Womanhood Through the Lens of Purity Culture and Chronic Religious Shame: A Personal Perspective

Updated: Aug 11

Faith Mashevedze | Zimbabwe


The world we live in has shown us time and time again the unbearable fickleness of innocence, of girlhood and the fine threads that weave the web that finally dubs you a woman are too often splintered and tattered and torn. The tapestry that ought to be womanhood has so many definitions but one thing seems to be the same for every woman I know. That is, womanhood is marred and stained too often by violence, maladaptive ideologies, traditions, cultures and religions. In my case, girlhood never seems to have ended, girlhood is your father’s roof over your head, girlhood is the male friend’s grooming, guilt and shame, girlhood is the loss of self and the self woven together by other people’s expectation, girlhood is the mental illness sitting in the corner of the room politely waiting to be acknowledged while the family prays for the food set before them.


Before I begin, I would like to share a quote that has moved me to tears and great adventures more often than I can count.


“And the Day came when the risk it took to remain tight and knit in a bud became more painful than the risk it took to bloom.”


These are the words of the world-renowned writer Anais Nin, whose words rang true for me throughout my life and became a mantra of sorts enshrined in my childlike heart. Somehow I knew these words held greater depth than I could wrap my head around and would soon shape my coming of age story, my transition from childhood to womanhood, and to childhood again. If you grew up religious, we all know the symbol of a white rose and the dreaded purity culture talk. The white rose represents worthiness, purity and innocence and, of course, your body which is only meant for your husband. Thus leaving no room for nuance, self-identity or sexual orientation. The illustration is simple; sex with anyone who is not your husband is a petal stripped away from your precious rose. If you are sexually active long enough, often enough, with multiple people, eventually the rose becomes worthless.


What innocence means in the evangelical subculture is enshrining womanhood in an ode to gospels of shame and unworthiness, religious trauma and the subtle erosion of one’s identity, and individuality outside of it all.


Subsequently, the ramifications of having been raised in a “purity culture,” has been a metaphysical dilemma I have not yet conquered and continue to grapple with mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically. And a part of me wants to find the person responsible for indoctrination and have them pay for therapy.

So who is responsible? In the 1970s the US government began funding Abstinence-Only Sex Education which essentially endorses purity cultures’ notion of non-premarital sex while excluding other types of sexual and reproductive health education. This coupled with the infamous books and rally calls like True Love Waits, and purity covenants and pledges, I Kissed Dating Good-Bye by Joshua Hariss which reinforces the fundamental ideas associated with purity culture’s rhetoric like “Modest is hottest,” or the notion that becoming sexually active before marriage is cheating on your future spouse and that kissing as well as masturbation are part of premarital sex. I personally never read the book, however, its message permeated throughout many aspects of Christian sexual ethic teaching during the purity movement and had a profound impact on my life.


In my life, these rhetorical strategies of contemporary evangelical purity movements created and perpetrated systems of sexual violence in the spaces I found myself. One of which included the lack of agency in my own choices as an individual in terms of body autonomy while reinforcing disproportionate responsibility for men’s behaviour and attitudes toward my body. I found myself with an unreasonable sense of guilt and shame regarding the body I grew into. What is most interesting is that in all this we do not seem to acknowledge how unempowering this can be, the sheer attack on your mental capacity to critically think, possible anxiety, and depression among other things. I grew up in a very loving family and yet when puberty hit the love of my father was lost to this overprotective defensive aggressor who would send my mother to police how I dressed and behaved so as not to tempt the men. It was the indoctrination of fear so intense and so subtle; a catastrophe waiting to happen.


Now, I understand being conscious of how you are perceived in the world and there is a degree to which I can act accordingly but puberty marked the loss of my father’s affection and an onslaught of heterosexist ideologies. When does the rose get to bloom if it is constantly stifled, or squeezed so tight it never changes and remains just a bud? It seems womanhood can only be viewed through the lens of our own making as women and girls. However, what is rooted in these corporeal feminist theories, religious history, and queer theories as well as the intersections of race, class, and sexuality are ideas not of our making. So much of our lives as women are governed by the politics of sexual control, specifically the control of women’s sexuality, sexual desires and bodies. The commodification of purity culture is most pronounced in sacrificial purity pledges that can only best be means of control and scapegoating. This is exemplified in the book, The Gendered Pulpit, where young men given animalistic tendencies aren't held to account so women and girls must take the blame.


I am by no means trying to cry, “ Oh, the patriarchy,” nor spew any alternative rhetoric either, but one of the best explanations I can offer is in the book The Psychic Life of Power. The book suggests that structures of power govern and form individuals’ psyche, and to challenge that power would require an undoing of the self that was formed within that structure.


I have asked myself time and time again how do I challenge a system that disenfranchises you from your own identity and individuality, where self-expression like a common body piercing within reason discredits your purity or evangelical identity? How do I reconcile the parts of me that are in stark contrast to the politically correct “good girl” narrative that has been woven for me, or who ought to be responsible for this reconciliation? And doesn't that sound like identity dysregulation? Who do I talk to about this?

I heard a poem about what it means to have a church unburned, white steeple, holy and pure… You see despite all the things I am saying I wanted to take an abstinence pledge at twelve years old, I wanted to be perfect. It seemed so beautiful and liberating, which it can absolutely be. But what I failed to realize is the poem was about “a church unburned.” You see we cannot address purity culture without making it clear that black roses do not magically become white roses. While I do not wish to get into the role of religion in slavery and colonialism with the hypersexualization of women of colour which needs a particularly honourable mention. In Jezebel and Mammy: Mythology of Female Slavery, the symbol of Jezebel, a black slave, is used to justify the use of black women as sexual property. And having grown up in predominantly white environments the symbol of this ‘unburned church’ permeates play dates or teen hangouts. Bear in mind these aren't things ever overtly said, just ubiquitously assimilated in the psyche. The results were devastating and it took years to heal from this.


While so much more can be said of purity culture, the things that tend to influence the transition from girlhood to womanhood are the messages that we tell ourselves and those of our environment. The ramifications of which include religious trauma, identity and emotional dysregulation commonly found in borderline personality disorder, chronic shame, grief symptoms or in my case a diagnosis of complex grief, depression and anxiety. The sheer isolation borne of being raised in this social structure can also result in chronic loneliness and a lack of belonging. The risk it takes to remain in that bud and never fully bloom can often be a matter of life and death, an act of self-reclamation it may take a lifetime to master, a metaphysical dilemma hidden in the complexities of existing in the female body.


Faith is a passionate creative and an avid reader. She considers herself a mental health advocate and a transformational truth seeker. She is even more passionate about human capital development, psychology and personal development. Connect with her at faithmashevedze@gmail.com



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