The picture above was taken while I was in high school. I am wearing a specific pattern of “culotte,” or “split skirt,” that was distributed by First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana, and Hyles-Anderson College. This particular pattern was voluminous– there was an 8-inch yolk, and box pleats circled around my hips. The idea behind the pattern was that the yolk and the pleats created enough space that you couldn’t see what my actual shape was underneath all of that fabric. I was not allowed to wear any other kind of culotte pattern— not the “loose” basketball shorts, or “loose” Bermudas, or anything else that was permissible for many of the young women I knew– although, as far as I can remember, all the women in my church wore this pattern.
I developed a gigantic, curvaceous, apple-bottom ass when I was around 14. I have the stretch marks to prove it. And as soon as I started developing, the comments started flooding in.
Samantha, you have a lot of junk in your trunk!
Samantha, have you thought about Spanx? Your butt wiggles when you walk.
Samantha, you should put some control-top panty hose on. It would help with that jiggle.
Samantha, you need to be very careful when you walk up to the piano. Don’t take such a large step onto the platform.
Samantha, suck in your stomach and tilt your hips forward. It’ll help your bottom be less noticeable.
Samantha, you need to work out more. Your bouncing rear-end is distracting my husband.
I could go on. I have searingly vivid memories of hundreds of comments like this, given to me by incredibly well-meaning men and women– people in my church who honestly cared about me, who to this day still care about me, and who I still respect and love. These men and women have played such a huge role in my life, but every time I think about the instructions I received from them concerning modesty, I want to curl up into a ball until the pain goes away.
They didn’t mean for this to happen. I’m positive they’d be horrified if they knew I carried these wounds with me– wounds that still bleed, even though it’s been years since I’ve heard anything like this.
When I picked out my wedding dress, a gorgeous sleeveless gown with a sweetheart neckline, my immediate concern was what people would think when the wedding pictures went up on facebook. I would likely never hear it directly from them, but I could see their faces in my mind– their lips purse, their faces twist, their heads shake. Look at that dress, they would tut-tut. Her neckline is so low! I can’t believe her parents would let her wear that. And her husband, what must he be like, to let his wife flaunt herself like this?
When I pushed my credit card across the counter, I felt… proud. Because I knew what I’d just accomplished, and it had been monumental: don’t let the bastards get you down, and I thought, and I scheduled my first fitting.
So, today, when I read this article on her.meneutics by Peter Chin, I had to fight with myself. Because I could hear all of those people– people I respect, people who mean a great deal to me– I could hear them in his words. I could hear how loving and gentle he must feel. I could practically picture the look on his face– the tenderness and compassion he truly feels and wants all Christian women to know, to understand how sincere he is, how he doesn’t want us to be hurt by his words, that all he wants is to encourage us to do, think, feel, and react in the way that he thinks is “appropriate” and “mature.”
But all his words did was make me want to scream. To pick up anything and smash it. To lay in my bed and cry until I couldn’t feel anything anymore.
Because, honestly, while I appreciate how kindly he worded his thoughts, it doesn’t change the fact that the ideas he’s promoting hurt people. And yes, they hurt me, and I’m a human so I’m not above reading things into what he said that aren’t there, but I am desperately trying to be fair. I’m not taking issue with his wording, or with his motives– I take issue with the idea.
To say that “modesty is the loving prerogative of the mature” is to instantly label anyone who disagrees with him as unloving and immature, and this is how he begins his argument. This immediately silences anyone who disagrees with him, because we can quite easily be dismissed. We think he’s wrong not because we have research, or personal experience, or even the Bible on our side– we disagree with him because we aren’t exercising true Christian love and maturity. This comment is setting up a false dichotomy between him and the “otherness” of women who have been abused and silenced by teachings exactly like what he’s promoting.
And then he goes to Romans 14, which he does, thankfully, quote the passage in full, instead of ripping out single verses that is so common in this format. But, just because he gives us a lot of context doesn’t remove a basic problem with what Peter, and so many others like him, have done. By using Romans 14, Peter is borrowing from and contributing to a culture where women’s bodies are less than objects– we are unclean objects.
To be fair, he never explicitly says this– in fact, in some places, it seems like he’s trying to deny this idea, but the problem is that women’s bodies as unclean objects is the fundamental premise behind “modesty.” You cannot remove this concept and leave modesty teachings any ground to stand on.
I realize that is a huge claim, so let me explain.
In explanations about modesty like what Peter has given here, the pattern to their argument is:
1) of course, a woman’s body is beautiful, and good. God made it.
2) however, a woman’s body is also sexual, and that sexuality causes men to lust after them.
3) so, out of love, shouldn’t women do everything they can to make sure their brother doesn’t sin?
And then, they frequently go to Romans 14, or passages like it, to talk about the idea of the stumbling block, and how it is every Christian’s duty to “help the weaker brother.”
However, the “weaker brother” in the case of modesty is all men, and the situation being considered is that at least some men see women’s bodies as unclean, and shouldn’t we cater to that? Shouldn’t we do everything within our power to help them avoid temptation and sin? Isn’t that our mature Christian duty?
Hopefully you can intuit the connection. Romans 14 is talking about Christians who think some things (like food) are unclean, and some don’t, but the people who don’t think an item is unclean should still be aware of those who do, and make accommodations for them. When you replace the concept of clean and unclean food with women’s bodies, the only result is that women’s bodies can be perceived as inherently and integrally unclean.
(Some could argue that it’s not our bodies that are unclean, only how we choose to dress those bodies, but that’s not consistent, because the argument goes that men are lusting after the women’s bodies, not their clothes.)
When I was a teenager, and my womanly body began developing, the reaction was not to my clothes– it was never to my clothes. It was to my body, and most of the attention focused on my rear end, which could not be disguised no matter how I walked or what I wore. Nothing– and I do mean absolutely nothing – could change the fact that I had a large, shapely ass or hide it well enough to remove it from my “weaker brother’s” field of vision. No matter what I wore, I was still on the receiving end of cat calls, jeers, slurs– I was stared at, grabbed at, slapped, and mocked, because my body was unclean, and my body was under the purview of what men thought about it.
If I was touched inappropriately, it was not because he was a pervert, it was because I was dressed “inappropriately” (to borrow Peter’s term) and it had caused my brother to stumble.
If I caught one of the young men (or even married men, on occasion) staring at me, it wasn’t because they were not exercising self-control. It was because what I was wearing had caused them to lust after me. It was my “Christian duty” if I was going to “love my weaker brother” and “be strong and mature” to do my dead-level best to make sure that never happened.
But, over the course of well over a dozen years, what I discovered was that no level of modesty could prevent even good, godly, Christian men from lusting after my body if they weren’t exercising self-restraint. I could not make myself shapeless enough, ugly enough, undesirable enough, to escape male attention. It just wasn’t possible.
But what I have learned since then is that there is nothing about my body that I need to hide. My body is beautiful, wonderful, given to me by God, and meant to be fully enjoyed. My body is not unclean– there is nothing about myself, my physicality, my sexuality, none of it, that can “cause” men to lust, or force good men, against their will, to objectify me. I a person, with all the complicated messiness that entails– and my body is fully a part of who I am. It can’t be reduced down to “clean” or “unclean” based on how I dress it– to try to do that is to deny my humanity.
And I love my brothers enough to know that they are capable of making the choice not to objectify and demean their sisters– no matter what they look like or what they’re wearing.