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.