(Otherwise titled: The Doctor Took my Virginity and I Didn’t Notice).
Last week, I wrote about my experience with purity culture and growing up in the Evangelical church in the 1990’s when saving yourself for marriage became not just morality but a commercial industry. I want to continue thinking about that today, but focus less on the metaphysical rules (this is how you should live) and the actual experience of having a body in this belief system.
As long as I’ve had memories, my knowledge of my body has been troubled. I didn’t need the church to tell me my body was dangerous. The heavy worry etched on my parent’s faces until I was eleven or twelve taught me a great deal about my body in the world. I spent a lot of time in emergency rooms as a child. By that ripe age of ten I’d had open heart surgery, an appendectomy I didn’t end up needing, and two procedures on my bladder. I had a body of scars that I didn’t want anyone to see.
By the time I reached puberty, I had been handled by so many strangers and internalized so many rules about how to make my body pretend to be normal, the possibility of dating, or hand holding, or kissing, anyone seemed invasive and full of even more uncertainty than the average kid my age felt about their budding sexuality. Purity culture and its rules were a relief. Being part of the church, I had this giant excuse not to reveal my body to anyone. On the rare occasion I wore a shirt that showed the scar on my chest, I covered it with makeup. I rarely wore skirts above my ankles, or if I did, I wore tights, so people wouldn’t see the deformed (low-muscle tone) legs.
Somehow, miraculously, I didn’t ever internalize ideas that I was less valuable. (Believe it or not, the church’s purity teaching, body is a temple, save it for marriage, etc., might’ve saved my self-esteem.) But I had a great fear of my body being rejected socially. My medical problems were a dark secret my mother swore me to keep. Even my younger brothers were not supposed to know the full extent of my problems. For instance, I can’t pee on my own. I remember going to a lake with friends in elementary school and kids making jokes about warm spots and someone pointing fun that maybe I’d peed in the lake. I was so embarrassed, not by the accusation, but because the truth that I couldn’t pee in the lake, might come out.
Swimsuits were also a great source of shame. I’d had three abdominal surgeries. Even though I was dangerously thin as a child, I had a tummy pudge from those procedures. (I wrote a story about it here for Everyday Fiction.) I thought swimsuits looked horrible on me. And every time I wore one, I thought people were staring at my stomach.
My freshman year of high school, I was supposed to have another abdominal procedure up at the Mayo Clinic. The doctor had promised he would ‘tuck in’ my pudge when he stitched me back up. That procedure was cancelled because it was deemed too risky. I often think about that unfulfilled offer to ‘tuck in’ my pudge and what life would’ve been like in high school and college not waiting for someone to ask, or point, or tell me to do more crunches.
In college, things got easier. Kids and their various prejudices scared me less. I met a lunch lady who had a scar down her chest from heart surgery just like I had a scar on my chest. I stopped putting makeup on my chest to hide the scar. When I did finally find someone I thought could handle my particular anatomy, we had sex, and I discovered that this virgin purity I’d supposedly been protecting wasn’t actually a thing in my body. My hymen had been already been broken, probably by a doctor during an operation, while I was unconscious on the table.
Church people would argue that virginity is more than an intact body part — its thoughts, and deeds, and controlled desires — but this seemed a fitting end to my striving to be someone I wasn’t, a pure woman, or a beautiful woman by the standards of the world. I was just me. To get to a place of ‘this is me’ is an accomplishment I take pride in. Along with the value of virginity, I have cast aside fears about my scars, about my funny-looking legs, and my tummy pudge. They’ve traveled with me for so long, I don’t think I’d be me without them.