I grew up on Bible verses, prayer, and long skirts. My parents were believers and I was a child of God.
In hopes of aligning my intellectual development with scriptural morality, my parents opted to give me a faith-based education. From kindergarten until eighth grade I attended a small private Christian school, with twenty students per grade on average, situated in the lush suburban sprawl of Bucks County, PA.
By eighth grade, memorizing Psalms and pledging allegiance to the Bible and the American flag felt as vital as learning pre-algebra and biology. I sang hymns with conviction and chose modesty over fashion, sincerely believing that it was my way of paying tribute to an everlasting God. For me, being a good student was synonymous with being a good Christian.
On the brink of full-fledged adolescence, this began to shift. As puberty took vengeance on the minds and bodies of my classmates and me, the faculty at my school became even more invested in outlining the ways in which our changing bodies might compromise our mortal souls.
A few weeks into the fall semester, we were excused from gym class once a week. Our small class was divided into two groups. The boys filed into a separate room with a male teacher while my fellow female classmates and I met with a female teacher (who also happened to be the cheerleading coach) in another room.
Our teacher waited for us to settle into our seats before she distributed a slim burgundy and pastel pink workbook with the words “Christian Charm” delicately scrawled across the width of the cover, affixed above a budding rose. She smiled and gave us the standard "Your body is changing, this is a beautiful and special time" welcome to womanhood congratulatory speech.
We would be meeting once a week for about an hour to learn how to find the true path to physical and spiritual beauty with the help of Jesus Christ and a textbook published decades before my classmates and I were even born. We opened our workbooks and our teacher began.
Of course, we started with the basics. A section titled Posing Pointers focused on how to we should stand or sit. We were taught how to place our hands when they were at rest and encouraged to cross our legs modestly when sitting, to never let the threat of space to accumulate between our knees.
According to our textbook, a Christian girl’s posture and overall demeanor should be pleasant. We were put in pairs and assigned the task of documenting our posture, body profile, facial expression, and the positioning of our extremities. We then analyzed our findings into categories of yes and no per the suggestion of illustrations provided by our workbook.
It was simple: Inner beauty meant no slouching, clasped hands behind one’s waist, and most importantly an open and engaging smile as opposed to an unexpressive or “harsh” face.
During our second charm class, we were given the task of listing 10 ways we could improve our inner and outer beauty. I remember my classmates quickly filling in the blanks with phrases like “Better hair,” “Smile more often,” or “Memorize Proverbs.” Staring at the page of my workbook, I forced myself to do the same, assigning myself the goal of washing my face twice a day, maybe purchasing a tube of vanilla lip gloss, and saying "Oh my gosh" instead of "Oh my God."
Next, we went over diet. Before introducing us to the "helpful tool" of counting our caloric intake and how fun being fit can be, our teacher had each of us come up to the room one by one. We each took our turn standing still on an ordinary bathroom scale, some of us removing our shoes prior to letting it read our weight. Afterward, we were given a measuring tape, which we passed around the room, in order to document the width of our developing bust, upper arm, waist, hips, and calves.
After we recorded our measurements and weight in our workbook, we were called to the board in twos to share our numbers with the class. Thankfully, our instructor trusted us, because this gave me the opportunity to lie.
As I sat in my seat, I noticed how much my measurements differed in comparison to my classmates. Even when I broke the ninth commandment and made up a smaller number for my inches and weight, I was still nowhere close to the other numbers scrawled on the board. I was still what my classmate expressed as “too big.” Mortified, I slumped in my seat, but then remembered that good posture, which we learned about last week, was essential.
I straightened my back while my teacher consoled me, promising with an assuring smile that with diet and exercise I could lose weight. She directed my attention to the illustrated instructions for an exercise called “The Half Dozen” that appeared below a series of blank lines where I could record my daily food intake on page nine. Then she turned the pages of my workbook to a detailed calorie chart on page 12. She emphasized that the body was the temple of the Lord, and we must keep it holy and healthy. To end class that day we sang a hymn acapella written by the workbook’s author, titled “Create in Me Thy Beauty Now.”
During our next session of charm class, we were quizzed on our posture. In pairs, we compared each other’s stances to the images on a page titled “Is My Posture Lovely?” while our teacher walked around the room giving approving nods or corrective instruction while reminding us to smile.
After that, we briefly went over how to walk and sit with grace with emphasis on how to “assume a pretty sitting posture” and tips on how to avoid “swaying [our] hips unnecessarily." Snippets of rhyming meter outlined the dos and don’ts of cosmetics in the following way: “When going to a masquerade, we paint a gaudy face. But natural name is the rule for every other place.”
We were told less is more and to avoid bright or loud blushes, eyeshadows, or lipsticks that might make us look "impure." As for hair, the same rule applied. Natural, modest, feminine styles were the ideal. If our hair was long, we were advised not to cut it because as 1 Corinthians 11:15 pointed out “If a woman [should] have long hair, it’s a glory to her.”
“Don’t attract attention to yourself,” we read aloud as we went through the list detailing what a Christian girl should be. The page presented cosmetic scenarios and styling options for us to mark as right or wrong.
After cosmetics, we discovered how to determine our body type and face shape. Our options were tall and slim, medium height and large, or short and petite with a long or short neck. Again, I avoided sharing what my body type was according to the charts we were provided until a classmate used me as an example of how one person could have various traits. She described me as petite, but also large, and pointed out that my neck was too short for my face.
My teacher asked her to use the chart in our book to determine my forehead. She quickly responded with “low forehead” and quickly added that my nose was flat. My teacher continued to call on students to share their attributes before we went into an impassioned discussion about how to make the most of “what God gave us” and how to attain true femininity.
According to page 31 of our workbook, femininity was our "crowning glory" and was comprised of qualities like self-control, sweetness, purity, modesty, a demure manner, a quiet spirit, and most importantly chastity. Apparently attaining true femininity was simple, if the following rules were obeyed:
1) See that you look like a girl —not a boy.
2) Don’t usurp the role of the male.
3) Cultivate a quite, gentle spirit, and (again, this one is vital...)
4) Value your chastity.
For clarification, our teacher added that to value our chastity meant we would save ourselves for our husbands and avoid kissing until we were engaged. Hugs and holding hands in moderation were permissible premarital expressions of affection, as long as we left enough room for Christ and had the permission of our parents.
Now educated on how to obtain true femininity, we were given a checklist with the words “How Feminine Am I?” hovering in bold at the top of the page.
Attributes and actions were presented in opposition, the first column a list outlining what “destroy[s] femininity” and second outlining what “increase[s]” it. On either side of each column was a black and white illustration of a girl. One was dressed in sneakers, slacks, a T-shirt, and a Ringwald-esque circa "Pretty in Pink"-styled blazer with a patch that reads “#1.” Her hands were in her pockets. She had a pixie cut and a dialogue bubble of expletives marked in obscured punctuation extended from her mouth.
To the right side of the page another girl appeared. She wore a dress with a high collar. Its hem fell well below her knees. Her feet appeared in modest flats, positioned in a “pretty pose.” Above her head was nothing but blank space.
I went through the list, making sure to avoid marking attributes like “a bulky, flabby figure,” “unshaved legs,” ”[using] slang expressions,” “a dead pan face,” "reading smutty books,” and “a loud mouth” as qualities I didn’t possess. Instead I, like most of the girls in my class, checked off the majority of the qualities that appeared on the right side of the page, the qualities that aligned us with “femininity.”
As I checked off each “feminine” attribute, I couldn’t stop glancing to the illustrated girl on the left and thinking about how cool she seemed. I couldn’t stop thinking about how her attributes were more truthful to who I wanted to be. She looked confident and fearless. And even if they were just expletives, she had documented speech.
The rest of charm class focused on how to match prints and solids and how our grooming skills and modest wardrobe choices could help reflect our Christ-like beauty. We also were given a crash course on how to set and clear a table, then a quick overview on how to not dominate conversations when they include boys.
As the school year crept to an end, I chose which “rules” of femininity to apply and which to ditch. I washed my face to improve my complexion. I made sure to stand up straight. I used my allowance to by lipgloss and a mild body spray. I even exercised daily and started counting calories. I tried to eat less than 600 every day and did the “Half Dozen” before bed. Little did I know this would trigger years of disordered eating and food anxiety.
But at the time, just like my teacher promised, I began to lose weight. While applying what I had learned in my charm class, I also read smutty books, told bad jokes, and used expletives. I painted my nails black instead of pink. My skirts gradually became shorter. I wore purple lipstick. I picked fights and won loud arguments with the boys in my grade. At this point most of the girls in my class avoided me actively. I passed Christian charm with a C and transferred to a different school in the fall.
Since then, my faith and “femininity” has evolved in a way that it resembles something closer to the illustration of the girl I was taught not to be. Despite my teacher’s instance to smile, to be demure, and to never “usurp the role of the male,” I grew up to be a loudmouthed, swearing, feminist with slouched shoulders who drinks, lacks a ready smile and wears short skirts and see-through blouses that are wrinkled and sometimes torn. My eyebrows are bold and caked in pencil and my hair is unruly and rarely washed. I don’t shave my legs. I don’t shave my armpits. And my biggest concern is not my chastity.
In retrospect, I’m grateful for my Christian charm class. It was a crash course in identifying sexism and an introduction on how to sniff out misogyny parading itself as faith. Christian charm was my call to arms.