purity culture

No Effs to Give: On Body Image at Eight Months Pregnant

I recently posted a few pictures on Instagram from our babymoon in Thailand. A few people kindly commented on how confident I looked. At first I thought they were just being nice, but looking back at the photos, I can see what they mean.

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It’s true that I’m not self-conscious about my body or about how I look pregnant. It’s not that I look at my swollen belly and my stretch marks and think, “I’ve earned these tiger stripes,” or whatever it is the mommy bloggers like to say. I know I look huge. I am huge. But it’s also abundantly clear why I’m huge. And there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it.

My confidence is that of a person who has zero effs left to give. And I realized that that is a far cry from who I was nine months ago.

***

Back in January, I wrote this post about how very much I was struggling with my body. I had reached an all-time low, exhausted by self-loathing and feeling powerless to make any lasting change.

I spilled my guts about my desperation, and six weeks later I found out I was pregnant. Hilarious, God. Truly.

As you probably know, my initial reaction to the news was not positive. I admit, one of my first panicked thoughts was, “I can’t be pregnant now. I am the heaviest I have ever been in my life. I am going to be HUUUUGGGE.” I understand that extra weight and a changing body are a small price to pay for creating a whole new life, but at the time it felt like one more way my life was being taken from me.

Now here I am 8 months pregnant and it turns out that losing control has been one of the best things that’s ever happened for my relationship with my body. I have felt freedom from self-criticism and self-hatred for the first time since I was ten years old and became aware of my body as female and of all the expectations that go along with that.

Some pregnant women are filled with love and appreciation for what their bodies are capable of as they move through the stages of pregnancy. And yes, it is miraculous. But for the most part, I have not felt this way. Most of the time I feel this odd combination of being intensely aware of everything going on in my body while also feeling like a stranger in it. I feel every ache and pain and jab and stab acutely, and at the same time I have the sense that I am floating around inside of this vessel I do not recognize, just waiting to get my life back. While this distance from my body has been isolating in some ways, it’s been healing in others.

Let me be clear. I have not particularly enjoyed pregnancy. I do not feel beautiful, sexy, or powerful the way some women seem to feel during pregnancy. I don’t particularly likethe way I look pregnant and I definitely don’t like the way I feel. But I’m also not disgusted by my body the way I was pre-pregnancy. I just honestly don’t care.

For the first time in my life, what is happening to my body is really and truly beyond my control. I could eat organic kale for every meal and workout twice a day and I would still going to have this giant belly. Since there is nothing I can do to change what my body looks like right now, I have no brain space or energy to waste worrying about it.

My expectations of my pregnant body are so vastly different from what my expectations of my body have always been. As an adolescent growing up with the mixture of societal pressures and the targeted messages of purity culture, I was constantly aware of the wrongnessof my body. There was the shame of not being attractive enough, along with the shame of being inappropriately attractive. I felt the expectation to simultaneously figure out how to be thin, toned, feminine perfection, and to dress in way that protected helpless men from that thin, toned, feminine perfection.

As I got older, I stripped off some of the burdens of purity culture, but struggled as my weight fluctuated and my self-worth rose and fell with the expansion or shrinking of my thighs.

Now for the first time, my attractiveness is utterly irrelevant. I take up more space than ever before. People are hyper-aware of me and my body. And at the same time, I have never felt more invisible. I feel no expectation, from myself or from anyone else, to be attractive. My body is no longer an aesthetic object, it is pure function. I am an incubator. That’s all.

Of course, I don’t want to feel this way forever. I don’t want “mother” to become my identity. I don’t want to disappear. I want to walk down the street and have someone think (but maybe not say) “Daaaaayummmmn, girl!” But there are also things I hope I take with me from this time.

I hope my base level expectations of my body have permanently changed. Instead of valuing myself based on arbitrary measures of attractiveness, I hope my foremost expectation of my body is for it to be healthy and strong so that I can do everything I need to do. No more. No less.

I want to feel attractive again someday, but I hope that feeling is based on confidence and acceptance, not meeting an external expectation. I think it can be incredibly attractive for someone to say, “My body is just my body. I look how I look.” If I can accept without difficulty the fact that I have blue eyes and small hands, could I also accept whatever shape my body ends up being when this ride is over?

I don’t know what to expect or how things will change post-partum, but I’ll be sure to keep you updated.  Whatever the next part of the journey looks like, I kind of hope that I’ll continue to be fresh out of effs to give.

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Sex Talk: New Relevant Article and Some Better Ways to Talk about Sex

A few months ago, Relevant asked me if I would do a sort of follow-up article to the article I published back in June, one that specifically dealt with overcoming shame in your sex life. I admit, I felt oddly stumped by this. I didn’t want to offer generic advice that boiled down to a bunch of clichés like, “Let go and let God.” At the same time, I didn’t want to take my experience and make it a how-to list. I didn’t want to claim that anyone can find freedom from shame by following these 5 easy steps. In the end, all I could really say is, “This is what happened to me. I hope it’s helpful or encouraging in some way.” That article was published over at Relevant today.

When I write pieces that point to the places I think purity culture got it wrong, I inevitably get comments saying, “Ok, but how should we talk about sex?” That’s a fair question and one that I hope a lot of people who are smarter and more influential than I am will put a lot of thought and time into answering. I don’t have a complete answer, but I do have a few thoughts about it.

I’ve shared some of these thoughts in different articles and guest posts over the past few months, but I decided to streamline them here. If you’re tired of reading about sex and purity culture, I will understand if you give this one a pass. I’m kind of tired of it myself. 😉

I don’t think churches are going to stop teaching abstinence. I’m not trying to make an argument that churches should stop teaching abstinence. But if churches are going to teach purity and abstinence then one thing that needs to change is the language we use to talk about sex, especially with teenagers.

What We Should Stop Saying:

Purity culture is famous for its metaphors. Growing up I heard things like, “Don’t start the engine if you aren’t ready to drive the car” used to warn teenagers that any physical contact (including holding hands and kissing) was a slippery slope straight into the jaws of fornication. I also saw and heard many illustrations that compared a person (usually a girl) who lost their virginity to a stick of gum that had already been chewed, to a rose that has had all of its petals pulled off, to a toothbrush that a lot of people have used, or to a cup of water that a bunch of people have spit into.

These kinds of metaphors equate humans and human sexuality with objects. They carry connotations that have resonance far beyond their intended effect. If you are used to thinking of human sexuality as a machine – an engine that starts if you hit the right buttons – you are ignoring the complexity of human sexuality and are isolating it from its place in the framework of our humanity.  Before marriage it looks like this; “Don’t press this button or flip that switch or you’ll cause sex to happen.” After marriage it can look like this: “I pressed all the buttons and flipped all the right switches – I am expecting sex to happen.” And if it doesn’t happen, “What did I do wrong?” or worse, “What’s wrong with my partner that they aren’t responding the way they are supposed to?”

Human sexuality is complex and it can’t be (and shouldn’t be) separated from our emotional, mental, spiritual, or otherwise physical state. This kind of language enforces the idea that our sex drive is the thing that controls us, rather than teaching a biblical, holistic view of the person where all the aspects of our humanity are equally valued.

The second set of illustrations (the chewed gum, the stripped rose) carry the message that our primary value is in our sexuality, or more specifically in our virginity. They say that our worth is tied to one part of us – our sexual status. This a terrible way to talk about a human being. It creates the image that sexual sin is the unforgiveable one because you can’t get clean once you’re dirty. It also provides a strong connotation of sex being dirty. Sure these illustrations are meant to be about pre-marital sex, but it’s pretty hard to make that distinction when the thought of sex conjures up the image of a dirty toothbrush or a communal spit cup.

What We Could Say Instead:

I think churches should focus more on teaching wholeness. Youth pastors should teach about whole and healthy relationships instead of isolating sex as though it exists in a vacuum.

I have seen and heard many Christian leaders try to produce “purity” in teenagers by building fear. The message is often something along the lines of “If you take one step down this road, you will lose control and not be able to stop yourself.”

I have to wonder if this isn’t a little bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy with teenagers. If you are constantly being told (directly or indirectly) that you are incapable of making good decisions, eventually you will start to believe it.

This kind of language fails to look at the person (specifically the teenager) as a holistic being. This attitude ASSUMES that teenagers must be controlled by their sex drive above all else. It teaches them to set strong boundaries out of fear that they will lose control instead of teaching them that their sexuality can exist in healthy balance with the other parts of their humanity.

I wonder if instead of teaching teenagers that they need to set these boundaries because they CAN’T make good decisions, we honored them as whole human beings who possess a sex drive, but also will and intellect and emotions and, most importantly for Christians, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit which gives us the power to make right choices. Teenagers (and adults!) are still growing in their ability to handle all of these things. Even as adults we need healthy boundaries around any activities that we may go overboard with and that would cause one aspect of our humanity to be out of balance with the others. Setting boundaries is a way that we help ourselves to grow in wholeness.

So instead of looking at it through the lens of “These are the things I’m not going to do because I am afraid I’ll lose control” I think it would be far more powerful to choose what you ARE going to do and why you are going to do it. “I’m going to set boundaries that help me make wise choices so that I can grow as a WHOLE and complete person.”

With this kind of attitude, the boundaries you set are not just about controlling or suppressing sexuality. They are about engaging your mind and your will, creating opportunities to listen to the Holy Spirit and to grow in your ability to consistently make good decisions. Boundaries are not about restricting you because you are out of control. Boundaries are about creating opportunity for you to make the good decisions that you ARE capable of making.

Sex and the Church – So Scandalous: Guest Post on Same-Sex Attraction

I am so honored to share this story with you today. I admit that I wasn’t thinking about homosexuality when I first started thinking and writing about sex, Christianity, purity culture, and the evangelical church. Not because I didn’t think it mattered, but because my subconscious didn’t associate it with these other questions about sexuality and how churches talked about it with youth and adults. When I heard this story, I realized that I was part of this system. That I was someone who failed to even consider same-sex attraction and homosexuality as part of the conversation.

Looking back on my church experience growing up I can honestly say that in all of the many, many purity talks and True Love Waits banquets I attended I never once heard anyone address the fact that some people might not be fighting heterosexual lust. I never once heard anyone admit that it was possible that sexual struggles could transcend the question of whether or not to have premarital heterosexual sex.

The writer of this piece has asked to remain anonymous simply because she hasn’t had an opportunity to share these things with all of her friends and family members and wants to be able to have those conversations in person. I am amazed by her courage in sharing this story –particularly because she speaks from a place that almost everyone stands against.  Both the conservatives who want to pretend this isn’t an issue and the more liberal (Christians and non-Christians alike) who believe people should fully embrace their sexuality, no matter what it looks like.

If you have some encouragement to share, the writer will see the comments here. I know that you all have various opinions and beliefs about homosexuality – whether it’s right or wrong or anyone’s business in the first place. If you want to have those debates, there are lots of other places you can do that, but I do ask that you don’t do that here. Feel free to comment if this story impacted you in some way –I have wonderful readers and I trust that your comments will be kind even if you hold a different opinion from the writer’s.

If you missed the other parts of this series you can read them here, here, here, here, and here.

*****

True Love Waits

I am a twenty-something single woman.  I grew up attending a southern Baptist church with my parents and my siblings. When I was 7 years old, I came to know Christ as my Lord and Savior.

I have a long history of sexual confusion that dates back to the fourth or fifth grade when I kissed my best friend at the time. Passionately. After kissing her, I felt extremely guilty like I had committed some terrible sin. I cried for days and told her “We can’t do that anymore, I think God doesn’t like it”.  I tried talking to my mom about it.  But when I told her, Mom just said “as long as you guys aren’t doing it anymore, it’s okay”.

Really? Was it? How did she know? Was I normal? I wish she had sat down with me and asked me WHY I had done that. Maybe explained to me WHY it wasn’t okay. I never knew why. I just knew it was “wrong” and it made me feel guilty.

Unfortunately, this became a cycle in my childhood. The following year I had a different best friend and we did the exact same thing. I didn’t know why I kept doing it if it was wrong. But I also didn’t understand why it was wrong in the first place. I felt like something was wrong with me.

***

That wasn’t the first time I’d tried talking to my mom about sexuality.

Me: “Mom what is sex? What does sexy mean? I heard it on Happy Days”. My best friend and I both thought that if the word was “sex-y” then root word had to be “sex”.

Mom: “I have a book about it in my closet somewhere. We will talk about it later”.

But later never came. That was third grade. We never talked about it again.

Instead, on the ride home from a long road trip, my cousin took out a notebook and drew pictures for me of the male and female body and explained to me what her mom had explained to her.

I finally understood. Sort of.

I went back to school eager to share my new-found knowledge with my best friend. “Hey Amanda, I know! I know what it means!” I yelled up to her from the ground as she climbed the monkey bars. She looked down at me and curtly said to stop talking about it, because she knew what it meant too.

We were never friends again. The shame I felt was endless.

These experiences early-on taught me that sex was something to be ashamed of. After all, the mere knowledge of it had cost me a friendship.

***

In the 6th grade I read a purity book with a friend. The author explained that if you had “experimented” with friends in the past, it was just an experiment. It didn’t mean anything. Despite what the book said, I felt different about my experience. I hadn’t even known about sex when I had first started this pattern of kissing my friends, but I still wasn’t sure that this wasn’t something more.

We never talked about it at home and the only thing my church really taught me about sex was “True Love Waits.” Apparently that was the thing to do. When I was in the 7th grade everyone my age was so excited to pick out his or her purity ring, have the ceremony, sign the card, keep it forever, and one day give it to their future spouse.

For weeks leading up to the commitment ceremony we heard lectures about how to maintain purity, how to keep your distance from the opposite sex, and what you can and can’t do with your boyfriend/girlfriend. I remember a boy raising his hand and asking in the middle of our group gathering, “Is masturbation okay?” The entire group silenced to a stunned hush. A few giggles scattered throughout the youth group. We were embarrassed for him.

Even here at church in a class about sex, there were questions we were supposed to know better than to ask. There were words and thoughts that were off-limits entirely. He had said a bad word and that was wrong.

In a private girls-only session, I also asked the wrong question. One girl raised her hand “I know we shouldn’t sleep with our boyfriends, but can we at least lay down with them?” I remember thinking Why would that even be a problem? Why would you want to have sex if you don’t want to have babies? That question came flying out of my mouth and the older kids looked at me like I was hilarious.

No one even answered me and I just didn’t get it. I felt so different.

***

Around the same time as the True Love Waits Commitment at church, we had the “sex talk” at my private Christian school. We learned abstinence again. “Just don’t do it.” But when the main teacher left the room to take a call, the assistant teacher looked around and pulled out a banana. “I know you girls are doing it anyways,” she said, “I’m not stupid, so I will show you how to use a condom.” And there, in the room, she pulled out a condom and placed it on the banana.

Girls giggled around the room, but I just felt embarrassed. Humiliated. It was becoming more and more obvious how different I was from the rest of them. Sex was something for marriage. Between a man and a woman. I believed that with my whole heart. Was I the only one who intended to keep that commitment?

***
When we were 16  my best friend got her first boyfriend. She stopped calling and hanging out with me. I sat in the car and cried to my mom, “Why can’t we still be friends even though she’s dating him?” My mom replied “She can do things with him that she can’t do with you. She can kiss him” She chuckled.

In the back of my mind, I cried, She can kiss me too!  I instantly felt shame. I caught myself in mid-thought, willing myself to NOT say it. Although it had been a long time since those elementary school kisses, those feelings had never entirely gone away. I believed I was wrong, but I still didn’t know why. And I couldn’t ask anyone. I just didn’t feel safe.

***

At the ripe age of 18 I finally got my first boyfriend. My past of kissing best friends and girls was completely behind me and I thought I had finally moved on to how I was supposed to function. I finally felt normal.

But in my relationship with this guy, I felt so uncomfortable. I was constantly being reminded by all my friends and mentors from church to “keep my distance,” not to get too physical. They explained that as a girl, it was my job to set the boundaries in the relationship, because boys can’t control themselves. I felt afraid and anxious and uncomfortable being with him.

There was so much pressure and stress and fear and shame. When I went to college we broke up.

***

Then college happened. You know what I mean, don’t you? The world of academia, the world of independent thought and constant combative skepticism that takes hold of you. I took a Bible class that left me spinning with confusion about God’s Word and His truth. The first day I entered the classroom, the professor stood in front of class, “This” he said holding up the precious scriptures I had clung to my entire life, “has many errors in it.” He let the Bible drop to the ground. I watched it fall as the slap it made against the floor echoed through the room. It rocked my world.

Needless to say by the end of that semester, I no longer believed the Bible. Intellectually, I couldn’t trust it. I didn’t know if I could trust God. I became lost and confused.

Meanwhile, I discovered alcohol, which allowed me to let loose. I drank and partied and yes, I kissed people.

Girls. Only girls. I was still uncomfortable with men. The messages I had been taught growing up were seared into my brain, and they had left me confused. It felt wrong to be with men. They couldn’t control themselves and it wasn’t safe. I knew it was wrong to be with girls too, but every time I had asked why, no one could explain it to me. “It’s just wrong,” they said. “God says so.”  I was afraid to bring it up anymore.

It wasn’t long before I identified as lesbian and started dating. I struggled heavily and wrestled with this identity for nearly two years. During that time I dated a girl for 10 months. We were sexually involved. I remember feeling sick the first time. On my way to church the next morning I pulled over and vomited. I hated myself. I felt ashamed. I knew it was wrong, but I didn’t know why and I felt like I was the only Christian in the world who was experiencing this. I felt too ashamed to talk.

Still, I attended church. I just kept it all inside. This came naturally to me. I grew up attending a Christian school and showing up for church every Sunday and Wednesday. I was told that you don’t leave your dirty laundry out. You don’t wave it around. You don’t tell people about your broken bits. You don’t talk about personal things.

My sister got drunk on Saturday night? We don’t talk about it. Even though we believe drinking is wrong.

My brother punched a hole in the door? No one mentions it. Even though it makes me afraid.

My Uncle got caught doing drugs? Don’t tell anyone. It’s no one’s business.

The message I’d received my whole life was this; “Ignore it and keep going to church. As long as you go to church, you’re doing okay.” So I kept going to church.

I was so confused. Sexually. Emotionally. Mentally. Spiritually. I felt like I was being beat up every Sunday when I showed up to church. My girlfriend looked at me one Sunday morning and said, “Don’t go, babe. It ruins you.”

But she was wrong. It saved me.

My church friends eventually found out. Living a double life caught up with me, I guess. They approached me. Slowly, over a period of 6 months, they met with me… and Christ worked in me, despite my rejection of Him.

The last meeting we had was a surprise “come to Jesus” meeting. “This is the last meeting we’re having with you, but we love you.” They said, “We will be here to walk you through this when you come back to Him.”

That night when I got in my car I surrendered to Jesus. I broke up with my girlfriend later that week. After we broke up, I lay on the floor sobbing “WHY?” and listening  to the relentless rhythm of my cries echoing down the dorm hallway. I felt so broken and so angry.

And I came back to church….

Three years have passed since that time. It has been the most painful, honest, broken, excruciating three years of my life; yet for the first time, I have had open, honest, and loving communication with my church family about Sex and Marriage. About Shame and Sin and Trust. I feel open and honest. And my shame diminishes every time I face the King.

I’ve finally been able to ask the questions I’ve wanted answers to. I’ve learned why same-sex relationships are wrong. I have been mentored closely and I’ve had to let God change my thinking. How God made me to follow Him and why He desires purity from me are still hard things to accept sometimes.

My church family, my sisters in Christ, have formed a shield of safety around me. They have walked with me arm in arm through my questions, through my temptations, through my anger, and through my unbelief. There hasn’t been anything that I am not allowed to ask them. They’ve told me in love when I’m wrong and in love they’ve led me to His cross. They’ve helped me learn what it means to take my thoughts captive. They’ve walked with me and helped point out the lies that I’d believed for so long about sex, about marriage, and about men.

I’ve let Christ into the core of my being. He is reshaping my sexuality for me. I’m no longer defined by whom I’m attracted to because He has given me a new heart and a new identity.

I’m His child.

He is my father.

He is faithful. He is true, as is His word….And He loves me.

I can’t get over it.

I can’t get over His grace.

So scandalous.

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You can read the previous two posts in this series HERE and HERE. If  you would like to contribute to this series, you can email me at lily.e.dunn at gmail.com.

Lies About Sex Part IV: Married Sex = Guilt-Free Sex

It’s time for the final part of my Lies About Sex series hosted by Brett Fish Anderson over at Irresistibly Fish. In this final installment I talk about the difficulty of trying to transition from a guilt-based pre-marital view of sex to a free-and-unashamed married experience of  sex and the huge disconnect between those two thing.

“Waiting, in and of itself doesn’t cause any of this. The problem is this huge gap between how we talk to teenagers and young adults about sex, purity, and abstinence and the expectations we put on marital sex. My husband’s and my difficulties in our sexual relationship stemmed largely from taking what we’d been taught about sex as teenagers and trying to apply it to a marriage.” 

You can read the rest of the post HERE and if you missed any of the previous posts, you can find those there as well.

Big thanks again to Brett for so graciously hosting me and letting me spin my wheels a little bit and for all who have contributed to the discussion.

Image credit: weddingsandwhatnot.com

Image credit: weddingsandwhatnot.com

Lies About Sex Part III: Sex is for Boys

Head over to Irresistibly Fish, my friend Brett “Fish” Anderson’s blog, for part three of four in my guest series on lies about sex. In this part I tackle that constant, subtle implication that sex is a distinctly masculine interest and concern.

“Without a model for how to be a woman who can embrace her sexuality even while setting boundaries, young women are faced with two options: admit to having sexual curiosities and interests and be seen as “slutty” or build up fear to protect ourselves from it. Many Christian communities are lacking a model for how to live purely without rejecting or denying our sexuality.”

Read the rest of the post HERE.

Image from: www.elsevier.com from a presentation by Dr. Ute Habel

Image from: http://www.elsevier.com from a presentation given by Dr. Ute Habel