I’ve Decided to Become Less Modest In Order To Protect My Boys

modesty
Photo credit: Chris JL

*Spoiler alert: I’m probably bordering on controversial in this post, and might discuss things that make some uncomfortable,.

When I was in college, I took a graduate summer class called “Anthropological Insights into the New Testament.” This class was a mind-broadener for me, because it was one of the first times I had been taught how to view the Gospels out of an entirely new lens, one that was not a literal, Western reading of the text. The parables and wise sayings of Jesus, which I had heard since I was a toddler, came alive to me in fresh ways that were much deeper with meaning than the interpretations I was so familiar with.  One of the professor’s goals was to show us how to approach these parables through different filters or sets of cultural values that were relevant to that time so that we could get a better understanding of what Jesus was actually trying to say to the disciples and crowds he was speaking to.

One filter that I remember us talking alot about was the idea of honor/shame cultures.  Much of the Middle East is grounded in this paradigm of honor/shame, and to more fully understand the motivations, beliefs, and actions of people from this region of the world, we need to understand the dynamics of honor and shame in their family life, social structures, etc. I am not an expert on the Middle East, nor on honor/shame cultures, but I can now at least understand to a small extent how Jesus was attempting to address shame in the context of the Gospels.

I’ve heard many people say that the United States is not a shame culture, and that the West, generally speaking, does not operate off of honor/shame dynamics.  I’m not entirely sure that I believe this anymore.  Yeah, maybe we don’t engage in honor killings, or go to great lengths for family members to save face, or have formal societal constructs to deal with shame and maintain honor….but I think we all carry around alot more shame than we know.  I don’t intend to prove this here, because all of Brené Brown’s writing will do it so much more adequately than what I can. Shame is pervasive and universal.

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I reached adulthood carrying a ton of shame baggage. This is due to a couple of things: I’ve had some shitty things happen to me in the past, many of which I’ll just keep to myself because, thanks to shadow work and alot of therapy, speaking them out loud just isn’t so important anymore. Second, I apparently have the perfect combination of personality and temperament to soak up shame without much effort on anyone’s part. Finally, I grew up within a faith tradition, cultural setting, and a worldview belief structure that inadvertently and very unintentionally, I believe, supported shame’s ability to stick on to me.

One of the greatest struggles with shame for me personally has been with my body. This shame grew out of a whole complicated mishmash of things that people have said to me, done to me, my own ignorance, and the deeply ingrained belief I held for decades that I was broken and wrong and not OK…as though I didn’t have a legitimate right to be alive and on this earth.  This sounds very melodramatic, but I’m sorry to say it’s true. Thank God I’ve since come a very long way in letting go of all of that crap.

Suffice it to say, due to my body shame, I have been extremely modest in the way I dress and act from my childhood up. I remember in gym class all the way through high school even, I hated changing in the locker rooms because God forbid, someone would discover that something was wrong with my body and I was different from everyone else.  I had no clue what that thing might be, but I was sure whatever it was,  when it was found out, I would be shamed for it. I went to the gynecologist for the first time at age 25, because I was too terrified to go before then and just have someone tell me I was “weird’ or “different’….again, how, I had no clue.

I could never feel comfortable in my body and wanted to remain as invisible as possible. I always liked my shoulders and arms, but that was about it.  As such, I took to sleeping in my bra at a very young age, and always wore shorts when wearing a swimming suit…sometimes with a tank top as well.  The less people saw of me, the less chance they would see the shameful self that I was.

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The thing about having babies in a hospital, especially when you have to have emergency C-sections, is that your body shame protection gets ripped off pretty darn quickly.  The advantage here is that you’re so tired from hours of laboring and so grateful to finally be numbed up from your chest down and you so badly want that baby OUT!, that you suddenly don’t care who sees your nether regions.

Maybe this was God’s way of pulling off all the bandaids I’d applied to protect myself:  I had to have three C-sections, 2 of which weren’t planned and each came after 30 hours of med-free laboring.  I think by the time I actually delivered those two boys,  I’d had a minimum of twenty people seeing me in all of my glory.  Having kids did wonders for helping to melt away my tightly held modesty.  And as weird as it is to say, and maybe really silly to some, having those babies in the hospital gave me alot of healing. No one thought I was weird, no one thought my body was “off”, no one looked at me with disgust.  All of these lies I had carried so tightly inside me since I was a very little girl began to lose their grip on me.

There’s a line in the New Testament that really pisses off alot of people because of how they interpret it to depict women and their role in the world.  I totally get their anger about it; the value of women does not solely lie in their ability to grow babies and be mothers.  But, the verse means something entirely new for me now.  1 Timothy 2:15: “Yet she will be saved through childbearing…”  I really was saved in a way through giving birth….not because it validated my existence on this planet or fulfilled me in the eyes of God, but because my boys’ insistence to enter into life forced me to face one of the darkest, shame-filled beliefs I held that was really keeping me from being fully human and alive myself.

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Rape culture is still very prevalent in our society. I’ve written about this elsewhere in my blog, and don’t intend to expound too broadly on this or prove that it exists.  This culture has led to so much shaming of girls and women, and caused us to carry the brunt and responsibility for rape, sexual assault, adultery, and so many other indiscretions on the part of men. We are told, either explicitly or indirectly, that the way we dress causes men to stray and sin. We are told to be benign and almost asexual at times, and then expected to suddenly become sultry, sexy seductresses at other times.  It’s OK for men to have sex on a first date, but for women, that’s just slutty behavior. Women ask to be raped, or whistled at, or groped, or whatever – by their behavior and dress, our culture tells us.

I can’t even remember how many times growing up and as a young adult that I individually or in a group of girls was admonished, especially in church settings, to “protect” the men and boys in our lives, to keep them from stumbling.  We are supposedly the weaker sex, but apparently, we hold all the power to ruin a man’s life simply by how short our skirt is or whether or not we show a little cleavage.  Ginormous eye roll here.

Then, we as women are the ones responsible for also protecting ourselves.  If we don’t want to get raped, then when need to behave ourselves.   Don’t ever drink too much, don’t run outside by yourself after dark, be very mindful of what you wear, don’t flirt if you’re not asking for it….  There’s a reason there is such a high percentage of unreported rapes and sexual assault in this country.  Women aren’t convinced they’ll be believed when they tell their stories of what has happened to them.  And if they do report, they know they’ll likely face unbearable shaming by naysayers. Thousands of completed rape kits just sit around in storage for years gathering dust, never getting the chance to serve as evidence to bring justice for the women who needed them.

There’s a ridiculous amount of responsibility placed on women:  we have to not only protect our own sexuality, but we also have to protect the sexuality of every man we encounter, maybe even we the ones we never even know exist. This is wildly unfair, unjust, and a huge contributor to the shame we as women carry.

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As a mom of three boys, I have made a huge effort to raise them in such a way that they have immense respect for women and girls. They have known since they could talk that if I ever caught them treating a girl or woman badly, in a disrespectful or dismissive or objectifying way, that they would have to deal with me and that they were not going to want that to happen. And somehow, so far, I’ve gotten this right.  My boys LOVE girls and women; some of their best friends are girls, and they notice when girls in their classes and social circles are being treated unfairly.

I’ve taken the boys to the Women’s March in Indianapolis, we have conversations about menstrual cycles and how they should never shame girls about these. We’ve talked about how girls and women are just as smart and capable as their male counterparts. We’ve talked about the struggles that women face to achieve equality, and my boys came to me with angry indignation when they learned that women often make significantly less than men for the same jobs. I’ve begun having conversations with my 13-year-old, about consent and all the nuances of that.

But, I have been realizing over the last couple of years that there is a significant area where I’ve been failing my boys, and through extrapolation, failing myself and the girls and women that my boys will encounter in life. By not dealing with my own shame, I’ve unintentionally passed on some of that shame to my boys, and I know that if I don’t address it now, it has the potential to affect their relationships, perpetuate shame through their families, and maybe hurt their future partners if they decide they are into girls.

This is what has happened:  while I’m much less prudish and modest to the extreme like I was in my teens and early twenties, I still act in ways that either suggest I’m carrying shame or really do try to cover some lingering shame that I still hold on to. Some of these patterns are just hold-overs from my conservative ways of being when the boys were younger; my entire worldview belief structure has changed radically over the last five to ten years, but my actual behaviors have experienced some lag in trying to catch up. I’m learning that all the “great talks”  we have don’t do nearly as much as me living out what I believe to be true, even if it is difficult and uncomfortable to me.

Here are some examples; sorry if they are embarrassing to anyone reading this, but I’m more concerned about being real and authentic than in embarrassing myself or other people.

  1. I almost never go without a bra on around my boys. Since they were each toddlers, I’ve pretty much slept in one if they were around, and certainly have never gone around the house without one. This was clearly my issue not dealing with my own boob shame (there are stories behind this, but I’m going to table them right now), but I can see now that it has actually been a bad thing for the boys. I’ve recognized this when I see them being embarrassed about seeing a woman’s nipples through her T-shirt. And somehow through my extreme past modesty, they have internalized it themselves – they are often ashamed to go swim without a swimshirt on, concerned someone might see their own nipples. I somehow achieved equality between men and women here with them, but definitely not in the way that I meant to.
  2. As an adult, I hardly ever wear a swimsuit without shorts, and certainly never a two-piece.  This is mainly about my dissatisfaction about how my body looks…my tummy isn’t as tight as I’d like, thanks to three pregnancies. My belly button looks weird thanks to a laparoscopic gall bladder removal. My butt sports saddlebags that never seem to decrease no matter how much yoga or running I do. But then, I’ll hear my boys make comments regarding pictures of women they see, wearing two pieces, or showing their stomachs, and the adjectives that accompany their comments are words like “gross” or “weird”. Their statements are not coming from a place of being mean; what I hear in their voices is the sound of being uncomfortable, of unfamiliarity and unease….and realizing I contributed on accident to this hurts me deeply.
  3.  My boys are oblivious to alot of things.  It sometimes takes them days to recognize that I dyed my hair or chopped it all off.  But I have taught them to notice things that shouldn’t be an issue. In the past, I have found myself apologizing to them when they brush up against my unshaven legs. I cringe now when I think about these things because it is just teaching them to believe something completely arbitrary and inconsequential is a matter of right and wrong, good or bad, beautiful or ugly.

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I really, really want my boys to know and believe that women’s bodies are good and beautiful, with nothing shameful about them.  But I’m realizing that as the primary, most important woman currently in their lives, it is my job to live that out for them.  They are learning more from what I do or don’t do than what I say. And what I’m avoiding because of my own discomfort or shame is molding them in ways that could have lifelong impacts.

I DO NOT want to perpetuate shame from my own life into my boys’ lives, and I do not want to add new shame to their lives. I would rather do things that are hard for me than to avoid pain and end up hurting them. Which is why I’ve decided it is time for me to let go of more of my modesty. Contrary to all of the stuff I was taught growing up, I think that in many ways the way to have healthy relationships with our bodies is to normalize them, not just simply hide them away and make every single thing taboo unless you’re behind the closed doors of a marriage or committed relationship.  It’s too late by then…shame has already had a chance to catch hold.

Now for everyone reading this who is starting to hyperventilate, I’m not talking about living like I’m in a nudist colony, strutting around topless, or intentionally behaving in ways that will humiliate or mortify my kids. I’m talking about learning to be more comfortable with my own body so they know there is nothing about a woman’s body, or a man’s body for that matter, that is embarrassing or shameful or wrong.

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As a quick side tangent, since becoming a nurse I’ve decided that it would be a great idea in theory if everyone worked in a hospital for a short time.  The main reason for this is because an inpatient hospital setting helps to normalize things, especially the human body. I’ve seen so many people stark naked, I’ve seen every size and shape of penis, every size and shape of breast, every size and shape of body.  I’ve seen bodies that were missing parts, I’ve seen thin bodies, I’ve seen very large bodies.  There is more anatomical variety for nether regions than I ever once imagined.  Nothing much I see body-wise shocks or surprises me anymore. And I’ve learned this:  my body is just pretty darn average.  After all the shame carrying of my youth, I am very, very happy to just be average.

This is what I’ve concluded:  like so many other secrets, when you bring shame to the light, it begins fade away.  When you pull it out of the dark, closets, and hidden corners and show it the truth, it leaves…it has to…because there is no longer any way for it to keep lying to you when you’ve got evidence right in front of you proving otherwise.

Bodies are bodies, all different and unique. We may be drawn to some and not others because of our individual brain wiring and genetics, but when it comes down to it, everyone’s body is valid, good, and has a right to be here.

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I was irritated by the Super Bowl this year.  I actually didn’t watch it, and I only saw a few photos from the notorious half-time show.  What irritated me was the shame that I saw my boys pick up from watching it because of the comments of the people they watched it with, decrying it as inappropriate and bad.

There was alot of hullabaloo about the outfits and dancing by the half-time performers, and plenty of articles came out afterward discussing their impropriety and whether or not it was OK for celebrity moms to dress and act in certain ways, especially seductive and revealing ways.

Since when did women suddenly have to transform into asexual, tame beings when they become moms? Like it’s OK to be super cute and flirty and sexual before you have kids, but then you gotta suck on the mom jeans and act nurturing and proper all the time once the babies come.  I think the real issue with the half-time show is the labels and stereotypes we continue to put on women in this culture, and much less about what they were actually wearing, or not wearing, or how they were dancing.

I will admit that I think there are times and places for different kinds of behavior and dressing. But what I will not tolerate is grown men saying things like the half-time performance are going to cause them to sin, or that boys will be scarred for life is they see a woman in an outfit that reveals without any uncertainty that she has boobs and a butt.

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So here’s the whole point of me writing this post:  I’ve decided it’s time for me to change…to face the uncomfortable in order to protect my boys.  I want to protect them from carrying their own shame about human bodies, and I want to protect them from internalizing lies about women that would in any way propagate rape culture. I want them to be proud of their bodies, to respect and value the bodies of others, and I want them to believe that each of us has the complete and total right to do what we want with our own bodies as long as it does not infringe upon the rights of others.

I’m gonna get practical:  I’m going to suck up my embarrassment and make myself start wearing two-piece bathing suits.  Not because I have a ripped, hot body to show the world, but because I want my boys to see that I’m proud of this mom-belly that carried each of them for 9 months.,  proud of this rear end that gives me a soft place to sit every day, unashamed of cleavage and softness and the stretch marks that have multiplied with time.

And, I’m going to stop wearing this damned bra all the time so that they realize that just because I’m a mom pushing 40, I do have boobs that look like something other than nipple-less mounds stuffed in a bra under a Tshirt, and I’m never going to apologize to anyone ever again for unshaven legs – even though I do prefer to have shaven legs.  I’m also not going to heed society’s advice that women of a certain age stop wearing short skirts or other types of clothes…I’ll stop wearing them when I want to and not because I’m admonished by shame.

I didn’t create rape culture.  I didn’t create or ask for the shame that I’ve carried for years. And I’ve still got alot of work to do on myself.  But I”ll be damned if I’m going to contribute to the propagation and support of rape culture and body shame because of my own fear  My boys deserve better than that.

6 thoughts on “I’ve Decided to Become Less Modest In Order To Protect My Boys

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