I think I’ve been brainwashed.
The unexpected thought pierced my sleepy fog. Although after midnight, we girls were dragged from our sleeping bags for a special lecture. Clumped together on a couple of couches, we yawned and tried to listen. I was sadly aware that my alarm was going off in less than six hours. Prayer meeting started at 6:30 a.m., and if I wanted to appear spiritual I needed to be there. This meant getting up even earlier to shower, blow dry and curl my hair—because for some reason curly hair was also a sign of spirituality.
Quiet submission didn’t come naturally.
Mrs. W droned on and on about cliques and friendship, and I felt myself drifting off. Then she said it—the real reason this meeting had been called: “It just grieved my heart, to look out the window yesterday and see you all playing in the snow. I couldn’t tell who the boys were and who the girls were since you were all wearing snow pants.” Her voice dripped of judgmental disappointment. Yes, at this winter youth retreat we were all wearing snow pants to play in the snow. It was horrifying. Especially because in previous years most of us girls—at least the godly ones—had worn skirts or culottes over our snow pants.
I had to work hard to restrain and suppress my independent spirit and bold opinions.
The ridiculousness of it all sank in. We were dragged from our warm beds in the middle of the night to be lectured about modesty and femininity because we had failed to put another layer of clothing over top of our already poofy snow pants.
I spent my teens and early twenties in a cultic-subculture of Christianity that drastically shaped my view of womanhood. I tried hard to fit in, but deep down I knew that something was wrong with me. Quiet submission didn’t come naturally. I had to work hard to restrain and suppress my independent spirit and bold opinions. I played a part—a character that I created for myself—but my true strength was always simmering just below the surface, ready to explode at inopportune moments.
Getting out happened gradually but by the time I was in my mid-twenties the people in my close circle had no idea where I had been. I talked about being homeschooled and raised conservatively, but I kept the true crazy a secret. My blue jeans, college classes, boyfriend, and contemporary Christian music with drums hid the lies I still believed about myself. Marrying my wonderfully opposite husband definitely helped me to shake stereotypes, but I still kept my true self pushed down and held back. It only escaped when provoked, and it always caused damage.
If someone showed sixteen-year-old me a picture of the woman I’d become, I would have been horrified: A pant wearing mother of only two, who works while her kids are in a public charter school. A woman with a pixie cut who doesn’t garden, sew, or bake homemade bread. Sixteen-year-old me would have thought I was a total sinner.
Despite my new-found freedom in adulthood, I still felt trapped at times—when the past would unexpectedly surface. This happened once, during a small group meeting. We were learning to share our stories. Our leaders, a married couple, went first. Afterwards there was a time for questions, so I posed one. I didn’t think anything of it until the husband complimented his wife for answering and not shutting down when “Christy came on strong.”
Strong. Not again. I didn’t mean to.
I felt myself folding into a tiny box of guilt and shame. I didn’t say anything else that evening until my husband and I got into the car. Then it burst out. I tried so hard to keep my strength under wraps. Now my new group wouldn’t like me.
“I don’t even like myself,” I told him. That was the truth. (How could they like me when I didn’t even like myself?)
“Why can’t you be strong?” my patient husband asked.
“Because it’s bad,” I replied.
It’s strange the way heart truth can fly out of your mouth. I suddenly realized that even though I had rejected so much of my cultic-subculture’s teachings, I still believed that the way God made me was fundamentally wrong. I wondered what it would look like to embrace my strength and to recognize it as good.
My post-small group meltdown happened two years ago. Since then, I’ve experienced a beautiful season learning to be the strong woman God created me to be. I’ve realized that when we keep our power suppressed and hidden, it tends to explode out in ways that hurt people. But when we live without fear and use the power for good, it’s transformative.
I’m softer than I used to be, even though I’m stronger. I’m bolder, but gentler. No longer playing a part or keeping aspects of myself stuffed down, I’m able to live authentically. Embracing my strength as good has produced incredible freedom and joy.
“Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come.” Proverbs 31:25