I am at a department store in downtown Chicago, looking at a two-piece bathing suit. It’s summertime, and I’m going home in a couple of months to see my little sister graduate from high school. My family lives in Jamaica, and I know that my dad will take us to the coast while I’m there.
The bathing suit is gorgeous, a vivid cross between coral and cherry-red. But as I pass the synthetic fabric through my fingers, my mind is in a different place. What I am experiencing now is an internal struggle that has defined the last few years of my life: the fight to be young.
I am a daughter of the Church, and I have been since birth. Like many daughters of this institution, I was raised to be dutiful. Things of God were to be my first priority, always. I would not be left to my own devices. My course would be charted and guided by church mothers, youth leaders and other elders.
Peer interaction, particularly interaction with boys, would not play a major role in my development. It was viewed as a breeding ground for an assortment of iniquities. So it was kept at a minimum and heavily supervised if allowed. But the effects of whatever peer interaction I did experience were overridden by an inordinate amount of mentoring. My young mind was handed over to older conservative Christian women to be shaped and influenced. These women taught me several principles that I am now trying desperately to revoke—they taught me how to think like them.
My age-appropriate desires became vulnerable to their interpretation and judgment. If I wanted to be pretty, I was shallow. If I wanted to be trendy, I was materialistic. If I was interested in boys, I was frivolous. If I wanted to be involved with anything outside of church, I was pledging allegiance to a hell-bound secular world.
And so, church activity became my antibiotic.
I spent an exorbitant amount of time singing in the choir, teaching Sunday school, performing in Christian dramas and studying complex theological principles—activities that the older women approved of. In the absence of peer affirmation, church became the putty that held my fragile sense of self together.
It was not long before I developed an attitude of righteous indignation towards my peers, particularly the non-Christian ones. It was not based on true conviction, but on a brainwashing of sorts. And even as I maintained a sense of moral superiority, I deeply envied my peers’ ability to participate in age-appropriate activities and grieved their absence in my own life.
My ability to be spontaneous and rebellious was eroding away by the constant conditioning from older Christian women. How could I rebel against the older generation when I had been made to think and act like one of them?
When I was 17 years old I left home to attend college overseas. In the absence of excessive accountability of my church community, I felt a feeble pulse emerge. Atrophied but alive—it was my ability and desire to be young.
I went on a few dates, and then a few more. I bought a skirt that came to my knees. I got my nose pierced and inserted a tiny diamond fleck.
I took small steps towards liberation. I felt restored and alive.
And this bathing suit that I was holding, this was another small step.
I could feel it rising—the familiar pressure to be prudent, to be the moral gatekeeper.
I hesitated a final time, then pulled the bathing suit off the rack and put it in my shopping basket. Perhaps some would not approve of my purchase. But there is a greater sin involved here—the sin of a young woman rejecting her youth, and the God-given gifts that are elemental to it—the health and beauty, the vigor, the innocence, the spontaneity, the curiosity.
These things are not sins; they are the etymology of youth. And they are things that many older Christians do not know how to celebrate. The acceleration of emotional growth and the invalidation of youth are damaging to children and adolescents. Yet, these defects are far too evident in sermons and Sunday school lessons that are taught on a consistent basis.
I continue to walk the tight rope: clinging to my morality while resisting the urge to interpret my youthful inclinations as sin. My heart and prayers go out to the many young Christian women who do the same. We are daughters of the Church, and we are fighting to believe in the beauty of our youth. We are fighting to be guiltlessly young.