A pink framed birth announcement hung near the door on the purple walls of my childhood bedroom. “Katie. Meaning: pure one.” My name haunted me. As a girl, I remember looking to that frame with shame as though my body had betrayed my name.
My memory is drenched with shame about my body. My earliest memories are of being called “piggy” by my older brother while he shoved my face into the snow until my cries were cut off by lack of oxygen and my tears turned to ice. My body got me teased, and my body was too weak to escape torment. I was not strong enough to push him away. I was not skinny enough to shut him up.
This article was curated by the Purity issue's guest editor, Rachel Joy Welcher.
Hating and Hiding my Body
For my twelfth birthday my parents gave me a blue topaz ring and a speech. Apparently Israelite girls became women at twelve, so I was too. My womanhood was conferred as a weight, heavy with responsibility to guard my precious purity for my someday husband, whom I would give that ring to on our wedding day. My birthstone sat on my left ring finger like a reminder, wrapped in white gold and white hopes. I took it off when I masturbated and then recommitted to purity in prayers of self-hatred every time I put it back on. Though my school and church and parents barely informed me about sex, I was pretty sure anything related to “down there” was sin.
Hating myself was the main way I knew how to be holy.
Hating my body and its sensations was how I held on to the hope of being the pure person my parents named me to be.
My school required that I hide the body I already hated behind shapeless skirts and shirts. My independent fundamental baptist school somehow squeezed a law of female frumpiness out of the King James Version Bibles they revered like little leather-bound idols. Every day I wore a long denim skirt from Old Navy paired with Adidas Superstar tennis shoes, as though something from a cool store paired with cool shoes could create a cool-though-covered me. I still cringe even picturing it.
The only days I was allowed to wear jeans to school were “Bucks for Bibles” days. One dollar bill bought me one day of freedom from the confines of a skirt and the marginal satisfaction of growing the school’s fund to bind and box Bibles to send overseas. Somehow missionary efforts evoked a temporary day of jubilee, and our lady legs would get to slip into the devil’s denim for the greater good of spreading God’s word to lands that supposedly didn’t have it. On those days, my female classmates and I would report to the cafeteria instead of our homerooms, where we’d line up to hand a teacher a dollar and our dignity.
We stood single file like soldiers in front of Mrs. Major and her ruler. Since it was the era of low-rise jeans, the inspection began with bending over to see if any skin was showing. “Turn around,” she’d demand next, glaring over the glasses perched on the end of her nose at our butts below. We had to be able to pinch an inch of denim in order for our jeans to leave more room for the Holy Spirit than the male imagination. Mrs. Major was the judge and jury, scrutinizing the outline of our rears to rule whether the tightness would tempt the boys down the hall. Sometimes I’d have to tie a sweatshirt around my waist to be allowed back in class—after pocketing a demerit—because though my hips don’t lie, apparently my curves create sin. It was an education in cover-up Christianity, where skin-showing leads to sin-flowing and female bodies are above all to be subdued.
Whole and Holy
In Bible class we learned the Romans Road, but outside the dingy halls of my high school, I’d run into female teachers—including Mrs. Major—at the grocery store wearing pants or I’d find classmates coupled in dark bathrooms making out during parties. The fragmentation felt like fiction.
The paint of piety was chipped and worn, revealing layers of lies underneath. I couldn’t help but see the half-hearted, rule-laden life in a grace-centered faith for what it was—a logical fallacy. If we weren’t the same people everywhere, then who were we at all—and what the hell was the point?
Even now, I wonder how I knew to long for wholeness. Perhaps it was my birthright, a knowing conferred by my name. A purity past the confines of religiosity.
Our birthright can both haunt us and heal us.
I wanted to follow Jesus wholly or not follow him at all. I buried myself in theology books and started to be stunned by a God who loved me. I found solace in the search and peace in pages. I came alive from my shoulders up, my mind lit up by grace. But it wasn’t until an autoimmune disease stopped me from being able to even open a book that I encountered God-with-skin.
Both my pain and pleasure propel me into a better story, where the only measurement that matters is not the gap of fabric from my skin but the span of Christ’s arms on the cross. In the spread of that story, I’m learning to be curious about the truest purity of all.
Cover-up Christianity taught me to subdue my body for God, but faith in the real, risen, and reigning Jesus is finding that a broken body is what manifests God’s love. My body tells the truth of what I have lived, and my sensations and emotions signal what I need. In the spread of this story, I can show up as already loved by God.
I am too loved to hate, and I am too holy to hide.
Cover image by Anne Nygard.