Female Bodies and Sex Ed | Part 1 of 3
Am I ready? Never. But I want to begin somewhere. So here goes.
Jesus, Mary and all other daughters of Eve
Female bodies were not celebrated in my family. Too bad. When I was a child and young teenager my female body was regularly ignored, observed, commented upon, shamed, ridiculed, exposed, beaten, controlled, feared, dismissed, hidden and denied.
My father knew how to affirm and celebrate that Jesus came in the flesh. He didn’t, however, know how to affirm that I, his daughter, came in the flesh, or that my embodiment as female was worth celebrating.
To me, it seemed that my young female body was a problem to be wrestled with or avoided. A disquieting reality to be minimized, or better yet, hidden beneath layers of modest styles in not-too-flashy colors. The problem of my ever-changing body grew ever larger as I became older and started to look like a young woman.
When it came to daughters, the honor of the family was at stake. No female raised in my father’s house was going to become pregnant out-of-wedlock. Only Mary could have gotten away with that one.
Mary was different. God did it; she was appropriately submissive. The angel Gabriel’s announcement made it OK. It was part of God’s mysterious plan. Besides, God would never have chosen Mary if she hadn’t been a really good girl—way high above the rest of us daughters of Eve. Didn’t you notice? God did this without anything sexual happening between her and Joseph. Case closed.
How I managed my female body
As the diligent, responsible first-born daughter of my father, I did what I could to avoid calling attention to my ever more woman-like body. My clothes weren’t drab or ugly; nor were they exhibitionist. They were sensible, modest and functional. Pretty, in neutral colors and styles that wouldn’t call undue attention to me or my body.
My clothes sent a message: Yes, I’m female. But no, you may not stare at, wonder about or see what I prefer to keep covered. I’m a person, not a body provided for your prying eyes!
There were, of course, other important unspoken messages carried in and through my fashion choices and attitudes:
- My family may not have enough money to keep up with the latest fashions, but we’re clean and neat.
- I know very well that this is a hand-me-down from a missionary barrel, but guess what! I don’t care! (Not true. I cared deeply and felt shame if someone figured this out or asked where a second-hand item came from.)
- My mother is a fabulous seamstress—which she was.
Were there rules about what I could wear? Yes and no. Not rules about what I could wear, but about what I could NOT wear. Informal rules, made on the spot to meet the needs of each occasion or change in style.
Being a conservative type, I usually passed daily inspection with room to spare. I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing a bikini or a strapless dress, no matter what color it happened to be.
To her great credit, Mother sometimes tried to get me to wear brighter colors. No way! I was already locked into a habit that stuck with me for years. Better safe than sorry. Don’t call attention to yourself any more than necessary.
But frilly, multiple-layered, starchy-stiff crinolines that peeked out from beneath a full skirt (not too long!), bounced around when you moved, and popped up when you sat down showing off all the ruffles under your skirt? I wanted one big-time.
In the end I settled for a J. C. Penney look-alike—not as puffy or full, which meant not as risqué and clearly not as much fun to wear. Very little show-off factor. But just enough to calm my need not to stand out as a totally fuddy-duddy preacher’s kid.
A story from my father about Grandma Z’s clothes
Grandma Z on my mother’s side—the one who divorced my California Grandpa–learned the hard way how symbolic clothes were in our two-family house full of girls and women plus Daddy and one other man. My father seemed to relish telling the story.
One day Grandma Z decided to come for a visit to see her new granddaughter. I was now about one year old; my father had returned from the TB sanatorium when I was 10 months old.
Grandma Z was anything but conservative in her dress. She was, in fact, quite stylish. I could tell from looking at old pictures of her before she left Grandpa. Her clothing profile and personality didn’t match mine at all. Grandma Z craved attention and she loved the latest styles.
According to my father, ‘One morning Grandma Z came down the stairs (late as usual!) for breakfast. She was wearing a dress that looked like someone had just poured her into it! I told her to change her dress immediately. I also told her she was not welcome in this home and that she must pack her bags and leave.’ Which she did.
A bedtime story about hair
My father had a school-night rule for us older daughters: Be IN BED by 9:00pm. Not almost ready, but already in bed.
I’m a young pre-teen, blessed (?) with straight, thin, fine light brown/dark blonde hair. I shampoo and set it each night. Painstakingly, I wrap strands of straight hair around rubber rollers and lock them in place. They sit there tight against my scalp, like little bee hives covered with a scarf.
I’m more than willing to pay the price. I want to look pretty like my friends at school, and more like Sister #2 who has naturally curly light blonde hair.
I’m running a bit late. I’ve washed my hair and put the right side of my hair in rubber rollers. I’m just beginning the left side when my father walks into the bathroom and calls time on me.
I can scarcely believe my ears. I’m unusually vocal and emotionally distraught. His solution? Go to school with the right side of my hair curled, or remove the rollers immediately and go to school without any curls at all. It’s my choice.
I’m afraid of being laughed at no matter which option I chose. Fear gives me added courage. I weep. I plead. I promise with all my heart that it will never happen again. He is unmoved.
Mother quietly walks up behind Daddy, and suggests they step into their bedroom for just a minute. When he returns he announces that he is going to make a one-time-only exception to the rule. I can finish putting the curlers in my hair, and this must NEVER happen again.
I’m overcome with relief. I’m also stunned. I can’t remember any other occasion when Mother took my side against Daddy. Yet my gratitude is totally focused on my father. He isn’t going to punish me for breaking the rule, and he’s allowing me to finish setting my hair.
A rare gift of grace. Unfortunately, it only strengthens the troubled bond between my father and me.
© Elouise Renich Fraser, 13 July 2014
For Part 2 of 3, click here.