a Love Letter to the Bodies of Women Everywhere: What I Learned from (and in spite of) Fundamentalists

I was taught to be modest. When I was a little girl, my mother sewed me frocks of gingham with 1980's Holley Hobby prints and Strawberry Shortcake playing across my skirts. They always came to the middle of my shins, and my shorts down to the tops of my knobby knees. I wore cut-off jeans and baggy t-shirts and I wore long hair because my mother thought it was the prettiest kind of hair on a little girl and also if a woman has long hair, it a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering (I Corinthians 11:15).

I understood from the church and the people there that a women's body was a fearsome thing. That it had the power to turn heads, to pervert the thoughts of men, and to destroy her own life if she unleashed it in inappropriate ways.

But as my mother covered me, I learned other things. I learned that my body was powerful. She showed me how strong her body was, nursing babies, hauling furniture to 'redecorate' our house, dragging wood over to the furnace in the morning, gardening from dawn to dusk. She showed me that it could be sensual, showing up for our one hour morning devotions (study of the Bible for you non-Fundies) in a lace cotton nightgown that draped appropriately to her ankles but had a heart-shaped neckline she always covered up with a thin beaded cardigan. I saw how my father kissed her, and how her body swelled up to fill the space between, and I understood that her beauty had a place to flourish.

She was also not the type to throw out old traditions just because she was being told to do so now, and I remember days she let us loose naked to run in the rain - the boys first, with me inside, nose in a book. And while they were in a warm bath, she let me out into the warm summer rain shower, running free in my undies. This was not something fundamentalists let their children do. Looking back, I always wondered if it was the rhythm of living in the woods or the Native American in her that nudged her to send us out naked in the sun or the rain - always appropriately segregated by gender.

At 13, I wanted to cut my long hair. After years of curling it Shirley Temple-style for church on Sunday morning, my mother let me cut it - just the way I wanted - without rebuke and without crying a tear. I cut it as short as was socially appropriate for girls in the '90's, and she never said a word other than to call me beautiful. My clothes remained an issue of some dialog all the way through high school - and she often sewed something perfectly beautiful for a special occasion because we couldn't find something to agree on from the store racks. She whispered verses to me, even as our church began to crumble, the pastor more intent on studying Greek and Hebrew than watching over what his own daughters were wearing or how they were acting. Don’t be concerned about the outward beauty of fancy hairstyles, expensive jewelry, or beautiful clothes. You should clothe yourselves instead with the beauty that comes from within, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is so precious to God, she whispered to me. And we read it from a new version of the Bible together - New Living Translation - because I was in college now and my bruised and bleeding heart couldn't make sense anymore of the "thee's" and "thou's". This was also something fundamentalists do not do. King James all the way, 'til death do us part.

In college, I wore shorts that were too short, and I made other bad choices, and she whispered, do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. (I Corinthians 6:19-20) I'll never know if it was the short shorts or the way I called myself trash in my most secret places, but I did attract the wrong kind of man, and I almost married him. If my mother hadn't whispered Holy Spirit into me from the time I was a little girl, let me run in the rain and hugged my naked body, hadn't called me beautiful with my short hair, hadn't seen me all those years and all those mistakes and misunderstandings before - would I have walked away?

You may not have a mother like mine, wise and wonderful. She might not have told you your body was strong. She may not have shown you it was sensual. She may not have watched over your body when you were young, or helped you spread your wings at just the right times when you were older. She might not have had the guts to challenge your short shorts in college. And she may never have whispered to you that you have a price far above rubies when all the world seemed to be saying you were worthless, the same old same old, just like all the other millions of girls with a fleetlingly pretty face.

This is a love letter to YOUR body. When I look down, at 33, I see lots of bumps and bulges where I wish there weren't any. My hair is as short as it was at 13 years old, but this time I didn't choose it - cancer gave me this haircut. Just when I am coming home to realize the beauty of my body, it seems like it is all falling apart. Maybe bad decisions are coming home to roost. Maybe you have tattoos where you wish you didn't, or marks from a bad relationship that no one but you can see, places where you've been used or abused or unloved or unnoticed. I have them, too.

But it wouldn't be redemption, sister, if we didn't need to be redeemed from something.

Paul compares the church to a body, and the words he says can speak volumes of healing as we look downward at the imperfections rising up to look us in the eye. 
...the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. (I Corinthians 12: 22:26)

What parts of you are weak? Aren't they just as necessary as your strong arms? What parts seem dirty or unspeakable? You are honoring them by covering them when necessary - but also by being free with your body and loving those parts just like all the rest. Is it your belly roll that doesn't deserve the light of day in public? How about when your baby curls his feet into that roll while you snuggle him? Isn't it delightful that it's there for him to feel, soft and safe and motherly? What about parts-that-shall-not-be-named? How would your feel in the long run if you discarded those because they caused you problems once a month or you have bad memories of ways you wished you hadn't used them in the past?

Don't look down and see the ugly. Don't look down and see the bad history, the hard times, the inconveniences. You're gifted with the most mysterious, celebrated, and rhapsodized item through literature, cinema, art, and culture, all through the ages. The feminine body is a beautiful and wonderful thing. 

If one hidden part of your body is honored - that part that you can't make yourself call beautiful, just try to call it beautiful once! - all will rejoice together.

I was raised in a "fundamentalist Bible church" (outsiders have another, shorter name for this type of group). You know the type - a single dictatorial pastor using a hellfire and brimstone preaching style who man-handled a small congregation into following him because THIS church was the only true church and WE were the only "believers" in a near-apocalyptic era teaching real Truth. The spiritual abuse in this church ranged from extortion of money to covered up sexual abuse, shunning and twisting of Scripture to a free pass for the pastor himself and all his family. While there are many negative things to dwell on when thinking back to the years I spent in that church, from age 3 to age 18, there wouldn't be much to be gained by doing so. For the past few weeks, events in my current life have been bringing up old sources of pain from those years. Instead of dwelling on what went wrong that has contributed to my brokenness today, I am turning my mind instead to the things I learned there that have made me a better person today. This week, I am publishing a series of posts titled "What I Learned from Fundamentalists". I know many of my readers have painful spiritual histories, and I hope you will be encouraged by this series. Please pitch in by sharing your own experiences in the comments section! If you are interested in writing a guest post, send me your idea via Facebook or Twitter using the link just below the header.

Today, the focus is body image, inspired by the SheLoves synchroblog A Love Letter to My Body that took over the blogosphere last week. For more inspiring stories, consider reading three of my favorites from Elizabeth Esther (another former "fundy"), Sarah Bessey and Joy in This Journey.