Modesty. For many Christians, especially in the US, the word conjures up unwelcome images of unfashionable and uncomfortable clothing choices imposed and monitored by strict and legalistic preachers. For others, it is seen as a way of controlling womens’ sexuality and of enforcing the ‘Madonna – whore’ dichotomy that someone (probably in a ‘studies’ programme) decided is a patriarchal meme that validates the suppression / oppression of women. There are ‘good girls’ and ‘bad girls’ and ‘good girls’ don’t dress like that. Such a bifurcated view of female sexuality is rejected by sex-positive feminists as being inherently oppressive of women.
Now to be honest, I am not too familiar with the various shades of meanings attached to these terms. I was fortunately spared having to go through any ‘studies’ programme at university and am consequently delightfully ignorant of a great many things. I first read the ‘Madonna-whore’ dichotomy mentioned in the comments section of some article I read (which I cannot now find), but which basically was railing against something called ‘purity culture’. An article by Sarah Bessey and a sympathetic response by Jen Pollock Michel in Christianity Today were part of the discussion. Then there was this article that dealt specifically with the question of modesty and the Christian woman..
Taken all together with a number of other recent articles, books, and blogposts, a picture begins to emerge of Christian women revolting against certain assumed norms of behaviour that seem to be part and parcel of the evangelical sub-culture and the double-standard that obtains for men and women.
What to make of all this? Well, I cannot really answer all the questions surrounding purity cultures and virgin-whore dichotomies, but I can say that, all protestations to the contrary – your skirt is probably too short. Let me explain.
Working on college campuses, I’ve watched as women have embraced fashion trends that make simply walking through campus akin to perusing soft-core porn. I’ve seen women embrace styles and trends that were formerly seen only on prostitutes. I’ve read men describe church services as the ‘Sunday morning night-club’ because of what women wear there. I’ve counselled Christian men who dread the coming of warm weather because of the barrage of temptation with which they will inevitably be faced, and the guilt and shame heaped on them for not ‘guarding their eyes’ or for somehow ‘making women responsible for their lust’. And I’ve scratched my head in wonder that I have to advise Christian women going for short-term mission that skin tight jeans and skirts half-way up their thighs are not appropriate dress.
At the same time, I’ve listened to and read how many countless times of the need for Christian women to not ‘cause their brother’s to stumble’ by their dress. I’ve also read of the frustration many women feel about this, as they (rightfully) point to the responsibilities men have to manage their own sexuality and take responsibility for their own choices.
In all of this, the discussion has almost always revolved around the male response to female sexuality. I have rarely seen anything about what I believe lies closer to the heart of issues of modesty in dress – vanity.
In almost every case wide numbers of women have embraced these styles of clothing because of the fact that it appeals to their sinful nature and their vanity.
(Cue howls of protest from the gallery)
Yes, yes I know I know. I’m a misogynist patriarchal sexist who wants to utilise religion to subvert and suppress women.
So what do I mean? Well simply put women generally like to dress in ways that enhance their visual / sexual appeal. Women want to be seen as desirable and attractive to men (that is to men they like and/or deem to be an attractive catch. Other men not so much). Women like to look pretty, and it usually makes them feel good to look good. And as far as I can tell this is a universal trait, equally apparent among ‘decadent westerners’ and ‘conservative Muslims’ (if you doubt it then you’ve never really observed Muslim women, covered nearly from head to toe in swaths of fabric manage to somehow rock a runway-worthy fashion sense while not showing a stitch of skin beyond their hands and face.)
I don’t have any problem with this and I think it is a good thing; a God given thing even. Women like to look good and be appealing. Wonderful.
Like all good things however this one has been warped and twisted by the Fall. So what was a good gift has become a nightmare. The result is women caught in a never-ending vanity arms (and legs, and thighs, and mid-drift…) race with other women, mostly falsely projected images of idealised women, that they can never meet and that leaves them dissatisfied and perpetually unhappy and looking for someone to blame.
The advert comes out, the skirts on the rack are shorter this year and vanity kicks in. One doesn’t want to be unappealing and wearing a longer skirt would be unappealing and to be appealing is to be ‘sexy’ and to show more and more skin and well everyone else is wearing it and it really can’t be so bad if that is what everyone else is wearing and who wants to look like an old woman (because old women aren’t sexy whatever else they might be) and it’s the sexist patriarchy that is responsible for all this and, and and…
Annnd you know what? It isn’t men or the ‘patriarchy’ that drives the immodest clothing arms race. Its other women. The women that women compare themselves to in the media, among their network of friends, and the woman in their heads that tell them that to be appealing or beautiful or desirable is to do this to wear that.
And the church comes in with teaching that generally is more harmful than helpful by deflecting the issue into one of women being responsible somehow for men’s sins – a stance which simultaneously infantilises and dehumanises men by making them little more than walking gonads AND avoids dealing substantively with women’s sins and sexual power. It fails to address the fact that yes, women who are seen to be ‘sexy’ have power; power that is used to extract unearned privileges that men and unattractive or older women do not have. It neglects the fact that women have and do often use sex, sexiness and the male attention it generates for their own advantage. It forgets that women are sinners and that the admonition to modest dress in the Bible is made without any reference at all to men, but is made in reference to holiness and prayerfulness, watchfulness and submission.
So yes, when you pour yourself into that pair of skin-tight jeans don’t deluded yourself into thinking it’s because they are comfortable. They aren’t and besides, – there are plenty of comfortable clothes that don’t allow me to trace every part of your figure so closely that I can see the outline of the birthmark on your upper left thigh. And when you put on that super short skirt, please don’t pretend that it’s because it’s hot since the men all around you are equally hot and they don’t wear things like that and the only men who do so are gay men and they’re wearing them for the same reason you really are. Admit the truth of how it appeals to your vanity and your carnal nature. Admit it and repent.