May 11, 2010 2 Comments
Growing up as an old child and a young teenager, I constantly got crap from members of my former church for my clothing.
I was taught to “come as you are” and that “Jesus didn’t care what you looked like or what you wore” but in reality, I was being taught the opposite. Every Sunday, I’d choose my outfit, sometimes dressy, sometimes not. Sometimes I chose the outfit because I really liked it, and sometimes because of the weather. Sometimes, I chose my outfit based on my activities for the day. Every so often, someone would pull me aside to tell me how “inappropriate” my clothing was.
Sleeveless dresses and tank tops are not appropriate for church, I was chided. I was angry. I was being made to feel bad for something that wasn’t wrong. I was being made to feel like an outcast, a dirty sinner, for something that wasn’t a sin. I could feel the burn of others’ stares. I could almost hear their judgments, too. Jesus doesn’t care, I screamed inwardly. It was hot! In the beginning, we were too young for “temptation” to be a concern, but they policed me anyway. note: None of the girls whose parents also attended church were policed for their clothing, only girls who came with relatives, or friends. The fun of the day, the excitement of learning something new at church, of spending time with my friends, was gone.
Shorts were even worse. I was active; I hated wearing a lot of clothes in 90+ degree, 80%+ humidity weather. I loved being outside and running around with my friends. But if my short’s legs weren’t four inches from the inseam? I was pulled aside, told my dress was “inappropriate” and that I should be more mindful of modesty next time. Again, I felt humiliated. The fun and joy of being at church with people I loved was gone. I felt like an outcast. The dirty sinner to be avoided.
Then, I and my peers hit puberty.
Gender policing began in earnest. We’d all been raised together, since ‘Jesus Loves Me’ and diapers. We were brothers and sisters, in closeness, and in Christ. And yet, suddenly, the adults in the church were dividing us. Whole areas of the church were suddenly off-limits to us–no more hanging out in the youth room, with the brightly painted walls (that we painted ourselves!) and the cool couches. No two of us of opposite genders could be alone, anywhere, at any time. We were met with disapproving stares if a boy and a girl sat too closely together in the worship service, or at dinner. Passing notes during the sermon was extremely suspect–notes were snatched and hissed lectures were handed out.
We fought back for some things: the youth room soon became an approved area again. When we started falling asleep during the sermon (unintentionally), we were grudgingly allowed our notes. But the ease of youthful interaction was forever lost to us.
We started to police ourselves. I was called a prostitute for wearing a knee-length skirt and-boots. We started whispering amongst ourselves if so and so were spending just a little too much time off alone together.
Would we have started to explore the realm of relationships and sexuality on our own amongst each other? Sure. Would it have started so early? Probably not. Gender-sex-sexuality policing 8-12 year olds hurt my relationships with my church friends. It divided us, first by gender, and then individually, until all of us felt judged and ashamed, and so acutely aware of our every move, that we felt pressured to superficialize our friendships with our opposite-sex friends.
I couldn’t just wear that pair of shorts with the red stitching and the buttoned pockets because I like red and I like stuff not falling out of my pockets. I had to hold my arms at my sides to see if the fabric passed my fingertips–the measure of modesty. If so, hurray, another awkward day at church where at least I wouldn’t get yelled at for my clothes. If not, I had to steel myself for a possible confrontation, which usually consisted of my responding that they could speak to my mother if they didn’t like it. (she was always on my side, thank goodness!)
I couldn’t just hug my male friends. The Christian side-hug was the only hug acceptable, though this was unspoken. If you simply hugged a male friend, the whispers about “being boyfriend and girlfriend” and hand-holding and kissing started, just as often by elders as it was by us.
Why did the adults start this gender policing so early? Why was it so vicious? Perhaps I have an answer: Jesus didn’t care, but Paul did.
Clothing and relationships weren’t issues before–we simply existed. We played together, learned about Christ together, and grew together. Humans are sexual creatures, but children are not. The youth group at my church could have been a great support system for each of us growing up. We didn’t see one another as dating/sex prospects until after the adult Christians made us so.In doing so, they divided and conquered us, until we were bickering and judging one another, and church evolved for us not an escape from the world, but simply another scene of it. It drove us away, from our friendships, and the church, and even Christianity altogether.
We came as we were, and they didn’t like us. It wore us down until we were changed. And then we left, as we are.