Our Bodies, Our Selves: The Other Other Side of Modesty
Our Bodies, Our Selves: The Other Other Side of Modesty
By R.L. Stollar, HA Community Coordinator
Last week Brett Harris wrote about “the other side of modesty.” For so long, the conservative Christian conversation about modesty and purity has appeared disturbingly and humorously lopsided. Modesty teachers exhort young women to dress in certain ways so as to not lead young men to lust, and young men are exhorted to help preserve young women’s “emotional purity.” By constructing a purely fictional binary, where men are sexual and women are emotional, modesty and purity teachings have flourished.
Then Brett came along and threw a small wrench into the binary modesty machine, saying,
If I’ve learned anything from the original Modesty Survey it’s that these discussions can be dangerous. For one thing, talking about modesty and lust in the same article can imply that immodesty causes lust, which is a destructive lie.
I commend Brett for this because it is a start. To make any causal relationship between a woman’s outfit and a man’s actions is flat-out dangerous and destructive — end of story. But I also believe that the binary modesty machine, that he just threw a wrench into, is a machine that his own hands helped construct. Brett, and his brother Alex, authored the Modesty Survey themselves 6 years ago in 2007. They were seventeen at the time, and they hoped to do something good for other young men and women, but what they did caused significant harm.
When Brett wrote his latest article for The Rebelution, he began (I hope) the process of owning that harm. Brett said,
By our silence we send the message that modesty is a female issue and lust is a male issue.
There are lots of things I don’t agree with in modesty and purity culture. There are probably lots of things I don’t agree with Brett about. But we do agree on this — that, by their silence, they did indeed miscommunicate.
This miscommunication has caused real damage. It has created so much pain for young women, so much confusion for young men, and perpetuates some of the most ugly and destructive myths that empower rape culture to thrive today.
Admitting there is a problem is the first step.
What the solution is, well, that’s where Brett and I immediately begin to disagree.
Brett’s solution is well-summarized by the following paragraph of his:
The only difference between me and the immodest girls on campus was that I had a male shape and they had a female shape. So what was going on? I felt fit and confident in my body and wanted to show it off. This is exactly what my sisters in Christ have been carefully instructed not to do. So was I doing something wrong? If I’m going to be consistent, yes I was.
Honestly, I admire intellectual consistency. So in a sense I admire that Brett is willing to immediately begin the process of applying the same standards he has long applied to women to himself.
This paragraph of his feels unnatural because I believe it supports a completely different solution than his: realize there is absolutely nothing wrong with “feeling fit and confident in one’s body and wanting to show it off.”
Why should Brett feel guilty about working out, taking care of his body, and then being so joyful about his body that he wants to share that joy with others? He put in some hard work. He did hard things (sorry, I had to say that). Be proud of who you are and what you look like. Rejoice in that. Live your life.
If you spent years creating the Sistine Chapel, I’m pretty sure you’d want to share your artwork with the world. I don’t see any difference between human art and the human body. In fact, the similarities are striking, in my opinion. Whether you are Christian or atheist, or whatever you are, you must grant that the human body is a work of art.
What modesty and purity culture has refused to consider, what Brett cannot quite embrace, is the idea that being happy or proud about the beauty of your body, and intentionally accentuating that beauty, is totally ok.
Do you know how insecure some women can be about their bodies? Have you ever thought about the overwhelming and debilitating insecurities that plague them when bikini season rolls around? Even if purity culture was not doubling their guilt with fear tactics about men and lust and hell and salvation, women would have an abundance of worries. Am I too fat? Can you see my cellulite? Why can’t my tummy look like that celebrity? Does my bikini bottom cover the freckles on my ass?
We are so obsessed with how big or small a bikini top can be that we forget that, for so many women, they just want to enjoy their own damn bodies, thank you very much. That woman that wears a bikini, or goes to a nightclub in a mini skirt? It is thoroughly possible that she wore that just to look cute. Not to tempt guys, or get laid. Maybe she just wants to feel good about herself, to feel beautiful. **
Sorry to break it you, but: It’s not all about men, y’all.
And whether you are male or female: there is nothing wrong with being proud of your body.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to show off the body that you have.
If you keep in my mind that we live in a world that is polarized between the extremes of commercialized sexuality, slut-shaming, body-shaming, and purity culture, I think you can see that a healthy acceptance of our bodies is so desperately needed. Our bodies are our selves, in such a fundamental and core way. We do not need more people telling us to hide our bodies, to be afraid of them, or to be ashamed of them. If you are so afraid of human sexuality that you resort to one of those tactics, you are doing something very wrong.
We do not need to hide our bodies. We need to show them.
The solution to our culture’s commercialized sexuality isn’t looking the other way at the mall when you pass Victoria’s Secret. The solution to commercialized sexuality is grounding it in the reality of what bodies actually look like: celebrating our bodies how they truly appear. Celebrating the stretch marks of pregnancy. Accepting the scars of our youth. Embracing our birth marks and our moles, our fat rolls and our baldness.
This is just who we are.
We do not need to be afraid of our bodies. We need to learn to be brave.
We have one shot at this body thing, people. One shot. I do not care whether you are an atheist or a Christian or a Buddhist — you still end up with the same basic principle. Be grateful for life. Be grateful that you are here. Be grateful for the skin and bones and blood and hair that surrounds who you are and makes you you.
Both commercialized sexuality and purity culture create the same problems, the problems of anorexia, bullimia, body-shaming, fat-shaming, and so forth. It really shouldn’t be that controversial, either, to make the triangular connection between commercialized sexuality, purity culture and rape culture. The similarities are striking. Instead of being so afraid of our bodies that we end up mirroring the opposite side of commercializing bodies, we need to re-center ourselves.
We do not need to be ashamed of our bodies. We need to celebrate them.
That woman flaunting her breasts in a low-cut shirt, the one you think should feel ashamed? Maybe her mother died of breast cancer. Have you ever thought of that? Maybe her decision to look good, show cleavage, and be proud of her breasts has absolutely nothing to do with you because you are a man — maybe, in fact, she has no idea you exist, so you thinking her showing her breasts has anything to do with you is just ridiculous and self-centered. Maybe she loves her breasts, because her mom had big breasts, too. And her mom died last year, on this very day. And that woman is celebrating that she is still alive, still has beautiful breasts, because everyday she misses her mother and wishes she was still here with her.
Did you ever think about that?
I never did. Then one day, during Breast Cancer Awareness Week, I heard a friend say what breasts meant to her as a woman. It had nothing to do with men or lust or sexuality. It had everything to do with accepting her body, accepting that cancer ran in her family, and — as she put it — “enjoying the body that God gave me while I still have time.”
And you know what? Even if some woman is just proud of her breasts because her breasts look awesome, more power to her. Your body is yours, and her body is hers. ***
I am sick and tired of how neurotic we make both men and women feel over this issue.
Our bodies are our selves.
Let us love them and love each other.
** A different topic that is extraordinarily relevant, but would be tangential from the central message here of loving your body, is how even our standards of beauty are male-centric. I mention a few examples throughout this post — bikinis, mini skirts, and low-cut blouses — and the fact is, those are often the standards for beauty that our society sets. An equally important aspect of fighting both the commercialization of sexuality as well as purity culture is to empower women to dress how they define beautiful, cute, or sexy, rather than dressing how men define those things. A woman can feel just as beautiful, cute, or sexy in a sun dress or a pantsuit as she would in a cocktail dress. Yet society is going to dictate which outfit to wear, thus warping our standards of beauty. In a very real sense, then, both the commercialization of sexuality and purity culture end up at the same place: telling women what they can or cannot wear, what is or is not beautiful, and all according to male standards. Society needs to learn to give that power to women — giving them the autonomy and freedom over their bodies that is rightfully theirs.
But that is a topic for a different post.
*** Part of owning your body, by the way, is to take ownership of what you do, feel, and think, and not passing any semblance of responsibility of that onto another person or person’s body. But again, that is also a topic for a different post.
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It’s like when Adam and Eve were naked in the Garden and they weren’t ashamed. Yet when sin entered into their world – they became intensely aware of their nakedness before the Lord. Obviously the nakedness I refer to is physical and in the context of our ruined relationship with our God, because of sin. But isn’t that interesting to see how this shame dynamic still plays out in our lives? A man or a woman who works out, takes care of themselves or even just has natural beauty is somehow made to be ashamed of that even if they have no intention to sexually seduce anyone. Just going for a walk in the park in her favourite sundress. Or going for a jog down the road in his nicely fitted tee. What’s wrong with us that we have to insert sex and sexuality into everything? And then blame the other person for making us stumble/think of sex?
Not everything is about sex! We KNOW when we are lusting after another person – and often that has no relation to what they are wearing or doing. Looking does not equal lusting and looking does not automatically lead to lusting every time. You would think being saved by faith and by grace would mean that we should trust in the Holy Spirit to help us exercise self control…..but no, we must add rules and rules upon grace?!?
My husband, bless him, gets livid when he hears other males talk about women “making them lust”. His steadfast stance is no matter how provocative a woman is dressed or even is acting – rape is NEVER ok. Consent is the key here. Just because a woman or a man seems like they are interested – that is never an excuse to force ourselves on other people. Full stop. To do that is sin – and yes, a case can be made for someone else’s irresponsible actions – but how much finger pointing and blame shifting do we need to do before this house of cards starts crumbling?
In all things – love. Love one another as you would love yourself. It goes both ways – protect and respect each other. Be a friend – no matter what or how difficult it is to love someone.
What’s wrong with us that we have to insert sex and sexuality into everything? And then blame the other person for making us stumble/think of sex?
This, so much this.
Nick, the more I read your comments, the more I like you.
My husband, bless him, gets livid when he hears other males talk about women “making them lust”. His steadfast stance is no matter how provocative a woman is dressed or even is acting – rape is NEVER ok.
I’ve heard that the Greek word for “lust” used in “Whosoever looks at a woman to lust after her…” has “rape-y” overtones. That it’s not just looking at her and getting sexually aroused, but indulging fantasies of taking her by force. (I’m reminded of FBI profiler’s memoirs speaking about how serial rapists have built up this fantasy in their minds over and over before they start acting it out; could Jesus be referring to this dynamic among other applications?)
P.S. I have also heard that the word “submit” in the famous “Wives submit to your husbands” is better translated “Respect” as in “Wives, respect your husbands.” Problem is, in a hierarchic society Respect and Submission are closely intertwined so a word for one will spill over into the other.
Remember Carol that the myth of Adam and Eve is just that…a myth. I recommend a documentary available on Netflix: “The God Who Wasn’t There.” It was written and directed by Brian Flemming who escaped from a fundamentalist lifestyle. As a secular humanist, I follow Jesus’ teachings about the Golden Rule. Works for me.
Modesty teachers exhort young women to dress in certain ways so as to not lead young men to lust, and young men are exhorted to help preserve young women’s “emotional purity.”
Isn’t that the same justification X-Treme Islamic types cite to justify the burqa and honor killings?
Headless, My own considerable experience as a woman teaches me that the followers of the god of Abraham (Jews, Christians, and Muslims) want to control both men and women by making us ashamed of Mother Nature’s most beautiful gift to life: Our lust. Lust demands that we bond physically with each other through sex, and if we’re lucky after that, we’ll like our new “bondage” partners to want to do more than have sex…we’ll want to be with each other outside the bedroom, maybe get married, have kids, etc. But even if all that DOESN’T happen, it shouldn’t take away the briefer, more intense pleasure of just bonding physically and enjoying all the sexual pleasure and fun that a fling entails. Again, I speak from much long experience; and in my old(er) age, I’m happier for it that I can say…So go for it! Live your life according to YOUR desires, no one else’s.
*round of applause* There is a moment in a documentary (i barely remember any specifics, but it resonated with me), where a woman talks about speaking with another Woman on a trip to Africa about her body insecurities–“I hate my blah…my this is so..etc” and the woman was astounded that she would feel that way. She loved her body, her strong legs, all of it. She saw each parts amazing purpose and uniqueness and was not ashamed, but so grateful. I think that our creator would want us to see the beauty in his creation. And Our society is absurd in some of its discussion of what skin showing is too “sensual”. And its disrespectful to men to uphold a belief that they will just fall to pieces in impurity at the sight of any bit of a woman’s body.
Response to nakedness if a cultural attribute: Naked Amazonian Indian men live side by side with naked Amazonian women with no problem. The lasciviousness of our Western culture is entirely due to manipulative religious teachings.
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When I was 18 my 3 year old sister asked me, ‘Do you have a fat tummy?’
‘I hope not,’ I replied, being a typically vain 18 year old.
‘Well, I do,’ she announced triumphantly, and proudly squeezed her chubby tummy.
Now that’s the mindset we want!
I don’t understand the idea that embracing modesty is equated to feeling shame over the body. I don’t choose to be modest because I’m ashamed of my body… goodness, no! Rather, it makes me feel totally sexy to realize that I’ve kept my body for my husband’s eyes only as a sort of special gift to him, and I’m thankful that God gave me the gift of a feminine body. My husband’s obvious appreciation of my body makes me feel absolutely great, and, no, I don’t really like it when other women flaunt their bodies in his face. I know that he’s faithful to me and tries really hard to dismiss inappropriate thoughts about other women, and I’m thankful for that. But really, I could do without the competition (esp. after the ravages of 3 pregnancies, LOL)! Seriously, I wholeheartedly agree that we need to accept and appreciate our bodies as they are, but I think that our culture’s flaunting of the body does NOT help with this. Instead, it becomes a sort of body contest, with most of us feeling as though we’ve fallen short. Maybe I’m being a little selfish, but I’d rather my husband’s mind be filled with pictures from the great times we’ve had in the bedroom rather than images of strangers’ physiques.
All that being said, this article is a good warning to me to be sure that as I teach modesty to my young daughters, I don’t inadvertently give them the idea that it’s somehow about being ashamed. Once again, goodness, no! You’d better cover up, girl… you’re hot enough to start a fire!