Home » Feminism » the bikini and the chocolate cake

the bikini and the chocolate cake

chocolate cake
[trigger warning for rape culture]

I’m going to take a break from the series, for today, because I feel that we need to sit down with a cup of coffee or tea and just chat about something. If you move in the same circles I do, you’ve probably heard about this post from Made in his Image. There’s a lot of good things being said about how destructive the modesty culture can be, so I’m not going to rehash a lot of that here. I wanted to shine some light on the biggest problem with this specific post.

I got sunburned on my ass a few weeks ago, when nothing else on me got sunburned at all. We were only at the beach for an hour, and I ended up having to spread aloe vera all over my butt for a week and sit down funny for a few days. Why did I only get sunburned on my bottom?

Because it’s the only part of me that’s never, ever, seen the light of day.

I grew up in Northwest Florida– the part of Florida known as the Emerald Coast. It is a stunningly, breathtakingly beautiful beach. We rarely ever went– only when family came to visit, usually, and those visits were sparse– because it was considered ungodly to go the beach. And if we went, I wore a t-shirt and culottes. My mother made swim-culotes out of a really light, swimsuit-type material.

Even in college, when I’d left a lot of those childhood beliefs behind, I couldn’t bring myself to wear a swimsuit to the beach. I bought an amazingly cute tankini– I still think it’s cute, even today– and it generously covered my badonk-adonk, but I still felt incredibly nervous wearing it. I ended up wearing cute-off shorts on top of it when I went to the beach with some friends, and faked being asleep when I overheard them making fun of me for that choice.

Yup. “Modesty” is a sacrifice. It’s a sacrifice I made for most of my life, and paid for my standards with humiliation and embarrassment.

But, when I went to the beach with my husband a few weeks ago, I wore a bikini for the first time. It wasn’t “skimpy,” not that it matters, and I was able to take off my cover-up without shame, without the sharp knife in my gut telling me that I was dressing as the “strange woman” from Proverbs. It was a victory for me– a small triumph over the shame and oppression I’d known for over half my life.

That’s the only thing the modesty culture does.

It hasn’t stopped a lot of men from ogling me– not even Christian men. I’ve gotten cat calls, jeers, shouts, obscene gestures, propositions, and whistles all while “modestly” dressed. I’m talking full-blown “modesty.” High-necked t-shirts, a-line and loose knee-length skirts. Sometimes I looked cute, sometimes I looked dumpy. It doesn’t matter. How I’ve been dressed has never made a difference whatsoever in how many men have treated me. I was raped while wearing a knee-length skirt and a long-sleeved, loose and flowing top that covered my collar bone. Modesty has never, in my experience, stopped a man from doing whatever he wanted to do with my body– whether it was physically manhandle it, goosing me or grabbing my vagina through my skirt in the middle of chapel, or simply objectify it.

Let me say it again: men who do not see women as human beings could not give a flying f*** how a woman is dressed. She’s a woman. She has boobs and a vagina, and that makes her public property in a world where I’ve been screamed at, cursed at, for refusing to even acknowledge a cat call from a car.

When I started dressing however I wanted, modesty be damned– when I started wearing shorts and tank tops, for example, none of that sort of behavior increased. It stayed exactly the same.

But, this article, like every other article I’ve read on modesty, emphasizes that it a woman’s obligation to help protect men from our bodies. It’s our duty to make sure that we make it possible for men to forget that we’re a woman– which is, frankly, impossible. I don’t care how loose your clothes are– if you have T&A, there’s no getting rid of it, there’s no hiding it.

So what happens?

We have articles where the author has to stubbornly insist that she’s not “insecure about her body,” and clarify that she is “independent in her swimwear choices.”

We have articles where the author compares women to an ooey-gooey chocolate cake.

And let’s look at that for a second. Rachel has this to say about her metaphor:

Now, let’s pretend that someone picked up that chocolate cake and followed us around all the time, 24/7. We can never get away from the chocolate, it’s always right there, tempting us and even smelling all ooey gooey and chocolate-y. Most of us, myself included, would find it easy to break down and eat the cake. And we would probably continue to break down and eat cake, because it would always be there. Our exercise goals would be long gone in no time.

I’m going to try to be fair here: Rachel was probably, in her head, only referencing masculine lust here. When she wrote out this dandy little metaphor, she was probably only thinking that “breaking down” didn’t mean anything besides a man thinking less-than-platonic thoughts about the woman in the bikini.

However, regardless of what I’m positive were the best of intentions, Rachel has just contributed to rape culture.

Because, in this metaphor where a woman is a chocolate cake, the woman has no choice. A woman, plain and simple, just is a chocolate cake, and the fact is that, as a woman, there’s nothing she can do to change that.* She doesn’t have a say in the matter. She’s a woman. She’s ooey-gooey and smells like heaven, and so she gets eaten. No one asks her if that would be ok. No one asks her if that’s what she wants.

Because she’s a cake.

She exists to be eaten.

*I would like to point out that gender and sexuality are a sliding scale– I’m not trying to exclude transgender people, just dealing with the essentialist and gender binary nature of the article.

*edit: I have changed some of my wording (9/6/13) based on reader response.

41 thoughts on “the bikini and the chocolate cake

  1. I agree with you. I didn’t run into modesty/purity culture until I was in college. I spent a lot of time debating the insanity of how masculine lust was caused by women’s dress choices. My junior year, it was like 90 degrees with 95% humidity. The dorms were sweltering and I don’t do well with heat. I was wearing a tank-top and shorts. I ran into the group of guys who I’d been debating with for months who were whining about how all the girls who were wearing sleeveless tops were tempting them. I blew my top. I called them all hypocrites since a) none of them were wearing sleeves and b) even if those girls were looking for a hook-up, they weren’t interested in a hook-up with a bunch of self-absorbed, neurotic lunatics. One of the guys got a really confused look and said to me “But, Mel, girls don’t care about guys’ looks. They just care about personality” My friend Laura and I burst out laughing. Deep, wheezing, guttural laughs. Every now and again one of us would stop laughing long enough to gasp “We don’t care about looks!” which would trigger more uncontrolled laughing. Eventually, I stopped laughing along enough to say “Girls care about personality, but if you are hot, your personality gets more chances.” The guys were literally speechless. Laura mentioned that there were always girls watching the guys play pick-up football in August, but not November. That was because we liked watching half-naked guys running around. Thankfully, this was the beginning of a turning point in the guys’ understanding of the stupidity of blaming male sexuality on girls… and one of my favorite college memories.

  2. a couple friends have posted this on facebook as very good wisdom for women. one guy posted it saying that the chocolate cake analogy was good.
    I wonder if he is confusing noticing a woman is attractive with lusting after her. does he realize it sounds like he’s saying he wants to rape women? because sheesh, i totally read that analogy as rape culture too. i’m sure the writer doesn’t think of it that way…
    it also annoys me that a woman enjoying herself at the beach – happening to bare a midriff rather than not (perhaps because she can’t find a well fitting swimsuit, perhaps because she likes how she looks, who knows) is considered the same as following a poor dieter around with something tempting.
    I am a person, dressing for me. It would be more like if i ate a cake at a cafe and you walked up and shoved your face into it and ate it all up, and blamed me for you stealing it, because i should be tempting you with my cake in public.
    because unless i am deliberately and provacatively and obviously flirting with someone, he has no reason to think my clothing is an invitation to him. (and even then he STILL wouldn’t have any right to touch me without a clear verbal invitation or permission)
    the article itself bothered me, teaching women they have a responsibilty to ‘help’ men by covering their bodies – although you can’t really address that without using the modesty culture language, and then you are likely to lose the conversation (what, so you WANT to push men towards lusting by REFUSING TO HELP your poor hardworking brothers in christ?).
    but the chocolate cake thing just pushed me over the edge into fury.

  3. The comments from the mothers of the 6, 8 & 11 year old girls are incredibly disturbing to me. Are they seriously concerned that men are going to find the bodies of their prepubescent daughters to be lust arousing? Because if that’s the case, then the men that they are hanging around, well, words fail. Or, if they are trying to instill in them that their bodies are the enemy of purity as early as kindergarden, well, again, words fail.

    • This didn’t surprise me at all. Organizations like “Made in his Image” have entire sections on their websites devoted to pre-teen girls. I found one website that was specifically devoted exclusively to pre-teens. The whole thing was disturbing– one statement had “your stomach is enticing.”

      Really. An 11-year-old’s stomach is enticing? That doesn’t make you take a step back and think about how vomit-worthy that sounds?

      • I’m even more bothered now that I clicked further into that site. It is a site that purports to be for abuse survivors. So, we have moms openly posting about the sexualization of their prepubescent children by men on a site for women who have survived being sexualized as prepubescent children by men. And their posts aren’t about how awful and wrong and unChristian it is to sexualize little girls and to turn women into a collection of body parts, but how we can prevent men from acting on their obviously otherwise insurmountable desires to molest little girls by making sure they wear long sleeves. Whoa. That is seriously messed up.

    • When I was around 12, I accidentally wore a short blouse and loose jeans that showed my underwear when I sat down. This happened when I was around my mother, a man, and a couple of other women.

      That evening my mother gave me a very serious lecture about how women need to be modest because when men see women’s underwear, it causes them to think about things they shouldn’t, and they have to quickly redirect their thoughts.

      I was ashamed and horrified because the man had a daughter my age. The idea that he could see me that way made me sick. Now I felt like I couldn’t trust any man, because he hadn’t done or said anything suspicious!

      From a young age, my parents repeatedly taught me to be afraid of males, to see them as less than human. I know now that most men are not emotionless, sex-crazed monsters, but it’s still hard to believe deep down.

  4. Oh goodness, this just popped up on my newsfeed from an old high school acquaintance/friend. Somebody had already commented on the disrespect of men in assuming that they’re constant brainless horndogs, and I fired off a sarcasm about the martyrs of swimwear. I might find myself in the trenches of a Facebook battle today. I plan to fight a good fight. I’ll probably hold this article in reserve.

  5. This one is a real sore point for me, having had the battles with family and friends over “modesty.”

    As a man I can tell you that you are correct. You can’t eliminate – or even affect that much – our attraction. We can be attracted to you regardless of what you wear. It is our responsibility to behave properly in any case.

    I do like Lana’s distinction between attraction and lust and rape. We have gotten so freaked out about attraction in conservative Christianity that our young men have guilt piled on them because of normal biological attraction. Since that is turned into sin, and lust is the same as actions, is it any wonder that we have rapes and assaults within this culture? (I have personal, professional knowledge of several yucky cases involving teen boys that truly believed that having sexual thoughts was as sinful as sexual assault – so they went ahead and committed the crime.)

    I also will note that slut-shaming is particularly directed against females that refuse in some way to conform to the demands of Patriarchal culture. Two women dressed the same way will be treated differently if one is more outspoken. It’s all about control. Just saying.

    • I’ve been there, done that, with the slut-shaming. I was the target of a lot of attacks at my fundamentalist church because I was the flamboyant, free-spirited one that asked why. I was constantly confronted by Sunday school teachers and the pastors wife– even the pastor’s son a few times– about clothing that was exactly the same as what another girl wore. And it was all designed to produce shame, nothing more.

      • I think it is more about pre-emptively discrediting the ones they can’t control. Those girls are natural engaging leaders. They are more dangerous to them than other girls who lack those qualities. Questioning your spiritual worthiness is an attempt to ensure that others wouldn’t follow you in your questioning. Abusers do the same things to their victims, so when the police come calling, everyone will tell them that the victim is a liar who cannot be believed. Making you feel like crap was probably just a lucky side benefit.

  6. I recently read that opinion piece (that’s all it is- someone’s opinion) and was angered but didn’t have the words to properly share my thoughts.

    We do teach my children modesty right now, but as in “your skirt is too short, we can see your undies when you bend over”. That’s pretty much it at this point. I try to keep myself to some guidelines, but because of how I feel about it not because some guy will lust over me.

  7. This is fantastic. The article popped up in my newsfeed as well, and I had the same reaction. What makes me so sad is how the Christian culture can be so damaging to our young women and not even realize what they’re doing. I’m so glad more people are starting to speak out.

  8. Pingback: bikinis and modesty and all that crap | flamesword ~ watching in the shadows

  9. I’ve lived with the modesty/purity culture almost my entire life. What makes it so interesting though is that half of the time I was exposed to it, I wasn’t living where these were ideals or even expedient to our lives. (Think: tropical climates, different cultures)

    The way it came off was “We’re trying to be the new Puritans and we’re white colonists. If you want to be a Christian – you have to live up to our high cult standard. Otherwise, get out of here you heathens!”

    I think it really sank in last year while watching PBS’ 3 part series on the Prohibition as to how sneaky that double standard is and how pervasive it is in American Evangelical Christianity.

    It just is not that way here in Germany. It wasn’t that way in my dad’s last duty stations either. It is not something I think my ancestors would approve of.

    I find it hilarious to hear in the US, people say that women are so immodest and will be objectified – yadda yadda, and we have Christians in the Frei Körper Külture (Nudists) here, or that go topless at the beach(es) and it’s just so NOT on their radar that there’s anything wrong with it or someone might lust or think anything inappropriate – because they have good boundaries and each person is responsible for themselves.

    It just is NOT that way in the US. There is such a horrible enmeshment and cult mentality that what Pastor says = what G-d says and therefore Pastor = G-d – we must obey, or we are disobeying Him.

    Uh, NO. Absolutely NO to the Nth degree.

    As much as I love my family, I have never “made” anyone do anything. Not when I wore turtlenecks in summer and a-line skirts to my ankles. Not when I wore knee-length skirts or a little v-neck.

    I’ve gotten “the lecture” more times than I can count. I’ve also tuned out and given them the “go to hell” look in return for the entirety of said rape culture (ahem modesty) lecture. I’ve gotten it repeatedly from family, from well-meaning (assuming positive intent here) church people) and over and over again from Christian coworkers.

    I’ve been told over and over and OVER again by church people about how “Immodest” I am simply by being tall and curvy. Gee whiz people. I didn’t choose my genes.

    I had my motives checked when I went so far for several years to finally wear a headcovering because I’d been dogged about it for so gosh darn long. Did that stop it either? Hell to the no!! Suddenly I’ve been converted to some cult and I now needed to be saved and re-educated and shown the error of my modest ways. (I so wish I was making this up!)

    It took me having two children and having to feed them anywhere and everywhere to sit and think to myself “This entire thing is a crock!”

    Not when I was 12, not when I was 16, not when I was 18, 24, or certainly not now at over 30, did I ever elicit some response by anyone as to how my body looks when I wear any article of clothing or any accessory with it. I wear it because I am confident in how I look, not because I wish to attract any attention.

  10. Pingback: modesty – a roundup of posts and thoughts | Lana Hobbs the Brave

  11. While it’s hardly news some people think women are guilty of being teasers just by existing, that metaphor was one of the creepier ways to express it (even though I’m sure the author wasn’t trying to be creepy).

  12. Well written! Completely agree.

    It is always the woman’s fault. Isn’t it?

    We wear skimpy clothes to excite men & then cry for getting raped.

    We get out of our houses which of course is an invitation to men to stare, pass lewd comments and humiliate us in public.

    We ask for it. Don’t we?

    Then why when we look at women in Burqa, we find it regressive. Why? Is that like taking it a little too far?

    Words have power. Please use it to inspire and motivate women. For a change, let is all try to educate men instead of women.

  13. Thank you so much for articulating your thoughts and sharing them with us. You did an excellent job and I appreciate you talking about this subject, and especially this article.

  14. I love this. As soon as I read that article last week I was absolutely infuriated, and consequently wrote my own response to it (http://bethanypegors.blogspot.com/2013/06/the-bikini-question-my-response-of.html). I love how thoughtful yet emotional your post was. I grew up in the modesty culture as well (even if I wore a tankini that actually covered MORE than a one-piece, I had to wear a t-shirt over it), and it did nothing but harm my perspective on myself as well as men. Being married now, I’d much rather think of my husband as a grown man who can control himself versus just an animal who can only respond to his base instincts.

    • Exactly. Getting to know my husband’s thoughts on this have been revelatory for me. He grew up pretty disconnected from the modesty/purity cultures, so for him it was just naturally accepted that controlling his thought life was completely up to him, no matter what was going on around him. He finds the conservative Christian concept of “modesty” completely baffling.

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  20. My goodness. You are my new hero. I shared this post with a friend who has been leaving behind the more extreme side of the bubble for a few years. Your blog is refreshing and altogether awesome.

  21. Excellent post, I’m really enjoying your blog!

    Thank you for sharing your personal experience, I am so, so sorry these disgusting men abused you, and so, so proud to see a sister who refuses to live her life as a victim because of these pervs. You are amazing, inspiring, glorious.

    One of the problems with the whole hide-your-unclean-tempting-dirty-body culture, is that it sets women up to be abused. I am a little hottie & I know it & I like to dress cute & comfortable. I don’t wear stillettos or tube tops, but I don’t try not to be attractive, either. & I do get stares & comments & flirtations come my way, but men don’t try to touch or force me. In fact, they don’t even hardly ever disrespect me. Why? B/c when I am out & about without my husband I have a “don’t f*** with me” stance, it’s in the way I walk & the way I carry myself, even in my face. I’m pleasant with people who are pleasant with me, but I make sure my bearing says, “boy, if you try any shit with me, I will f*** you up.” & I will. B/c when I was 11 years old I decided that anyone who wanted to rape me would have to rape my cold, dead body, b/c I was gonna scream & fight with every inch of myself for my dignity. & so I’ve never yet had to prove it, b/c I think men know instinctively not to go there.

    & you have to have self respect to do that.

    What breaks my heart is that well-meaning, badly-indocrinated parents don’t realize how they are setting up their daughters to be abused, b/c “abusable” is also a stance, & it’s written all over every girl & woman who believes that she is a cake meant to be eaten.

    Thank you so much for what you are doing. Keep up the good work!

    • Thank you! And I’m thrilled that you’ve never had to deal with a lot of what was described.

      I want to very gently point out that while having “don’t f*** with me” stamped on your forehead can be a powerful thing and you definitely deserve to be proud of your confidence, there are some… things… about what you’ve said here that trouble me.

      I made a very similar decision when I was about the same age– that I would scream and fight. But, when I was raped, it didn’t fit into the whole stranger-popped-out-of-the-bushes // guy-coming-on-to-me-in-a-bar scenario. It was my fiance, and I had no real way of realizing at the time that he was raping me. I knew I didn’t want to have sex with him, was begging him not to have sex with me, but… it didn’t connect.

      Saying that it takes “self-respect,” while self-respect is AWESOME, for men to “instinctively know not to go there” almost implies that women who have had men “go there” means they didn’t have self respect… and that’s a really damaging idea.

      Anyway, thank you, and I hope you stick around, I just wanted to take this opportunity to highlight this.

  22. MY GOD, stuff like that pisses me off! It’s our fault for being “tempting.” Adds to the rape culture, as you said. I’ve seen to many articles like this lately, too many people putting all the responsibility on women to be “modest.”

    But I see another egregious sin; they are giving our beloved chocolate cake a bad rep!

  23. While the points made in this blog regarding “rape culture” and dress are irrefutable and, quite frankly, obvious (as they’ve been proven time and again through various reports and statistical analyses on rape cases, not to mention empirical evidence), I would argue that the way this is written in sexist generalizations contributes as much to the problem as the author’s example regarding cake.

    If Rachel’s statement enforces the idea that “[a woman] exists to be eaten,” then this entire blog enforces the idea that all men exist to be predators. The author makes no delineation between predators and all men, or victims and all women. Whether the majority of sexual assault is carried out by men against women or not is irrelevant; this sexist line of thinking and these sexist articles perpetuate a paradigm that is, in itself, harmful. If you treat someone like a (would-be) rapist their whole life, their chances of becoming that person increase dramatically.

  24. “I have a ‘don’t f*** with me’ stance, it’s in the way I walk & the way I carry myself, even in my face.”

    Yeah, I used to have that look too. Or at least I thought so. But it never dawned on me that I needed to have that look ALL THE TIME, even with the poor lonely old widower who would show me pictures of his late wife and cry. He was my neighbor, after all…such a sweet, grief-stricken man. And he was even older than my father.

    He was also a serial rapist, and apparently his nephew was his apprentice, but I didn’t know that until it was too late.

    “…’abusable’ is also a stance, & it’s written all over every girl & woman who believes that she is a cake meant to be eaten.” Those of us who are survivors of multiple sexual assaults often wonder if we have a sign on our forehead, if we give off a “rape me” vibe. I do know this: I NEVER BELIEVED I WAS A CAKE MEANT TO BE EATEN.

    Then again, maybe being sexually abused for years, starting when I was 13, did mark me all over as “abusable”.

    I realize that you have a lot invested in believing you aren’t like me, that no one will ever fuck with you. I really, really wish that was true. But I’ve met too many formerly “kick butt and take names” strong women with a huge amount of self-respect who found out that rapists are not always so easily deterred. And, when they are someone we know and trust, it’s not so easy to suddenly go all ninja assassin on them just because they…….[fill in blank with first, very mild, boundary violation that we were SURE we must have misinterpreted]

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