I got my first purity ring when I was eight years old. “I’m committed,” I said proudly to my mother, “to being pure.”
“Jesus,” she said. She grabbed my left hand, its fourth finger adorned with cheap fake silver that said TRUE LOVE WAITS. The ring looked like a heart, so I liked it.
“Take it off,” my mom said, shuddering.
Four years later, in the smog of the summer, my girlfriends and I took off the tops of our cheerleading uniforms. Underneath we had on white, stretchy, long-sleeved cropped turtlenecks, like Britney Spears wears on the beach in the video for “Sometimes.” We were at cheer camp, teaching ourselves routines. We took turns practicing. You’re Britney, I’m the boy. Now I’m Britney. Try it.
Our captain, a manic, punitive, Confederacy-loving hottie who duct-taped rulers to our fists so we wouldn’t “break” them, said emphatically, “I’m going to keep this and wear it for my husband.” The girls all nodded. The uniform like the body, sacred and profane.
• • •
For twelve years, I attended a well-mannered Texas private school whose rules reflected the values of the Baptist megachurch it was attached to. You could be expelled for getting drunk, getting pregnant or being gay, among other spiritual offenses. Even what they called “free dress” was strict: no visible shoulders, no skirts above the knee.
All of the adults at school were disciplinarians; all the actual disciplinarians were men. The head of them all was a man called Mr. J, a transparently stupid Steve Buscemi lookalike who radiated dull, grim anger. “When was the last time you even read your Bible?” he asked me once, signing me into detention for my frayed jean skirt. “Did your parents even teach you to?” There was a paddle on the wall. He tapped his pen and waited. I asked him why I was in trouble when I, as a cheerleader, would be required to wear something much skimpier the next day.
The answer was always vague and always about Jesus. In the name of the Lord the adults tried everything they could to curtail and direct our behavior: etiquette classes, daily Bible studies, an intoned pledge in the mornings to the Christian flag. One brotherhood, uniting all people, in service and in love. The last song to play at my senior prom was “Proud To Be An American,” and you could get thrown in time-out for grinding. At cotillion the security guard dragged drunk girls out of the bathroom and next year the dance was cancelled, our dues refunded.
Texas is a world where bad behavior is intrinsic to good business.
My best friend and I used to skip school on alternating Fridays, and that week we took the cotillion money and went shopping. Our truancy was mild in the school's larger ecosystem of rebellion: vodka at lunch and ecstasy in the morning, all in the shadow of the big church spire. But Texas is a world where bad behavior is intrinsic to good business, and the stricter the code, the more loosely it applies. Before my time, three boys at the high school⎯⎯with the help of a lawyer who had previously negotiated cozy sentencing for two Branch Davidian cultists who had murdered an ATF agent during the standoff at their Waco compound⎯⎯had walked away from a gang rape charge, a crime with physical evidence. The rumor that trickled down to me in junior high was that the girl was a compulsive liar anyway, and a slut.
In tandem, these labels were new to me: my school was the kind of place where bad behavior meant you had to pick between sex or lying. It was generally understood that in case of pregnancy, it was better to have an abortion than to embarrass yourself. The logic at times was fairly Old Testament, hinging on the hope that external morality, eventually, would lead to us all being good on the inside.
• • •
Policed so tightly, we all sought out our limits somehow. I developed a near fetish for getting yelled at, particularly in a group. The latter situation was, without fail, a unifying and exhilarating experience, and it made me feel the way I was probably supposed to in church.
I became a mild troublemaker. I baited my teachers into screaming that we were going to hell. I’d provoke them, fake my submission, run away gagging on glee. Because what young religious person doesn’t subconsciously venerate punishment? And how nice is it to decide that all your guilt is undeserved? I was in a bind that became very freeing: in this environment built to catch out sin, the concept was everywhere and nowhere, inescapable and consequently⎯⎯blissfully⎯⎯moot.
The final lightness was only powerful because we'd become afraid of the dark.
When real restraint showed up up, it was perverted in its extremity, like with the button-nosed blonde girl in baggy overalls who came to speak at one of our chapels. Sitting beside her muscular boyfriend she told us about their sexual practices: closed-mouth kisses, holding hands. “We’ve French-kissed a few times, but it was wrong,” she said sweetly. Hers was a virtue raised in an arms match against vice. I knew no other kind. The more extreme of our church sessions⎯⎯tanned Christian bodybuilders ripping open phone books; a slow parade of children nailing index cards with their sins on them right into a wooden cross⎯⎯were always like that, the final lightness only powerful because we’d become afraid of the dark.
So sin and virtue lived together, every minute, every breath. We flirted at chapel on Tuesdays, we sat on each other’s laps at Wednesday youth group, we traded looks at the casual service on late Sunday morning. Summers we went on “spiritual retreats,” to the beach. These were a matter of extreme cliquishness: only eight or so girls could fit into a suite, and you’d have dinners with your male counterparts, a frat-sorority mixer, and a gin bucket full of Christ.
We taught each other how to put in tampons, how to make omelets, how to be mean to the least cool of our friends. We speed-dated, snagging a boyfriend on the way to Florida, breaking up on the way back. Every night we went to some large dim arena where a band and speaker would try to induce strong bodily sensations⎯⎯mesmerized swaying worship, jagged fits of tears. Everyone cried, felt cleansed, confessed their sins. And on the way back from these events, the buses became muffled, quiet tangles. First kisses, first whatever.
• • •
I stopped going to those retreats but I didn’t quit cheerleading. Part of the reason was that everyone at my school was required to play a varsity sport and there was nothing else I could do⎯⎯a former gymnast with no hand-eye coordination, who never played team anything in her life. And cheerleading was a way around the contradictions. Our uniforms were as wholesome as they were semiotically flush: embroidered bald eagles on our tops, tucked into a white pleated skirt that barely covered anything, circus-tent blue and gold hidden underneath. We dressed up like angels once for a pep rally, and we couldn’t find enough haloes anywhere until someone remembered to check the sex stores.
On Friday nights we stood in a line on the green grass of the football stadium under the sunset fireworks of the east Texas sky, twitching like horses, tossing our hair. Under the lights our uniforms looked even whiter and we bowed our heads and prayed. We prayed at every game, every practice. Once when a rumor spread that our co-captains had gotten drunk at a house party⎯⎯they had, I’d driven them⎯⎯we sat solemnly in the racquetball court where we practiced, holding hands and asking God disingenuously for the truth to be revealed.
After practice we talked it over. One girl wanted to confess, the other one had been instructed by her family to lie. I shrugged, offering no input. I understood both the desire to be clean of things and the acknowledgment⎯⎯as per church, as per cheerleading⎯⎯that appearance was everything, and everything else could wait. It was educational, my after-school activity. The backflips and the dance routines were tertiary⎯⎯cheerleading was predicated first on your willingness to stand there existing: a perky and self-possessed decoration, prioritizing the well-being of others, almost always men.
This priority was explicit. On game days we came to school with treats for our football players⎯⎯something we did for no other sport, certainly none of the female teams. I mostly brought donuts. “Can you do cupcakes next time?” asked the guy I’d been assigned to, a quarterback. “With my name on them,” he added, stating. I made him cupcakes and I probably delivered them smiling: a minor blip in the line of things I’ve done for boys that I would, if it were ever, ever possible, take back.
Sex is a violence that converts you.
It’s hard to turn off a mode of being that leads people who won’t take you seriously to nevertheless treat you pretty well. In the South the line between sexualized condescension, good manners, and honest charm is blurry⎯⎯if it exists at all. Those blurred lines, I’ll admit, made me comfortable. In college I wore short skirts when I waitressed and walked up to tables with a big game-day smile. This past summer I went to a wedding where there was a doll-like array of women and none of the guys knew what any of them did. A drawling groomsman approved of the bride: “She gets along with the wives real well.” The boys agreed and took tequila shots. The girls blinked, sipped their clear cocktails, put their sparkling hands on the backs of their rough and sweaty guys.
• • •
You experience something fully only when someone names it. Girls become aware of the body as sexual only when another person addresses it that way. In the abstract, this happened for me with that purity ring, when I was a fourth-grader. In actuality it was three years later, in a Bible study where I was sweeping up crafts trash after an event. I was eleven, already a cheerleader. I was holding a broom and a boy with gelled hair came up next to me and said, “You gonna stick that up your pussy?”
But girls have a way of getting ahead of their burdens, making a trap feel like a gift. Sex is a violence that converts you. Your wrists are pinned, and you become a miracle: nailed, even more alive. A few of the girls on my cheerleading squad went to fringey Bible studies where they’d come back dazed. They’d spoken in tongues, they whispered to us afterwards. Something had taken them over. They couldn’t explain it.
I can’t explain anything either. I don’t know why I did anything I did in high school, whether I liked what I was doing or reveled in how much I hated it, or if generally life involves both, or if it’s not just girls but everyone whose lives are a string of punctuated moments when you just⎯⎯as it were⎯⎯shut up and go along. Ten years later most of my friends are back in the fold, wildness purged, a trajectory accepted. I admire them and feel more distant every day.
The only thing left for me is a sense of divinity that bleeds all over everything.
I tell people all the time I never really drank the water, but of course that’s not totally true. At the end of church services all the lights would go dim, and people would start singing: Come, just as you are. What a mercy those words are in any scenario⎯⎯what a very persuasive command⎯⎯and I mostly remember my childhood religion as the regular pang of confusion I felt during this invitation, the certainty of something ready to be expunged and released.
That’s long ago faded. The only thing left for me is a sense of divinity that bleeds all over everything, well into vice and repentance, the night and the morning, the poison you open your throat for and the way you wake up needing to be saved. And the insinuation of the body in this cycle, the pull of another presence, even if it's no longer a god. For a long time I did believe what they taught me, that someone’s body had to be mortified in order for anyone else to be clean. But here’s why I never lasted: for as long as I can remember, I wanted both of those bodies to be mine. I wanted to be rewarded for both ends of the equation. Then, as now, fundamentally baffled by goodness; still trying somehow to be good.
Jia Tolentino is a writer from Texas and a features editor at Jezebel.
Photo courtesy Jia Tolentino.