-loving boyfriend. The wedding night didn’t go as expected — angels didn’t come down from the ceiling and sing over our physical union. Instead, the sex didn’t feel like anything; our bodies were numb. After years of shutting down arousal and desire, we couldn’t turn those feelings back on. It was confusing, and we felt betrayed — our pastors and the purity advocates had told us God would bless us for waiting. When that wasn’t our experience, something shifted inside both of us. A foundational block fell loose. For the first time, there was a hint of skepticism concerning the things we’d been told about sex and our bodies.
This sliver led to a handful of doubts, then a list of questions. We mostly stayed silent, continuing to go to church and hoping things would get better, that God would fix whatever was wrong. It took three years of rarely having sex and hardly talking about it before we’d finally had enough. The answers we were waiting around for weren’t coming. While the church had had so much to say before marriage, there were few instructions waiting for us beyond the altar. It was then that we decided to look within, to begin questioning our foundation and the narratives we’d been taught. The more we dug into the teachings, the more we realized we’d spent our entire lives stuffing our vibrant bodies into coffins and warning them to keep quiet. But they couldn’t stay quiet any longer.
And so, we put the house we planned to start a family in on the market. We left our church. We were silent in the leaving, slipping away as if taking an extended vacation. We weren’t angry at the church or our pastors — we knew they were simply regurgitating centuries worth of doctrine about sinful flesh and body dualism — but we no longer believed them, and we couldn’t stay in that environment if we wanted to find healing and reconnect with our bodies.
A few days after the house closing, we bought one-way tickets out of the country. We hoped a change of landscape would widen our lens and help us to rebuild. That’s how I ended up topless on a beach in Spain, five years after parading my modest beliefs around my Christian college campus. My partner sat in the sand next to me, although that hardly mattered. I would have taken my top off with him or without him. Having him there felt important though. He had spent 25 years of his life believing his body was only capable of lust and sexual temptation; I had spent mine disembodied. Taking my top off on that beach was my way of saying I don’t believe that anymore. I was saying it for me, I was saying it for him, and I was saying it for our marriage. As devout as I had been to modesty and purity culture, I was now committed to dismantling the toxic doctrine we’d learned and lived and taught to others for more than two decades.
And for a moment, I felt free. For the first few seconds, there was liberation. My naked skin bathed in the warmth. Energy flowed through my limbs and I embraced my physicality. Maybe there was a God who created and loved my curves and breasts. Perhaps things would be different now. Could it really have been as easy as flying across the ocean and taking my bathing suit off on a beach?
The feelings of liberation slipped away like warm grains of sand through my fingers. A familiar shame returned to my body, spreading across my skin until I couldn’t take anymore. I reached for my top.
As much as I wished for it, I was not like these other women on the beach — these Spanish women who rolled their r’s and dropped their clothing without thought or effort. Tasting freedom had only emphasized the fact that I didn’t have it, that a deep well of shame remained anchored in me. I was still chained to past rules, to former beliefs. As much as I longed for things to be different, to escape my old life and ways, they were still with me. I had lived that life for more than 20 years, and a few weeks wasn’t going to change anything.
Taking my top off was the first and most essential step, but it hardly meant the journey was over. What that experience on the beach did give me were autonomy and power. The road to healing would be trying and long — we would spend the next few years away from home, unlearning and making room for new ways of thinking — but for the first time in our lives, my partner and I trusted we had the tools we needed to rebuild. Loving our bodies and coming into ourselves started from within. We didn’t need to look to the pulpit for answers. Rather, we looked to our bodies, and it was there that we found freedom.