How both systems teach us that we exist for other people’s enjoyment.
This week I had the opportunity to have Stress Resilience Coach (and my dear friend) Annette Papa on my podcast, to talk about her experience of growing up in the traumatic cult of purity culture, and how that impacted her relationship to her body and herself– and I can’t stop thinking about it.
If you’re not familiar with this term yet, “purity culture” is a subculture of evangelical Christian culture that emphasizes the importance of “purity,” especially for women, through total sexual abstinence, modesty, and strict gender roles and norms.
Purity culture recovery coach (and author of the book Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free) Linda Kay Klein explains that in purity culture, women are taught that they’re “responsible for the sexual thoughts, feelings and choices men make, and so must dress, walk and talk in just the right way so as not to “inspire” sexual thoughts, feelings, and actions in them.”
What’s stuck with me about our conversation is that while I personally didn’t grow up with religion (and my parents were actually very progressive and sex-positive in that area), Annette and I ended up needing to do a lot of the same exact healing work in adulthood to access body trust, body neutrality, and self-acceptance.
I find this fascinating, because while I grew up in a conservative town upstate NY—and was therefore vaguely familiar with the teachings of purity culture through my religious friends—my own upbringing existed pretty damn far outside of it.
My parents taught me that sex was something healthy, natural, and beautiful, not a source of shame, fear, or sin. I knew how it all worked from a young age, including all the body parts involved, how people get pregnant, and that adults do it for pleasure and connection, not just to have a baby. Even as a child, it struck me as ridiculous that people would wait until marriage to “give the gift of virginity” to their partner with God’s approval— I think I knew by that point already that I wanted to have lots of interesting sex with lots of different people!
I never even really felt shame about that, except for occasionally, when I would talk to my friends in middle school or high school, and they met my desires or experiences with confusion, horror, disgust, or judgment. But even then, I didn’t feel shame about the things I wanted or did, I just felt that painful stab of being different, and not belonging.
So how, then, did I have to go through all the same stages of healing work that Annette, who was so deeply committed to the church that she saved herself for marriage at 27, did?
This is the interesting part.
Essentially, I learned all the same things that Annette learned through purity culture, via the sexualization and objectification of women, diet culture, and beauty ideals. It wasn’t through a lens of sin and purity, of course, but being conditioned as a girl under Patriarchy taught me that I was responsible for the sexual thoughts, feelings and choices men make.
From the first time I experienced sexual abuse at seven years old, I learned that my body was dangerous, because it had the power to “make” an otherwise good guy do things that he knew he shouldn’t do, and that there was something about who I was as a person that made people want to violate me.
Through a long string of sexual harassment, coercion, and trauma as I got older, I learned that my body and sexuality didn’t really exist for me, but rather for other people (read: men) to exploit and enjoy, and that I was obligated to make myself look as attractive as possible for them at all times.
I also learned that the only real thing I had of value to offer the world– or rather, that my only source of power, safety, and connection– came from my ability to please, arouse, and gratify the desires of men.
Is it any wonder that I came to regard my body as both a dangerous liability that I needed to control and repress, and a precious resource I needed to constantly be working to improve for others to enjoy?
Magazine articles about how to change my body and personality to “be what men want,” marketing and media that objectified women, and representation of women in the world continued to deepen these messages, reinforcing that:
Who I am as a person— my thoughts, feelings, needs, and desires— are at best unwelcome, and at worst a shameful problem that needs to be “fixed” or hidden, a moral failing, or proof that I was unworthy and unlovable.
All signals from my body (including my feelings, needs, desires, and intuition) were wrong, bad, dangerous, and untrustworthy.
How I looked was the most interesting and important thing about me, and that I needed to be as thin and attractive as possible at all times, or something bad would happen.
I had no innate value, outside of my ability to provide men with a positive experience of looking at or being with me.
All of this conditioning led me to disconnect completely from my body, my feelings, and my innermost truths. I wanted to become what other people (men) wanted or expected me to be, and all that stuff just got in the way.
Do you hear how all this conditioning led me to a similar place as purity culture?
I learned that my body and sexuality were inherently dangerous and sinful, and that it was my responsibility to both prevent men from doing bad things, and to do and be whatever they wanted… not because the church said so, but because of my experiences with men and patriarchy.
I learned to distrust, ignore, reject, and disconnect from the signals my body sent me… not to avoid sex, but to avoid gaining weight, disappointing people, coming off as “too needy” or “too emotional,” being a burden, and being abandoned.
I learned to ignore, repress, and disconnect from my innermost self, intuitive wisdom, and authentic truth… not in an effort to stay “pure,” but in an effort to stay safe, maintain my social status, and get my needs met.
I learned that self-control, and control over my body, was mandatory, and that the only way to be “good” was to follow a long list of external rules… not about how to get into heaven, but about how to look, dress, eat, exercise, and behave so that men approved of me.
Ultimately, my conditioning kept me from a lot of the same things purity culture kept Annette from (and which we both had to do a shit-ton of healing around later) like:
Accessing pleasure and joy.
Connecting with, listening to, and working with the signals and wisdom of our bodies.
Trusting and taking action on our deepest needs and desires.
Feeling innately worthy as a person.
Connecting to, exploring, accepting, and expressing our authentic selves.
Both systems of oppression made us easier to control. Both systems kept us from tapping into our authentic power and taking up space in the world. And both disconnected us from the exact things a person needs to truly thrive.
This is why so much of my work with clients is focused on restoring their access to these things, why embodiment is such a powerful tool for liberation, and also why body neutrality work is so similar to liberation work across all systems of oppression and control, from purity culture to white supremacy, patriarchy to capitalism, ableism to transphobia.
It’s also why my podcast is called This Is (Not) About Your Body: because body image issues are never just about how you look, and I wanted a platform to explore all the real issues impacting and underpinning them.
And as always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
What “cult” are you recovering from, on your body neutrality journey? And which of the above story beats apply to you?