Purity culture and boudoir photos: one reverend's reaction to T.I. and virginity tests


Guest post by Rev. Michelle Wahila
All photos by Paige Elisa Gribb

When the news hit last week that rapper T.I. required his 18-year-old daughter to undergo yearly “virginity tests,” the medical community fired back, calling the tests everything from cruel to humiliating. My own personal reaction was a mix between outrage and sorrow. In 2019, it seems unreal that such a practice can still be supported and performed in countries around the world, including the U.S.

The antiquated practice undoubtedly stereotypes a woman’s sexuality. Subjecting young woman to a yearly “virginity examination,” not only cannot prove virginity, but leaves behind lasting scars. No matter what the underlying cultural or religious principle is that prompts such an invalid medical procedure, there is no valid health justification for exposing women to this practice.

There will be plenty of people who look at T.I.’s admission of requiring this test of his daughter and write it off as either celebrity ridiculousness or contained to a rather small percentage of extremists (religious, cultural, etc.).

I cannot speak for every culture or religion, but I can say with certainty that purity culture is alive and well in conservative Christian circles… and that doing boudoir photography is one way I've chosen to push back.

Purity culture and being "damaged goods"

While I grew up in a progressive Christian community, the rural community in which that small church was placed was anything but progressive. Paired with a less than stellar college choice that boasted a “Mrs.” Degree as the best degree with which a girl could leave campus, I am well versed in the damage that purity culture can inflict on people.

Virginity tests are but one symptom of a pervasive culture taking away much more. Being reared in this culture meant living day to day with the unspoken expectations of what made me worthy – to wear white on my wedding day, to be married, and ultimately to be loved. It was the rarely talked about, yet somehow distinctly understood, legalistic rules that defined love.

The irony, of course, is that for a faith that promotes love over all things, these expectations build fear, not love, into relationships. There is always an underlying fear of somehow messing up or simply not being enough that accompanies purity culture. This foundation of fear leads so many down the rabbit hole of shame and guilt surrounding body image and sexuality. Moreover, it leaves people unable and unprepared to enter into healthy relationships (sexual or not).

In the era of the “Silver Ring Thing” purity culture promoted the ideal that even if you were “damaged goods” you could reclaim your virginity until marriage with that sparkling silver ring that did not care if you had been pressured, abused or raped. It only cared if you were white as snow, to the point where if you reclaimed it in your heart, you could be spared the pain of being single forever. This ridiculous and manipulative psychological construct ran rampant through evangelical circles promising good marriages to those who followed the purity rules. Hands went up in arenas, and rings went on fingers across America.

Robbed of healthy spiritual choices surrounding our bodies

The end result was an entire generation of “Christians” who had zero ability to discuss healthy sexuality. Sexuality was segmented from all of the other things that made for a good partner and a whole human being. It also ignited the courtship movement that “kissed dating goodbye” and further tightened down the path to the promised land of a healthy and successful marriage.

“Good” Christians traded dating for courting, removing all the temptations that accompanied dating. Of course, everyone just wanted to get to the “good part” of marriage. This reimagining of the proper path to marriage led to quick engagements and plenty of creative ways to “bend” the purity rules. Who needed to date, when you could court? And if you were courting, how bad could a little hanky-panky really be (as long as you hung onto that one essential “thing”)?

The “naughtiness” of it all only added an intriguing layer, particularly in parallel to a prevalent rape culture, whose success relies heavily on power differentials and imbalances. The patriarchy runs deep in Christian culture, running parallel to purity culture as well. At the intersection of purity culture and rape culture, both under the umbrella of the heteropatriarchy, are those who have been told there are “not enough” from both ends of the spectrum.

The paradox of elevating this “perfect characteristic” above all of the other desirable characteristics found in a partner, is that it tricks us into an understanding of love, sexuality and marriage that is less than it should be. By placing purity above all else, we are robbed of healthy spiritual choices surrounding our bodies. Choices surrounding our bodies are taken away and an incredibly narrow view of Scripture is endorsed as the only option for those wanting to claim Christian faith.

Shame, guilt, anxiety, fear

I realize that I come to this issue with privilege: I am a white-cis-woman who has been given the option for higher education. This is, perhaps, what saddens me and enrages me the most. In identifying how damaging this culture has been for me, I cannot imagine how deeply these wounds run for others.

Shame, guilt, anxiety, fear – only a few of purity culture’s inherited words still circling in my mind surrounding my own body. Only as I inch closer to 40, am I able to come to a new healthier appreciation of my body (one which has now birthed two babies and run multiple marathons), that also includes faith.

To this day, I am not sure that I look in the mirror and see the divine looking back at me.

Yet, this is what I believe is a faithful representation of body positivity and self-love.

The best way to combat the oppression of purity culture is to shout into the universe unabashed and unashamed freedom. Freedom means being able to make choices surrounding one’s body and sexuality, but it also means leaning into self-love in ways that push back on arbitrary cultural boundaries.

The sensuality of boudoir stares down a culture that equates femininity with the forbidden fruit. At the same time, it explores expressions of creative and artistic freedom, which can bring a sense of empowerment and healing to those who have lived through the worst of what purity culture proposes as truth.

How boudoir photography helps us see ourselves as worthy

Perhaps my own outrage has become somewhat flippant toward a culture that once tried to box me in, but I refuse to watch another generation of young women scarred by purity culture’s lies.

This is why these gorgeous boudoir photos came to be and why I have encouraged others to embrace fun, quirky, healing photo sessions focused on both the body and love of the body.

Yes, even with all of our perceived “imperfections,” our wrinkles and extra weight, we can slowly come to see ourselves as worthy enough to carry divine light.

It never ceases to amaze me how so much joy can burst out of a person who is given permission to love one’s self, and simply to claim the divine spark within.

At the same time, it’s difficult to throw these photos into the universe, knowing full well that they will garner criticism. I will be told that I am immodest, dirty, and shameful. Maybe T.I. would even cover his eyes.

The best way to combat the oppression of purity culture

Luckily, all my years in the pulpit and purity culture’s scars have prepared me well for such moments. With grace, and gratitude for a new existence, I can simply say, “no.”

With a voice I didn't even know I had, I can say, “no” to a culture that continues to wound people, and speak a different set of words into the universe. This exercise in abundant self-love is a way to claim the divine in myself, for my female body, and symbolically for every human being. It’s exposing – not the skin that might dare to be shown but the shame, guilt, fear, anxiety we have experienced.

T.I.’s admission ended with another equally as appalling confession – his sexually active 15-year-old son does not need to adhere to the same purity principles. The cyclical damage of the heteropatriarchy continues by way of double standards. Another young woman’s freedom to develop a healthy sexuality is squelched by barbaric “virginity checks” and the overarching narrative that women only have value if they are pure is pushed into mainstream by a bragging celebrity dad.

How different this news reel could have been if T.I.'s daughter Deyjah hadn’t been parented by possession but freedom. Rather than a conversation about her virginity and a Twitter “unfollow,” what would it look like to focus on how much Deyjah is loved, the value she has a human being, and if/when she finds a partner, the value that person will place on her for who she is (rather than whether or not she is a virgin)? Sadly, good parenting rarely blows up the internet.

Vendor list:
Planner & Officiant: Rev. Michelle Wahila • Photographer: Paige Elisa Gribb • Venue: Manoir de Jouralem • Videographer: Caitlin Young • Florals & Styling: Anastasiya Makarenko • Hair & Make Up: Joleen Emory • Champagne: Albert Beerens • Lace Bridal Boots: Nicole Lee Stachowiak, House of Elliot Lace Boots • Veil, Cape & Silk Ribbons: Champagne and Grit • Couture Embroidered Textile Pieces: Jan Knibbs • Jewelry: Sam Ryde Jewellery • Garter: Extra Special Touch • Lingerie: Mirrored Images Boudoir • Models: Joleen @makeupbyjoleen, Michelle @ruffledbygrace, Ainsley @ainsleydsphotography

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