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.

But, really?

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.

*****

*****

Notes:

** 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.

Enough Already with the Modesty and Purity Hype

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Julie Anne Smith’s blog Spiritual Sounding Board. It was originally published on June 27, 2013.

The other day my 18-yr old daughter posted this picture on my Facebook with the comment, “What I tell you every time”:

modesty

It cracked me up. But what was interesting to me was noticing the large amount of Facebook friends, also former homeschool kids, who were clicking the “like” button. It was as if they were saying, “Yea, what she said!” I loved some of the exchange in the comments.

Our good friend who acts like our adopted son, who opens our front door without knocking, and raids our fridge commented:

Was he a beautiful black man like myself?

His comment got a few likes. I laughed. My 23-yr old son replied:

Yet when guys do that it’s looked down upon…sinful…creeper status…et cetera. Oh the irony.

Ouch! I think he’s right. There does seem to be a distinction that it’s semi-okay for girls to look at guys, but not the other way around.

Several years ago in 2007, there was a modesty survey put out by homeschoolers, Brett and Alex Harris (Brett and Alex’s dad is Gregg Harris’ son, homeschooling pioneer and ther older brother is Pastor Josh Harris, of Covenant Life Church in MD).

Here’s an excerpt from the survey page:

The Modesty Survey is an exciting, anonymous discussion between Christian guys and girls who care about modesty. Hundreds of Christian girls contributed to the 148-question survey and over 1,600 Christian guys submitted 150,000+ answers, including 25,000 text responses, over a 20-day period in January 2007. For more information, click here.

It has been endorsed by Shaunti Feldhahn (best-selling author of For Women Only), Nancy Leigh DeMoss (author,Revive Our Hearts radio host), Albert Mohler (The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary), Shannon Ethridge (best-selling author ofEvery Woman’s Battle series), and C.J. Mahaney (Sovereign Grace Ministries).

TheRebelution.com is the home of Alex and Brett Harris and online headquarters for the Rebelution, defined as “a teenage rebellion against low expectations.”

This survey started out in homeschool circles and quickly spread throughout young teens and adults in Christendom all over the internet, denominations, states, and even the world. I believe the modesty survey was well-intentioned, but the results have not been all positive. Instead, we have discovered a host of other issues that lie beneath the church’s sometimes over-emphasis on modesty and purity.

In the aftermath of the modesty survey, some young men policed the clothing of their female friends and graded the way she dressed by a modesty scale in their head. The way she dressed became a distraction, interfering with relationships. Young ladies were told that they might cause a man to stumble by the way she dressed and this created a lot of pain for young ladies who were burdened with a responsibility they really had no business carrying. And then we had the issue of what to do with young ladies who had curvy figures and no matter what clothes were worn, the curves could not be hidden. Some young ladies resorted to changing eating habits which led to eating disorders to lose weight in order to minimize those curves. Didn’t God create those beautiful curves? Wow, this modesty thing was now crossing the lines into intentionally altering one’s appearance because of not passing a “modesty” scale.

I don’t want to get into all of the problems that came out of this survey because it is very easy to do a Google search and you could spend days reading blog articles and sometimes hundreds of comments on particular popular articles. I really was hoping that after 6 years and hundreds of articles that this subject would die down.

Wouldn’t you know it, the same authors of the infamous modesty survey at the Rebelution blog just last week published a new article: The Other Side of Modesty, this time dealing with guys and how they dress. Really? Do we need to go there? I suppose maybe the young ladies might appreciate a little pushback or balance from their sisters in Christ, but come on. Can we be done with this already?

At our former church, there was almost an obsession on modesty and the topic of sexual immorality came up quite a bit. This was a common verse we heard and probably most of us have it memorized just because we heard it so often:

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Matthew 5:27-28

I think sometimes we confuse looking with lusting. And that is important to note.

I have a funny story from several years ago. Now, this is “my” version because my young adult kids have a slightly different version. But until they have their own blogs, you get to read my version.

My daughter, Hannah, was probably around 19 yrs old or so and driving with her learner’s permit, so I was in the passenger seat, and my other daughter who was around 12 years old was in the back seat. A police officer pulled us over because of a burned out brake light. Let me be straight up. The police officer was a fine-looking human specimen and while my kids were used to hearing from the pulpit about how evil and lustful our eyes are, after the police officer went back to his patrol car, I said aloud to my daughters that I wouldn’t mind being pulled over again by that officer. If I remember correctly, there was a pause and then some surprised laughter coming from the girls. Their mother, a married woman said that? They were not expecting that comment from me and frankly, I don’t know if I was expecting that comment to slip out, either. Oh well, it came out loud and clear.

Did I cross the line? Some might think so. I don’t agree. You see, there seems to be a fuzzy line that brings confusion and can start to border on legalism, if not into full-fledge legalism. We were created in God’s image. God saw that what He created was good. At that moment, when I noticed that cop, and acknowledged what God had created was good and called it as such, some people have a problem with that because they think of verses like this:

“But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Matthew 5:28

Was I looking at this guy with lust? No! He was just nice looking guy. Don’t you think everyone from teens all the way through adulthood know when we are looking at someone with lust? Everybody knows what that feels like — you know – – those feelings we get in our body, the places our mind goes. It’s a no-brainer. My brain did none of those things when I looked at that fine specimen.

I have read of men being physically attracted to women dressed in full Muslim attire with burqa and head coverings. Isn’t that something? We need to realize that women and men, no matter how they dress, will be eye candy for someone. We’ve got two issues going on and I think if we look at these two issues in a non-legalistic way, we can find some helpful guidelines.

• Looking is not the same as lusting. It’s okay to appreciate God’s creation. The key is to do it without lusting. We all know when we have crossed that line. It does not take a rocket scientist to tell us those signs that are happening in our body. If you happened to cross that line, acknowledge it, ask God to forgive you, and move on knowing that His grace is sufficient for you and me.

• Dress modestly. I think most of us can figure out what that means and I also think that as we mature in Christ, the boundary lines may change from time to time. We all know when we are dressing with the intent to attract the opposite sex and we all know what it’s like to dress when we are going to see grandma and grandpa. This is pretty simple. We can figure this out.

As a homeschooling mom of 20+ years, I fell into the modesty/purity hype and created all sorts of rules for my kids. I regret that it had negative consequences in my family. I’ve stopped obsessing about hemlines, etc. When I stopped obsessing about my boys walking past Victoria’s Secret at the mall and turning the television channel when we saw a young lady wearing a bikini on television, amazingly, my children stopped obsessing.

So, in conclusion, I hope we can learn to treat one another with love and grace on this topic… and appreciate God’s creation