Young women following the patriarchal doctrine of William Branham’s “Message of the Hour” liked to refer to themselves as the “skirt girls.” Skirts and dresses were the only attire sufficiently modest and feminine for young ladies raised in the shadow of the prophet. Hemlines had to fall below the knees – and stay below them when the wearer was sitting down. Hair often besieged the knees from above, making them a kind of modesty battleground that should never, ever catch a gleam of daylight. Tanned knees were the mark of a harlot. As a little girl, I didn’t mind it much. I was convinced that my wrinkly knees were unsightly and ought to be hidden in the first place. What was I competing with, anyway – neon 1990s stirrup pants? I enjoyed my new dresses, as long as they weren’t too fussy or ruffled. They felt elegant, dressy. I felt more grown up. And so I grew up conscious of my skirt, learning not to get it caught in things or trip on it going up the stairs. It became so much an extension of my body that I hardly knew what my legs looked like under it. No one else certainly did.
My only wistful glances at jeans came when I was thirteen, an age when I had developed secular friends and was learning not to be afraid of the world. Apart from that single year, skirts were a given. They were as unquestioned as my gender itself: I could as easily decide not to be a woman as I could decide to wear pants.
I wore bike shorts underneath them to avoid the discomfort of my legs chafing together and also to give myself a means of pursuing the activities I loved: riding my bike, climbing trees, and being generally physically active. The shorts were of neon spandex, purchased at the secondhand store and worn until the seams split – and sometimes afterwards, with amateurish repair jobs as life support. I faced genuine distress in my teens when the shorts began to disappear from the thrift shop racks. The 1980s had begun to breathe their final shuddering breaths, and I mourned them in solitude. What it meant was that I didn’t know how to replace a crucial element of my wardrobe.
I was the only girl I knew to wear shorts under her skirts. Most girls seemed to accept their terrestrial lot and didn’t climb or run with my dogged insistence. Perhaps the parents looked at me askew because the sheer physicality of my love for the outdoors tripped their warning wires – this was a girl who could not be contained in a single pasture. She was clearly not a lamb to be penned – and thus probably not a lamb at all. It became clearer and clearer to me as I got older that the only acceptable activity for girls was walking – walking and talking was all we did together. I protested this by inserting myself into the boys’ football games after church, and two other girls followed – none of us had any great love for football, but we all felt similarly stifled. The adults humored us as children, but looked at us with increasing suspicion as we grew closer to driving age.
In the meantime, I took a weekly gym class for homeschoolers at the local outdoor camp, where our activities included a smattering of team sports and outdoor challenges. One of these was wall-climbing, and another was the zip line, tethered 30 feet in the air from the trunk of a tall pine tree. Terrified of heights but resolute, I strapped on my harness and took hold of that tree – but first I had to secure my skirt. The faded denim wad protruded in one huge, humiliating lump from my harness, drawing all eyes to my butt. I knew I looked like a fool, but I gritted my teeth and reached for the next peg. I was going up that tree! And I was doing it in a skirt.
It took several moments of intense deliberation before I finally plunged myself forward into the air, defying my instincts to cling to the tree for security. For a moment it felt like death, emptiness, falling into nothing – then I surged forward in a breathtaking rush and felt that my skirt was nothing but a set of feathers trailing behind me. After a few moments my friends were obliged to collect me with the ladder, my flapping skirt signaling just how different I was supposed to be, even as I did what everyone else was doing. But I had passed another hurdle – if I could do the zipline in a skirt, then I had proved that it was possible for women to do things that defied their own clothing, their own gender.
For years, I challenged anyone who mentioned a boys’ activity that I could do that very thing in a skirt and be absolutely fine. I went skiing with a skirt rippling over my snow pants. I biked almost every day around the countryside, careful of which skirts could get stuck in the wheels and which were constrained by my knees. I did not concern myself with the fact that none of my companions were female – I would not be bound to a life without movement. I even knew a woman who had gone scuba diving and convinced her instructor to let her wear a dress over her wetsuit. To that inspirational end, I pestered my father that we ought to go down to the beach and rent a skidoo, so I could prove myself yet again and check one more thing off the list.
He refused. He only took my mother and me to the beach once or twice in that decade, because in our dowdy, dripping dresses, we were too embarrassing to be seen.
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Sierra is a PhD student living in the Midwest. She was raised in a “Message of the Hour” congregation that followed the ministry of William Branham. She left the Message in 2006 and is the author of the blog The Unspoken Words: A Non-Prophet Message.