By Kimberly Poovey
“I’ll take that one,” said the tanned, surfer-haired teenage boy. He sounded cocky. I shifted uncomfortably in my shorts and old navy T-shirt, all long legs and freckles and sunburn and salty red hair. I stood beside a few other friends, lined up against the wall in a crowded hotel lobby like we were in a beauty pageant. The boy nodded appraisingly at my blonde, leggy roommate as if she were a shiny new car. She went to him without a word, like he’d won her in an auction. He was disgusting. Yet my heart was just a little bit bruised that he hadn’t picked me.
We were at church summer camp in Daytona Beach. Basically a Jesus-sponsored excuse to engage in a week of minimally-supervised debauchery in a hotel. (No debauchery for me, though. I was way too much of a goody two-shoes for that.) Every day, the girls would pour from their hotel rooms like a flock of butterflies in a cloud of cucumber melon body spray. With their perfectly bronzed skin, blown-out hair, and glossed lips, clad in short-shorts and tube tops and strappy sandals, they were flawless, the very picture of youth. I was desperately jealous of them. I was six feet tall, pale, freckled, red-headed, curvy, and had no idea what to do with makeup or hair products.
I felt like an enormous ugly duckling in a pond full of dainty swans. And yet I still awkwardly primped and preened in front of that hotel mirror every day to make myself seem as desirable as possible. I borrowed straightening irons and scented body glitter and iridescent lip gloss in an attempt to compete for male attention with the fluttering beauties around me. This kind of desperate striving summed up much of my interaction with the opposite sex throughout middle and high school.
Fast forward to me as a young bride. Twenty years old, naïve, a poor college student, and eager to please my equally young and naïve husband. I was the poster child for purity culture (the good, the bad, and the ugly.) All the books I had read before marriage told me to always keep things “mysterious and sexy” for my new spouse, so I obtained a Victoria’s Secret credit card and mountains of flimsy lingerie. I would come home from class, put on tight-fitting cocktail dresses and red lipstick, and serve my husband dry pot roast dinners. (Which was just as ridiculous as it sounds, believe me.)
Imagine my surprise when I eventually learned (because I finally asked him) that my husband found me most sexy when I was comfortable. He was, and still is, most delighted by my appearance when I’m in pj’s and no makeup. It took me a while to figure this out (he was much too sweet to tell me to ditch the cocktail dresses), but once I did, I was floored. I didn’t have to primp or preen to get his attention. His attention was already mine, just as I was.
After college, I spent nearly a decade working in a highly conservative, religious office setting. At twenty-three years old, I waltzed in there wearing glittery flats, brightly colored clothes, and the starry-eyed optimism of youth. I spent my days working with at-risk teenagers, and I loved it. But soon, my boss sat me down for a lecture about how the bright colors I wore were inappropriate. He even yelled me for speaking to a news reporter during an outdoor community event because I was wearing yellow checkered sunglasses at the time. (Really.) Shape up or ship out was the message, and I heard it loud and clear. Tone it down. Don’t draw attention. Stop taking up so much space. I was young, and I needed the job, so I fell in line. I bought a bunch of black slacks and modest blouses and tried to divert attention away from my appearance as much as possible. I made myself small in an effort to avoid further conflict, but it didn’t sit right with me.
Now, in my thirties, I think I realize what my problem was for all these years: I was always concerning myself with the gaze of others, rather than my own. I longed for approval, and I twisted myself into knots trying to be seen as lovely and acceptable.
Purity culture taught me that my body was a stumbling block, a frighteningly powerful force of untamed sexuality that needed to be contained.
The boys of my youth told me that my body was lesser. Unsatisfactory. Not good enough.
My ministry colleagues told me that I was too much, and simultaneously, not enough.
But my Creator tells me that I am complete. I am whole. I am good enough. I am altogether lovely. I am a wonder. My body is nothing to be ashamed of. My body is worthy of celebration, just as it is.
I’ve decided that the gaze of others no longer matters to me, but that my own gaze matters quite a lot. Now, I dress for myself. I care for and nurture my body tenderly, as I would a beloved child. If I have a yen to dye my hair green, I do. I no longer feel like I have to hide or fit into a predetermined mold to be worthy. I am worthy—and imperfect, and beautiful. And that is enough.
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Kimberly Poovey is the founder of The Exvangelical Parent. She is a liberal misfit Enneagram 9 INFP who likes long walks on the beach, honey-habanero lattes, and Zoloft. After spending over a decade in the ministry world, she now writes and creates full time. She lives with her partner of 15 years and their 5-year-old son in the mountains of North Carolina.