Tag Archives: Beauty

What’s Modesty Got to Do With It?

Several weeks ago, I read an article about this outfit. In the article, a father was called to come to school to retrieve his “inappropriately attired” daughter, who was wearing this article of clothing. This young woman had been singled out by the principal at her school and pulled out of the cafeteria because her attire was so provocative. Confession: My pre-pregnancy wardrobe was full of outfits just like this one, down to the Tom’s canvas shoes on her feet.

Upon arriving at the school and surveying her daughter’s outfit, the father is confused and cannot see why this outfit might possibly be deemed inappropriate. He writes, “I began to think : ‘Luckily the school administration can look at her and see her as a provocative female,’ but then I thought… no… that is extremely creepy. I tried to think: ‘Luckily the school administration can look at her though the eyes of hormone-addled teenage boys to see her as provocative,’ but then I thought… no… that is weird-creepy.”

Reading this article brought back a flood of memories for me. Receiving comments about the length of my skirt (which was hidden behind a pulpit 95% of the time) after giving a sermon, which can lead a woman to wonder, “Why were you looking at my legs and not listening to my sermon?” Performing the “fingertip test” to be sure that my shorts were longer than the length of my extended arms in high school. Sitting through a teen youth rally where the speaker exhorted women not to dress in ways that would “provoke men.”

And here’s where the problem lies. It seems like everyone wants to get in on the action when it comes to giving women advice on how they should clothe themselves. Women’s bodies often get viewed as some sort of communal drawing board, open for commentary from every angle. This constant haggling and attention paid to appearance reinforces the fact that a woman is, above all, a sexual object who should be shrouded and/or displayed appropriately.

 And as I’ve thought about what I will say to my own daughter when she’s a growing adolescent girl heading off to school, I do hope that she will dress in a way that shows both confidence and respect for her own body, although I know it’s hard to quantify exactly how many or what types of clothes signify these things.

But I do know that no matter what my daughter wears, she is not responsible for the ways that other people treat her. And no outfit that she wears, no matter how some people might categorize it, should make sexual harassment, rape or assault “her fault.”

That sounds obvious, but all too often, especially in Christian circles, we can get pulled into a vicious cycle of suggesting that women are responsible for the ways that men think about them and treat them because of how they dress and simply by virtue of the fact that their bodies are womanly.

Not too long ago, the website Jezebel posted the results of a survey of that was designed by Christian girls, who surveyed 1,600 Christian men, wanting to know how men would define modesty, since 95% of these males had indicated that modesty was one of the top qualities they would look for in a wife. Most of these men suggested that immodest clothing consisted of outfits “designed specificially to arouse lust in me” or clothing “that draws attention a girl’s body.” Specific items of clothing that were identified as immodest  included halter tops and mini skirts, designs on the back pockets of jeans (44% of respondents thought these were immodest, 19% were unsure), purses worn across the body, and tights with designs.

In his book, Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, author Michael Kimmel discusses the ways that women’s bodies become a key locus of temptation and aggravation for men. Kimmel cites a a Men’s Health study that surveyed 444 men. Out of this pool, 49% of readers felt that their female co-workers dressed in “pointedly provocative” manners and should be written up for sexual harassment. Kimmel writes, Men describe themselves as being ‘blown away’ and ‘knocked out’ [by women’s appearance]. As suggested in metaphor, women’s beauty is perceived as violence to men: Men use violence to even the playing field, to restore equality.”

In another sermon (which you can listen to here), pastor C.J. Mahaney says, “Sometimes when I see a girl provocatively dressed, I’ll say to myself, she probably doesn’t even know that a 101 guys are going to devour her in their minds today….All I need to know is that the way she presents herself to the world is bait to my sinful mind.”

This line of thinking becomes incredibly dangerous. Too often, when we talk about victims of sexual assault and/or rape, people ask the question, “Well, what was she wearing?,” as if this has any bearing on the problematic actions that occurred. As Freda Adler writes, “Rape is the only crime in which the victim becomes the accused.”

And, frankly, if I were a man,  I’d be downright offended by this argument. It is insulting to men, too. It suggests that men are unable to control themselves, and that the very site of a woman’s flesh provokes them to act inappropriately. It suggests that at any given moment, the average heterosexual male is primed and ready for sex, no matter the context, relationship, etc. This line of reasoning doesn’t offer a very positive view of the masculine mind.

So, although I know that conversations about modesty, professionalism and dress are complicated, I think it’s time to reframe the conversation to make it clear, once and for all, that no form of dress, no matter how “pointedly provocative” it may be, justifies any kind of unwanted attention: verbal, physical or otherwise.

As the infamous Vagina Monologues sketch, “My Short Skirt” says:

My short skirt is not an invitation
a provocation
an indication
that I want it
or give it
or that I hook.

My short skirt
is not begging for it
it does not want you
to rip it off me
or pull it down.

My short skirt
is not a legal reason
for raping me
although it has been before
it will not hold up
in the new court.

My short skirt, believe it or not
has nothing to do with you.

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Filed under Sexual Violence

Beauty and the Media Beast

The love/hate relationship between women and the media is well-known. Ever since I was young, I can remember being warned about the troubling media images that I would see, depicting women as too skinny, fashionable in a certain way, over-sexualized, and this list of adjectives could go on. In middle school and high school I was educated about eating disorders and other ways that insecurity about appearance and the ways that the media fueled these fires by presenting young women with an unattainable standard of beauty. I understood on a theoretical level that I should be highly suspicious of mainstream media and its portrait of what and who an attractive female is.

But in many ways, this message was always undermined anyway by the lure of fashion magazines, movies and gossip websites like People.com which make celebrity voyeurism easily accessible and entertaining. Still today, whenever I am sitting in the airport, waiting to board a flight, I hear the siren call of magazines, whose pages are filled with glossy images and advertisements, one after another, with portraits of ridiculously good-looking people staring out at you, who can make you feel bad about your hips, hair and skin no matter how strong your inner feminist voice is.

And then there’s the subculture of cattiness that all this breeds. Perhaps when we realize that we can’t look or live like celebrities, one method of coping is to nit-pick, judge and objectify them through this cult of celebrity. And, anecdotally, it seems that we women are often each other’s harshest critics (although male voices certainly hold lots of power when it comes to defining what a beautiful woman looks and acts like, both within the media and outside it).

I was reminded of this yesterday when a friend forwarded me Ashley Judd’s recent diatribe against the media. Several weeks ago, speculations about Judd possibly undergoing botched plastic surgery went viral after she appeared in several photos and in interviews promoting her new television show with a slightly puffy face. As Judd notes, mainstream media and social media outlets circulated all sorts of rumors and critiques of her appearance, ranging from extensive plastic surgery to weight gain (causing Judd to jump from size 2/4 to a possible 6/8) or that Judd was simply looking haggard and old. Judd noted that women had been key instigators of these conversations, and that mainstream media outlets never bothered to fact check stories or check in with her for comments regarding the situation (which apparently was caused by steroids Judd was taking to bolster a struggling immune system).

Judd writes, “If this conversation about me is going to be had, I will do my part to insist that it is a feminist one, because it has been misogynistic from the start. Who makes the fantastic leap from being sick, or gaining some weight over the winter, to a conclusion of plastic surgery? Our culture, that’s who. The insanity has to stop, because as focused on me as it appears to have been, it is about all girls and women. In fact, it’s about boys and men, too, who are equally objectified and ridiculed, according to heteronormative definitions of masculinity that deny the full and dynamic range of their personhood. It affects each and every one of us, in multiple and nefarious ways: our self-image, how we show up in our relationships and at work, our sense of our worth, value, and potential as human beings.

And in another recent viral media frenzy, women and men alike have come out of the woodwork to give their opinions on a recent article written by Samantha Brick for the Daily Mail which detailed the “downsides of looking this pretty.” Brick has drawn scorn and disbelief from men and women alike, who have critiqued her on the basis of appearance (suggesting that she’s not that pretty, ugly or even delusional) and on the basis of her seeming arrogance. I have to confess, when Brick’s story first broke, these were my first two reactions as well. But I had to double check myself: Yes, I don’t think Brick wrote an article that I would write, but why hate someone for feeling confident? And why is my first reaction to use stereotypical measures of beauty to assess the validity of this woman’s argument? If Elle McPherson or Beyoncé Knowles had written this article, would I have been equally as critical? Hard to say.

But I suspect that Judd is on to something with her suggestion that we are all entangled in this “conversation” about women’s bodies and beauty, whether we want to be or not. But, the question is, how is it that we set about reframing such a conversation?

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