Sitting, sweltering in my small town’s un-air-conditioned church long ago on some insignificant Sunday, as I had done many times before, I learned more about myself and the situations I would soon face as a woman in one sermon than I could have ever bargained for at that age.
I was 9, perched next to my grandmother in a front-row pew listening to the preacher’s booming voice float through the pulpit, mingling with now stagnant incense smoke. It reverberated off the walls and penetrated every crevice of your being that may house sin, cleansing the air as it echoed. The congregation sat and listened, gleaning anything and everything they could during that impossibly long hour; they were paying attention. Patiently, I sat twiddling my thumbs waiting for the sermon to finish, doing anything I could to pass the time. “Legs crossed, eyes forward” my grandmother quipped anytime she caught on that I was in fact not paying attention to what the preacher was saying. Typically, I obeyed.
My main qualm with church was the dress. I loathed it. A stiff, starched, uncomfortable white straight-jacket disguised as a garb with lacy red roses speckling the outside: this was my enemy. I did everything in my power to try and rid myself of it. I’d entomb it in my sister’s closet under a mountain of old blankets like a clandestine grave, and claim that it had been lost. I even tried staining it in hopes the damage would be irreparable and it'd finally be thrown away; I’d stage the scene: me, my dress, and a tall glass of red, sticky liquid that “just so happened” to spill in my lap — it had to look like an accident.
But no matter what, the stain always came out, or the dress would always be stumbled upon by an unexpecting younger sibling who unwittingly foiled my plans. It always won, but on this particular Sunday, it beat me for the last time.
It was genius. Sneakily, I wore my regular clothes underneath my dress, a worn-out light blue T-shirt, and plain black shorts and planned to excuse myself during the sermon to change in the bathroom. I was ready. There was nothing anyone could do to stop me.
Halfway through, I excused myself and carried out my deed. It was hot, that would be my main excuse. It was too hot to be wearing a dress, so in that single occupancy church bathroom, I liberated myself.
Upon my return trip, I felt ten stories tall. It was almost biblical; years of wearing this dress to dinners, vacations, and outings of any kind had all been worth it to obtain the power and glory I now felt. I had been resurrected, and it was divine. But little did I know, this victory was pyrrhic.
My grandmother said nothing, she dared not disturb the sermon, but as soon as we got to the car, the dam broke. “What are you wearing?” The litigation had begun. “Clothes” I casually responded. “You know what I mean, why aren't you in your dress”. I collected myself, it was time for the kill. “It’s too hot to wear a dress, it’s long-sleeved; it reaches my ankles; it is too hot to wear a dress like that”.
She stared blankly, the keys lingered in her hand; she hesitated to start the car. “It’s like that for a reason, you need to dress like a young lady. Ladies listen, ladies cover-up, ladies do not wear short-sleeved T-Shirts with shorts that show off your whole leg! It isn't even so much that you weren't wearing your dress, it's that you defied me.
Good girls listen, hasn't your mother told you that? You need to listen or else you'll make a fool out of yourself and others ”. It cut me down to size. I was no longer the clever little girl who outsmarted her dress code; instead, I was a fool. We drove home in silence that night, and I felt the tears welling up in my eyes. I hated the dress, but I loved my grandmother.
The sting stuck with me several hours after returning home. I looked in the mirror; I saw what I had done. I thought this was going to be a glorious transformation; I had finally shed my oppressive garment. I should have been happy, but I wasn’t. I wasn't happy. I felt dirty. I had disappointed someone I cared about for the sake of my own comfort. I cried.
Years passed, and I almost forgot the incident entirely, but as I aged, I began to dissect my past to try and understand who I was then, and who I am now, and who I may become. Recanting that instance, I began to wonder, why did it matter. I was a child, why was it so important for me to be in a dress?
I didn't feel bad about it until I was told that I should be. The half an hour I sat in that pew without my dress was without a doubt the best feeling I'd ever gotten within the walls of that church. I felt smart and powerful; I admired the problem-solving skills it took to come up with my dastardly plan, and the gaul it took to carry it out.
Why had I felt so guilty? For years after, I adopted the same mantra I had been told that fateful day, “Good girls ______”. I didn't question when someone told me not to do something that I saw no problem with because I took everything at complete face value. That’s what you're taught, especially as a female.
Whether it be a dress code or a job expectation, women are implicitly told everyday “right” from “wrong”. Acting “womanly” implies that you don't talk back when someone tells you to do something, and “manning up” is definitely perceived better than its nonexistent counterpart “womaning up”.
I may have not realized it at the time, but that incident in the church was my first act of feminist rebellion, and definitely was not my last. I’m lucky; I was born with a lot of grit, so I stand up for myself when I am being mistreated for any reason, but not everyone does. I know this story is familiar to millions of women everywhere, but I also know many of you have internalized this sexism as I once did, living by the old adage “Good girls ______” so I implore you: be bad; do the things that scare you; don’t shy away from the conflict, and never look back.