How Purity Culture Challenged My Self-Worth and Fueled My Eating Disorder

How Purity Culture Challenged My Self-Worth and Fueled My Eating Disorder October 17, 2016

This guest post was written by Allison Lynch.


Trigger Warning: this post discusses eating disorders.


Help me, I’m hurting.

I’m not really sure where to begin. If you grew up listening to conservative Evangelical teachings, you know that it’s hard to define exactly when the indoctrination settled in. It’s always been a part of you, and it takes years to distinguish fear-based beliefs from reality. Your mind and your decisions are no longer yours, and you become accustomed to the suffocating, toxic air that lives inside of Evangelical church settings. It’s masked by friendly, seemingly wise adults and the loving, idyllic image of an innocent, white Jesus who you’ve crucified simply by being born.

I’ve wanted to write this for a long time. It’s been stewing inside of me, like some kind of thick, undesirable sewage. My story is full of rage, fear, and anger. It takes an incredible amount of self-control to tame this part of me, this angry side of myself that imprisons my thoughts. Writing helps. Perhaps that’s why I chose English as my major and pursued a career in copywriting. Writing helps me alleviate this sickening weight inside my chest, until it becomes unruly again and manifests itself in some form of self-depreciation. Words are the tangible umbilical cord from my soul to the paper. The handshake between thoughts and reality. They give me life, and so I will tell my story to quell the pain, and to find temporary healing.

I guess I’ll start with “The Silver Ring Thing,” circa 2003, although the concept of purity was already very much a prominent topic in my life, and had been for several years. I was 13 years old, and desperate for my youth group crush to like me back. The Silver Ring Thing, which is still alive and well today, tours the country and teaches kids that sex before marriage is bad, abstinence is God’s plan for you, and that dating inevitably leads to bad sexual decisions. They sell “True Love Waits” rings and describe themselves as setting a “New Standard.” As if God has standards for you to be valued. As if your sexual identity defines your worth.

I can already feel the anger frothing beneath my veins. I’ll try to reel it back in and finish my point.

What I remember most clearly from the event was the troupe of actors and actresses role-playing different dating scenarios on stage. I had never dated anyone before, but I believed these people to be sincere and accurate in their representation of the dating world. It was a scary place to be. Guys were visual creatures who always wanted sex, and girls were victims who constantly had to ward off sexual advances.

There was a big red heart on stage made of construction paper. Every time they acted out a different dating situation, they would violently rip a piece of the heart off until it was no longer a heart. Eventually it was a pile of shreds on the floor.

“This is what your heart will look like if you give it away,” said a woman on stage. “You’ll have nothing left to give to your spouse! Is that what you want?”

“No!” we all chimed.

She paced around and made an exaggerated exhale into the microphone. “I was observing you guys out there before we got started,” said the woman. “I saw the game you guys were playing.” She smiled and chuckled to herself.

“You find someone attractive, you stare at them, then as soon as they look back, you turn your eyes away! I call it the ‘flirt and avert’ game. Flirt a little, then look away!” She laughed some more and shook her head while looking at the ground.

The audience laughed nervously. A deep sense of shame started hardening in the pit of my throat. She was right, I had done this moments ago. Oh my god, I had done this exact same thing. I had lusted with my eyes, I wanted my youth group crush to notice me. I was a bad person for having sexual needs.

Perhaps that is when the real guilt settled in, I can’t be quite sure. Such a small moment, but something I still remember after twelve years. But that is the unfortunate thing with teaching kids about love and dating and sex before they even know what any of that is. They will believe you. They are convinced of something before they are even allowed to have an opinion about it.

From that point on, my disgust toward sex and judgment toward people having sex only grew. I viewed people through a black and white lens. Couples at school who were having sex were bad, sinful people. Adults I knew who were living together, but weren’t married, were doomed to have a failed relationship. Secular culture rejoiced in sexual sin, but as a perfect Christian girl, I was morally superior to everyone because I decided to guard my virginity.

I desperately wanted to date people, but I didn’t know how to. Family members would joke around the holidays and ask if “any cute boys” had asked me out. What was I supposed to say? Even if boys had shown any interest, I wasn’t allowed to say “yes” to them. I wasn’t allowed to have a choice. It was “no” until marriage. Consent was taken away from me and placed in the hands of God.

Let’s rewind a little further back.

There was the day I attended a mother-daughter weekend on the Cape and listened to Dennis and Barbara Rainey explain how sex was just like approaching the edge of a cliff. Hand-holding leads to kissing. Kissing leads to “fondling” (God I hated that word). Before you know it, you’ve fallen off the cliff into an irreversible sexual plummet.

Oh, and then there was the demonstration of the glass of water. The pure glass of water, slowly darkened by the various drops of food coloring until it was murky and brown. Until of course the bleach, aka Jesus, wiped you clean of all your terrible mistakes.

Your body is sinful. You are nothing. You are worthless. Oh Jesus, come and save me from myself.

Then there was the day my mother handed me a bunch of papers she had printed out and stapled together. It was about a bride who had saved her first kiss until her wedding day. I remember her picture. She was beautiful, blonde, and happy, holding hands with her smiling husband. She was wearing a white wedding dress.

This is what you need to be, this is the epitome of righteousness. This is how to have a happy marriage.

At home, it seemed like every other week there was a new Christian book passively placed on top of my dresser. The older I got, the bigger my purity book collection grew.

Every Young Woman’s Battle by Shannon Ethridge and Steve Arterburn
What Are You Waiting For? by Dannah Gresh
And The Bride Wore White by Dannah Gresh
I Kissed Dating Goodbye by Joshua Harris

These books taught me that the older I got, the more susceptible I was to boys and risky sexual behavior. My body was a dangerous thing. I now had boobs and my pants were much tighter around the hips and thighs. Where was this coming from? I had no control over it anymore. It was becoming voluptuous and needy. It demanded attention. It wanted to wear lacy bras and cute underwear, like the Victoria’s Secret models. It wanted to be noticed. Its heart would beat fast around cute boys at school. It would sweat, get shaky, adjust its hair 100 times in the mirror until the perfect ponytail was achieved.

This body was sexual, curious, excited. This body was dangerous. This body was sinful. This body belonged to Jesus, not to myself.

The month of October, 2006, I decided to become anorexic. I was 15. I was sitting on my computer at home looking for “ana” inspiration, fascinated by sickly thin pictures of women on the Internet. The concept was simple enough. Eat less, exercise more, get skinnier. Deny myself, just like Jesus would. It was a completely holy act, just like fasting. I was not comfortable with the fact that my clothes were tight, or that my cleavage stared back up at me when I looked down. These parts of my body were disgusting, quite frankly. They were symbols of sex, which my mind was programmed to believe were very bad things.

The easiest solution was to get rid of them, and so that is what I did.

For the next year and a half of my life I starved myself like a professional. I lost twenty-eight pounds in about four months. I also ran Varsity Track & Field. I did very well. I ran my fastest high school times. I was so thin, and so fast. I was on top of the world. I only had enough energy for homework, running, and passing out by 9PM with barely a whisper left in my body. Life consisted of 1,000 calories a day. It was perfectly in control.

I stopped getting my period. My breasts were numb and practically inverted. My hips and my cheekbones protruded like sharp daggers. My skin was dull and dry. I had no sexual appetite anymore. My parts “down there” didn’t get warm anymore when I saw a boy I liked or watched rated-R movies with sex scenes (which I had to secretly watch at friends’ houses since they weren’t Christian movies). I didn’t even have the energy to blush, to care if boys liked me. The only life I could stir inside my cold, hollow corpse was the fuel to survive one more day.

This is what success feels like. 

This is how I would stave off sexual desire, by distracting myself with calorie obsession and fucking up my hormones until sexual urges disappeared. I didn’t have to worry anymore about shopping for bigger bras or getting pregnant, since I couldn’t even have a period. I would be perfectly preserved for my husband until marriage.

I won’t bore you with the details of my outpatient hospital treatments, my weekly weigh-ins with doctors, or my various stress fractures as a result of my waning bone density. Life was an ongoing battle for the next few years. While friends were getting their first boyfriend, experiencing their first kiss, and shopping for prom, I was drinking 3 bottles of water before my doctor’s appointments to convince them I had gained weight.

I think I’m a lucky one, because I worked hard to peel back the suffocating layers of Evangelicalism, one by one. Today I stand tall at a healthy weight. Although riddled with guilt and shame from time to time for engaging in normal human behavior, like wanting to be touched or wearing fitted dresses that show off a body I had to teach myself to be proud of, I somehow manage to embrace things like feminism, LGBT rights, and world religions. Sure, sometimes I still panic and think maybe Satan has hijacked my value system and I’m doomed for Hell, but I try to tell myself I’m a good person and that I’ve only slept with like, 3 people, which isn’t a lot compared to most people.

I’m an adult now so I have to take responsibility for my actions. Jesus does not make choices for me. I am free to be me, to make choices that make me happy instead of suffocating me. I must repeat this to myself on a daily basis. I’m still not comfortable with a lot of things. Boobs and butts and hips scare me. Wanting sex in my relationship is a constant challenge. I falsely accuse my boyfriend of only wanting to be with me for sex, despite the fact that we’ve been together for 4 years. The fear bubbles up every so often, and I take it out on myself and on others. But I’m thankful I’m aware enough to know these thoughts are just indoctrinated fears momentarily awakened in my subconscious when challenges arise. I will continue to move forward. Maybe one day I’ll be ok with who I am, not what purity culture wanted me to be.

Help me, I’m still hurting.


allison-lynchAbout Allison Lynch

Allison Lynch is a twenty-something who lives and works in Boston as a marketing communications professional in the health & fitness industry. When she’s not writing, she’s either training for her next competitive running event, or volunteering at the House Rabbit Network, a shelter for abandoned, domestic rabbits. Her goal in life is to use writing and art as ways to connect with others, and to help women feel empowered through the strength and beauty of their unique bodies.

Author photo by Shef Reynolds / Article photo by Dan Wilkinson

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