Today I will discuss some potential solutions to The Modesty Myth's negative affects on women, men, girls, and boys. However, let me reiterate that I believe modesty can be redeemed and therefore have provided a few potential solutions to The Modesty Myth in today's post. As a refresher, this is what we discussed this week:
- Modesty is based on a shameful view of the female body.
- Modesty contributes to the sexual objectification of women and girls.
- Modesty upholds the double standard of sexual purity among women and men.
- Modesty contributes to unhealthy body image among women and girls.
- Modesty seeks to police – and control – women’s bodies.
- Modesty negatively affects men, too.
Solution #1: Treat women as full human beings and like the masterpieces of God they are.You cannot consider women fully human beings unless you recognize that their lives do not revolve around men and their supposedly insatiable sex drives, which as my husband noted, reduces men to their sexual urges. If women were considered fully human, they wouldn't be treated as sex objects. They wouldn't be reduced to bodies in conversations about modesty. They wouldn't be ostracized if they didn't fit into the narrow confines of what constitutes a "real" woman in our society.
If women were treated as fully human, they would be valued as a person first, a woman second, and then by any other identity she chooses to assume. We are all balancing identities that are in flux, constantly changing and stretching based on our experiences and personal growth. If women were treated as fully human, we would be talking about modesty in ways more similar to solution #2 below. If women were treated as fully human, we would look at who a woman is first before judging based on what she looks like. If women were treated as fully human, would we really be having the modesty conversation in 2012?
Solution #2: Rethink language.The Church should be talking about meekness, not modesty. Given modesty's unfortunate track record, modesty is to meekness as spinster is to bachelorette. Theoretically, modesty means freedom from vanity and a regard for decency of behavior, speech, and dress just as theoretically, spinster means an unmarried woman. But within colloquial context, these words project very different, very sexist messages.
Our society needs a healthy dose of this meekness-modesty medicine. Meekness is Christ-like humility, a rightful positioning of ourselves before God's goodness and faithfulness. Modesty, in its original sense, is also akin to meekness in this sense in many ways; however, as we've seen, the theory and practice are not aligned. Through this meekness-modesty, the focus of our hearts, minds, souls, and bodies follows a prioritized order:
- Honor God with our our lives -- including our bodies. While there certainly is a strong Christian tradition of mind/body dualism, contemporary society and scholars are reinforcing that we are called to honor God with all of who we are, even including our flesh. And yes, that includes how we dress and present ourselves. (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)
- Have healthy self-respect. We should encourage children from a young age that their bodies are their own and perfect just the way they are. This message will likely fall on deaf ears by the time that they (especially the girls) reach adolescence, but it's all the more important to reinforce their ownership of their body (and therefore healthy boundaries with others) and strengthen their self-image by affirming more than their looks (kindness, intelligence, athleticism, creativity -- whatever their unique talents may be). (There are so many good "prooftexts" to choose from that describe God's love for us as new creations, but I'll only name a few: 1 Timothy 4:12-14, Romans 12:2, 1 Peter 2:5, 2 Corinthians 5:17, and so on.)
- Be considerate of others based on common sense. Oftentimes, this idea is communicated using the phrase "stumbling block." For those who are unaware, a stumbling block is an image throughout Scripture that describes an intentional (or at least avoidable) act that causes a weaker person to sin. While the sinner is always responsible for his/her own sin, Christians are called to take into account common sense and thoughtfulness of their brothers and sisters when considering living out their lives, including but not limited to how they dress or whether they have a glass of wine at a restaurant -- but always in the context of real rather than hypothetical relationships. (1 Corinthians 8:9, Romans 14:13)
The last one is the crux of this whole series. When taking out of this order and lauded as its own priority within the church, we all suffer the consequences. We become legalistic and judgmental of others (see the comments here). We begin to assume that anyone dressing "immodesty" is dressing that way for us.
But meekness isn’t a dress code; it’s a heart code. I wish modesty in its practiced form could be seen as godly self-respect, but it isn't. Meekness flees from judgmentalism and legalism and all the other -isms and clings to righteousness, justice, faithfulness, and compassion. We should really be encouraging our daughters and sons to focus their eyes on Jesus rather than on whether skinny jeans, mini-skirts, and tank tops and the bodies that wear them are (im)modest enough.
Solution #3: Stop slut-shaming women and girls.In the precious and precarious transition from girlhood to womanhood, young women are bombarded with mixed messages on what it means to be a woman. They are taught to be sexy, but not sexual. They are taught that "everyone does it," but shamed as "whores" when they actually are sexually active. They are blatantly and subconsciously told that they look (hair, weight, skin, dress, etc.) is the most important part of who they are. And our toxic culture reinforces all of this:
There can be over-generalization about [modesty]. Its the knowing when it is the appropriate time, place, and occasion. Often times, it is not appropriate. Often times there is a lot of judgment. With girls who wear short shorts or a tank top who are already insecure and themselves and their bodies, communication about clothing must be drenched in love. They have been led astray and its not entirely their fault. DO NOT JUDGE. The last thing an immodest girl who is actually arriving at church to be loved needs is someone to get pissed about their clothes. See it as an occasion to love a girl who is actually taking a chance thinking that maybe a Church is a place she can get what she needs. The moment she feels judged, is the moment she remembers the reason why she is trying to be sexy. Because she can easily find "love" and acceptance elsewhere. Love, love, love, love, love. And no judgement. (via a comment thread on Facebook courtesy of my blog friend S at the The Feminist Mystique, emphasis mine)Another friend reiterated the do not judge message:
Although a bathing suit or swim trunks or a speedo might not be appropriate to wear in a professional workplace or classroom, I don't see why they should be deemed immodest when worn in the appropriate settings. In the appropriate setting, the manner is not to draw attention to one's body in a sexual way. Most importantly, modesty is not for others to judge, it is between God and me...I think a more constructive approach to modesty, particularly when trying to convey the subject to preteens and teens, is to instead speak to the purpose of modesty equally to all, regardless of gender, and ask that they live out that purpose in the way they dress and the way that they look at those who they are attracted to.Similarly, we need to reevaluate how we treat women and girls who are sexually active. We need to stop this perverted double standard of sexuality that teaches women they are less valuable if they are no longer virgins and teaches men that they are "real" men if they are sexual conquistadors (the language of war and conquering related to consensual sex is another problematic issue of language and reality). As one speaker at camp once said, "Guys, if you supposedly want your wife to be a virgin one day, then stop using all of them up! Don't expect them to be virgins if you're not!"
Solution #4: Compliment the women and girls in your life on something other than how they look.If the recent “Am I Ugly?” YouTube videos prove anything, it’s that women and girls are looking to others – even strangers – for validation on their appearance. Girls learn it from an early age. Studies have shown that adults (and even peers from young ages) are more likely to compliment a girl on her looks first (reinforcing passiveness) rather than on any other accomplishment from Lego towers to magic forts (activeness). Needless to say, this is not the case with boys. Whether you believe gender is a social construct, biologically-determined, or some combination thereof, complimenting women and girls primarily (and often only) on their appearance is steeped in culture, not Scripture.
As for the Church, let’s focus on this: “Charm and beauty are passing, but a woman who fears the Lord will be praised” (Proverbs 31). Many a Christian book on women has lauded the fact that woman are the crown jewels of God's creation and that we express a unique beauty and femininity of our Creator (ahem, Captivating by the Eldridges). I am not denying that and think it's beautiful. But telling girls that "the King is enthralled with your beauty" a million times will not speak to her heart as much as explaining what beauty really is. Beauty is strength, courage, fortitude, intelligence, passion, relationships, and self-knowledge. Beauty is caring, compassion, talent, and well-being. But far too often, we stop at "you are beautiful just the way you are" without affirming why we think they are beautiful and confirming that it is not based primarily or even mainly on the way they look.
Solution #5: Older women should serve as role models to younger women.Every single year of camp we had the same exact conversation at the beginning, middle, and end of the week-long co-ed session. In the beginning of the week, we discussed general rules and guidelines for camp, including dress code. In the middle of the week, we usually had some intervention in which the female leaders instituted a serious discussion on how dress code was not being adhered to this week. At the end of the week, we talked about how to install a sense of modesty in these young women who seemed to be evermore determined to dress like Snooki. (See this recent article on modest prom dresses.)
Adolescent girls have complicated, often tense relationships with women in authority positions, most noticeably and consistently with their mothers. As a result, these conversations about modesty and dress code are tuned out when they come from seemingly holier-than-thou, older female leaders. Since I've been both a camper and a counselor; I get the feeling on either side. And from this dual perspective, I've seen a willingness to understand one another when power dynamics are taken out of the picture. When teenage girls feel like their thoughts, ideas, fears, and opinions will be validated and respected by others, especially by those in authority, they are more willing to engage as the quasi-adults they are. Developing one-on-one or small group relationships with these young women as counselors (or even aunts, grandmothers, small group leaders, etc.) is imperative to any worthwhile and productive conversation on modesty, sexuality, relationships, and dating. As older women, we can serve as mentors, not just second moms to these girls, many of whom are in desperate need of just being listened to.
Solution #6: Men, speak up and stand up for your mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters.
This was the hardest solution for me to write. For one, I am not a man and therefore do not have a intuitive perspective on how the modesty myth affects men as much as I understand how it affects women and girls. I also am hyper-sensitive in these conversations to not alienate the good men who are willing and energized to reject the toxic messages targeted toward women and girls in our culture. The good men like my husband who grieve over the sickening statistics of violence against women in the home, at war, at the workplace, at school -- everywhere and anywhere -- and see how this is connected to dehumanizing power structures that they as men, in particular, benefit from.
Good men are out there. But many times, they stay silent. They avoid these conversations. They make excuses that it's really not that bad. It's largely because in this system, the status quo privileges men -- and who wants to forfeit privilege? It's painful. It requires introspection and an emptying of oneself for others, something our society rarely values in a man. It means taking responsibility for one's own complicity.
But I believe good men are out there. They just need to speak up and stand up. When a frat boy is pressuring a girl to drink at a party, a good man steps in and says enough. When a coworker makes a derogatory comment about women (you know, because we're one monolithic block of utter sameness), a good man speaks up and says knock it off. When a church teaches that women are just as responsible for men's lust, a good man stands up and proclaims truth: a woman's worth is not measured by what she wears or how she looks; a woman's worth is determined by a Holy God who said that creation was very good, honored a teenage peasant girl as the Mother of the King of Kings, and sent the Christ to be atonement for every single person, even those whose skirts are above the two-inches-above-the-knee-cap rule.