Learning to Be Human: Purity Culture and the Lifelong Effects

This last week, I took a vacation out to the Black Hills. I stayed in a quaint hotel in the Northern part of the Hills, and challenged myself by driving the treacherous Needles Highway south and west of Mount Rushmore.

On Thursday night, I was relaxing in the hotel, preparing to go home, and drinking a mug of decaf coffee. I reached over to my mug and took a sip. Within seconds, I realized I’d swallowed wrong and was about to spit my coffee everywhere. I rolled out of bed and ran to the bathroom, where I barely made it to the sink before spitting out the entire mouthful of brown liquid into the sink. I looked up with horror to realize I hadn’t quite made it – the mirror was splattered was little brown dots from my coughs and gags.

“Oh no oh no oh no they’re going to think I’m disgusting,” I thought as I grabbed toilet paper and tissue and hurriedly cleaned the mirror. Never mind that it was an accident; never mind that it was easy to clean and in less than a minute all trace of my sputum was gone. I felt ashamed that I’d even briefly messed up the room I was paying to live in.

As I thought about this incident – the entirety of which last less than two minutes – I realized that part of my anxiety and my shame around the issue was that I was struggling with being seen as a human.

For nearly as long as I can remember, I’ve had a deep fear of being sick in front of other people. When I’m at my most anxious, and my most vulnerable, I’m terrified of being sick on public transit, of being “that girl who threw up on the train” – even if I’ve been feeling fine and haven’t been sick in ages. I have intense anxiety around other people seeing my vulnerabilities, particularly those that point to me being a human being with a body that sometimes doesn’t function as I need it to.

I don’t really have evidence for my irrational fear – that’s why it’s irrational. But by and large, the majority of my panic attacks have centered on this fear of becoming the center of attention for doing something so completely human that virtually everyone has experienced it.

With medication and self-exploration, I’ve begun to get to the root of this fear, which I think is a combination of the potentiality of hurting other people, not having an escape route, and being seen as a human being. I wrote recently about how purity culture has divorced me from my body, and it’s no surprise that my anxiety started – thirteen years ago – when I was first being exposed to purity culture teachings about bodies and control. While purity culture is not the sole root of my anxieties, I believe it has functioned as a major trigger for them.

In purity culture, you and your body are always on. You’re being judged for what you wear, for how you behave, and for whether or not you live up to an arbitrary standard of womanliness. The stress that this creates for many woman causes more than a few of us to develop unhealthy coping mechanisms. For me, that took the form of basically deciding never to be sick – my immune system would work overtime throughout the school year, balancing a stressful debate schedule, church obligations, and the overhanging question of whether or not I was performing femininity correctly. When debate season was over, every year, I distinctly remember being sick for a few days as my body gave up on holding the balance.

Part of this is a stress reaction, but part of it, too, was my body giving up on trying to perform the obligations of femininity. Debate and church and school required me to look, behave, and act in womanly ways – all of it pushed upon me in main part by my church’s continued emphasis on being “in the world but not of it.” Such consistent monitoring led me to neurosis about being seen as a superhuman Christian, and when my body inevitably failed in this task, I punished it more and more.

I refused to see myself as human, which made me unwilling to let my body be what it needed to be. As a result, I’ve had to reteach myself how to listen to my body and its concerns, and to know what my limits are. I’ve had to rework my levels of social interaction, with my mind knowing but not knowing that things are not as fraught as I once thought them, that I am not always on display for romantic/sexual interest.

Purity culture instilled in me a continued watchfulness about my interactions with men around me, constantly checking to see if I was sitting appropriately, not bending over and showing cleavage, not casually leading my brothers in Christ into a temptation-heavy world.

The process of leaving that constant watchfulness behind me has been a long struggle toward seeing my own self as human. I’ve felt a continual disconnect from the humanity of others, in part because I was taught to be afraid of our shared humanity because shared humanity might me seeing ourselves and others as sexual beings. But working my way back to whole means going through the struggles of giving up my constant watchfulness, my awareness of where other people’s eyes are, and my constant secondary stream of thought about what other people are thinking.

I am moving, slowly but surely, toward becoming my own person. And I am happier for it. But I also fear that it will be years before I will feel fully comfortable in my own body – like I am a late-bloomer who is spending her late twenties doing work most people figure out 10 years before.

The lessons of purity culture take a lifetime of unworking. If there’s one lesson you can take away from this, it’s that it’s okay to be human. It’s okay to make mistakes. It’s okay to not know who you are and to know that you are learning to be comfortable in your own skin. We all are.