Keep It or Trash It / Life with Jesus / The Church

Let’s Trash It: Forced Modesty

(I realize this is very lengthy so I have strategically placed pictures of smiling animals throughout the piece so that you can mark your place if you need to take a break and come back to it. At my sister’s suggestion, I’ve also made an audio version of this blog. You can download/stream it by clicking here.)

If I ever get to meet Dante, I’m going to tell him that he missed a circle of hell. If God really wants to torment people, he should make them don a wet one-piece bathing suit and then give them diarrhea.

There I was,

13,

on a youth trip,

at a water park,

in a wet one-piece bathing suit,

with a sudden and violent bout of diarrhea.

Some readers probably do not understand the horror of trying to go to the bathroom while wearing a wet one-piece, particularly when some very unpleasant remnants of liquified cheese puffs are threatening to go nuclear out your butthole. Wet bathing suits cling to your skin so tightly that when you finally pry the last little piece off, it makes the same sound as when you open a can of biscuits. It is like trying to peel your skin off and then wrestle it back on, in a very tiny bathroom stall, nonetheless. There are all sorts of dangers lurking in this situation.

  • What if you can’t get it off in time?
  • What if someone opens the door while you’re standing completely in the nude in a bathroom stall?
  • What if your hand slips off the wet bathing suit and you were yanking it with such great force that you punch yourself in the face and knock yourself out and your friends find you laying half naked on a wet waterpark bathroom floor and you’ve shat yourself?

Imagine doing this, with great urgency, every 10 to 15 minutes.

I envision that listening to me frantically trying to peel off a second layer of skin while trying to stave off a hefty helping of trouser chili, whacking my elbows on the side of the stall is the only situation where “What in tarnation?” would be an appropriate query for an innocent bystander.

(PS- I googled slang for diarrhea and “trouser chili” was the first hit and I’ve giggled about it for a full five minutes)

I’m surprised that my subconscious doesn’t drag this situation up every once in a while in my stress dreams. Some people dream about falling; I should be dreaming about that fateful day at Schlitterbahn.

So, why was I wearing a one piece?

If you have ever had any proximity to white, Southern evangelicalism, you’ll know that modesty is drilled into us from babies. Yes, we must cover up little girl’s diapers with shorts and God-forbid we let a baby girl crawl around in just a diaper…as if toddler nipples don’t all look the same.

I’m sure that my youth group trip information flyer had a dress code, one where girls couldn’t wear two pieces (unless they wore a shirt over it). My conservative church culture drilled into me, from a very young age, that I was responsible for keeping men and boys pure. Should they get a glance of my shoulder, or a little peep of my midriff, or, God-forbid, even a hint of cleavage, then I leave them with no choice but to lust after me.

The little self-righteous perfectionist in me took this and ran with it. I mean, full on sprint marathoning. Slut-shaming (in my heart), wanting to make t-shirts in college that said “modest is hottest”, policing literally every girl around me and feeling pity for them that they felt they needed to wear spaghetti straps to lure men in with their boobs.

For 33 years, every time I’ve gotten dressed, I’ve critiqued my clothing- is my bra showing? Is this too low? Oh, it clings in the wrong places.

Every morning, I’ve thought about men and their purity as I chose how to clothe my body.

Yeah, I’m done with that.

jon-snow

I purchased and wore a spaghetti strap dress this week to drop my kids off. My collarbone was like, “OH, HELLO WORLD”.

I felt cute.

I felt confident.

And more importantly, in August in Texas, I felt cool (well, cool-ish- as cool as one can be when the temperature is nearing the surface of the sun at 8:30 in the morning)

Truthfully, I’m embarrassed that it has taken me this long to disentangle myself from a toxic patriarchal reading of the Bible that tells me that my body is shameful for just existing and that I’m somehow responsible for someone else’s dehumanization of me.

It’s embarrassing. Some readers are side-eyeing each other and saying, “Uh, didn’t we already do this in the 60s?” Well, I didn’t and my conservative West Texas culture didn’t (and still hasn’t done this) either.

I like to make jokes about the time I’ve spent nude in the presence of other women at the Korean spa, but I’m not joking when I say that it is a holy experience to be in a space where my naked female body, which is literally sexualized everywhere else I go, can just exist without any moral or religious implications. At the Korean spa, my boob is just a boob, like my elbow or my nose. There’s nothing good or bad about it, it just is.

I want to live that way. I’m tired of being sexualized when I just want to go to the grocery store. I’m tired of being sexualized when I just want to go to church. I’m just tired of being sexualized.

It’s taken a while for me to reach this point because toxic modesty waters run deep.  For damn near 30 years, this idea that I am responsible for making men lust after me has been drilled into my head. It’s affected my relationship with my own body. It’s affected how I view other women. It’s affected my relationships (read: friendships) with men.

Truthfully, it is Jesus and his treatment of women that has helped me claw my way out of this pit. Here is literally the only thing that Jesus has to say about lust.

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’[a]28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.30 And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.  Matthew 5

Did you catch it?  Did you see that there were no asterisks, no parentheses, no footnotes?

 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.**

**unless she’s wearing a low cut top. Then you can totally go to town, bro. It’s totally her fault.

Even if we get creative and place Jesus in hypothetical situations, it is ludicrous to think about him blaming women for men’s lust. Can you imagine how the story of the woman at the well would have gone if Jesus had first said, “GEEZ, woman. Can you put your tits away? I can’t hear a word you have to say until you cover those puppies up.”

It’s impossible. Even with all of the cultural differences between our culture and his, he would never, using any words, have said anything like that to a woman. Because he saw women as full humans, creations of God. Jesus understood that ogling women and reducing them to a pair of breasts or a butt or an ankle or whatever one’s weird-ass fetish was not loving your neighbor as yourself.

If we’re to take Jesus at his word, that he was fully human and fully divine, then that means that Jesus must have had sexual attraction. It’s biological. It’s wired into us. Sexual attraction is what keeps the species from dying out.

However.

It’s how we respond to sexual attraction that really screws shit up and this is where the church (and culture) get it so wrong.

Think about it- there are cultures where nude beaches are a thing and, surprisingly, the men don’t turn into groping monsters at the sight of nude women. There are cultures in Africa where women walk around topless. That’s not to say that those cultures don’t also suffer from sexism (I’m sure they do) but their understanding of women’s bodies is certainly different than ours. In a mission trip to Germany, Alex noticed that all the Germans- men and women- stripped down and changed out of sweaty clothes on the field. In America, many women can’t even stomach the sight of other nude women.

We act as if modesty, particularly women’s modesty, is a moral imperative and these other cultures are sex-obsessed. Which is a joke because our sexual repression makes us sex-obsessed, we just couch our obsession in judgment.

If you grew up in the church, at least in the South, it’s likely that you’ve been swimming in this “Women should be modest because men can’t control themselves” culture for decades.

I know that putting the responsibility back on men sounds radical.

I want to take a minute for a brief caveat. This new found empowerment is for myself. I am not arguing that every other woman has to embrace this for themselves.  We all fight the power in our own way and some of us don’t have the energy to fight it at all. I have a friend who says that modesty is a suit of armor for her, a possible protection against comments and stares from men.  She does not feel safe in public, regardless of what she wears, but a sweatshirt makes her feel a little safer. I’m not going to tell her that she’s wrong for feeling that way because she isn’t.

I’m not going to judge women either way. Modest women get groped. Women who wear whatever the hell they want get groped. The problem isn’t with women and what they’re wearing.

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In talking this over with friends, the verse about not causing others to stumble came up. I thought about it for a few days. While I understand that verse in the context of, for example, not offering alcohol at a party where recovering alcoholics are present, I cannot apply it to this conversation on modesty and lust. If men say, “Yes, we have a responsibility to not lust after women BUT women better help us out”, it still gives men an out and women are still left holding the blame for their own dehumanization. In the verses above about lust, Jesus didn’t give men an out. He didn’t give them a free pass if the woman was wearing something tight or low-cut.  And being that women have been blamed by men for making them dehumanize us for thousands of years, I’m not super interested in continuing to support that thinking.

I am not responsible for someone else’s dehumanization of me. Period. End of story.

Now, all this to say, I am willing to offer grace and understanding. I understand that the same culture that taught me I was responsible for men’s purity taught men that was responsible for their purity.  We’re all products of this toxic soup of bad sexual theology and I know from experience that it’s not easy to change. We heap shame on women and good men are taught to feel shame too. Even when men try to get it ‘right’, by bouncing their eyes (looking away quickly from an attractive woman) or framing their lust as a battle, it doesn’t address the underlying problem that men are not taught to see women as fully human creatures in the first place. I think the church arms men to fight the wrong battle. Instead of helping men understand that sexual attraction is a normal biological practice but ogling women and then blaming them isn’t, the church instead teaches men that women’s bodies are dangerous.

I’m not interested in turning around and just handing off sexual shame to men instead.

I offer this excerpt from the Liturgists podcast episode on Prayer. Science Mike (Mike McHargue) shared this tidbit towards the end:

For most of my life,  as a good Southern Baptist,  I was obsessed with sex and sexuality.  For my entire young adulthood into being a married man, I constantly “struggled” with visual sexual attraction towards women and felt constant shame about it. I would pray about it, ask God to forgive me, ask God to transform me. I did everything short of whipping my back with a belt or whatever to try to suppress this desire and the more I tried to suppress that, the more intoxicated I was by women’s bodies- not that I ever acted on it, I’ve been faithful in marriage. There’s a book that was very popular in the tradition called Every Man’s Battle which literally depicts the masculine experience as being one defined by a struggle of sexuality.

Then I became an atheist and I realized God wasn’t watching me and didn’t care if I looked at women’s bodies. I became aware, because I took a primarily biological view of reality as opposed to a faith-based one, women’s bodies aren’t that different. Their attraction mechanisms aren’t that different than men. How do you know if an organism has a visual component to sexual attraction? If the animal has eyes.  That’s really the a qualification for “Is there a visual component to arousal?”

My lack of shame and my shift in recognizing women as just other homosapiens, it was like a switch flipped and I almost overnight had no struggle with overly sexualizing women’s bodies. It’s only because I lost the shame-based prohibition. So counter to what I always thought- if I lost the shame based prohibition, I’m gonna run around groping women.No, when I lost the shame associated with it, I ceased to struggle with the problem to begin with.

It’s from a place of respect that I can assert men and boys aren’t babies. They can have self-control. More importantly, they can unlearn some of the dangerous, damaging attitudes towards women that they pick up from culture and the church. I think it’s important that they do so.

But that’s not my fight anymore. I’m no longer playing this game that makes me responsible for a problem that isn’t mine.

I’m not naive. I know that the world isn’t going to magically respect my body because I’ve chosen to wear spaghetti straps or a skirt that hits me above the knee. Men might stare; both sexes might be judgemental.

But I know that’s not my problem anymore- it’s theirs

Forced modesty? Let’s trash it and replace it with an understanding that we are all made in God’s image and that we are all able to treat one another as such.

(My burgeoning series “Let’s Keep It/Let’s Trash It” is based on my faith deconstruction. As a decide what aspects of faith are worthwhile and which are garbage, I’ll blog through them. The first “Let’s Keep It” post can be found here.)

 

4 thoughts on “Let’s Trash It: Forced Modesty

  1. Beth

    I enjoyed the audio version. You are good at that. Please keep it up.

    The following are not excuses but explanations for the craziness of our post-modern society.

    BUT first, note that the quote you made does not mean that ALL non-Christian men do not lust after women.

    Besides the religious programming, there is also the MANY ways that ADVERTISING uses sexual allure to sell ANYTHING. Notice that ALL those models are young, shapely, and perfectly made up. I moved my email from Yahoo to Gmail in 2006 because I got fed up with Yahoo putting advertising banners with women in bikinis in my face daily.

    Beyond religion is the pornification of the culture. What was taboo in the 1960s when I was a teen is common in movies and late-night TV and especially music videos. That normalizes the practice for men to lust about women ALL the time. The implied message is that in order to be a real man then you lust after women.

    The Seven Deadly Sins https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_deadly_sins include lust as well as pride, gluttony, greed, sloth, envy, and wrath. In more than 40 years of hearing sermons, I have never heard a preacher brave enough to get real about any of those sins that infect us all.

    It has puzzled me why liberated women wear high heels instead of sensible shoes. They could demand that shoes that feel good also look good.

    This has also puzzled me. Do women dress for men, or women or themselves? There must be many motivational factors.

    This quote seems very wise to me from a woman in the 1800s
    The desire of the man is for the woman, but the desire of the woman is for the desire of the man.
    Madame de Stael

    I remain delighted to witness your deconstruction and reconstruction processes and messages.

    Shalom
    John S. Oliver

    • Hey John-

      Thanks for your thoughtful response (and I’m glad you like the audio version!)

      I completely understand that non-Christian men lust after women. I don’t expect that culture will ever really get it right but I do have some hope that some Christian men will get it right. And I agree with you that culture tells men all sorts of things about manhood that hurt both men and women. There’s a great documentary that I think everyone should watch called the Mask You Live In (it’s on Netflix!) that talks about toxic masculinity and it’s affect on *men*. It was very eye opening to me and did give me some compassion and understanding for how men are conditioned. I am an active reader or Reddit and I’m horrified by some of the comments men nonchalantly make about objectifying women. Like I said, I don’t expect most men to get it, but that’s also not my problem. It’s their sin, not mine.

      As far as what women wear, you’re right. There are lots of motivating factors. In response to patriarchy, some women push back. Women that wear more *masculine* clothes or that refuse to shave their legs come to mind. Other women, also in response to patriarchy, say, “Well, if I’m going to be objectified, I might as well get something out of it” and they use mens objectification of them to get some power (money, fame, attention, there are studies that have proven that more attractive women get promotions at work). I can’t fault them for that because it’s a survival mechanism in response to living under the boot of oppression. As far as high heels, some women like them and wear them because they feel good about themselves and some women probably wear them to look sexy and some women (like myself) choose not to wear them because I don’t find them comfortable.

      I don’t know that I agree with that quote. I myself was “boy crazy” as a kid because that’s where I thought my self-worth came from – boys desiring me. I don’t think I came by that naturally. It was a socialized behavior. We’re taught that having a man want us is the only things that really matters from a young age (re: All Disney Princess movies). If we changed that narrative, I think it would be less true. (And, if you’ve done any reading on the incel movements, there are men for whom that same statement is true in reverse).

      Thanks for sticking with me. As always, I appreciate your honesty and thoughtfulness.

  2. Hi Beth!
    I grew up and still going to a very conservative church that preaches that not being modest is the cause for men to stumble and the way we dress is the type of attention we want etc. I am now a mother to two boys and is struggling with some aspects of it. It has become mentally harmful to me because of the teachings. I feel that if I wear certain things that I am teaching my boys the wrong things or that I am showing the world that I am single even though I am happily married. The thing is my husband doesn’t exactly care unless the goods are covered.
    I am very glad to stumbled upon this post because it was a great reminder and the point you came up with are very true. Thank You!

    • Yes! I am struggling too. It is hard to parent while going through a faith deconstruction. I definitely talk my teen about how men are responsible for themselves and he routinely points out places (like the school dress code) where that isnt the case.

      For me, wearing what I want to is part of teaching him, i think. The first time i wore spaghetti straps, he said something (about noticing it), and i told him i was wearing it because it was hot outside.

      Ultimately, at this point, i want him to see women as fully human, regardless of what they are wearing.

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