My Eyes Are Up Here

by Emily Maynard

Maynard Green

 

I remember when it happened.

I was wearing a deep blue shirt I’d purchased with my own money. I was eager to grow out of my family’s stretched budget and into my independence, so I chose this shirt to represent the money I was making babysitting and the way I could take care of my own needs. Or maybe I just liked the color. I don’t remember that.

But what I do remember are the words. I remember where I was standing and the way I turned back to hear them. I remember how my heart sank and I leaned back against the wall to brace myself.

“Emily, you can’t wear that shirt out because it emphasizes your figure. Your sister could wear it. But you can’t.”

I can still remember how that felt.

I didn’t hate the well-meaning person who said those intended-to-be caring, protective, encouraging words.

I didn’t hate my sister, who has a body that is shaped differently from mine.

I didn’t hate the shirt, which covered me from hipbone to collar bone.

I hated my body.

I hated my “figure.”

My “figure,” of course meant my boobs, which showed up when I was eleven, outside of my control or desire, and ruined my every last hope of being a fun, sporty girl.

I hated my chest, the things I couldn’t wear or do, the limitations, the stares, the lectures, the looks from moms and my female peers alike, and the knowing that boys may be looking too, even though I never caught their eyes because I was too scared to look up. I hated that I couldn’t do a single thing about it, other than wearing a tank top or two under everything and a cardigan over the top.

But even then, with a shirt that was baggy around my hips and a security layer underneath, I was marked as one of the girls “showing off her figure.”

I was so ashamed.

—–

Fourteen years later, I was sitting in my favorite bar, the one with heaters beating down on the big wooden picnic tables out on the patio through the winter and remembering that day. I was trying to write it out and analyze that incident abstractly so I could build a new case against Modesty Rules, but I couldn’t sort it out. It didn’t fit.

Suddenly, there was that electric hatred shooting through me again. It wasn’t the story that didn’t fit; I didn’t fit. I looked around me and even though no one was looking at my chest, I felt ashamed.

—–

We are sitting together on the couch, laughing, my legs pulled up under me and his stretched out on the ottoman. We frequently laugh until we’re crying and clutching our stomachs, and he says my eyes look pretty when I wear blue. We talk about Feminism and growing up Evangelical and the way the incense quiets us for worship before Mass and what we want to be when we grow up someday.

I bounce another pun off of his and he looks at my face, laughing, then down at my chest and instantly back up.

“Sorry,” he says, getting serious.

“It’s okay,” I respond. “I know you like me. You can like my boobs too.”

I don’t feel ashamed.

—–

Many people have talked about the harm of Modesty Rules and the ways they damage our relationships to God, other people, and ourselves. I don’t have anything new to say about that, except that I still think those rules are bunk.

We cannot be fully present in our own bodies when we mark specific parts of them unacceptable. We cannot be connected when we are judging our bodies or other people’s bodies and the way they look in clothes. We cannot teach respect unless we acknowledge that bodies, with all their parts, are not inherently shameful.

Mostly what I want to say is to that girl leaning up against the wall, overwhelmed with fear and shame when she just wanted to wear a blue shirt:

Someday, after so much grief and pain, you will feel safe in your body, and have boundaries and relationships as an embodied human. Someday you will heal enough to not be afraid of your body and everyone else’s opinions about it. Someday you will embrace that you are you, boobs and all, and someday you’ll like it.

[photo]

27 Responses to “My Eyes Are Up Here”

  1. Heather McClish November 22, 2013 at 1:05 am #

    Oh Emily, I love this!!! I remember having conversations with my mom like that too. Except for me it was “Heather, you can where this because you don’t have boobs, but you shouldn’t because the other girls and your sisters are busty and can’t where that type of shirt, so you shouldn’t either to keep everything fair.” WTF!!!

    My friend, writing at peterlitster.wordpress.com, who grew up Eastern Orthodox but has spent a lot of time around a certain fellowship of churches love to lament modesty rules together. He is so honest with me and I love it! He tells me about certain girls that he finds attractive and why…and he just gets so excited about it!

    God made our bodies to be delighted in. Thanks for standing up for that, Emily! I appreciate you!

    • Emily November 22, 2013 at 3:32 pm #

      Heather, thank you for sharing your story. It’s so interesting to hear “the other side” and it reminds me that sometimes we shame bodies by comparing them. Love that you’re healing and embracing your body, too!

  2. Bethany Bassett November 22, 2013 at 5:05 am #

    Oh goodness, I hear you loud and clear. I don’t have anything new to say about the Modesty Rules either. I’m not sure anything new is left to be said, but stories are a different matter, living snapshots that say their piece indirectly, and I’m glad to come across stories like yours that help to keep the conversation alive even when all the words have been used up.

    • Emily November 22, 2013 at 3:32 pm #

      Thank you, Bethany. Where are your favorite stories being shared?

  3. Michelle November 22, 2013 at 7:03 am #

    This is beautiful because it’s vulnerable and full of truth and love.

    • Emily November 22, 2013 at 3:33 pm #

      Michelle, I’m so glad you liked this piece!

  4. Christie Esau November 22, 2013 at 7:26 am #

    I love this: “We cannot teach respect unless we acknowledge that bodies, with all their parts, are not inherently shameful.” Thanks for the wonderful post, Emily.

  5. Suzannah November 22, 2013 at 7:50 am #

    wow, em, this is stunning and sad and funny and hopeful all at once. i love this and you, dear one.

  6. Esther November 22, 2013 at 8:48 am #

    Speak it, Emily. Speak across that gap between shamed and unashamed. You’re building a bridge.

    • Emily Maynard November 25, 2013 at 10:51 am #

      Thanks, Esther! You build yurts, I’ll build bridges.

  7. David November 22, 2013 at 9:00 am #

    Very interesting and helpful. Thank you for sharing this. Here’s a practice I recently read about that I suspect might help all of us:
    http://www.cheladavison.com/archives/2582

    • Emily November 27, 2013 at 11:20 am #

      David, thank you for sharing this. It looks like a really important and beautiful practice.

  8. Rebekah Richardson November 22, 2013 at 9:29 am #

    This is so wonderful, Thankyou!

  9. Candi November 22, 2013 at 10:38 am #

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I also remember exactly where I was when at fifteen years of age I had a “well intentioned” youth leader tell body shame me for “showing off” my body. I was wearing a crew neck t-shirt that happened to conform to the shape of my body. It still makes me furious to think about it. Thank you for speaking out about this. It’s maddening to live in a society where every minute detail of your physical appearance is scrutinized, we definitely do not need this in our churches. Sorry for the long rant. Thank you again.

    • Emily November 27, 2013 at 11:21 am #

      Candi, I’m so sorry that happened to you, but I’m so grateful you recognized the harm of it and are working through it. Me too. :)

  10. Amy Young November 22, 2013 at 11:20 am #

    Emily, I love watching the progression/ growing up before our eyes. As I read this, I wondered if some of your experience is part of being human — not the modesty comments about your body — but even if those hadn’t happened, if this (in general) the path that we all take as we adjust to adult bodies and become adult beings. And I get you on your chest getting in the way of being a sporty gal. :)

  11. Jamie Wright Bagley November 22, 2013 at 6:01 pm #

    Thank you for such an empowering story. I love the energy and grace you bring.

  12. Alyssa Santos November 22, 2013 at 8:04 pm #

    Like you, way back in the eighties, I was imprisoned by the double standard, railed for suggestive dress, by the athletic director at my school, a man who confronted me in an office with the door closed but his voice raised. I have several friends, older now, who have lost a breast to cancer. So on the othe end, the older, saggy, nursed that baby and done that end, have felt acutely the loss and shame again of breasts and being breastless. They each mourn and suffer through that alone and in confusion, too. I wrote a piece a while back called “the mallet and the measuring stick” on my blog that echoes a bit the shame of using false measuring standards as tools (or are they weapons) of counting up holiness or even measuring what a makes a person presentable and acceptable. But didn’t Christ die to present us all, if we let him, as a beautiful, pure and presentable bride?

    • Emily November 27, 2013 at 11:22 am #

      Alyssa, thank you for sharing your story and an important other side of this issue. May we appreciate our bodies and celebrate them for who we are, not just how we measure up to an exterior standard!

  13. Morgan Guyton November 23, 2013 at 8:53 am #

    “It’s okay,” I respond. “I know you like me. You can like my boobs too.”

    That’s awesome. I can’t tell you how much shame I felt growing up when I started to notice girl’s bodies. I still haven’t figured out how to have a healthy appreciation of other women’s bodies as a married man. Not to be a creepy gawker but also not to walk around in a perpetual paranoia looking down. The last year of listening to the modesty conversation has given me a lot to think about and provided a lot of healing.

    • Emily Maynard November 25, 2013 at 10:57 am #

      Thanks, Morgan. I really appreciate you listening to me and others talking about the harmfulness of the Modesty Rules and sharing your process here. For me, when I notice someone attractive or interesting (of any gender), I try to steer my mind away from either comparing with myself or checking anything that wants to own or shut down their unique beauty rather than celebrate it. Usually I just try to imagine myself giving them a high five and saying “you look awesome!” That stalls the desire to control or self-shame that feeds my lust.

      I’d love to know more of what you discover!

  14. Jessica Fick November 25, 2013 at 8:47 am #

    Emily- oh, how I feel you on this one. How do we live into our embodied selves- one that has been formed in the image of God. Thanks for sharing your story and helping others of us know it is ok to speak about the pain we have experienced simply because we’ve got some lovely lady lumps. I wrote a post about this as well that might make you laugh: http://jessicafick.com/2013/04/we-saw-your-boobs-and-so-did-god/#comment-1844

    • Emily Maynard November 25, 2013 at 10:53 am #

      “How do we do this to the glory of God and honor the people he has made us to be?” <— Love this question, Jessica. Thank you for sharing it! So grateful for the many people living out their answers!

  15. CDub December 11, 2013 at 6:04 pm #

    YEP YEP YEP YEP YEP YEP

    Hated my body well into my 20′s because I was only taught how much evil it causes. Having had breasts since I was 10 years old, I decided to camouflage my curved in over sized gray T-shirts for most, if not all, of my adolescent years.

    I’m in a better place now, physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually; I’ve moved from hating myself to, in many ways, tolerating my embodied self. On a good day, I catch small patches of love towards Self, like rays of sunshine in the PNW winters. I’m working on moving there, to that place of Love. I hear it’s pretty awesome.

  16. Bill Werner February 7, 2014 at 12:08 am #

    Emily: I googled the phrase to see what is “out there” on this subject. Your closing statement, the ideal thing you would say to yourself or to someone else rings true. I am in my mid-50′s raising a little girl who is now 12–her mom left her with me almost 5 years ago. I have raised her to look at peoples actions instead of their words or appearance–trust is a biggie with her. But establishing a baseline for her to begin growing her “self” began with her having a safe home, a listening and involved parent, some humor, gradual growth in personal responsibility–and asking for help when I needed it. A good friend suggested the “American Girl” series. I bought her (at age 9) the Feelings book and also the My Body book. She devoured them and she asked me good questions about it. Later that year I took her to Pinks, introduced her to a sales clerk (about her size!) and told them to do what was necessary to fit her properly. I then said–I will be over there by the sales desk when they were done. I encouraged her to “Own her body”… Mother/daughter dynamics are one thing–but when a young girl has a dad who she respects, who sets an example for the standards she should seek–then she will be better enabled (IMHO) to not let others dictate what is important. She really got it when I taught her “Yo tiger–my eyes are up here”–and then explained the rationale behind it… Part of building a memory castle…

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