By Kim Anne Whittemore ~
Wow, so much skin. Is it too much skin? This is, without contest, the most provocative thing I’ve worn on my 25-year-old body in the last four years. Provocative — there’s that word again. Of course, that feeling is here; it’s the one thing I can count on when trying on new clothes.
It visits me without a specific invitation. It’s a drop-in kind of visitor; it’s going to show up and usually at the most inconvenient times. In my life’s relatively new context (four years ago I was “born again”), that word, provocative, carries a new connotation — just as many familiar words now have new connotations. In my pursuit of an unimaginably beautiful eternity, I’ve willingly and wholeheartedly embraced this volume of newly defined words; words with definitions to which I’ve been introduced. My “mature” Christian teachers refer to divinely inspired texts while standing at a lectern, behind the microphone at radio stations like WBOL ( i.e., Beams of Light radio), and at “Jesus ’83” (the Christian counterpart to Woodstock), and all the while most of us are using our neon Christian highlighters and furiously taking notes as we are trained in righteousness and spiritual living. The older teach the younger, and there is an official order from which the faithful do not deviate: it is male to male and/or female, female to female, but NEVER female to male. Remember the story of Jezebel?
I was a prototypical novice when I learned the sobering truth that a woman, even a Godly, prayerful woman, can misuse sacred keys that are always in her possession; keys that have the power to simultaneously open countless barred cages that imprison starved male lust (I’m sure I wrote that one down in my notes). All she needs to do initiate this prison break is to attract the carnal (i.e., sexual) interest of one man to whom she is not married. Whether or not she is aware of her power is irrelevant, as once free, lustful thoughts and spirits assault the mind of the ogling male believer with such impact that in its wake, the spiritual ambush requires the victim to engage in silent repentance for divine forgiveness to give way to restored virtue. As concerns the careless woman, she must be made aware of what she’s done (i.e, worn) so that her behavior is corrected. In my former vernacular, all this really means is that a man has been turned on by an attractive woman. Although all things have become new, one area seems to have stayed the same — it’s HER fault.
In my new life, I must be ever vigilant, keeping pace with my spiritual sisters who have likewise been entrusted with this awesome power. Apparently, we can’t teach the men anything, but we can unlock their hidden demons at will.
This feminine magnetism was now simply called sex.
Yes, as absurd as it now sounds, this personal experience leading to a whirlwind of inner dialogue, concerned nothing more relevant than what was actually a rather conservative bridesmaid gown — pieces of fabric and thread– to be worn at my sister’s wedding. Above the noise in my head, the question rings out: am I actually toying with the idea of providing men with a bird’s eye view of something that belongs exclusively to my God and my husband (sometimes I can’t tell the difference)?
From the lips of the most devout female leaders came a loud suggestion that was even more personal in nature. Women, they said, should seek out female doctors, especially gynecologists and obstetricians. Gender, it seems, is more important than skill and experience. In light of our probable nakedness, our feet in stirrups, and a spotlight fixed on what Eve covered with a fig leaf, our husbands would be uneasy. It was as if there were something inherently shady about a man, a highly educated man, who chose to “look at women all day.” Forget the infections, injuries, and tumors the doctor might see because after all, a vagina is a vagina — healthy or not.
With a mixture of faith, modesty, and obligation, I wondered if I should, at this late date, ask to replace the gown with something more modest, or should I just be logical and realize that I’m merely joining a temporary royal blue coterie on my sister’s wedding day? I helped select this gown from the Sears catalog, and all six of us, women my sister chose carefully for this honor, appreciated this particular style because it flattered every body type. At the time, the low neckline was something I didn’t even notice.
My bridesmaid counterparts also liked the price tag, an issue that I’m ashamed to admit is rarely relevant to me. The off-beat rhythm of my new life includes the now tired and still humiliating mantra of, “I can’t afford it.” Those words usually whispered in the ear of whoever was picking up my tab, were exactly where they always were: on the tip of my tongue. With so many unpaid hours spent volunteering for all kinds of church activities and unreimbursed expenses, the never-ending tithes and offerings, and the relentless pressure for women to keep a home instead of a job, the financial obligations easily outweighed the income in many evangelical families. I tell myself (and my extended family) that in my current situation, one salary — his — only goes so far with a family of four, even with a purse full of clipped coupons, a 10-year-old car with no monthly payments but plenty of mechanical issues, and a high rent house that was, by necessity, well within traveling distance to our church. I played a bi-weekly “game” I called banking roulette (which I invariably lost) while going through a stack of neatly organized bills. Will this check clear if I pay that bill? How many days will it take for the utility payment to clear, and will I be able to deposit enough in time to cover it? Yes, we had our electric and phone turned off more than a few times. No amount of praying kept them on.
As usual — and I do mean usual — my sister paid for my gown. I did notice that this time, just as I was beginning to excuse my self-imposed, holy deficiency, it felt as though she dismissed me with a figurative wave of her hand. However, she’s a practical woman, my sister. Although she knows that she wouldn’t have to cover this expense if I withheld just a single week of tithes and ministry offerings and committed to a one-month hiatus from Christian bookstores, she kept her mouth shut. I had been asked to fill the role of a woman of the highest honor at her wedding ceremony, but she ended the subject with, “I’ll pay for it, and Rachel’s flower girl dress, too (she asked my little girl to be her flower girl). We’ll have them both shipped to mom’s house.”
This particular spiritual battle began about a month before the early November wedding. My sister called to tell me to meet her at our parents’ home because my Maid of Honor gown had arrived. After gathering my two children, I was on my way. After reaching the wood-toned and yellow shuttered high ranch from which I literally fled some seven years earlier, I walked straight through the front door without my customary knock. My sister, a highly motivated, recently licensed CPA who, at the tender age of 23 had already acquired a Master’s Degree, a position with one of the “Big Five” accounting firms, a coveted credit score, a choose your options/choose your color Honda Accord, a deed to a new condominium, a large circle of diverse friends of both genders, and a private life that included winters at a ski lodge and international summers featuring restaurants, museums, concerts, and plays — not to mention a whole host of purses that matched her shoes — was already at our parents’ house.
As I crossed the threshold, I looked at her standing at the top of the staircase — the bride-to-be engulfed in one of life’s’ truly rare and intoxicating experiences. I, on the other hand, was instantly ambushed by a sour wave of hot jealousy — more sad than sinful. In this moment, it was evident: the painting of her nicely framed life made the print of my decidedly unframed life look like cheap wall art found at the local “no-tell motel”. I instantly reminded myself that my faith promised me a future and a hope. Yes, as a reward for my faithfulness, this struggling was all going to change in time. It was going to get better — in fact, it was going to be better than her life — because my faith was enough to move mountains. What an opportunity for God to show his power.
The autumn was sun setting outside the window directly in front of her. It reached her face, and I couldn’t help but notice that her almond-shaped, light blue eyes were soaking up what seemed to be every particle of the sun’s river of gold. In my eyes, she was glowing, probably a combination of her lightly applied make-up, highlighted blond hair, and the reality that the next two hours would bring her even closer to another pivotal event. The top of her lace-trimmed camisole was barely visible under her not-too-sheer, hint of the pink blouse, and together with a short strand of cultured pearls dropping just below her neck, she looked every bit a lady and every bit a professional woman. Her gray pinstriped suit with an above the knee skirt that highlighted her beautiful legs stood in sharp contrast to the pieces in my closet. My skirts and dresses were decidedly longer than fashion dictated in 1985, and even though my legs were just as shapely (and a little longer) than my sister’s, nobody except my husband (and doctor) was ever going to see more than the lower half of my shins.
My wardrobe, beyond the hemlines, were pieces I bought in consignment stores situated on the upscale Main Streets that dotted Bergen County, NJ. They weren’t cheap or shabby outfits. On the contrary; they were clearly expensive pieces when they were hanging in stores like Saks Fifth Avenue, but they certainly weren’t designed for me — a tall, slender, 25-year-old who had, many times, been approached by photographers and model scouts while walking the streets of New York City. These clothes were purchased and donated (i.e., discarded) by society ladies who, by force of nature and necessity, retired their sanitary napkins in favor of urinary incontinence pads. From what life taught me thus far, I knew the matrons who used to wear my clothes were quite comfortable with lives that revolved around their income, flashing the most prestigious credit cards while arguing over which of them would pay for lunch at five-star restaurants with names like La Serenade, hiring and firing undocumented cleaning ladies, organizing the next silent auction to benefit a Non-Profit organization, attending weekly salon appointments that consisted of hairpieces, dyes, curlers, and mind-numbing one-way “my hair” conversations, garden club luncheon menus, and having their BMWs detailed and serviced. Did I really need one of their pink tweed suits from 1977 — even if it was 50% off day and the orange clearance tag said $18? My mother always told me that I didn’t, and she said so with a mixture of disappointment and confusion.
My mother came down the hall just as my daughter and I got to the top of the stairs. Immediately addressing my daughter, and as usual, in the third person, she said, “Nana has a box with your flower girl dress inside!” or “Nana is going to make you a big bowl of your favorite macaroni and cheese, but you have to wait until after you try on your special dress so that we don’t get any food on it!” I hoped that my mother wouldn’t, once again, use this opportunity, one in which I was distracted, to try and stealthily sequester my daughter and attempt to “fix” everything she believed were my parental missteps. I drew a very clear line in the family sand when it came to my children. They were not going to be raised with the chaos that made us, my siblings and I, a captive audience to things we should have never seen and never heard. Convinced that permanent damage was on the horizon, my mother would fill in the gaps by sitting my children in front of television shows she knew I disapproved of. She routinely usurped my authority, all the while speaking as if she were The Oracle of Good Parenting. Perhaps she believed that my fundamentalist lifestyle, something she interpreted as an escape from the real world, was at the core of what she believed were failures in my life. Her disapproval made me more determined to prove that my way was the right way.
As we entered the bedroom, which used to be mine, I saw two cardboard boxes on the bed. I didn’t even attempt to open them. I didn’t pay for either of them, so although I couldn’t wait to see what the gown looked like, I stood back while my mother opened one box and my and sister opened the other. Once my gown was out of the box, my sister lifted the condensed plastic package and removed its folded contents from the “THIS IS NOT A TOY” bag. After we overtalked each other and came to the mutual agreement that the color was just right, I took the gown into the bathroom and carefully tried it on. As I looked at my reflection in the mirror, I reacted — a very intense, familiar reaction.
Provocative — there’s that word again. Of course, that feeling is here; it’s the one thing I can count on when trying on new clothes.“I look amazing”, I said out loud, and I didn’t need a general consensus to come to that conclusion. As I turned from side to side, I realized that there were specific features I loved. Not only was this new (a rarity), but it made me happy. I looked young. I looked elegant. I looked confident. I looked beautiful. I was wearing something that a normal 25-year-old woman would wear. I couldn’t help but admire the way the skin on my chest and neck looked. I began to imagine what jewelry I could wear that would further enhance my firm, long neck and hint of cleavage. I always believed I was pale, but on that day, I saw porcelain. I knew I was going to wear my long hair in an up-do, something I rarely did. All of this self-admiration, which probably lasted less than a minute, dissipated when I realized that everything I loved about my appearance was of the flesh, not the spirit. I know this level of self-dissection sounds ridiculous to the uninitiated, but it is the reality of countless women. It was my reality.
I knew I was going to wear it, and if necessary, I was going to hide behind the “I have to wear it” excuse. Tonight, that seemed so feasible, especially after my sister’s reaction when I walked confidently into the bedroom. Unfortunately, on the day of her wedding, I faltered while looking in the mirror. There I stood, exactly as I had just a few weeks ago, and what seemed so beautiful then seemed completely irreverent now. As my hand smoothed the front of the polyester faux silk skirt, I felt the deflating sting of conviction washing over me. So much skin… so provocative.
I wish that was the only way I faltered on my sister’s wedding day, a private faltering with no fallout. Unfortunately, the subsequent choices I made that day were not private. They were public, and I know they dishonored my sister and her new husband. Choices that I thought were spiritual, but in actuality were based in my self-interest, still embarrass me some 35 years later. She never addressed those choices with me. She never shamed me or shunned me. In fact, as the years went by, she continued to do things for me that are unbelievably rare and generous, while I continued to live my life of judgment, separation, and fundamentalism.
I gave myself one final glance and walked into the living room. There stood my sister, the bride. She looked resplendent in her ivory satin gown and flowing veil. The bridesmaids encircled her, each of them looking for something meaningful to do — hand her a bouquet, clasp her large aquamarine pendant, smooth out her train, and of course, bombard her with oohs, aahs, and complements. There were men — some friends, some family members — circling aimlessly or fiddling with boutonnieres that never seemed to lay straight. I noticed that nobody looked at me as though I had a scarlet A on the bodice of my gown. I did hear my father say that I looked like a movie star and my mother say that I should have worn my hair down. But nothing…nothing…about a plunging neckline.
What nobody knew was that I had one of my consignment store church dresses in the backseat of my car. After much consternation, I had made a decision that I thought would please everyone on today’s schedule (i.e., my God, my pastor, and my sister). I couldn’t have been more wrong — not because anyone chastised me for my actions, but more precisely because they didn’t. I suppose that’s because it was too insulting to address, and that type of insult often leads to a fight.
The church dress was something I was going to change into about three hours into the reception. I couldn’t show up at my next scheduled event in this gown, as the next scheduled event was a leadership meeting at our church. Yes, I had decided that nobody would miss the Maid of Honor and her husband if we just left after dinner. They noticed.
As soon as we snuck out of the reception, I fumbled in the darkness of the passenger seat of our car and changed from one dress to the other. I regretted my decision almost instantly, and by the time we walked down the church stairs into the basement fellowship hall, I literally hated my decision. We were late, of course, and the pastor’s facial expression, his disapproval evident to all of the other disapproving faces who were sitting in a circle of metal fold-up chairs. The words of the pastor weren’t registering — in fact, everyone sounded like they were underwater. I kept going back to the reception venue, thinking of two empty chairs. By now, guests had to realize we were gone.
Phrases like, “our new building has to be as impressive as the A&P Superstore. People go there because it’s big and new, and we’re going to use that same approach in growing our membership” and “we’ve set up an account for the building fund, and we’ll take offerings every week that are separate from the regular tithes and offerings…”. I watched the clock and began to mentally calculate how quickly we could get out of here and, believe it or not, get back to the wedding. No, I didn’t want the coffee and stale cookies that an elder was already setting up; I wanted to see my sister cut her wedding cake.
My husband followed my lead and walked out the door as soon as the meeting was closed in prayer. We got back into our car, and once again, I changed my clothes. Smoothing out the now totally wrinkled gown — and this time not caring about skin, but rather about a sister I loved — I felt something that felt like spiritual conviction but was, in reality, good old fashioned human guilt.
Yes, we snuck back just in time to see many of the guests gathering their things and heading for the door. Nobody asked me anything — not a word (I think they were all getting used to my religious behavior, as they called it).
I once read an anonymous quote that read, “Friends share their feelings with friends with great frequency; siblings choose a more convenient time, like on their death beds.” Maybe it will be on my death bed, but one day, when I have the strength to look her in the eye and talk about the spiritual stunt I pulled on her wedding day, I’ll find that convenient time.
By the way, my sister paid to have the gown dry-cleaned and packaged. Not me.