I sat in the bathtub, shivering in a few inches of soap-clouded water, and tried not to make eye contact with the distorted reflection of my face in the brass at the base of the tub faucet. I hated seeing myself in any reflection, hated the reminder that the body I existed in no longer felt like it belonged to me. I had memorized exactly where I should sit in the bathtub so that the thing reflected back at me was only my face. I did not want to catch a glimpse of my chest or anything between my legs. I drew my knees up to my chest just to be safe, and rested my face on my knees, so that I was all curled up, as small and invisible as it was possible for me to be. I imagined, briefly, the relief I might feel if I were somehow able to strip the skin from my own bones. I was 12, and I hated my body.
Early adolescence can be traumatic for many kids, but I was also a genderqueer kid raised in purity culture and I struggled with gender dysphoria, which in my case manifested in sudden spikes of intense anxiety and extreme discomfort with and loathing for my own body. I’d started expressing my gender identity to my family in rudimentary ways from a young age, but I had no specific terms to describe what I was feeling. In one of these discussions, I tried to explain to my mother how I felt that my body was betraying me, how it was growing up into a “girl’s” body, but I had never agreed to be a girl.
“I don’t want to be a girl,” I said, finally, hearing the panic at the edge of my own voice.
“Do you want to be a boy?” my mother said. She wasn’t taking the conversation seriously, and probably attributed my remarks to some irrational whim.
“No, I don’t want to be a boy,” I said.
My mother told me those were the only two options. I tried to explain to her that I didn’t want to be either. “Haven’t you ever felt like that?” I said, the sense of desperation still growing.
My mom shook her head, and the conversation ended there.
Purity culture taught me to view my body with suspicion, since it was a vehicle of lust that might carry me into sin at any time. It wasn’t hard for me to adopt this mindset; after all, I already felt disgust when I looked at myself. When all the girls in our family began wearing long skirts and dresses around the time I was 12, I adopted the more conservative outfits with relief. The baggy clothing covered nearly everything, and I was able to swallow my nausea more easily.
Purity culture so normalized self-hatred and anxiety for me that it took me several years to realize that the dysphoria I had experienced my entire life was a separate issue from the guilt and shame that I had experienced under my family’s roof. If I felt any emotional or psychological discomfort, I interpreted it as evidence of my wrongdoing. I’d had dreams with sexual content, I’d looked at porn, I’d fantasized about having sex, and this was my punishment. I hated my body and I thought that this was right, that I deserved to hate myself. I thought I’d be able to love my body if I just dressed more modestly. I thought I’d be able to love my body when I stopped thinking about sex.
I used to assume that all girls felt the way that I did, but when I looked at the other homeschooled girls, so many of them seemed to embody femininity in a nearly effortless way. None of them ever breathed a word about feeling like they just didn’t fit within the box marked “chaste, feminine, woman, future wife and mother.” Maybe they were just purer than I was, I thought, and then felt as though I was hopelessly behind, that I’d never be able to escape the cycle of shame and disgust in which I felt so trapped. I kept my mouth shut and pretended, to the best of my ability, that I could exist within purity culture as naturally as the other girls seemed to.
When I left for college, I spent four years processing and detoxing from purity culture, and ended up throwing it all out. I dressed the way I wanted, and had the consensual relationships that I wanted, and for the first time in my life, I began to feel a sense of freedom from the shame that had followed me my entire life. And when feelings of dysphoria ambushed me from time to time, I wrote them off as remnants of my fundamentalist background, and tried to ignore them.
Except they never went away. Instead, they got worse. I’d stopped trying to perform the fundamentalist idea of what a woman was, but I was still trying to be a woman, to be something that I had never been. I began having regular panic attacks and crying jags. I lost weight, sometimes starving myself for days because I thought everything might be easier if there was just less of me to see and feel. I was hyperconscious of my body, and anything that I wore, and sometimes after class or after work, I’d run home, run into my bedroom, and change into baggy sweatpants as quickly as possible, trying not to cry or throw up with the overwhelming panic that felt like bile rising in my throat.
I graduated from college, and a year later, came out to myself as bisexual and genderqueer. I cut my hair short, and stopped wearing dresses, skirts, and heels. I’ve focused on wearing clothes that make me happy and comfortable, and this has kept the dysphoria to a mostly manageable level. I don’t always feel affection for my body, but I now sometimes go hours or even days without feeling panicky about existing in my own skin, and that’s good enough for me.
Purity culture implicitly enshrines cisheteronormativity as part of the chaste (and, later, married and monogamous) ideal. I was never given the words to define my own gender and orientation and sexuality. All I knew was that I was different, and that everything felt somehow wrong. When other ex-fundies were exploring their sexuality post-purity culture, I was still trying to figure out why sometimes I couldn’t even put on a bra without bursting into tears. I’ve heard straight, cisgender ex-fundies talk about delayed adolescence when it comes to figuring out who they are, but this problem is only compounded for queer and trans ex-fundies, who have to both leave purity culture, and also come out to themselves. It’s already difficult to come out of the closet, and purity culture makes it that much harder.
This post originally appeared on noshamemovement.com