So much has been said online lately about the emotional price many women have paid for the modesty movement. (Which, BTW, I suggest googling if you’re blessed enough to not know what I’m talking about.) So much has been said, in fact, that I often don’t know what I could possibly add, and yet here I sit trying to put these difficult, heartfelt things into words for public consumption anyway.
You see, I am more than acquainted with this often well-intentioned shaming of the female form, as I spent my formative years in a Muslim country, as well as a lot of time in the US around (but not in) the religious circles that embraced long hemlines and baggy clothing, and lived my young adult years at a conservative Christian college in California where, for example, there was no small outrage the time Amy Grant—a married evangelical woman—dared to describe herself as “feeling sexy.”
Living in Bangladesh off and on from age 7 to almost 16 as the child of missionaries, I was not required to wear a burka and veil, but I saw women wearing them every day, saw those eyes peaking back over the veil, though often faces and an occasional smile could be seen. And while by comparison I enjoyed wild freedom of expression through my clothing colors and styles, I was limited by what would clothe me to my ankles, what would hide my derriere (no, seriously hide it), and what would cover my shoulders properly.
While friends in the US were wearing shorts—or even cullottes (don’t get me started)—I was concerned about whether or not my mid-thigh length, three-sizes-too-big shirt hid the curve of my backside that was already masked by baggy jeans. Truthfully, I could probably have gotten away with showing glimpses of my belly in a sari, as many Hindu and Buddhist women of Bangladesh do, however Baptist missionaries from the midwest frown on bellies the way Muslims frown on ankles, so that body part, too, was a no go. (Well, at least my elbows were liberated, right?)
At times I was afforded a knee-length dress or a one-piece swimsuit (behind high walls and without men around or maybe far enough down a deserted beach), but it was a guilty pleasure and this constant awareness of my body as a potential source of both cultural offense and male lust did seep into the crevices of my heart and self-esteem in toxic ways I didn’t fully recognize for many years.
To be clear, I don’t know what my parents could have done any differently.
To send me out into the streets of Bangladesh in the 80s dressed like an American teenager would not have been the wisest alternative, though we saw plenty of tourists and western diplomats do just that over the years. All of these parents, including mine, were just making the best decisions they could for their children’s well-being, and I’m so grateful mine always allowed me a great deal of freedom in this area—and many others—whenever we were on American soil.
However, the experience of immersion in that particular culture as a developing girl left me with a few issues, among them a level of discomfort in my skin that has taken years to heal. And I’ve wondered over the past couple of years if it’s possible to raise a girl in that sort of culture and not have her internalize a male-centric worldview that suppresses her self-confidence and comfort with her sexuality. But I digress. That’s another post for another time. My point is only that I understand, very much, the wounds of those women who’ve been made by the western evangelical modesty movement* to believe they carry the weight and burden of a man’s sexual purity.
I hear them and I feel their pain.
I have a beautiful daughter.
You should see the way those brown eyes sparkle and the way her laugh lights up a room.
I often wonder how she’ll feel about her body as she develops into a young adult and then a woman, because lets’ face it, most of us have had periods of self-loathing or discomfort with how we were made. If you haven’t, God bless you, but most of you know what I’m talking about. My breasts were “too small” and my ankles were “too skinny.” (Yes, really, I was worried about my lack of ankle fat.) Maybe you were “too tall” or your hips were “too wide.” The point is, body image is an issue, it’s a hurdle, that is widespread among us no matter how we were allowed to dress as teenagers, and I don’t want to add to that internal “your body isn’t like Barbie” alarm in any young woman the idea that a man’s potential lust issue is her problem.
I do not want our daughters to carry the weight of our sons’ sins.
Let’s set aside the deeply connected and troublesome issue of what is simply a natural sexual response in a healthy young man or grown man and what should even be categorized as worrisome “lust” to be contained and stifled. That’s not just another topic for another post, it’s an issue for another blogger entirely. It’s not my battle. (See what I did there?) I care only that we establish that the hormones of a teenage boy or the mysterious turn ons of the old man down the street are not our daughters’ problems.
The argument, of course, from the modesty movement is that these are “weaker brothers” and it comes with reminders that we must not cause them to stumble. But were those verses really meant to be used as a weapon to make women smaller so that men could be greater? Is it right for a man’s “victory over sin” to come at the price of a young woman’s healthy sense of self-esteem and comfort with her body that has the potential to ruin or hamper her sex life down the road when she is suddenly expected—after all those years of covering herself from men and downplaying her sexuality—to bare it all and confidently romp around a bedroom just because there’s a ring on her finger and the preacher said go? Some women have handled this transition dandily. Others—I would guess more than a few—have found it to be an almost traumatic transformation. And it shouldn’t have been. It really didn’t need to be. And if we nurtured sexuality with awareness and understanding the way we nurture spirituality, a lot of Christian marriages might look a lot different.
And who are we kidding, friends? Sincere modesty (the I’m-going-to-dress-appropriately-for-each-setting kind of modesty—i.e., bikinis are for the beach, shorts are for the park) is not one-size-fits-all and lust and turn ons aren’t either. Are we going to say that we can’t wear attractive shoes around Joe and we can’t wear our hair down around Bob? Because if you want to cleanse the world of everything that makes a man’s libido ignite, you’ve got your work cut out for you, sister—and don’t even get me started on the total and complete lack of male concern in the church for helping a woman out with her ”lustful” thoughts. (Yes, another post for another time.)
Well, I can hear the keyboards humming, are you suggesting we let our daughters leave the house in hot pants and tube tops just because it’s hot outside?
No. I’m actually not. (Although would that really be the end of the world if it’s 115° outside?)
I’m suggesting that when we guide their clothing choices and shape their body image we impress upon them the beauty of their individuality and the loveliness and preciousness of their more intimate parts, rather than any misguided sense of responsibility for the sins of others. I’m suggesting that we understand what I mean when I say that modesty—in it’s truest form, not its twisted sister self-loathing puritanism—is not one-size fits all. A strapless dress on one is not a strapless dress on another, but that’s not really the point and neither is the strapless dress. I’m not here to tell you or your daughter what to cover. I’m really not.
My point is that your body is beautiful, no matter what you’ve been told, no matter what you have done to it, no matter what it’s been through. And I hope that for you, for your daughters, for our daughters, the joy of covering certain parts is born of the privilege and empowerment that comes from treasuring the parts we choose to treasure and keeping as mystery that which we choose to keep as mystery.
I want our daughters to grasp the self-confidence that comes with balancing what is for everyone to see and what is for amazing moments of intimacy: someday and with the right someone. I want this to be self-motivated, self-enforced, self-centered (yes, self-centered) for them, for her, because she is empowered and full of life and healthy sexuality and understands that she is not simply more than her body she is her body and more.
This is a tall order.
I’m going to get it wrong, because I’ve never done this whole “raising a confident woman” thing before, and I don’t know what I’m doing most of the time. You’re going to get it wrong too, even if you’ve done it three times already with decent results. Why? Because we’re human and so are our daughters. We’re going to pass on unhealthy patterns even when we don’t mean to, and society—and sometimes even the church, though it means well—will hand them toxic messages we will have to scrub away with prayer and tears.
There’s no formula that we can program into our daughter’s brains and prevent all pain, all mistakes, all shame.
Oh, I wish there were, but there isn’t. So the part of me with hope, the part that reaches for the thing with feathers, is going to try to do this crazy thing, this tall order, this impossible task, anyway, even if I’ve never actually seen it done. Even if the sexually and spiritually empowered woman is just a mythical creature dreamed up by those of us still nursing wounds. Even if my mantra has to be repeated, revised or renewed:
I’m going to praise her for her intelligence and her kindness and her beauty.
I’m going to restrain my tongue from judgement over another woman’s body,
even if she’s hidden safely behind a television screen or tucked inside a magazine.
I’m going to care for myself in front of her, not starving, not binging,
but enjoying and fueling and nourishing.
Not obsessively sweating off guilt and self-loathing,
but actively seeking bodily strength and stamina.
I’m going to wear heels THAT high with confidence
and show a little skin when it’s the right time to show a little skin.
I’m going to impress upon her the revolutionary idea that
she can be the blessed pure in heart of the Beatitudes
and the sexually awakened woman of Solomon’s Song.
I’m going to help her buy clothing that celebrates the good things God gave her
and like any good mother I’m going to find a way
to keep her from walking out the front door
in something we’re all going to regret a little later.
I’m going to teach her that when her physical boundaries are breached
by emotional coercion or force
it is not her fault, it is not her responsibility, it is not her shame.
And I’m going to fail miserably at all of these things.
So I will cry into my pillow
and I will beg God to grow her into something her father and I can’t
and I will get up the next morning and try to love her the best way I can
all over again.
It just so happens that Danielle at From Two to One started a synchroblog on this topic today, so I’m joining in! Here are the other posts I’ve encountered and enjoyed so far (or watch for the hashtag #ModestyRules on Twitter):
*For those not familiar with the modest movement of certain religious circles, just think Duggar family. There is a fundamental reason the girls and women in such families wear baggy shirts and long skirts. These clothing choices are not so much a fashion statement as they are an ethical and moral statement about the perceived responsibility women have for a man’s thoughts. (And these are my words, my summation of their beliefs, not theirs. Just so we’re clear.)