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A modest feminist case for modesty
I don't care about your yoga pants. I just don't want to dress for men's eyes.
In a recent conversation with author Sheila Wray Gregoire, I noted that it was only a matter of time before the yoga pants debate rose from the ashes. The skirmish crops up every few years as a proxy for larger debates about gender roles and sexuality in the evangelical world.
Then, as sure as the sun, last week a podcaster named Eric Conn aroused our reactions; you’ll see in the numbers below that yoga pants are an effective strategy for getting engagement, even if it’s overwhelmingly negative.
Conn, host of something called “The Hard Men Podcast,” added a pornified twist to his edict. By mentioning a scenario in which a wife is working out in a private gym (??) while her husband watches, he hinted at the spirit of his rule: I don’t like other men objectifying you; only I can do it. One gets the distinct feeling that Conn is not aiming to protect women’s dignity; rather, he’s trying to control his own sexual response to yoga pants by controlling the women who wear them.
As cyclical as the modesty debates are, I surmise there’s never been less interest in enforcing modesty rules as there is now. Much of the American church is facing a reckoning about abuse, sexual misconduct, and the loss of credibility owing to white evangelicalism hitching its brand to a thoroughly immodest president. Christians have lost moral authority in the public square. Before telling women what and what not to wear, maybe church leaders ought to deal with sexual abuse in church, most of it at the hands of Christian men. Clean up your own house before coming to mine and throwing away my favorite pair of Lululemons. (Fun fact: I have never been inside a Lululemon. It’s one of those things that I now refuse to do, because I’m just that committed to the bit.)
Further, the yoga pants debate and larger modesty rules are linked to purity culture, and the wreckage of that movement in the 1990s and 2000s — something I’ve written about — continues to tumble out in various surveys and personal stories. In her new book, She Deserves Better: Raising Girls to Resist Toxic Teachings on Sex, Self, and Speaking Up, Gregoire shares the finding that teen girls who grew up in churches that taught strict gender roles and some version of “boys will be boys” fare worse as adults around self-esteem and marital and sexual satisfaction.
Here’s a finding from her chapter on modesty:
We measured three different iterations of the modesty message:
Girls who dress immodestly are worse than those who don’t. (In our survey, we did not define “worse” but let respondents define this in their own minds.)
Boys can’t help but lust after a girl who is dressed like she is trying to incite it.
You have a responsibility to protect boys around you by wearing modest clothing.
Our survey found that if girls believed any of these three messages in high school, their self-esteem took a hit.
When a teen girl learns that their clothing causes men to think in bad ways, it’s not a stretch to then blame her when men act in bad, even criminal ways. It’s that word, causes, that links purity culture to rape culture — something many others have written about in recent years. We’re in a moment when men are being asked to take responsibility for their own thoughts and actions; women have been doing the “lust management” for millennia, and we’re tired of it.
I don’t care about your yoga pants
Maybe it’s my age, or living in a place where people wear literally whatever, or this shift to putting the onus on men to manage themselves. Whatever it is, I’ve realized I don’t care about modesty anymore — at least not in the way it was taught to me as a teenager and young adult.
I don’t care whether other Christian women wear yoga pants, or where they wear them, or how much tush is emphasized when they wear them. The vast majority of women I know wear yoga pants because they are comfortable, practical, and ubiquitous. And if a woman is wearing yoga pants to get others to notice said tush, well, how would I discern that? And is that even always bad?
I don’t care about other women’s necklines or hemlines. I have personal opinions about clothing that is tasteful — cultural norms around what to wear for specific occasions and in specific settings — but if another adult woman wears something low-cut to a funeral, it’s not my responsibility to correct them, unless I want to come across as a total jerk.
I don’t care about two-piece vs. one-piece bathing suits. I think most of us want to feel comfortable and confident at the beach or the pool. Women of my generation have so much angst around body image and diet culture anyway (don’t miss Anne Helen Petersen’s essay “The Millennial Vernacular of Fatphobia”), that I’m happy to give the benefit of the doubt: we’re all just trying to feel good in our skin. Besides, what adult woman is going to tell another adult woman that she can’t wear a two-piece swimsuit? It all seems paternalistic and niggling to me.
It’s not that modesty doesn’t matter; it just doesn’t matter in the narrow way it was taught to us 20 years ago. Modesty is a virtue in the Christian tradition, but as I wrote regarding luxury clothing a few weeks ago, Paul’s teachings are at root about humility, and not drawing attention to one’s self with overt displays of wealth. Laura Robinson had a thread about clothing in ancient cultures, and notes that, yes, “expensive outfits and fancy clothes are coded with sexual promiscuity in a lot of ancient texts,” but that Paul’s instruction is ultimately about wealth, and not showing it off.
I do care about my dignity
So there are all my caveats to something I’ve been teasing out while reading Christine Emba’s book, Rethinking Sex: A Provocation, which is indeed provocative.
Could modesty be reclaimed by women who are tired of being sexualized?
Saved by the City (the podcast I cohost) interviewed Emba last year when the book came out, but I only recently had a chance to sit down and read it cover to cover. Emba argues that sexual liberation hasn’t been liberating for everyone; straight women, especially, are unhappy or ill at ease with modern dating scripts, the hookup scene, and what men expect them to do.
Consent is a necessary but insufficient ethic for determining whether sex is good, or caring, or human. Consent is the basement, not the ceiling, Emba says. But then a lot of people hesitate to say anything more about sexual ethics, or to suggest that some sexual desires are worse than others, lest they come across as prudish or judgmental. Don’t yuck my yum etc.
Emba writes, “Too many people … [are having] too much of the kind of sex that saps the spirit and makes us feel less human, not more—sex that leaves us detached, disillusioned, or just dissatisfied.”
Pornography is much to blame for this. I was disturbed by Emba’s account of how porn has mainstreamed acts and attitudes that are tinged with violence, subjugation, or otherwise dehumanizing for women. Men of my generation were the first to have instant access to porn on the Internet, and that became their sex ed, writes Emba. That millions of my male peers have been catechized to relate to women by an inherently misogynistic global industry is deeply troubling. I understand anew the activism of women like Andrea Dworkin, whose radical anti-porn stance in the 1970s and ’80s has been derided as “anti-sex,” but now seems prescient.
I’m under no illusion that how I dress will stem the tide on porn, or fundamentally prevent men from objectifying me or others, or prevent me from experiencing harassment or assault. Modesty debates always surface the point that lust and violence are matters of the heart (Jesus said as much; Matt. 5:21-30). Neither a burka nor a bikini is going to change that.
Further, I am uncomfortable with an approach to modesty where women tell other women what they can and can’t wear. This sounds relativistic, and maybe it is. But it’s too similar to random podcasters tweeting to all women everywhere to stop wearing yoga pants. Modesty rules seem like a relic of teenage years, where parents and pastors have the most leverage (and the most anxiety!) for instructing teen girls on what to wear and not wear. I’m going to start with the baseline assumption that the women in my life are thoughtful adults with the freedom and wisdom to dress themselves.
But there is a limit to a purely individualistic approach to clothing, because clothing communicates. To suggest that clothing is just about what I want to wear regardless of what it signifies to others is gnostic, and robs clothing of its importance (and beauty and rich meaning). Clothing exists in an economic, aesthetic, and sexual ecosystem of meaning — an ecosystem that has traditionally seen women as objects for sex, as ornamental arm candy, as available for men’s gaze and enjoyment. What if women choose to resist the logic of this ecosystem by what they wear, and what they refuse to wear?
Writer and podcaster Aminatou Sow hinted at the potentially liberating aspects of modesty in 2017, in an interview with the New York Times. Sow grew up Muslim in Guinea and Nigeria, and says that loose-fitting clothing like muumuus and caftans are part of her cultural heritage, but also provide an “inner confidence.” She said:
I don’t need to show my shoulders, I don’t need to show my back. I know what I’m carrying underneath this thing. I really disagree with women who think walking around naked is liberation. I’m like, ‘I’m sorry, too many people get to enjoy this for it to be liberation.’
“Too many people get to enjoy this for it to be liberation.”
It reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend in college who told me he was attending a burlesque performance. I was upset by this bit of info. He justified it by saying burlesque was about performers’ personal and artistic expression. But the performers, regardless of their motive or personal experience, were being paid, mostly by straight men, to take off their clothes. This friend later said that he was disappointed that so many frat boys were in attendance. I felt vindicated.
The frat boys are always there ogling you, whether or not you feel personally free.
I’m interested in modesty — chosen for oneself as a free agent — that refuses to play by the rules that women are expected to follow in a patriarchal world. I’m interested in modesty as resistance to sexualization, especially the sexualization of women’s clothing, which starts in girlhood and has made its way to infant clothing. I’m interested in modesty, too, for the mental freedom it could offer, to wear whatever the flip you want regardless of how alluring it could be to others. (Except she didn’t say flip.) This modesty has nothing to do with managing men’s lust or covering up lest a brother stumble. It has everything to do with stepping out as a full person, free of men’s expectations.
Naomi Fry did a deep dive for the Times on modest clothing, and the trend in recent years “toward almost aggressively non-provocative dressing, and the complicated feelings women have about it.” She notes that modest clothing is historically linked with religion, but is now donned by elite, educated secular women. She ends the piece by recalling the time she saw the writer Sheila Heti walking in downtown Manhattan:
[She] was wearing a knee-length nubby coat over a long skirt and some practical lace-up shoes, all in varying shades of gray and brown. In all the more typical ways, she was looking maybe a little drab, maybe a little dowdy. And yet, there was something about her air that was enviable. There she was, walking along, her hair in a ponytail, carrying a book and swinging it at her side, as if without a care in the world. She seemed completely at home — and completely herself — in her essentially concealed body.
In this way, modesty is an enticing possibility to me. Maybe for other women, too. Then again, I don’t see many of us throwing out our yoga pants anytime soon. —KB
P.S. — The Hillsong doc
Last spring I went to a warehouse somewhere in Queens to be interviewed for two hours for yet another documentary about Hillsong. That documentary, The Secrets of Hillsong, is out this Friday from FX/Scout Productions and will be streaming on Hulu. They included a quote from me in the trailer about hot pastors; I just hope they included other things I said in the doc, which I haven’t seen! Also of note: Carl Lentz is in the doc.
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