Jesika, Jamie and I sat outside Sweet Frog, eating frozen yogurt. I dug down into the yogurt with my spoon and found a gummy bear. I chomped down on the sweet candy using the safe side of my mouth, but it still found its way to the cavity on my left. My mouth zinged in pain.
“Dammit,” I said around the gummy. “That hurt.”
“Just get it taken care of,” Jesika said.
“Yeah, I know. I hate the dentist, though.”
Jamie pulled out the lipstick she’d just bought. “Isn’t it hot?” she said. She painted on a layer over the pink she’d put on at Sephora earlier. It was hot. It was an opaque neon pink. A Cyndi Lauper pink with electric attitude.
“You gonna wear it at the office?” I asked.
“Maybe. If I feel like it,” she said airily. It looked great on her tanned face. I looked over at Jesika whose face was powdered like an aristocrat, peach circles of blush painted on each cheek, blood red lips. She looked like a kewpie doll crossed with a vampire.
“Oh my gosh,” said Jamie.
“What?” I said looking up. “Oh.”
A group of young women were walking toward us. My stomach tightened a little as I put down my yogurt cup. The gummy bears smiled up at me. “Busted,” they said.
There were five of them. Each was dressed in what I could only call a uniform: long jean skirts–despite the 90 degree heat, long-sleeved tops and blouses, and uncut hair past their knees or carefully done up in pioneer women knots.
The girls wore no makeup. My own face paint, courtesy of Jesika’s industrious applications of the makeup counter’s free offerings, was starting to melt. I wished I wasn’t wearing that stupid purple eyeshadow which looked cool at the store and now felt merely ostentatious.
“Hey guys!” Jesika spoke. “How are you?” She smiled up at the girls and they came over and sat down with us. She and Jamie started talking with them at once. They’d all gone to the same church together in high school. I smiled at them and said nothing. Kept my eyes down on my dessert of drowned gummies. Thought about these girls. Thought about the many accusations, frustrations, and the general confusion in my own heart. Two months earlier I might have chosen to be one of those young women.
Whenever we talk about these girls, the many girls we know who are “in” this mode of dressing, Jesika laughs and rolls her eyes. She was brought up in that religious movement. “They’re just confused,” she says. “If they knew how great it feels to cut your hair and wear shorts and smoke Black & Milds, they’d be doing it. They wouldn’t think twice about their salvation.”
What she means–and what we who have been introduced to that particular faith know–is that the young women believe that their salvation hangs in a precarious balance. Along with their Christian beliefs come proscriptions against outfitting one’s body in a modern way: no makeup, no haircuts, no shorts or pants, no short sleeves. These admonitions are a part of the church’s holiness standards for its women.
Standards by which to measure a woman’s holiness.
I dated one of the men from this faith for a year. Though I railed hard against the prohibitions, my own hair was growing longer–longer than I liked, my skirts were getting longer, my makeup got lighter, my decisions deferred more and more to him.
“Don’t cut your hair–promise me you won’t cut your hair again this summer,” he’d said to me.
“That’s not something I’m going to promise you,” I said.
But I never cut it again until we broke up. I wanted to fit in. To belong with him and his mother and sisters. When we broke up, I looked horrified at my closet. I piled up all the “modest” clothes and threw them in a dumpster. I bought the shortest shorts I could find, had Jesika hack off my hair to the chin, and applied black eye pencil like it was medication. Round and round my eyes I drew in deft circular marks, writing my own standards with each stroke.
* * *
We said goodbye to the girls and threw our empty foam cups into the trash.
“My house or yours?” Jamie asked, looking at us.
“Yours!” Jesika and I said as we walked to our cars. In my rearview mirror, I saw the girls in their jean skirts disappearing into the shop. I shivered. Then my eye caught Jes powdering her face again in her own rearview mirror. I giggled. I tried to wipe off some makeup but it only made a mess.
The standards we live by vary. They are confusing. Chilling, even. We women are taught how to look and how to be from infancy. Those young women come to my mind often. But my own friends come to mind much oftener–the women who’ve shown me that feminine standards are variable, mercurial, and dependent on what we believe about ourselves at any given time.
* * *
Elena, you do such a great job of using humor and characters to welcome us into this complex space with you. A perfect example of how “showing” is more effective than “telling”.
I also found it interesting that I could relate to so many of these feelings in a very abstract way, even though I’ve never been affiliated with any type of strict “holiness standards” church—not even close. These issues clearly seep into various experiences of what it means to be a Christian woman.
Yeah, the whole thing was weird. Even though I disagreed with the standards, I found myself being drawn into them. Even to the point where I was disapproving of women wearing shorts. Which I’d never had a problem with before, ever.
I yelled like a cheerleader when you threw those awful clothes into the dumpster!
Love this piece, Elena.
Thank you, Lisa!
I knew I’d never wear those long skirts and dresses again. Even if I liked ’em. I had a great time shopping in liberation afterwards. 🙂