June 10th, 2013

Kitty doesn't approve

Why I Hate Talking About Modesty. Hate It. Passionately

So here's a CHRISTIAN issue I feel very strongly about and every time I read something on this topic, I feel compelled to respond. So having done a lot of thinking about this issue, here are my thoughts. Atheist friends, please refrain from attacking the Bible or Christianity if you decide to comment :)

What do I affirm?
I affirm modesty as an attitude.
I affirm taking the focus off the clothes a woman wears and on to her spirit, character and actions.
I affirm showing love to others by actions.
I affirm obedience and submission to God by men and women.

What do I detest?
Legalism expressed as rules about clothing (finger tip lengths for skirts/shorts, v-neck shirts being unacceptable, etc).
Rape culture expressed as a woman "asking for it" by the clothes she wears.
The attitude that men just can't help themselves lusting and need all the help they can get.
Women being held responsible for men's sin.

What is the modesty movement?
The modesty movement is a name I just came up with. The problematic aspects of this movement stem from women being told to have concern for men as a key reason to be modest in dress as opposed to obedience to God's word and as an expression of character. It involves women being confronted about the clothes they wear in response to men's response.

Why is this a bad thing??
Modesty is way more complicated than people make it out to be. People who write articles about modesty ignore serious issues concerning modesty to make a point and that burdens women. Let me give you a few concrete examples:

  • Some women have large breasts. This makes it hard for them to shop for clothes that are flattering and affordable. Men are often attracted to large breasts and no matter what clothes these women wear, they will receive attention for their enlarged mammary glands. Men will look at these women and lust because they are sinful men who need to learn to exercise self control. This is *not* the fault of the women. The modesty movement inherently attacks women with larger breasts because they have larger breasts and naturally attract more attention.

  • What is modest on one woman isn't on another. Making rules about appropriate clothing is completely farcical. Put a pair of skinny jeans on a svelte women and she looks great. Put them on a curvy woman and she's an object of lust! This is actually quite unfair because skinny jeans look pretty good on almost everyone (not on my husband :()

  • Some women do their best to wear modest clothing and yet someone out there will find something to lust over. Some men quite like ankles or feet - this is a real life fetish and you are naive if you think that no one in your church finds ankles/feet more attractive that bums/boobs. YET we don't tell women to cover up their ankles. That ankle boots or bare feet are inappropriate in church because they cause men to sin. Those men who find ankles/feet attractive have needed to learn (often in secrecy) to just not look at feet to avoid sinning.*

  • It assumes that everyone has the same amount of money/skills to buy/make clothes that fit. It assumes that every woman to walk through the door of a church has grown up in church and knows the modesty rules. It assumes that women just automatically know what looks good, yet modest on them without trial and error. It assumes that confronting women about their clothing choices won't have profound negative consequences. It assumes that the woman is always at fault.

  • This movement assumes that men are the visual ones and women don't struggle the same way. NEWSFLASH: The percentage of women who look at porn is on the rise!! *shock* I've looked at porn and have gone into this previously in a different blog post. I sometimes still struggle with it. Men without shirts/or that sexy open shirt look are sexy. But I need to learn to control my thinking habits and only think about James with that sexy open shirt look, or not dwell on it at all if I were still single. We spend all this time talking to women about their clothing choices, but not to men.

  • Women are already fighting against their insecurities, trying to minimise their bad bits while compensating with their good bits. I hate my thighs, so naturally wear things longer than my knee. But my boobs are small, so I don't mind tops that are a little lower because I have no cleavage (except now that I'm pregnant) or shirts that are undone an extra button**. It's not to attract extra attention, but because I think my outfit looks good. Maybe some woman that is enticing you with her mid-thigh skirt is compensating for the potato sack she's wearing on her top because of the large mammary glands she's fed up with hiding.

What's the alternative?
I don't have a fix-all solution. But here are some suggestions:

  • Talk more about what men can do. About taking their thoughts captive. That having a physical reaction to an attractive woman is natural and not sinful, but their response to it is what matters. That they can take measures to avoid situations where they'll find themselves fixated on a woman.

  • Stop having rules about clothing. Church leaders/older women could model appropriate clothing to younger women. Set the standard at your church by being the standard. Stop making church into a bloody fashion show (this makes me particularly angry) because that only encourages it.

  • Have a girls youth group trip to an op-shop and go crazy, while also modelling the thought process that goes into particular outfits 'this looks really good, but maybe it's too tight/short/low around my [insert body part here]'. Don't make this a Point Out The Sin exercise. Start with yourself.

  • Don't ever suggest that women are asking to be lusted after just because they wear a skirt that comes above the knee/fingertip line. This is the exact same reason that some men use to get away with raping women. This is called victim blaming. Because wearing a short skirt is actually an invitation to get raped /sarcasm.

  • Get over bikinis. Seriously. Wearing a one piece is not an acceptable alternative because swimsuits by nature are clingy and revealing. Why is a pair of clingy wet board shorts that end up showing off the curves of a women's posterior acceptable, but a mini skirt isn't? Why is a stomach SO attractive?? Because that's the only difference between a bikini and a one piece. There are definitely swimsuits out there to be avoided, but women can/should use their own discretion on that topic.

  • Acknowledge that we live in a world that rebels against God. People don't care about modesty. They don't care about attracting men with their clothes (unless they're going to a night club to meet men... I dunno!!). They just wanna look good and are taking their cues from the people around them/the internet/fashion magazines. Christian men live in this world too - surprise!! If they're going to the beach, they're gonna see bikinis. If they're going into a shopping centre, loads of teenage girls are gonna be wearing those horrible high-waisted cut off jean shorts that are ripped to look old, net-like tops and a bra/bikini top (I think this is a horrible reason because they might as well be wearing underwear/the outfit is a crime against humanity/looks terrible/and yes... it's immodest). Christian women wear different clothes to teenage girls already, so why are we heaping on even more pressure??

But Kat, what can I teach my Youth Group??
Focus on how clothing is not meant to be an issue or concern for them. Ask why they are making their clothing choices and leave that as an open question for them to answer secretly in their heart. Talk about what should be going on in their hearts. Peter talks about women not wearing braided hair and expensive jewellery, but to focus on their character and actions. On being Godly women because of their identity in Christ. Tell your youth group to stop judging other women for their clothing choices. I personally struggle a lot with this; I am SOO not immune. Show me a woman in a short skirt and I immediately start thinking "oh no, why is she wearing that!? Doesn't she know the effect she's having on men!?" But that's unfair to men and unfair to that woman. God knows her heart and I would hate to be judged the same for my pencil skirts (which I loooove) (and are flattering and maybe some will think immodest because they are typically form-fitting). Teach them to navigate the issue of modesty without shame, legalism or judgement. But with personal discernment and self control.

My Experience
So I just want to touch on this issue from a personal note. As I've mentioned, I don't like my thighs, so dress/skirt/short length was never an issue. I don't really have any cleavage, so wearing low cut tops was never really an issue for anyone. Mum had a discussion with me when I was a pre-teen about shady men who'd get the wrong idea from my clothing, so wear modest clothing!! Looking back on that, I wonder if that was an issue back then, that maybe I wasn't wearing modest clothing before and now I should...? But at the time I was all "yeah!" And I certainly agree that there are shady horrible men out there just waiting to be a-raping. But a woman's clothing choice has very little to do with whether rape will occur. Most women are raped by men they know, not because the man hiding in the bushes was waiting for the right Short Skirt of Opportunity (+5 to rape attempts). I like to get my husband's opinion on my clothes because I like to think he likes how I look aaaaaaand, he has no problems with my skinny-jeans-stretch-singlet combo in public. Fancy that!

Back in year 12, I attended a particular church that marketed itself as trendy and cool with a band and concert-like worship music. All the youth who went there wore trendy clothes. They were so cool. I've been to other churches that feature trendy singers up the front and I wish that I looked as good in skinny jeans and heels. I want to wear my trendiest outfit too. Clothing is not meant to be the issue!!! It shouldn't matter what I wear to church, because the issue is my heart before God. While modesty is supposed to be about the menz, this issue of trendiness is taken straight out of 1 Peter! Don't worry about braided hair, pearls or fine jewellery. Don't worry about being trendy. I think trendiness is an issue for the womenz and I think that's what Peter's addressing. And I think that ought to be more important than modesty actually, because what is immodesty but a desire to one-up your friends? A desire to get more (male OR female) attention? A lack of a modest attitude before God?

I like looking nice because that helps me feel comfortable. I like being comfortable in my clothes because that contributes to feeling nice in my outfit. There's nothing wrong with dressing attractively, nice or well. But it's not meant to be the issue. *sigh*

I know that people are going to strongly disagree with me. I've already had major FB conflicts over this issue and I'm not terribly looking forward to continuing those conflicts on my blog. And yet, here I am standing on my soap box and telling it how I think it is.
I feel like my discussion on this topic has been all over the place. This is not an academic essay by any stretch of the imagination.
I want to reiterate that I do think modesty is important. That Christian women should discern their motivations, should love their brothers in their clothing choices. But those shoulds are often divorced from all the issues I've discussed above and I really think those issues need to be acknowledged

Further Reading
There is a rabbit hole of blogs/websites devoted to this issue.
I think the most prominent is The Rebelution, a modesty survey that sparked my ire even as a teenager because "gosh, what can I bloody well wear now!? Someone's bound to lust after my jeans!! Even though 95% of men think they're fine, what about that 5%?? Aren't I meant to love them too!!?" This is a serious question: if I'm not meant to be a stumbling block to my brothers, how far do I take it!?
Then there's this blog: Why the Rebelution's Modesty Survey Was a Bad Idea which is a pretty descriptive title. It includes a list of further reading at the end which you should explore.
This blog entry: The Only Thing My Double Ds Ever Got Me Was Kicked Out of Church which makes me so angry when I read it. And is the perfect example of the Modesty Movement's effect on a woman. Shame.

*This doesn't mean that women should just flash their boobs around and expect men to get used to it. Though... just check out Africa. Cultural expectations.
**I wear a singlet underneath low and sheer tops... just in case you thought I was a harlot.