On my seventh birthday my friend Zara gave me a sun dress with red, white, and green pinstripes. It was the most beautiful dress I had ever owned. I loved it the moment I saw it and wore it as often as I could. In my candy cane stripes and with my hair twisted into cinnamon-rolls like Princess Leia, I felt beautiful.
A heat wave hit Salt Lake City, driving the temperatures up well over 110. The heat made breathing painful. Each breath came like the drag of sandpaper over skin while the sunlight was so bright it blinded. I walked to school in my sundress under the shade of the box elder trees. I felt happy. The world was bright and warm and nature buzzed and shifted like a symphony around me. I walked into school, set my lunch bag in the bin and walked to my desk.
“Eleanor.” When I looked up my teacher was frowning at me. “Come here.” Rising from my desk I walked to her. What had I done wrong and why was she looking at me like that. “Girls are not allowed to show more skin then a tee-shirt reveals. You know the garments rule don’t you?” This last question assumes I’m Mormon, while questioning how I could have forgotten the LDS rules of modesty. I feel confused.
“I’m not a Mormon.”
“The garment rule still applies to you.” Her response is terse, her eyes sharp. “Mrs. Smith, please take Eleanor to the lost and found and find her something appropriate to cover herself with.” Mrs. Smith, our classroom aid takes my arm as if I’ll run away and forces me before her to the office. Inside the secretary rises, her eyes concerned. By the look on her tired old face I can see that my shoulders have upset her.
“Eleanor forgot to wear a sweater over her sun dress. We’re going to take something from the lost and found.” I don’t rise my eyes. I’m too ashamed. My little striped sundress with its pretty spaghetti straps is a humiliation. I feel too naked and too ashamed to look at the ancient secretary as she leads us into a side room labeled lost and found.
I watch Mrs. Smith sort past tee-shirts and hooded zip up jackets until she finds a knee length cable knit wool sweater. “Put this on and do not ever wear that dress to school again without a sweater to cover your shoulders. It is immodest and ungodly to show so much skin.”
“But it’s hot out.” I look at my feet, my voice imploring her to take pity on me. “Couldn’t I wear a tee-shirt over it?”
“No. You’ll wear this sweater. It will help you remember the garment rule.”
Sliding into the sweater I find it itchy and hot. Mrs. Smith buttons it down the front so that my shameful little sundress disappears beneath it. Not even the hem can be seen at the bottom. I watch Mrs. Smith roll up the sleeves before sending me back to class. When the bell for recess rings I unbutton the sweater and walk to hang it on the peg.
“Put it back on and button it up.” Mrs. Smith walks towards me, her fingers grabbing at the sweater, forcing me back into it.
“But it’s hot out.”
“Which will help you remember the garment rule!” I’m forced to watch Mrs. Smith button the heavy sweater up to its last button, the rough wool scratching my chin. Then I’m forced out of the air conditioned school and outside, but I can’t run and play with the other kids. I can’t even walk out into the heat. I stand at the shaded entrance, too sick with heat to step out of the shade.
“No loitering at the entrance. Come out please.” Looking up I see Mrs. Smith standing five feet before me. I walk to where she stands at the top of the playground stairs and try to keep my eye sight from blurring. I’m so sick with heat that it’s all I can do to stay on my feet during recess.
“Why are you wearing that heavy sweater?” A girl asks. She touches the sleeve, her fingers recoiling from the rough wool.
“The garment rule. My dress shows my shoulders so I have to cover up.” No one else talks to me that day. I’m shunned for breaking the rules, for being immodest while the reality that I’m not a member of the church sinks into more than one mind. When the final bell rings, marking the end of school, I try for a second time to take off the sweater but am told I can wear it home and return it the next day.
When I’m safe at home I am sweat drenched and covered with red scratches and hives. My mother stares at me in confusion the moment I step through the door.
“I showed my shoulders.” I tell her. “I broke the garment rule.”
“I didn’t know.” She keeps saying, too shocked to grasp what’s happened. “It was so hot,” she adds, still lost in the sight of my red roughened shoulders, “I didn’t know.”
The brightly colored pinstriped dress hung in my closet reeking of shame and licentious transgression until I finally outgrew it and gave it away. The dress is gone but I feel the shunning and the shame like I felt the hair shirt I was forced to wear on a 110 degree day; it burns, and it hurts to this day. So I cut the necks out of my tee-shirts. I wear bare shouldered gowns. I refuse to bend to self-righteous people who say that a girl who shows a shoulder is a bad girl and I won’t give an inch to buttoned-up self-righteous people who shame and injure others in the name of religious propriety. We are as god made us. We are glorious. We are women.