When left to their own devices, women reveal their true natures: the subversive Eve, the vain and pagan Jezebel and the temptress, Potiphar’s wife. This is the misogynistic mindset found so often in Christian culture. Female modesty and chastity are heavily intertwined and enforced in this culture as an attempt to subdue and control women who might otherwise wreak havoc on men seeking purity and righteousness.
Harsh? Maybe. And I in no way want to paint every Christian with this broad brush, but this thinking certainly exists within our culture and we need to call it for what it is. We need to talk about it because it pervades many Christian communities and harms the spiritual well being of girls and boys who grow up with it. I don’t want people to get defensive and say, “That’s not me, how dare you!” Maybe it isn’t you. But maybe it’s your Dad. Maybe it’s your brother. Maybe it’s an elder in your church. And maybe…maybe it is you.
Matthew 5:27-28 is a source of much tension among men: “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Instead of taking this as a charge to practice self-control over their own thoughts and sexuality, many men decided it would be easier to shift much of this responsibility towards women. So long as women were dressed modestly – that is, in such a way that wouldn’t give dudes boners – there would be no chance of men committing adultery in their hearts, remaining pure as God intended.
Richard Beck raised some brilliant thoughts on the struggle of male sexuality and the concept of the temptress in the Bible:
“It is a product of Freudian projection. Throughout history, religiously conservative males have had to confront one of the greatest sources of their moral failure: the male libido. The male libido–the fact that men are sluts–is a sore spot of any male community wanting to pursue purity and holiness. And what has happened, by and large, is that rather than admit that males struggle mightily in the sexual realm, males have externalized the blame and projected their libido onto women. Rather than blaming themselves for sexual sin males have, throughout history, blamed women for being temptresses. The Whore was created to be the scapegoat to preserve male self-righteousness. Rather than turning inward, in personal and collective repentance, men could blame women, blame the whores, for their sexual and moral failures. It’s not our fault, the men say, it’s the whore’s fault.”
Of course, in many Christian circles today, modesty is not presented as oppressive concept, but as a positive and “romantic” ideal that you are saving your body for your husband’s eyes only. Many women have internalized this patriarchal mindset and agree it is their responsibility to protect their brothers in Christ from temptation. Chastity is a cooperative effort between both sexes to guard each others’ purity – with a considerable emphasis on the ladies’ willingness to not dress like sluts.
One of the best examples of this is found in The Modesty Survey, created by twin home schooled teen brothers Alex and Brett Harris through their blog, The Rebelution. This blog was created when I was in high school and became instantly popular among homeschoolers. That is not to say the Harris family operates within a small corner of evangelical Christianity, however. Their father, Gregg Harris, is a well-known homeschooling advocate, and their older brother Josh wrote the insanely popular Christian relationship book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Ask any evangelical Christian who grew up in the 90s and they’ll have likely read or heard of this courtship-manual. The Harris twins had a vast evangelical base at their fingertips before they even started The Rebelution.
Here’s a description of The Modesty Survey from Alex and Brett:
“The Modesty Survey is an exciting, anonymous discussion between Christian guys and girls who care about modesty. Hundreds of Christian girls contributed to the 148-question survey and over 1,600 Christian guys submitted 150,000+ answers, including 25,000 text responses, over a 20-day period in January 2007.
… Some Christian girls have fathers or brothers to provide godly input on their attire, but many more have none. Many girls seem oblivious to the destructive effects of immodest attire on their brothers in Christ. Others desire to honor God and to protect their brothers, but don’t know where to start.”
They note the survey should be taken as a resource, not a set of rules and the wishes of your parents are more important than the survey results. Also, modesty is a matter of the heart, not wardrobe, so please “faithfully pursue the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit.”
The survey is incredibly detailed, highlighting just how incredibly paranoid girls become in this culture about their appearance, seeking male approval for not only their clothes, but posture and accessories. The Harris’ claim this survey is not about legalism, yet they present such absurd questions like whether necklaces draw too much attention to the bust or if seeing a girl take off a hoodie even if she has a shirt underneath is modest. Regardless of the men’s answers, the fact that the Harris’ even address these questions can’t help but lead to a legalistic viewpoint. Combine that with the link between modesty and spirituality, a girl learns she is more Godlike or spiritual by complying with what the men in her life find appropriate for her to wear. It also teaches boys that the female body, and subsequently women and their sexuality, is something to be feared and thus subdued. Again, the Harris’ will reiterate that the bottom line is a matter of the heart, but if it were really about that, they sure as hell wouldn’t be talking about tights with striped or polka-dot designs on them.
Some say this is at least a far better alternative to the pressures of female imagery in secular culture, where women must be perfect human specimens on display to be admired and exploited by men. At least, they say, encouraging a woman to cover up shows more respect for her body than “putting it all out there.”
This comic made the internet rounds awhile back, brilliantly addressing the modesty issue. Two women are walking past each other, one with sunglasses and a bikini, the other wearing a burkha. The bikini girl remarks on the burkha saying, “Everything covered but her eyes, what a cruel male dominated culture!” While the girl is the burkha comments on the bikini saying “Nothing covered but her eyes! What a cruel male dominated culture!” Both seek the validation and approval of men in different ways. And that is the issue – it’s not modesty, it’s men telling women what to wear and denying female autonomy.
Besides, covering up doesn’t necessarily solve anything. In her memoir Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali recounts the words of her male friend after the Muslim Brotherhood moved into Somalia, drastically influencing the way women dressed.
“Before the Brotherhood came, you could see everyone’s arms and legs. We never used to notice. But now that the women are covering so much, all I can think about is those round calves and the hair, smelling of coconut. I never used to think about a neck before, but ooh, a neck is so sexy now.” P. 135
Wait, so even if the women were fully covered, men were still getting worked up over necks and calves? What to do then? Just keep women inside? Unfortunately, some do just that. Or, you know, men could respect and honour women and their bodies like Jesus said – practice self control and not freak the hell out over the fact that women are shaped like women. Women are human and deserve as much control over their own bodies and choices as men.
Actor Will Smith was surprisingly poignant in addressing why he and his wife Jada let their 12 year old daughter Willow shave her head (emphasis mine):
“We let Willow cut her hair. When you have a little girl, it’s like how can you teach her that you’re in control of her body? If I teach her that I’m in charge of whether or not she can touch her hair, she’s going to replace me with some other man when she goes out in the world. She can’t cut my hair but that’s her hair. She has got to have command of her body. So when she goes out into the world, she’s going out with a command that it is hers. She is used to making those decisions herself. We try to keep giving them those decisions until they can hold the full weight of their lives.”
This type of freedom not only teaches a young girl that she is in control and therefore responsible for her own body, but that she is free to celebrate her personality and express her personality through what she wears. Sartorial choice is a truly important and phenomenal method of personal expression. Clothing is practical, necessary for survival, and yet we have managed to turn it into art, the same way we’ve done with cuisine. This is amazing – we can wear art to survive. And we will not only survive, but live enriched with the freedom of choice, to express ourselves artistically every day. Regardless of what you wear, it’s your choice, suitable for your life, your body and no one else’s.
Now, I’m not saying clothing should be off-limits for criticism, but let it be a matter of style and taste rather than morality or spirituality, alright?
The great C.S Lewis brings home the gold in Mere Christianity when he says “a girl in the Pacific islands wearing hardly any clothes” could be considered modest according to the standards of her own society. He goes on to explain:
“I do not think that a very strict or fussy standard of propriety is any proof of chastity or any help to it, and I therefore regard the great relaxation and simplifying of the rule which has taken place in my own lifetime as a good thing. At its present stage, however, it has this inconvenience, that people of different ages and different types do not all acknowledge the same standard, and we hardly know where we are. While this confusion lasts I think that old, old-fashioned, people should be very careful not to assume that young or ‘emancipated’ people are corrupt whenever they are (by the old standard) improper; and, in return, that young people should not call their elders prudes or puritans because they do not easily adopt the new standard. A real desire to believe all the good you can of others and to make others as comfortable as you can will solve most of the problems.” p. 95
While modesty and chastity are not always connected, I believe a positive body image certainly factors into a healthy sexuality. Christianity teaches the point of modesty is delayed gratification, that when you share your body with your spouse for the first time in consummation of holy matrimony it is free, pure and spiritually fulfilling. But is that always the case? Sex for the first time, for many women, is uncomfortable, even painful. And while that’s not always the case, let’s face it, no matter the circumstance, there’s a certain degree of awkwardness. Logistics. Not to mention it’s even more daunting when you’ve been taught your entire life that your body and sexuality are a source of sin, to now share it with someone else “in righteousness.”
Richard Beck again has some interesting thoughts on the subject:
“Christian women are to be the Madonna prior to marriage, vigilantly safeguarding their virginal purity. But then, after marriage, Christian women are to make a smooth and quick transition to being the Whore in the bedroom. And [according to this mindset] if she fails to make this transition adequately she can be blamed for not fulfilling her sexual obligations to her husband.”
Christians love talking about the Song of Songs and what a beautiful celebration of married sex it is. They love to tell you that the couple is naked, free, and bangin’ in the best way possible. They love to inform you the wife performs an erotic striptease for her husband. Look at what a blessing sex is within the confines of marriage!
And yet the church never addresses the transition from not married to married. For many, sexuality is simply a switch that turns on when you say “I do.” Before then, it must be denied, despised and hidden. But today, sexuality becomes a part of our lives far before marriage does. We don’t even have a say in it, our body enters puberty on its own schedule. Everything from this point forward, others’ reactions to these changes, our own acceptance of these changes, will eventually factor in to what our sexuality will look like as an adult in married life.
The best way for a woman to be free and comfortable with her own body in marriage – as generous and confident as the woman in the Song of Songs – is to be free and comfortable with her body before marriage. The concept of a “switch” from Madonna to whore shouldn’t even exist. Neither does her body and sexuality go from being under her father’s care to her husband’s. There should only be one setting: autonomous woman. A girl needs to be encouraged as she grows up to embrace autonomy, to be free with and responsible for the body God has given her. To think any other way is to keep the church irrelevant to issues women face today and sexuality in general.
Update: Welcome all readers from Rachel Held Evans’ mutuality synchroblog! For a bit of context, I started writing this post before Rachel even announced Mutuality Week, but I just so happened to finish in time to contribute to the conversation. If you have any thoughts or questions feel free to leave a comment. I hope to start conversations and continue important discussions others like Rachel have already started. Thanks for reading!