In the grocery store checkout line in suburban Orange County, Calif., my mom looked at me and said, “watermelon.”
It was our code word for “stand up straight.” I was a preteen, taller than all my friends, and was constantly slouching. The reminder was so constant my mom decided a code word would make it less embarrassing to hear in public.
Each time I would heed my mom’s advice and stand up straight, I would instinctively look down at my chest, where my breasts were just beginning to take shape.
When I got my first bra, a dark grey sports bra from Target, I was so excited that I wanted to wear it all the time, even while sleeping, until I found out that wasn’t the point. Bras weren’t worn for comfort, but to make breasts fit a standard shape. And around the same time I was discovering my body, I began hearing darker messages.
“As Christian girls, we have to dress modestly,” I was told at church. Wearing revealing clothing could cause the boys to lust, which was a sin.
My mom had a few rules as well: shirts had to overlap with pants by two inches, and tops could not be skin-tight. No matter that this was around the year 2000 — just as low-rise jeans were coming in style. To make things more difficult, I had a long torso, which meant even shirts not designed to be crop tops fell short on me.
Subconsciously, I’d come to realize later, I felt conflicted. Standing up straight showed off my feminine figure, but I feared my shape would attract attention from the boys, or worse, appear that I was trying to attract their attention — both of which my church taught me, were evil.
At 26, I rejected my church’s main teaching on sex ethics of abstinence until marriage. But the internalized lessons on modesty stuck with me.
The body parts I find most attractive about myself continue to be the hardest for me to show off.
I finally found a strapless bra that worked under a dress I’d owned for years, only to wear a sweater over the dress throughout a wedding, concerned I was showing too much cleavage.
I’ve owned a number of very short dresses I hesitate to wear, especially with heels, worried I’m bringing too much attention to my long legs.
Some of these feelings can be attributed to the universal human experience of being self-conscious, but for me, being self-conscious specifically about my body’s capability to provoke desire was learned.
When I receive compliments from men on how I look, I have to remind myself I’m not somehow causing them harm.
While my personal style continues to morph as I gain confidence in expressing myself through what I wear, my parents have also grown to being parents of an adult rather than an adolescent. When I’m visiting home, they don’t ask for my whereabouts by the hour, and they don’t tell me something I’m wearing is inappropriate.
I know the rules they imposed were made out of good intentions, the desire to protect their child. At the same time, I recognize the harmful effects, but respect my parents’ decisions even as I disagree with them. Every parent must make a million difficult decisions every day and I have compassion for that, although I know I’ll make different decisions with my own children.
If I could speak to my teenage self, I’d remind her that she is a sexual being and the desires to be admired for physical attributes as well as internal ones is healthy and good. When you take part in a community, whether it’s a family or church group, sometimes you have to respect the group norms. Other times, when those expectations are unhealthy, you remove yourself from the situation and find a new community.
My second tip for anyone in a similar situation would be to take things one step at a time. You might reject your former beliefs on modesty, but it can still feel awkward to wear an awesome outfit, sort of like saying a swear word for the first time. Think of it as a practice, maybe breaking a new modesty rule each week, each time letting the associated shame melt away. Your true self will start to emerge.
This past Halloween, I dressed in exactly the costume I wanted to: Alison Brie’s character in The Netflix series Glow. I wore a sparkly turquoise leotard with red fishnet gloves and dark purple lipstick, out on the streets of Brooklyn, inside a deli so my friend could stop at the ATM, and then out to two bars before heading back home.
I challenged myself to step outside my comfort zone with the costume as an experiment. I wanted to see if I could bring back the joy I felt in my developing body when I was younger, before I was taught to see my body as inherently problematic.
It was uncomfortable. I expected at any moment someone would tell me I was showing too much skin. Nobody did. Instead, I got a few compliments on the costume, including one on social media from a former fellow churchgoer.
Dani Fankhauser is the author of Shameless: How I Lost My Virginity and Kept My Faith. Her writing has appeared on Fortune, The Billfold, Mashable, PopSugar, and NY Mag‘s The Cut.