On immodesty

Aug 14, 2014 by

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I was taught to fear my body. It was a dangerous stumbling block for the men around me and if I showed too much skin, men would be filled with uncontrollable urges and it would be my fault. The way I was taught this sounded much more empowering and flowery; but this is, essentially, what I was being taught: My body was dangerous and something to be feared. I spent many years hiding it under baggy clothes to protect myself and the men around me from this dangerous burden I carried: my body.

When I was growing up, some of the women trying to teach me modesty (it’s even more depressing that it was always women teaching other women to shame their bodies) would contort themselves into an argument that I am beautiful and delicate and that is why I need to cover up. Which makes absolutely no sense. “You’re a gorgeous girl! But, careful, wouldn’t want anyone to see your beautiful body; that only causes problems because your body is bad. But beautiful! But you can’t show it off because that’s dangerous. But don’t feel bad about yourself because you are lovely. But your body is dangerous, so keep it covered. But you should be proud of how good you look! But not too proud. Did I mention that you shouldn’t ever show off your beautiful body?”

The alternate message I was getting from popular culture was one of sexual objectification. I am to be skinny and sexy so that men will be attracted to me. My body is only worthy insofar as it is appealing to men. Teen magazines didn’t give me tips on being healthy, but on losing weight. They didn’t talk about how comfortable clothes were, but about how seductive clothes were. I was being told that my body exists only to please men.

Women are only given two options: Virgin or Slut. Angel or Nymph. Old Maid or Cougar. The Virgin Mary or Mary Magdalene.

Rachel Held Evans wrote a blog on modesty and I think really nailed this dichotomy when she said: “While popular culture tends to disempower women by telling them they must dress to get men to look at them, the modesty culture tends to disempower women by telling them they must dress to keep men from looking at them. . . . Women are left feeling ashamed of their bodies as they try desperately to contort around a bunch of vague, ever-changing ideals. It’s exhausting, really, dressing for other people.”

I went to a women’s group through my church a few weeks ago and we had a discussion on modesty. Again, I heard that flowery language about being beautiful and delicate and that’s why I needed to cover up. I kept pressing the women who were talking positively about modesty on why? What’s the point of being modest? What we kept coming back to was, in essence, dressing for men. Dressing frumpily to try and stop the cat calls from men. Dressing provocatively to attract the attention of men. Dressing modestly to protect the lust of men. Dressing safely to prevent being susceptible to violence from men.

As a woman, no matter what I think about what I’m wearing, what men would think must also be a factor. I am 100 percent not okay with that. Not even a little, not even kinda.

It is completely unacceptable that I dress with anything but my own happiness and comfort and the appropriateness of the situation in mind. I know that I shouldn’t wear booty-shorts to work or a plunging neckline to church. But that is not because it would make the men at work or church lust after me, it is because I want to show respect for myself and the situations I’m in. I’m not saying we should be hoochie-mamas whenever, wherever; but I am saying it’s okay to rock a really short skirt if that makes you feel good. I’m saying I can show off my legs and not be a slut.

I vote we ditch the term modesty. I’m not usually one to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but this water is gross and the baby isn’t gonna recover. What does modesty even mean anymore? It seems to me like it’s just a way to shame women’s bodies. I believe there might be ways to redeem modesty (Rachel Held Evans gives some good ideas in the blog I mention above), but I just don’t know if it’s worth it.

Can’t we all agree that women are so much more complex than just virgins and sluts? Can’t I just look good and not have it be anything more than that? Can’t I just be a woman regardless of men?

I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body. — Phil. 1:20a

Brooke Natalie Blough lives in Philadelphia, Pa., and works at the University of Pennsylvania. She is a member of West Philadelphia Mennonite Fellowship and writes at Now Faith, where this blog first appeared.

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