Earlier this spring, a friend of mine posted this picture of me in this post as a part of a mini series called Do Not Edit. This post is one I wrote a few weeks after that photo shoot in response to the powerful experience that it was.
My friend Sarah Pagano is an amazing photographer who approached me and some other ladies about joining this photo shoot project she wanted to capture called Do Not Edit.
Do Not Edit purposed to capture true beauty.
She asked us all to think of our insecurities about our own appearance, instances where people had told us we were not enough or didn’t measure up to society’s standard of beauty. She also asked us to pin point areas of our body that perhaps did not measure up either, but we had learned to appreciate because of how it marked our own stories. This could be anything from a scar to a beauty mark. The day of the photo shoot she took us all to this field and park near a local river, and took us out one by one to hear our stories and try to capture the essence of beauty—in our story, our struggle, our journey. It was a beautiful experience. It was a chance to uplift women around us as we shared our stories and be uplifted ourselves. It was inspiring.
When Sarah posted my story and pictures awhile later, my heart caught in my throat as I read her words that bared my soul.
In her post she wrote that the song “Roar” by Katy Perry inspired her, when sharing my story. What she didn’t know is that my sister Kelci had sent that song to me about a month earlier, and ever since then I had been listening to it over and over often with tears running down my face.
It tells the story of believing the lies and realizing the truth. The story of fear, timidity, and purposeless overcome by identity and confidence. The story of being used and learning to take a stand.
These stories runs deep for many of us—they certainly do in mine. As Sarah references, my view of beauty was first tainted by the belief that my body and natural beauty was a curse. As a child, teenager, and young woman, life had taught me to believe that any unwanted male attention was somehow my fault, even if I did nothing but exist. Modesty was the art of hiding oneself, so nothing you wore ever attracted the wrong attention. If a man looked at you and lusted, you had obviously failed to dress appropriately and therefore had caused him to stumble.
Some may ask, what one person told me this? Who was to blame for such a crippling belief? For me, it wasn’t any one person. It was a community, it was a collection of well meaning Christian teachings I encountered throughout my childhood and teenage years from my church, from youth group experiences, from Christian conferences, from books I read, from Christian girl magazines, from other girls surrounding me that believed it just as much. Some may recall this as Christian Purity Culture. Some may recall True Love Waits rings and t-shirts. Some may remember alter calls where teenager’s promised their virginity to God and the church publicly. The funny thing is, I grew up in a group who judged those Christian kids. Our group was even stricter. Purity wasn’t something we wore on a ring or a t-shirt. Purity was a standard true Christian girls and women never failed. Our appearance, our clothes, our words, our actions, our behavior — nothing was to ever give any man any reason to look at us with desire.
Recently I was telling my husband about this meter we used growing up when shopping and dressing – we called it the “eye catch.” This entailed analyzing every piece of clothing we wore to see if it had any way of “catching a man’s eye” to cause him to look at you with lust. Various girls I grew up with interpreted this from moderation to extreme. So an eye catch could be anything from clothing that was too tight, any type of pants for the shape they revealed, a slit in a skirt, a stripe or design across the front of a shirt, a v-neck, a tank top for the skin it revealed, and the list never ended. The sad thing is, I look back on my childhood where me and many of my friends dressed as modestly as we possibly could, and yet as much as we hoped our dress protected us and honored the men in our lives – it did not prevent or protect us from experiencing exactly what we feared. Whether it was lust, harrassment, being objectified, or abused—many of us still experienced it just the same. I know I did.
I remember when I was sixteen, it was the middle of summer in Texas, and so what did we do most hot afternoons? Swim and spend as much time in our backyard pool, as mom would allow us. That same year, our house was in the process of being renovated, so we had several construction crews at the house every day. I remember one night where my dad came to me and told me I would no longer be able to swim during the day, when the construction crews were there. When I asked him why, he told me that earlier that day when I had been out working on vacuuming the pool before swimming that it was reported to him that men on the crews were on the roof watching me and saying inappropriate things about me. My dad, who of course wanted to protect me, felt it was best to remove me from the situation entirely. Looking back, I remember being so hurt and confused. You see, what I wore to swim in was consistent with strict modesty standards, which meant a modest swimsuit that was covered by both a skirt and a bulky t-shirt. I thought I was covered. I thought I was modest. What had I done? I also remember feeling ashamed that day, as I remember there was a boy working on the crew that I had a crush on. I remembered wishing he saw me in my modest swim attire and would think I was beautiful. However instead this experience further convinced me that a man could never look at me and think I was beautiful without lusting.
In my shame and naivety, I blamed myself for the men’s behavior.
My feelings for this boy and my desire to be seen as beautiful must have been impure and subsequently opened the door for these men to behave that way. The cycle of self-blame only deepened.
This was only one instance, and I do not intend to for it to be looked at as anything more or less than it was. This was only one of many encounters I had with lust and sexual harassment throughout my childhood. I am fortunate that mine did not result in any physical harm. Others who I love dearly have not been so fortunate, so I would never want to minimize the pain they have suffered.
I also want every person out there to know, that no instance of manipulation, guilt, harassment, abuse or assault, whether it be sexual, verbal, mental, physical, or spiritual is excusable.
When a person makes a choice to treat another person with degradation of any kind or measure – it is that person’s choice alone and never the victim’s fault. No instance should be made light of, and no person should be made to feel that they are to blame or need to get over it. No matter how big or small – each encounter in our lives compiles a message that we believe. Each message of shame we receive and hide away—builds a web of insecurity, lies, fear, and self-hatred.
This is truth not only for us as women, but for men as well.
For every time a girl believes that men’s choices are her fault, she deems men sexual animals without control or responsibility for their choices. Thus for every man out there who chooses to view women with respect and treat them with love, honor, and dignity – he will be forever crippled in the minds of women as doomed to fail – because after all he is a man. Just think of the messages that mindset sends. In my world it was all too common.
I was told on more than one occasion:
That’s what men do.
Men are visual. They can’t help themselves.
Men are sexual beings and that’s all they ever think about.
These mindsets are crippling for everyone involved. It cements women into being helpless victims and men into mindless animals. It makes women ashamed for their own natural sex drive.
In truth, we always have a choice, as humans, to see the image of God in someone and treat them with the dignity they deserve for that element alone.
What if we did this?
What if we chose to view others and ourselves as made in the image of God, no matter their actions or choices. How would that change our actions and choices?
What if we viewed women as people and not objects?
What if we viewed men as people and not animals?
What if we, as women, celebrated each other’s beauty instead of comparing ourselves and making ourselves feel better when we measure up better than someone else.
What if we, as men challenged ourselves to view women and other men with honor and not as an object or someone who needs to be taken down a notch?
What if we brought to light our stories of shame and removed their power in the light of forgiveness, acceptance, and grace?
What if we amplified the voice of victims around the world, by sharing our own untold stories?
What if I learned to accept and love myself, so I can accept and wholly love those around me?
What if I learned to forgive others and myself in the wounds of my past, versus holding on to it as a weapon and badge to be worn?
What if I am able to encourage or help someone else, who is fighting the same fears, insecurity, lies, and shame?
What if I ROAR?