Hey! Long time no see!
When I was in middle school, I went to church camp a few years in a row. No need to be too specific about which one – it’s a Catholic camp, service-focused. The first year I went was the first year my church participated. They’re on their 11th year now. (God.)
I’ve told this specific story before. As of this week, it has a second part, though not yet a conclusion, maybe.
It was a wonderful camp – youth groups moved into vacant schools in the summer and spent days doing supervised home-improvement work in low-income neighborhoods for people who had expressed a need. Not evangelical; nobody told us to bring the Gospel to anybody. They just told us to do the work of Christ: To work hard and diligently and to learn how to do the things that people needed us to do, fixing screen doors or shoring up sagging garages or cleaning out the undersides of trailers or painting rooms. Talk to people if they wanted to talk; let them alone if they preferred just to see the work done. Evenings were prayer gatherings and group singing and, you know, church camp things – making us Emotional About The Lord, encouraging us with ringing invective to do amazing things with our lives. Quoting the Pope a lot. Being carefully apolitical and reverently enthusiastic.
The shower system, though! Three hundred teenage girls, working under the southern summer sun for eight straight hours in the dirt and the dust, having squealing paint fights and hauling bags and boxes of tools across swampy front yards, and we all needed to bathe in one middle school gymnasium, and our water allowance was ninety minutes. The way this worked was: Five girls showered at a time. We had it down to a science. Everyone slip in, hit the water, shuffle in a little circle, wash one piece of your hair, scrub one leg and then the other, wash under the bathing suit–
–because they all wore bathing suits into the shower. This was new to me, in middle school – this was expected, and I didn’t know it. I hadn’t brought one. I didn’t know what to do that first day, my towel wrapped around me and waiting in line, realizing I was the only one with no straps over my shoulders. Middle school – you all remember that. The instant you realized you’ve misunderstood a social cue every single other person around you remembers. And it was like a bad dream! One of the ones where you look down in the middle of the day and realize the reason everyone is looking at you is because you aren’t wearing any clothes. Can you imagine my sinking horror, twelve years old and about to be the only naked person in a room of 300 pre-teen girls?
My solution, in the end, was to find the one other person who’d missed the modesty memo. She was like me – her parents had never taught her that her nudity was shameful, that there was something embarrassing about being naked to bathe in front of other people. No one was allowed to shower alone, so we made a pact – we’d pretend to have bathing suits, we’d just shower together, and no one would know. Three minutes in, three minutes out, our towels clutched around our shoulders, slipping into the back of the locker room to toss t-shirts on before anyone could figure out our transgression.
Of course they found out. They were pre-teen girls. They found out, and that was the reason my youth group believed, for the entire rest of my time among their number, that I was a lesbian who went to church camp to get naked with other girls in the showers.
I didn’t know it for a while – not til camp was over and we got back and I was told about it, overheard whispering. I wasn’t a popular roommate after that, even years later. I never learned the extent of it, and I don’t know why that particular rumor lasted so long, but I never found friends in that group again. On my class Confirmation retreat, five years later, I would glance over my shoulder and see people mutter to each other, look quickly away, fall silent when I moved closer. Because when I was twelve years old, no one had taught me that my naked body was an inherently sexual thing.
My younger sister is attending the same camp for the first time this year. She texted me from her first day: “Okay, I absolutely see what you mean about the shower thing.” A little later: “I was the only person who didn’t wear a bra to go to sleep. I feel like they’re scared of their own boobs.”
They are afraid, even among each other, to wear only one layer of clothing to sleep. Even experiencing no lust for each other; being children, to whom it would not occur; believing, most of them, as I did, that they could not and should not feel that kind of attraction anyway; and they are still afraid, among each other, to be naked. To acknowledge the simple fact of their bodies. The fact of the naked body, they are taught, is a sexual fact; to be naked is a sexual act, and it does not even require another actor. They don’t fear their own nakedness because they believe that other people will be looking at them; they fear it because being naked can only mean that they intend other people to look, and that is their shame.
(And when someone near them bears that shame– when another girl doesn’t bring her bathing suit, when two girls are naked together for the three minutes it takes to wash the dirt of Christ’s work out of their hair and scrub the humidity out of their pores– then they remember it for years, make a guilty, gossipy obsession out of it, look at that girl in the months and years to come and always ever after see her naked.)
It is such a strange doublethink, and I have never understood it.
My sister sees it for how strange it is in a way I didn’t and couldn’t have. She’s older than I was, old enough to have learned otherwise. She’s got stronger convictions than I did as a kid, and a better self-esteem. But she also knew to bring a bathing suit.
I don’t want to make some sweeping societal statement, here. I haven’t kept in touch with many girls from Catholic camp. I know of a few of them – some of them did end up lesbians, actually! and some didn’t. A lot of them grew out of their shame, I’m sure. Not all of them are still Catholic. Some still are. Turns out they’re all individual people, whose personal moralities were only shaped to a certain extent by what they believed with all their hearts when they were twelve years old! Turns out there are a lot of directions for lives to go, and most of them probably don’t remember what they thought of a girl at church camp who they didn’t know personally, who someone whispered to them about on a Ski Trip For Jesus in sophomore year.
…Still. I remembered it, when it came up again today. No conclusion to be drawn here: A story without a lesson, without an ending. Maybe I’m the one, of all of us, who built too much out of that memory? Maybe I’m the one on whose personal morality it had the greatest effect, after all. Because, you know– even when I thought I didn’t care, I remembered. I didn’t go to youth group for a few years, because every time I was with them, I still felt naked.