Leave That Girl Alone: On Policing the Bodies of Young Women in Church

Black women are said to be the most religious group in America. What happens, then, when the oppressive and constraining practices of the black church push us away during childhood?

For eighteen years of my life, my family would wake up every Sunday at 6:00 am and head to our mega church in Southfield, Michigan. Like a lot of small black children, I attended the children's service while my parents attended the service in the main sanctuary. I was interested in the one thing children are excited to do whenever they're around their peers: I wanted to make friends. The obvious step to take was to join the Children's Choir.

My earliest experience with church oppression begins here: I was around nine years old and summer vacation was in full-swing. It was hot outside as well as indoors, so I wore a t-shirt and shorts to my first day of choir rehearsal. Midway through a successful rehearsal, a volunteer came over to me and pulled me aside.

"Your shorts are too short," she said to me sternly. "What kind of girl will people think you are if they see you wearing these shorts?"
I was stunned and embarrassed. I didn't reply.
"Next time," the volunteer said as she tried to tug my shorts down to an “acceptable” length, "Dress like a respectable girl."

I returned to my seat trying not to cry. I looked over at the boy next to me. His shorts were the same length as mine.

The second notable experience with respectability politics in the church did not occur until years later. I was a geeky, awkward thirteen-year-old and had graduated from Children's Choir to the Youth Choir. Our performance in front of the large congregation and founder was coming up, and the choir instructors were fine-tuning the details of our songs.

On one of the songs, we (the choir) were instructed to break out into dance and let loose. The music started and I, true to my awkward self, broke out doing the Carlton dance. The music stopped.

"You." The instructor, a short, squat man rushed over to me. "What are you doing?"
"The Carlton?" I replied.
"You can't do that. You're shaking and moving your hips too much. It's too sexual. Do another dance."

The music started again.

Again, I was embarrassed. This time, however, an anger accompanied the embarrassment.

How dare he single me out like that?

I was just having fun!

Why should I be ashamed of my body?

My perception of the church changed a little that day. I began noticing things about the messages the bishop was giving; small, woman-shaming comments disguised as the Word sprinkled throughout his sermons.

But even as I noticed these things, a nagging feeling tugged at the back my mind. What was I doing critiquing the church? Clearly if I loved Jesus and accepted Him as my Savior, I wouldn't even be having these thoughts. Right?

There is a problem in our churches where elder members feel entitled to harshly and loudly shame young girls who are simply being themselves. This policing causes many women who have been shamed into thinking that there is something inherently sinful with the female body, especially the black female body. Sadly, in order to escape accusations of being "promiscuous" and "fast", a lot of young black girls internalize these views as a form of self-preservation. Finally, safe spaces are being created for black women to share their similar experiences. We are flourishing in an environment where we have been shamed into silence. My experience is not unique to just myself.

So what happens when black women face these obstacles in the church?

We thrive.

Kinsey Clarke is a senior at Michigan State University. She enjoys aerial silks and solo trapeze in her spare time. You can follow her personal Twitter account here (@tiny_kinsey).

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