Some women from feminist backgrounds argue against the emphasis on "modesty rules" because it teaches than women are responsible for men's behavior, and that if a woman gets raped, well it must be because of what she was wearing, and the guy just couldn't help it. Obviously feminists have a few things to say about that. But that's not my story.
Nope. For me, modesty was something I was taught about but never with concrete or strictly-enforced rules. Instead, I really did want to "help my brothers" and was attempting to do so by myself, out of the goodness of my heart, not because anyone was forcing me to. And the result? Well I found the whole thing makes no sense because, at its core, the teaching about "modesty" says that there is something evil and dangerous about femininity.
Here's my story...
So my background is conservative/evangelical Christianity, and I've heard teaching about modesty and why it's apparently so important. The argument goes like this: When a guy sees a girl wearing something "immodest" he'll be distracted and tempted to lust. (Because gay men don't exist, ya know.) So women should help out our brothers by not wearing revealing clothes.
So, okay whatever. It didn't really affect my life, besides a bit of uncertainty over whether God was okay with me buying a cute "immodest" swimsuit. But overall, I didn't really worry about it because how I was supposed to know what is and is not going to "cause" lust? I'm not a straight guy. And this "problem" that guys apparently have, where they're mentally tortured by seeing an "immodestly-dressed" woman, is something I can't relate to at all. So it didn't really seem like something to worry about.
But I always wondered. Because, ya know, I really did want to help my brothers out. So it would be nice to have a better understanding of what is and is not "immodest."
And then I found The Modesty Survey.
What is The Modesty Survey, you may ask? Well it's a survey of a bunch of (mostly) homeschooled American Christian teenage boys, in which they answer 148 questions about what is and is not modest for girls to wear/do.
And I thought, "Perfect! Finally I'll get to find out which things are and are not modest, and the question will be settled and I won't have to wonder about modesty anymore."
And it was all in the form of statistics! I'm a math person so this is wonderful.
So I read the whole thing. It started off pretty positive...
|"Girls can dress attractively without being immodest."|
(Although now that I read it again, I am incredibly disturbed that 9 idiots said "disagree" or "strongly disagree.")
Moving along, I found some other results that were pretty much expected:
|Lots of agreement for the statement "A girl's underwear should never show." No problem there.|
|Lots of agreement for "Miniskirts are immodest."|
|Lots of agreement for "Showing any cleavage is immodest."|
But then we get into some other questions that never in a million years would have occurred to me:
|Half of these guys think that "Shirts with messages across the front draw too much attention to the bust."|
Okay well... uh... that's kind of unreasonable...
|Half the guys think "Seeing a girl take off a pullover (i.e. a shirt that must be pulled over her head) is a stumbling block, even if she is wearing a modest shirt underneath."|
(Oh by the way, for those not familiar with the term "stumbling block": Some Christians talk like this. It means a temptation.)
|A majority of the guys think that "Seeing a girl stretching (e.g. arching the back, reaching the arms back, and sticking out the chest) is a stumbling block."|
So I read and analyzed these results, paying particular attention to the statements that the majority of those guys agreed with, trying to figure out how I could modify my lifestyle to accommodate all this.
Okay, can we just stop and look at what we're doing here and how COMPLETELY MESSED-UP it is?
So we're asking a bunch of horny teenage boys to fill out a survey to describe in vivid detail their sexual fantasies and what turns them on, so that the girls can take detailed notes and structure their lives to avoid those things.
Right, because male sexuality is absolute truth. Whatever a horny teenage boy thinks when he looks at a random woman is clearly the authoritative perspective on the matter.
Is there no room to say, "Sorry, but you're wrong. When you saw me bend over and pick something up, you thought I was doing it to show off my butt, but you're wrong. You're wrong." No, instead "modesty culture" teaches that if men have misconceptions about whether I'm dressing to "flaunt my body" then I'd better change how I dress so they don't assume that. The horny guy's perception of the situation is the only one that matters.
But at the time I wasn't thinking along those lines. (Hadn't realized I was a feminist yet, ya know.) I was trying to make sense of all this new information. And then...
|About 15% think that "Jeans are generally immodest, even if they aren't too tight."|
(trigger warning for discussion of rape in the next 2 paragraphs)
For every single question, there were a few that thought that the item in question was "immodest." And from reading some of the comments that explained their answers, I found out what that meant. As it turns out, no matter what I wear, some minority of guys out there is raping me in their heads.
No longer was I worried about "causing a brother to stumble." I was horrified at the idea that no matter what I wore, it was going to "cause" some guy to think about raping me. That is completely evil and offensive and 55 levels of NOT OKAY. No longer was I interested in modesty because I wanted to "help" the guys- no, I wanted to save my own dignity and not be thought of as a sex object.
And I remember looking at the survey results over and over again, trying to make sense out of any of it. All the optimism I had upon seeing the overwhelming agreement on "Girls can dress attractively without being immodest" was gone. What to do, what to do?
After being horrified and appalled for a few days, I couldn't take it any more. I decided to just forget about it. Evidently there was nothing I could do- I'm better off not thinking about it.
But it had changed my understanding of modesty. Before, I thought it was binary- some outfit was either "modest" or "immodest." (And the "immodest" ones were really revealing outfits that I wasn't going to wear anyway.) But now I saw that there was a whole range of responses. Maybe if I didn't show any cleavage, most guys wouldn't "stumble." But if I wore something totally baggy and not feminine at all, maybe that would help out a few more of the guys.
Suppose I made a list of the clothes that over 50% of the guys in the survey thought were "immodest", and I avoided wearing those. Well, what about some OTHER piece of clothing that only 30% of guys said was immodest- should I avoid wearing that too? Do I care about that 30% of the guys? Gotta care about them- you know, Christian women are supposed to help out our brothers. Okay, what about something that 10% said was immodest? Where do you draw the line? If you try to go all the way and only wear things that were okayed by 100% of the guys, well... then you can't wear anything. And apparently THAT'S immodest too.
The only solution is to not be a girl.
And this way of thinking is what I described in Modesty as she is taught. The idea that "this cute outfit is 'modest', but wouldn't it be even MORE modest (and therefore better and more godly) to wear some horrible ugly sweatshirt, so I don't look feminine at all?"
For a long time I was completely confused about modesty. I saw beautiful women at church and wondered how they justified wearing something so beautiful. Sure, it wasn't revealing, but wouldn't it be even BETTER to wear something that looks horrible?
There were mornings I wanted to wear a cute little shirt (not tight or revealing- except that it reveals the fact that I am a girl) but chose a loose t-shirt instead. Because, I had been taught, "Is looking great in that sexy outfit really more important to you than your Christian brothers' staying out of sin?" Let me repeat: My cute and feminine clothes were NOT "sexy." But since I want to help out the boys as much as I can- Jesus says we're supposed to sacrifice our own desires and help others- sometimes I guilted myself into wearing a dumb-looking shirt.
(Not all the time, though. In my humble opinion, I look really freakin' awesome and beautiful, and I like wearing cute stuff. So I frequently did. But I could not give a logical argument for how it could possibly be okay for me to do so. And that really bothered me.)
There were times in church, I was enjoying the worship music and careful not to move my legs too much, because it might make guys think about my butt. There were times I was in a public place looking for a water fountain, and I walked farther than necessary so I could find one with fewer people around- fewer people to look at my butt when I bent over. And one time, a group of friends (including a few boys) wanted to video-chat on Skype, but I had pajamas on, so of course I said no.
And THANK GOD I'm skinny and I don't have a big butt or big boobs. Being skinny makes this a thousand times easier. But still impossible.
And I judged people. I judged other girls. Because now I had this new secret knowledge that said leggings with patterns on them were immodest.
I remember the first time I heard someone challenge the idea of modesty. She was coming from a feminist perspective, and said that requiring women to be "modest" is super-messed-up because it says women are responsible for men's behavior. I wanted to tell her "NO! You don't understand! Guys are being TORTURED mentally when they see a woman wearing something revealing. They are so weak and helpless! They need our help! Don't you care?" But how could I make that argument? I'm not a guy- how could I know whether any of that was even true?
But I accepted the "men are helpless" premise and believed that making modesty a requirement for women wasn't sexist, but was the only practical way to address the situation. Clearly, men are animals, powerless against their own lust, and women are the only ones with any ability to do something about this.
But like I said, the logical conclusion is that femininity is bad and dangerous. But no, that can't be right. And none of the women I talked to at church had any answer for me. In fact, people told me, "But perfectnumber, the way you dress is fine! You've got no problem looking beautiful and modest." I know... but I could not justify why it's okay for me to look beautiful like this, when I could wear something more baggy and less feminine- wouldn't that be BETTER?
The turning point for me was when I challenged the idea that "Is looking great in that sexy outfit really more important to you than your Christian brothers' staying out of sin?"- in other words, no matter how great the personal cost to me, I should cover up in order to help the boys. NO! Sometimes the cost is too great.
If women are believing that it is bad for them to look beautiful, that cost is too great.
If women whose bodies are naturally more "curvy" are made to feel ashamed for it, that cost is too great.
If we are teaching that it is a woman's fault when a man objectifies her, that cost is too great.
So yes, it absolutely IS more important to "wear that sexy outfit" than to cover up all signs of femininity.
You can read more about what I think in Modesty: My Solution, which I wrote a few months ago. But I'd like to point out that I don't come at this issue from the usual feminist angle, which says the whole thing's ridiculous and out of the question because women are not responsible for men's thoughts and behavior. No, instead I really did want to help "my brothers in Christ" but found that it made no sense and was impossible.
So I'm done. I'm going to wear what I want to wear. And you know what? No one's going to know the difference. I'm not arguing against "modesty culture" because I want to wear a bikini to a funeral. I'm arguing against it because it makes no sense and should not be advocated by people who claim that women are created in the image of God.
As I said in Modesty: My Solution, "I personally don't care about modesty at all any more."
(Except, of course, to argue about how it makes no sense.)