On bare bodies: memories of womanhood within Evangelical Christian culture
By Gloria Beth Amodeo
At the age of fifteen, before I converted to Evangelical Christianity, I went to my first under twenty-one nightclub. There I learned that men could touch me without my permission.
I lied to my parents and said I was going to a birthday party, wearing a heavy jacket over a pink halter top as I ran out the door. My friend decked me out at her place before we left—hair up, thick eyeliner, fake lashes, glitter.
My goal was simple: dance with a guy and kiss him. I had never had a boyfriend, but a curiosity was growing. I wanted to make-out with someone, to see if I would like it. Would another person find me attractive enough to kiss back?
When we arrived, we saw a line of men against a wall. They swayed as the music boomed. We walked past them and I felt a squeeze on my butt—and then another and another. The whole line grabbed and painfully pinched my backside. I had come there to be physical, to dance with and kiss a stranger, but what I received was out of range of what I thought men would do.
I tried to make sense of it by blaming my outfit. My back was exposed, so I looked too inviting. I was wearing tight pants and that’s why they touched. It was a new thought—that my clothes could be magnetic, that I could encourage an action towards my body that I had not welcomed with words.
Four years later, I entered Evangelical Christianity. Part of me joined the church because I never wanted to have another experience like that again. I didn’t want to worry about being touched without permission, about men coming up from behind me and rubbing against my body. I wanted a respectable womanhood, to be seen as a person, to be cared for by anyone who would want to be my lover.
I worried that sex in the wrong context would take my humanity away. Evangelical Christianity promised a context in which, if I played by its rules, that would never happen.
In the church, I learned that as a woman, God had given me a specific role in his kingdom. I could not be a pastor and teach men about the gospel, and it was frowned upon to romantically pursue men. That was their role.
I learned about modesty and its aim of protecting our “brothers” in Christ, who were “visual creatures” by nature. Jesus said that, “everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” (Matthew 5:28), so we were tasked with helping our Christian brothers avoid that at all costs.
We paid close attention to every aspect of our bodies—how we dressed, how we stood, how we sat, how we moved. If we administered hugs from the side, instead of from the front, we could avoid our breasts pressing up against their chests. If we wore one-piece bathing suits instead of bikinis, we could avoid their eyes drifting towards our exposed skin.
I was scared into tucking my bra straps under the shoulders of my top, and I was terrified into wearing two shirts at a time to avoid translucence or cleavage. If I didn’t, I risked men looking at me with lust—and how would their wives feel? How would their future wives feel?
Back then, it felt like protection from the world outside of Christianity—a world I feared enough to carry that burden. I concluded that men couldn’t help but objectify women, and the only way to avoid it was to walk in God’s way.
The memory of it now translates as blame for my body, as a damaging, sexist consequence for having breasts, a vagina, and curves.
God’s way came with confusion. It started when I was taught God’s rules for marriage. I had to submit to my husband because Paul says in Ephesians 5:22-23, “For the husband is head of the wife even as Christ is head of the church.”
I was bothered by how distinctly unequal it sounded. I told my mentor I didn’t want to submit and felt angry that God would demand it. She explained that submission didn’t mean inequality. Our relationship would reflect the care that Christ bestowed upon the church. The man played the role of Christ and would act as the loving head of our household.
She promised that it wasn’t so bad. She was married and knew from experience. “He doesn’t make me do anything I don’t want. He just makes the final decision.”
I swallowed my anger and tried my best to accept it. It was more important to be safe and respected than it was to believe in my understanding of equality. Still, I would express my frustration to other Christians, to my mentors and friends.
In return, they asked if I hated men.
As women, we weren’t considered “visual creatures” like men. Our sin was over-fantasizing our weddings and future families. I was certainly imaginative and day-dreamt a future of my own, but the fantasies were growing sexual—graphic, in fact, concerning my Italian teacher.
The desire for intimacy simmered as I waited for a safe context. My fantasies went wild as my sex-drive rose, and I found myself staring at shirtless men. My mental purity felt compromised—was I visual, like a man? Or was it a double-standard to assume that women weren’t also aroused by bare bodies, that we dreamt of being wives but not also lovers?
My confusion grew when I applied for a ten-week missions trip, involving an exhaustive questionnaire and interview that pried into my sexual history. I had been honest about my state of inexperience—virginity that hadn’t extended past masturbation and pornography. I was trying to quit both but having a hard time.
The interview happened in the back of a school, sitting on a stone wall, cell phone pressed to my ear. The woman prayed, and the questions began. When it switched to my sexual history, I grew uncomfortable. Admitting I had masturbated frightened and embarrassed me, but admitting I watched pornography made me feel like less of a woman.
“You’ll be sharing a room with two other women,” my interviewer said in response to my confessions. “You won’t be allowed to do that in front of them.”
It was then I felt dirty—wild, even dangerous. Was my sin animalistic, something that must be controlled? Could I be trusted not to openly masturbate in front of people, not to search pornography on my computer and watch it while they slept?
When I left Evangelical Christianity, modesty had become a habit—a gut instinct of paranoia that followed me each day. If I wore a V-neck that dipped an inch towards my cleavage, my instinct was to wear a tank top underneath. If it was 85 degrees and I wore an open-backed dress, I still wore a cardigan to cover the clasps of my bra.
I wasn’t sure how to stop suffering for a cause that I didn’t believe in anymore.
Since every sexual inclination I had was barricaded with fear and shame, romantic relationships in my life outside Evangelical Christianity were a challenge. When I began having sex, it was difficult to open physically. I was afraid that men who weren’t Christian would treat me like an object, but I felt treated like an object by Christian men anyway. I was an object they wanted to cover up.
The suffering extended past clothes, past sex, past the intimacy of knowing my identity as a woman. I left the church feeling that I wasn’t designed to win against sexism, against the leers and catcalls and threats to my safety. It would always be my fault that men did what they did. I would always have to protect myself by wearing certain clothing, by not walking on certain streets, by carrying keys between my knuckles.
In many ways, the world outside of Evangelical Christianity didn’t feel much different. The moral center was built upon the shoulders of a chauvinistic society that lived outside its walls. The demand for modesty, the shame for expressing sexual inclination, ultimately robbed me of a sexual identity.
I couldn’t have it all. As a woman, I couldn’t be safe and sexual at once.
I have since learned that my womanhood rests in my own sense of morality, one manufactured through a life on both sides. It evolves as I discover hidden mental wounds and sensitivities born from guilt imposed upon me.
But relief comes when I wake up every day and remember what I am and have always been. I’m a fantastical, visual creature, aroused by possibilities and the barest of bodies. I’m a pastor of a church of apostates, where gender roles don’t apply.