When I was six years old, some moms took a bunch of us kids to the Santa Cruz Beach and Boardwalk, which was (in my pre-Disneyland years) my actual, best place in the whole world.
Somewhere in the half-mile of noisy carnival rides and smells there was, in those days, a Fun House that had a tall, indoor “wavy” slide with an undulating surface. You’d buy a ticket and the man would give you a burlap sack to take with you to the top of the slide. It made you go down so fast you’d fly a little over each of the humps. Yes, fly!
With my brother and mother, I had just trudged up from the beach. My brother had his street clothes back on, but I still wore my wet bathing suit, and was covered in sand. We bought our tickets, but the man with the sacks wouldn’t let me onto the slide, and pointed to a sign forbidding wet bathing suits.
So my mother (who had my clothes in a bag but didn’t want the hassle of shuttling me off to a changing area for just one ride on the slide) tried to badger him to waive this silly rule, which she said should not exist on a ride near a beach, a ride for kids for godssake.
I hated that she did this. That she should argue with a stranger and try to get me to break the rules (I mean, the sign!!!) was mortifying, paralyzing — I would have gladly given up the slide to make her stop. But then, waving her cigarette around, she came up with the a workaround perfectly solved everything.
She told me to just take my wet suit off.
Meaning, go naked.
There was no spite in this. In the hippie utopia of her mind there was no problem with this. Why would I not do this? Who could possibly mind? It’s just a body! Very natural!
I didn’t want to make a scene but I was desperate to be understood, that no WAY was I going naked, and please, please stop saying this in front of everyone…
“Don’t be silly. Just take this off!” she said and tried to pull down my bathing suit bottoms. With my claws I tore at her hands and got away from her, clenching my arms to my body to keep the bathing suit parts where I wanted them, on my top, on my bottom. I wanted to leave. She rolled her eyes and gave up, and told me I was being MODEST.
That is precisely the right word for how I felt. But in those days, in my family, “modest” meant rigid, joyless, foolish, Republican, too much like my father. She’d used this word before when I wouldn’t let anyone but her help me to use the toilet. And again when I was crying inside a sleeping bag at a big grown-up party in the woods, because people (who were tripping on acid) had danced naked in front of me.
“Oh ANNA Marie you’re so MODEST.”
There are so many points in female life when one has to override the natural modesty. You learn to override to use junior-high community showers. You learn to override at the gynecologist. And if you have really internalized the idea that modesty is shameful, you can learn to override your better instincts just about anywhere, or with anyone.
Got a feeling that you don’t want to be naked and exposed or intimate with someone but things have already progressed so far that it will be awkward to stop? Override. Don’t want to lie to someone, but the truth will make them reject you? Override. Don’t want to risk breaking the law, but everyone else is doing it and you don’t want to get them in trouble? Override.
In Northern California, in my generation, a lot of youthful overriding was required of a person like me. The trick is to shut down inner discomfort in order to appear like you’re cool, non-judgmental, or laid back. Things like group hot tubs, staying “friends” with someone who dumped you, or having “expectations” of someone because sex has occurred. You really have to commit to an override 100%, because once you start, your tender instincts become unreliable, which means you better get tough or you’ll get hurt, and everyone knows girls who are hurt are a pain in the ass. Not cool. Judgmental. Get away from them.
So you have to get good at pretending not to care. I was good at it, but not quite good enough. This went on for years.
My real self began to come out of this spiritual coma when I started to pay more attention to the question of what is right, and what is wrong.
Right isn’t always obvious at first, but wrong has a distinctive tight feeling to it. If you let it linger a little, it will either release into ease (not-wrong) or grow into the old sense of uneasiness (wrong). This is a natural process if you willing to be honest and focus.
I can’t always do this. Sometimes I only learn when things get really bad.
One such opportunity was in my early 40s, when a series of medical catastrophes made it necessary for me to get an ileostomy, which remained attached to my belly for four years. It was right after my divorce and was colossally unsexy. It caused a chain of painful blockages and cramping that required frequent medical interventions — interventions where my override skills came in VERY handy — interventions that involved a lot of relaxing and soaking in hot water.
Before the ileostomy years, I used to visit a hot spring resort where I loved relaxing in the water, but secretly hated the fact that everyone there bathed naked. I felt that I had to bathe naked too, or else they’d think I was.. you know, MODEST. So I overrode.
With the ileostomy, I didn’t think other spa-goers would much like to see me walking around with “the appliance” on view. It saved my life and was perfectly sealed and clean, but it was hella icky to look at, even for me.
So I wore board shorts and a tankini. Yes, wore a bathing suit right in front of everyone. It is certainly possible they were in fact judging me, thinking I was some soccer mom who got lost in her RV. But whatever. I am in fact a soccer mom, and the bathing suit was for their own good.
And you know what? Wearing a bathing suit is so COMFORTABLE. It’s so freeing to wear what I want, to feel as covered as I like to be, with no pressure to override and pretend. It sounds like I’m singing the praises of nakedness, doesn’t it? But not for me. The freedom is the feeling I get from being MODEST.
P.S. If you’re interested in learning more about how I recovered from the effects of trauma during childhood, I invite you to check out my course “Healing Childhood PTSD.” It’s loaded with videos (accompanied by a workbook) that teach real strategies to calm the disregulation and start making changes that lead to happiness.
All the best,