The Other Girls

Growing up, I wasn’t like the Other Girls, with their chatter and their shopping and their Britney Spears songs. I read a book and drank a tea in silent superiority. I liked the fantasy novels with the weapon-wielding heroines who are heroic in direct proportion to how much they aren’t like the Other Girls.

I wasn’t like the Other Girls, with their hair ties and their boyfriend worries and their girly friendships. I didn’t want to be like them. After all, if you become too much like the Other Girls, if, like them, you start to care about lipstick and nylons, you’ll be excluded from Narnia like Susan. Poor Susan, who gave up her bow and arrow and became one of the Other Girls.

Who are the Other Girls? Well, they are girls, for one—and that’s bad enough. People shouldn’t throw like girls or cry like girls or scream like girls. The Other Girls are definitely girls, not people.

What’s more, the Other Girls are girls with bodies. They are at home in them. They feel free to decorate—put up a bit of wallpaper, hang some ruffled curtains, do a little gardening. But I knew better than to move in to my body. I left the boxes in the hallway. It was best to close the shutters and pretend no one was there.

I knew from church that to be pure, you can’t be like the Other Girls. The Other Girls are the standard model, the basic schematic for that secondary creation, woman. So to be the best woman possible, you must try not to be a woman and not to be a body. You need to struggle against the base nature that makes you like the Other Girls.

When I entered ninth grade, I learned in youth group that the best way for a good Christian boy to judge a good Christian girl as a prospective mate is by how neatly she shaves her legs. (It shows her character, you see.) I was confused. I thought the Other Girls had legs, not me. I didn’t have a body—or if I did, that was a secret.

After all, the same Bible study leader boasted that once, at a waterpark, he shouted at a passing stranger whose child wore a two-piece swimsuit, “If you teach your daughter to dress like a whore, she’ll grow up to become one!” Surely that girl was one of the Other Girls. She showed her legs. She gave away the secret that she was a girl with a body.

In the small Christian school I attended in Florida for the first half of ninth grade, chapel day was Wednesday. To show respect for God, all the girls were required to wear their uniform skirts on Wednesdays. I didn’t like Wednesdays, when I had to display my razor-nicked shins and still-too-hairy knees, when I had to wear a skirt (skirts are too much like what girls wear). I wasn’t like the Other Girls with their smooth, marriageable calves (they must care too much about boys, too much about having a body). I was relieved when I returned to Bolivia the following semester, where I could wear my jeans and keep my legs a secret. And all through high school, I wasn’t like the Other Girls.

I don’t like now to think about my smug judgment of the Other Girls, my policing of them and of myself.

I know now that we women are all the Other Girls.

In the larger patriarchal culture, and within some facets of evangelical purity culture, all women are Others. For those growing up within modesty culture (as I did to some extent—as a third culture kid, it’s hard to pin down just one context that I did my growing up in), the devaluation of femininity and of female embodiment often has the insidious effect of both othering women and demanding that they other one another. I felt like I had to participate in the othering of women as a proof of personal purity, as a way of guarding myself against the shame of being female.

But it’s useless for a woman to try to escape being the Other in purity culture. Too feminine and she is weak, deceitful, Eve-like; too masculine and she isn’t respecting God with the required skirt. Even if a woman distances herself from those loose women, those Jezebels, those Other Girls, even if she never whispers the dark secret that she has a body, she is still a woman. And that’s bad enough.

Working to eradicate the impulse to label each other as the Other Girls, the lesser girls, the ones to be dismissed—and it’s a hard impulse to root out—is a part of creating female community. And that community, all those girly friendships, helps us stand against the othering of women.

Not only as a woman, but also as a Christian, a feminist, and a pansexual person, I know that I am the Other in various contexts, to various people. But for me to work against othering means more than pointing out that I am a full human person; it means realizing that those that I have the impulse to other are also full human persons. I often find that urge in myself to perform othering. To think that at least I’m not like those Other Girls, or those Other Feminists. To smugly say that at least I’m not like those Other Christians (the ones who warp purity into policing, perhaps). But while differences certainly exist between individuals, I need to work to keep from turning defining difference into dehumanizing. I am like the Other Girls, the Other Feminists, the Other Christians—we are all people together.

Note: Instead of talking about Christian Feminist Podcast episode 1.2 as I had said I would, I’m posting this today in connection with the We Are the Other synchroblog at SheLoves. This post does connect with the subject matter of episode 1.2, but I’ll still come back to that episode next Wednesday.

[photo credit: Bert Kaufmann via photopin cc (cropped and resized)]

7 comments:

  1. I recognize threads from my own story in yours. The growing up without a body. the not fitting the mold and judging myself superior for it. The burying myself in a book rather than peer activities. We, all of us, are so much more alike than we ever are dissimilar. How hard it is, however, to reach across the divide(s) and meet with love whatever and whomever’s hand we find there.

    1. I’m glad this had personal resonance for you, Bryn. We are indeed all more alike than dissimilar.
      Also, something I should have made clear in the post–I didn’t mean to suggest that this sort of dual othering is solely a female experience. (Or that it is uniform across female experience–the culture of shame surrounding the possession of a body would be even worse for a trans woman than for a cisgender one, for example.) We all face the impulse to other ourselves and each other along various axes, in various contexts.
      Thanks so much for stopping by!

  2. It’s also pretty confusing for boys when they receive the message that they shouldn’t be attracted to girls who “have bodies.” Sometimes bible school teachers and youth leaders seem to be telling you that the only girls to whom you should be attracted are those who show total indifference or even hostility towards a relationship with you. I know I osmosed a good dose of that sentiment.

    1. If only we could be more tentative in our proclamations, less dogmatic about our dogma. Every culture is screwed up about something—ours is so out of whack when it comes to the body, sexuality, gender. Maybe if our church leaders had delivered their messages with a caveat—we know this is an area that we run scared of; take your time, think it through, find out for yourself—maybe this would have worked a little leavening grace into the mix.

    2. That’s a great point! The “modest is hottest” message has all sorts of self-contradictory implications for the young men who absorb it.

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