I found this video over at Christian Nightmares. At some point in this video, the Christian teacher says to the group of women… “I don’t want to see your boobs!”
Why? Because women should be modest. And boobs aren’t modest, right?
I’ll be honest: conversations about modesty make me uncomfortable for a number of reasons.
1) Because I’m a guy. And let’s face it: our Christian “modesty rules” are sexist, putting far more responsibility on females than males. Most of us have grown up in a culture where men–regardless of their body size and shape–walk around on beaches in swim shorts without ever worrying about what they might be causing the female population to think about. Yes, I know; that’s because men are more visually stimulated than women! We say that. But is that really true? Could it be that, on average, women have higher standards of what they find visually attractive on men (and are more discreet in how they express that?) OR could it be that, we’ve grown up in a culture where the male physique–in all of its various levels of glory–isn’t taboo when seen in public? Seeing a man mostly naked on TV has never been considered pornographic. Even when NYPD Blue showcased a few of their actors’ backsides, people hardly blinked an eye. Most of us thought it was funny. Certainly in recent decades the male body has become much more sexualized in our culture–movies, advertisements, magazines, sports, modeling, etc–here’s the difference: Nobody thinks anything about somebody like Tim Tebow pulling his shirt off in public.
2) People’s ideas about what is/isn’t modest vary greatly. In other words, one Southern Baptist church’s “Godly Girl” wearing shorts and a comfortable t-shirt can be a Pentecostal church’s harlot. And women often become labeled by the clothes they wear or the ones they don’t wear. It’s difficult to talk about modesty without getting way too interested in details and lines and saying THIS is immodest and THAT is modest. Modesty rules breed legalism, mean-spiritedness, and pride.
3) Our ideas about modesty are mostly Puritanically American, and no, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with that, but we must remember that our “modesty” is far more a cultural standard than it is a spiritual one. In a society with a history of making sure that women’s breasts were things not to be talked about but rather covered up (for the sake of the male’s eyes/integrity!!!)–is it any wonder our culture has grown into one that worships breasts as only sexual objects? For a while in our culture, many of us seemed to forget or ignore what breasts were really made for–bringing nourishment to babies. Thankfully that’s changing. But perhaps. Just maybe. If we Americans created a society where breastfeeding in public wasn’t taboo, we’d be reminded on a regular basis the true purpose of breasts and we wouldn’t be so quick to turn them into sexual objects… and maybe… just maybe… women would stop feeling the social pressure to have breast enhancement…
4) Some of my reasons are because of how I was raised. Once a month for 12 years school years, I watched my female classmates forced to line up in the hallway, one straight line of girls kneeling, all waiting for a teacher to walk by and measure the distance between the floor and the hem of their skirts and also the distance between the lowest point on their blouse and their clavicles. If the distances were too great, they were sent home or forced to wear the school’s official “ugly sweater,” my school’s version of the Letter A. I had three sisters. I watched all of them kneel in that line. And I have witnessed firsthand how my church’s modesty laws have affected various aspects of their lives, from insecurity to parenting to how they interact with other women with different modesty ideals than their own.
5) And I also think that our rules surrounding modesty have longstanding effects for some people. When I was doing research for the book I wrote about sex, I interviewed numerous married Christian women who confessed that sexual intimacy with their husbands was a struggle. They’d been told all their lives that it was a sin to be sexy. And turning that “rule” off when in the bedroom with their husbands was, for some, impossible. Many felt guilty for “feeling sexual”. And I think that’s sad.
6) The undertone of “modesty” is shame. Whether the words are ever said aloud or not, how we Christians talk about modesty makes many women feel insecure/shameful about their bodies. And I wonder, if in some small ways, America’s Church has aided in the success and lure of pornography. While we probably don’t want to admit this, THE CHURCH is guilty of the same sin as the Porn Industry: we objectify women. Sure, it’s different. But is it really different? The focus is the same–a woman’s body, her breasts. Of course it’s different. But it does have similarities. And this is just my theory, but by helping create and then maintain a culture that has made a woman’s body taboo, an object NOT to be looked at, we’ve helped create and maintain a culture’s interest and curiosity and lust for looking at it.
And sadly, both sides miss the mark on what is truly modest.
7) And lastly… if we’re going to offer our daughters lessons about modesty (and I think we should despite it being a difficult topic to discuss), the conversation shouldn’t come laced with the clause “because we want to serve our Christian brothers”! What is that teaching girls? On one hand, it reiterates “shame” but it also reinforces the idea that men are only interested in a woman’s body. And so, by focusing on modesty as a way to keep your Christian brother from lusting, we are not giving them the kind of knowledge that empowers them to be confident, secure, and to make good choices. That “reason” for modest doesn’t teach self-respect! It teaches respect for their Christian brothers, a lesson that once again, though it might be subtle, casts the female as “not-quite equal” to man. But perhaps worst of all, this kind of modesty teaching sets young girls up to begin objectifying themselves. It creates a platform in their lives where “being objectified”–whether its by our culture or the church–is seen as normal, even expected. And there’s nothing modest about that.
But again, I hate conversations about modesty. But let’s have one anyway…