Feminism

objectification, lust, modesty, and… designer brands?

temptation

It was Easter morning, and it was the first time I had owned a new dress– a pretty dress— in years. I felt elegant, delicate, a crocus pushing up through the snow. The chiffon skirt fluttered below my knees, and the light, cool fabric felt wonderful against my skin in hot, humid Florida. I walked into church that morning feeling like I was finally taking my first steps out of girlhood, and I felt pretty.

After church was over, the pastor’s son confronted me in the dirt parking lot.

“Sam… Sam, I need to talk to you.”

I turned to face him, the pit of my stomach clenching. Somehow… I could feel what was coming. It was stamped all over his face, in the way he hung his head, in how he fiddled with the comb he always carried in his pocket.

“Sam… I, I really just don’t understand. The skirt you’re wearing– it,” he couldn’t look me in the eye as his voice broke.

It caused me to stumble.”

I didn’t really hear anything after that– it was like he was far, far away, his voice coming to me from a distance and his face was frozen and warped. I caught snatches of  “why would you do this to me? to yourself?” and the glow that had been inside of me all morning… it broke.

The second we arrived home from church, I dashed into my bedroom. In a frenzy driven by shame, by humiliation, by fear, I tore off that dress– the dress I had put on that morning, the dress that had made me feel that for once I could be pretty– and threw it into the dark corner of my closet and slammed the door shut. I crumpled to my bedroom floor, staring at those shut doors, and cried.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Last week, her.meneutics announced that they would be running a series on modesty, written by men, every Thursday. The fact that her.meneutics has decided to sponsor this series has its own set of complications, because that this series exists re-inforces the idea that men have the authority to talk about women’s bodies and what we do with them. That is… well, complicated territory. Men have been asserting their will, their desires, their beliefs, on women for centuries. Asking men to write a series on modesty is nothing new. If I were a betting woman, I’d gamble that whatever these men say about modesty, they’re not going to chart undiscovered territory on the subject..

I talked about the first post in the series, where Peter Chin uses Romans 14, here.

Today’s post, “The History of Lust,” written by Ike Miller, is… better. It didn’t make me want to throw things, like Peter’s post did. At least, not as much. The focus of his post seems to be centered pretty solidly on men, on men’s responsibility not to objectify women, and that’s a good thing. I agree with that wholeheartedly. No person should objectify another person. When we objectify a person, we are reducing the wholeness, the complexity, the beauty and wonder of that person down to an idea we can control, dominate. Objectification is the decision to view another person’s body as consumable, as an item we use for our own gratification.

However, while Ike spends the entire article talking about how objectification is wrong, he doesn’t frame his discussion in healthy, productive terms. Essentially, what he offers men is only going to perpetuate objectification and lust, not halt it.

One of the moments when I did want to scream and throw things was here:

The Hebrew term used for cling confirms the physical and sexual nature of the inclination. In similar scriptural contexts between men and women it connotes a man’s deep attraction for a woman, almost at the level of irresistibility (Shechem and Dinah, Genesis 34:3; Solomon and his many wives, 1 Kings 11:2).

Linguistically, he’s not wrong. That word, cling, is דָּבַק, and it does mean to be joined together in such a way that the two can never be parted. They become one, they are one.

However, the example he uses to talk about this? Dinah.

What the–

DINAH?!

You’re going to frame an entire discussion about lust in terms of DINAH?!

Just to clue you in, here’s Genesis 34:1-2

Now Dinah the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to see the women of the land. And when Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land, saw her, he seized her and lay with her and humiliated her.

That? That’s rape.

That’s not “irresistible and deep attraction for a woman.”

Ike is not talking about this passage as an example of what not to do. He doesn’t use this as an example of lust gone horribly, horribly wrong. He places the Rape of Dinah in terms of what he claims is good, healthy, sexual attraction. Men are told to leave their father and mothers, and cling to their wives, and this is good, he says.

And then he talks about Dinah.

All the swears.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I also want to mention this next idea, because it is important. I understand why Ike doesn’t even mention this, because he’s writing for Christianity Today, which is not a particularly progressive publication. He’s writing for his readers, for his audience, just like any good writer does, and I understand that.

However, it is important to highlight the fact that Christian teachings about modesty have, at their core and as their foundation, a hetero-normative perspective. Christian teachings about modesty assume from the outset that men are attracted to women, period. In this system, it is literally impossible to incorporate any other view. It denies that men can be attracted to men, and women can be attracted to women, and some men and women can be attracted to both men and women. I’m only referencing sexual orientation, as well– gender identity is its own discussion, too.

In my opinion, at least, any teaching that you intend to be applied this broadly that can’t actually be applied that broadly isn’t a good framework for talking about your idea.

Ike’s article, because it is geared toward heterosexual, cisgender men, also completely ignores the fact that women are sexual creatures, too. We struggle with lust and objectification just any other person. Because we’re people. We’re human, and we have human struggles. But, that’s not the way the world seems to work in Ike’s point of view– women are to “practice conscious awareness of men’s vulnerability.” These kind of statements only perpetuate the Victorian representation of women as almost asexual. Because we’re women, we’re not the ones with desires, with sexual needs and wants and wishes, of our own.

But, my largest concern with how Ike approaches human sexuality is the words he uses to talk about it. He only ever talks about lust– how something that God created to be good is now perverted.

Instead, our responsibility is humble recognition of our weakness and how we have perverted that physical inclination that was created good. In repentance we men must work toward a way of thinking about the female body that is in harmony with the created goodness of her whole being.

This is the only place where Ike indicates that it’s possible for men not to give in to their base desires, and, honestly, it is a beautiful thought. Personally, I think that learning to see a woman as a person instead of as a thing is very helpful in terms of not objectifying them, so here I agree with Ike.

Women are people. Novel idea, yes?

But Ike… he only says that men need a place not to feel shamed– for their lust. He doesn’t open the conversation to creating spaces where men can be free to discuss the differences between sexual attraction, desire, arousal, and lust— which, from what Handsome tells me, seems to be a finer line for him and the men he knows than it is for me and the women I’ve talked to. But that’s not where Ike goes with it– men are supposed to give each other accountability, and that seems to be it.

That’s not going to help remove all the shame and humiliation that exists in Christian circles. People can be helped by accountability, that’s true– but we think of accountability in terms of things like AA. Accountability is there to help keep each other from “falling off the wagon,” and that’s a good, good thing. But this seems to imply that this is all there is for men and women– lust, or don’t lust. There’s no middle ground here, not for Ike.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I want to wrap this up with a clarification on another one of the Famous Modesty Clobber Verses, also known as I Timothy 2:9:

Likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works.

I’m pulling from the ESV here, and I want to highlight a difference in translations. In the KJV, the word that is translated as “modest” is presented as “respectable” here, and the word that is translated “modesty” in the ESV is “shamefacedness” in the KJV.

The word that is either “respectable” or “modest” is κόσμιος, and its primary meaning is well-arranged (in other places, it is translated “good behavior”). The root form of the word, κόσμος, is linked to the “order of the stars,” or “ornament.” All of this seems to indicate that κόσμιος is about behavior, about actions, and not primarily about clothes. In our modern vernacular, we see the word “modest” in the context of clothes as “how much skin does it cover and how loosely,” but I believe that we need to see the word “modest” in terms of modest‘s primary meaning: humility and graciousness.

The word that is translated as “shamefacedness” in the KJV and “modesty” in the ESV is αἰδώς, and this one needs to be understood in terms of the culture it belongs in– a culture dominated by the concepts of honor and shame. That culture is a long, long way away from us, but it could help us to understand it if we looked at the rest of the verse– where Paul is talking about gemstones, and gold, and riches, and costly attire.

Also known as designer brands, for us modern American women.

I knew a young woman in college that was insanely rich. Insanely rich. She grew up in the Hamptons, she wore nothing but Calvin Klein and Dooney & Burke and Gucci and Prada and Ralph Lauren– and you could tell, even if you didn’t know the first thing about fashion. At a college where most of us were there because we were poor, clothes like that stood out.

And… she was not well liked. I knew a lot of people that couldn’t stand her. I couldn’t, either– until I was assigned to the same desk as her for two of my classes, and I actually got to know her. Turns out, she was gentle, and sweet, and kind, and incredibly generous, and she turned out to be a good friend.

But no one knew that, and no one wanted to even bother to find that out.

Because of her clothes.

That is what this verse in Timothy is talking about. Not the virgin/whore dichotomy, not lust, not sexuality. It’s not about telling women that their neckline is too low or their skirt hem is too high– it’s about respecting each other enough to not flaunt our possessions in each other’s faces. It’s about having the grace and the humility, the compassion and respect, to live in a world where not all of us share equal status, equal privilege, equal wealth.

So, ladies and gentleman, if you’re going to talk about modesty, try not to use verses in the Bible that have nothing to do with what you’re talking about.

Oh, wait.

Because unless you’re going to go back to the Old Testament about a priest’s “thigh being nakedness and an abomination,” or try to rip 1 Corinthians 12:23 out of any context that makes sense, or try to use descriptions in Isaiah and Jeremiah about long skirts (which were described as being worn by both men and women) you’ve got problems.

Because there aren’t any verses telling women to wear loose clothes that cover lots of skin.

*edit*: next week I’m going to write a post on the concept of modesty and wealth, and there’s going to be a lot more nuance there. I just wanted to let you know that I don’t think being wealthy and buying designer brands is inherently a sin. I just think 1 Timothy 2:9 is asking us to examine our motives for why we do that.

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  • Greyed Jade

    Thanks for the critique on the CT post. I guess I just have an issue with how you discussed the “rich girl” from your college. I agree being overtly flashy is a problem, but I don’t think designer clothes themselves are the problem.

    As someone who has worked in the fashion industry, I have gained a strong understanding for how different manufacturing processes can be. For the most part, designer brands behave ethically when it comes to their production. They work with small factories in the US or Europe where skilled laborers are paid fairly. Even those brands who produce in Asia pay significantly higher wages and work with more reputable factories than say Target or Forever 21. I’ve made a personal commitment to stop buying fast fashion brands that often produce their products unethically in favor of investing in designer pieces that will last many years.

    I know this decision is heavily privileged influence- not everyone can afford to buy higher end brands, but just as it is wrong for me to judge someone for wearing Forever 21 I feel like it is wrong for them to automatically judge me for wearing Theory. Now, I have no idea how the girl from your college behaved towards others beyond what you said about her being kind in your more personal interactions. Hopefully she was gracious and humble with everyone she met. If not, then I can understand why people kept their distance. I just don’t want to see people villainized for the cost of their clothes any more than either of us would want people to be judged for the cut of their clothes.

    • Thank you for highlighting this– I was hoping someone would! Even in my note at the bottom I didn’t have the time to really get into this.

      The girl from the story was kind, pretty much all of the time– but also completely clueless. It wasn’t that she was a rich snob, it was that she had no idea of what it was like to be poor and never quite figured out that talking about wealth so casually could breed resentment. She wasn’t mean-spirited, just incredibly privileged and had no idea.

      I own designer clothes– I love, love fashion and everything about clothes and fabrics and cuts and styles and I can get obsessive about it. I want to cry when I walk into a Michael Kors store. Fashion, to me, is art you can wear, and I love that. I also appreciate the quality of the garments you can find more easily when you’re looking at higher-end clothing, and I also appreciate the fact that it’s also easier to find ethically responsible clothing.

      The fashion industry is a huge, complicated, messy thing, but I think it’s beautiful.

      • Greyed Jade

        Thanks for replying. I totally understand what you mean about the girl from your school being clueless about her privilege. I attended a college full of wealthy kids (thanks to financial aid), and I definitely encountered a lot of perfectly nice kids who were shocked when they met people with less privileged backgrounds. I still find myself having to remind my boyfriend of certain realities that most people have to face. I look forward to your post next week:)

  • This is why, if one is going to take the verse as close to the spirit in which it was given, one would buy one’s clothes at WalMart. Just saying.

    • True, but I also think that is an overly-literal interpretation, too. It’s not necessarily buying cheap clothes (which, seriously: ethically responsible choices need to be made, too), but about flaunting your wealth and not keeping your privilege in front of you. It’s not bad to be wealthy, it’s not bad to have nice things, but it is bad to have all of that privilege and use it as some kind of social measuring stick, which I think is what this verse is talking about.

    • Fabrizia

      Yep , made by children slaves … Very biblical indeed …

  • notleia

    Dinah? Talk about shooting yourself in the foot. Also, I am really tired of people making the Original Sin (the event and/or the concept as a whole) about sex. I mean, did they not read Genesis? It’s about disobedience, not sex. The only thing I can do to rationalize it is they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and people conflate that with the euphemism “Adam knew his wife,” so it becomes the tree of sexboobiespeniswhoresluttiness. Plus the (Victorian) retcon of the evilest things being about sex. Maybe if we were to get all Freudian, then snake = penis, but that’s reaching.

    • Actually, this was the primary reason why I completely rejected and absolutely hated Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” They eat the fruit, and the very next thing that happens is Adam and Eve have sexy time while Satan gets his jollies off. It’s… horrifying.

      • notleia

        So Milton started it (or at least made it headcanon in the culture). I’ve been meaning to actually read Paradise Lost for myself, but I think I’d have to pull the sentences out of the line breaks and diagram them before I really got what it was saying.

  • I appreciate many of the critiques here in Ike’s piece but I don’t think you’ve given him a close enough or charitible reading on Dinah.

    “Ike is not talking about this passage as an example of what not to do. He doesn’t use this as an example of lust gone horribly, horribly wrong. He places the Rape of Dinah in terms of what he claims is good, healthy, sexual attraction. Men are told to leave their father and mothers, and cling to their wives, and this is good, he says.

    And then he talks about Dinah.”

    Ike’s reference to Dinah is not made in the midst of a discussion on “good, healthy, sexual attraction” but on the “nature of the inclination”, which is “physical, emotional, and sexual”. He specifically cites Genesis 34:3 where the “Hebrew term used for cling” is used in an emotional manner, and one that is “almost at the level of irresistibility”. He notes that this inclination to cling can come in “corrupt forms such as the story of David and Bathsheba, or in celebrated fashions like that of the lover and his beloved in Song of Songs.”

    He nowhere says or implies that the inclination to cling, whether expressed in the grossly distorted act of rape, or in marriage, actually consummates the binding of one person to another forever “in such a way that the two can never be parted. They become one, they are one.”

    Again, I appreciate some of your other critiques, but think you’ve missed how he was using Dinah as an example of the inclination to emotionally cling has been corrupted after the fall.

    • Thank you, John, for contributing! I love it when people who bring a different perspective contribute to the discussion, honestly. 🙂 My tone during that section… not entirely patient, I realize. And I can see your point. However, I’m going to give the entire context, everything that led to his inclusion of Dinah, and hopefully you can understand why this was my (and many other people’s) conclusion:

      Adam and Eve initially existed in unity, enjoying and exemplifying interdependence. In Genesis 2, God removed Adam’s rib and from it created the body of Eve. Remarkably, this creation of Eve from Adam produced a strong physical inclination toward her that illustrates the general inclination men have for women. It’s an inclination that prior to the Fall, served to unify the two.

      After Adam recognizes Eve as bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh Scripture tells us that for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and cling to his wife. While Bible teachers and scholars tend to refer to this “leave and cleave” in strictly emotional terms, the context indicates that the “clinging” is also physical and sexual: He will cling to his wife and the two will become one flesh, the latter a euphemism for the sexual consummation of marriage.

      The Hebrew term used for cling confirms the physical and sexual nature of the inclination. In similar scriptural contexts between men and women it connotes a man’s deep attraction for a woman, almost at the level of irresistibility (Shechem and Dinah, Genesis 34:3; Solomon and his many wives, 1 Kings 11:2). Scripture repeatedly depicts this inclination in men, both in corrupt forms such as the story of David and Bathsheba, or in celebrated fashions like that of the lover and his beloved in Song of Songs.

      Maybe the rest of his piece makes the case you’ve presented here in your argument, but, up until the moment he mentions Dinah, Ike is talking about the concept of “strong physical inclination” as being created by God, as existing before the Fall, and then he says IN SIMILAR SCRIPTURAL CONTEXTS.

      Yeah… that’s a problem.

  • Maddee

    Oh my gosh THANK YOU FOR THE GREEK. (<– That was a seminary student freak-out.)

    And, obviously, the rest of this post – particularly that line combating the idea that women are essentially asexual. My inner Hulk emerges when discussions of modesty seem to ignore entirely the idea that (clutch your pearls now) women are sexual beings too – because God made us that way. Crazy, right?

  • I was so frustrated by the first post in the CT series – posted after I’d started a short series on modesty myself. The arguments were just the same-old, same-old in slightly gentler terms, as you pointed out in your response. This is an improvement, but I agree with you that it is CRITICAL for us to start talking about the difference between lust and natural, healthy sexual attraction. We’ve set young men up for failure by teaching them that any arousal is sin. What options does that give them? They either live in a state of shame, give up entirely and give in to objectifying women (bro culture does that quite well) – or they shift the blame for their “sins” to women. At this point, dealing with that dangerous lie (that sexual desire = lust) may be the most important step in “fixing” modesty doctrine.

  • Samantha, I really appreciate the way you responded to the article with well-thought out arguments and logic. I especially appreciate the fact that you pointed out that modesty in the context of scripture means graciousness and humility, not covering up the “naughty bits.” I also think that the idea that women have to dress a particular way so as to keep our “brothers in Christ from stumbling” is completely absurd. It basically says that men are such slaves to their basal instincts that they have no choice as to how they treat women…their sisters in Christ! It is disrespectful to both men and women, and I don’t believe there is any scriptural foundation for either argument.

  • Samantha said: “The second we arrived home from church, I dashed into my bedroom. In a frenzy driven by shame, by humiliation, by fear, I tore off that dress– the dress I had put on that morning, the dress that had made me feel that for once I could be pretty– and threw it into the dark corner of my closet and slammed the door shut. I crumpled to my bedroom floor, staring at those shut doors, and cried.”

    Christian fundamentalism has characterized as a belief system that is constantly on alert to the possibility that someone on the Earth might be experiencing happiness, joy, mirth, satisfaction—so it can rush in and stomp it out before it has a chance to grow.

    Turn the music up and listen:

  • So, you are from Florida? I was raised here in Central Florida, and now I live here again. Where is your part of the state? ~Tim

    • Northwest, gulf coast area.

      • jesuswithoutbaggage

        I love that area–from Pensacola to Cedar Key!

  • THANK YOU. I *deeply* appreciate how you dig into the scriptures and illustrate how verses are being misused. As someone who just had a loooong debate with a friend about modesty, it really helps to see what scripture actually says (or doesn’t say ;D ) about the topic.

  • Reblogged this on criticalhit009 and commented:
    Really great analysis of the deeply problematic Christian modesty culture and an Christianity Today article discussing it. Highly recommended.

  • I’m going to throw a radical notion out there: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with lust.

    At least, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with lust as defined in most conservative Christian conversations about modesty. In this context, lust seems to be defined as “feeling sexual desire when looking at another person.”

    I feel desire when I look at other humans all the time. This is completely natural. It doesn’t mean I objectify them. I remember they are people with thoughts and feelings. But I like the sight of bodies in nice clothes. Or out of nice clothes. It gives me pleasure. And as long as I’m not doing anything to make that person feel uncomfortable, there’s nothing wrong with that.

    • Yeah, when most Christians say “lust” they mean “arousal,” and when sane people say “lust” they mean “objectification”.

  • petrushka1611

    “It’s not about telling women that their neckline is too low or their skirt hem is too high– it’s about respecting each other enough to not flaunt our possessions in each other’s faces.”

    Boobs are possessions, too.

    I’m saying this half tongue in cheek, but half not (and coming from a man who grew up with strong fundamentalist teachings on modesty, and is trying to figure things out, and has come a long way from those teachings).

    Believe me, I understand that I don’t feel the weight of the millennia of men dictating to women. I know some women feel it greatly, and I’m trying to find something analogous for me so I can wrap my head around it. I know full well how fundy teachings on modesty do nearly nothing to “help” men with their lust. And last year, it hit me one day when I was struggling with something a woman was wearing (and men DO struggle), that maybe she should be allowed to wear that without me lusting after her. And I’ve seen how Christ told people that if their eye offends them, pluck it out; he didn’t say that if your eye offends you, you should go telling everyone else how they should not offend you.

    But, I also know that when women are dressed more modestly than not, I have to fight less of a battle. Maybe most other guys don’t have to worry about it as much. I know for sure that the problem with lusting lies in my heart. But I also know that sometimes it’s a relief not to have to fight as much.

    • Hi Petrushka, thank you for stopping by!

      I would really like to engage with you about this, so I hope you can understand that anything I say here is intended to be encouraging, and I don’t want to come across as defensive or aggressive at all.

      That being said, I have to disagree with you.

      Boobs are not possessions. Boobs are not THINGS. My boobs are my body, and my body is not a possession, and not a thing. It is ME. It is a core part of my identity that can’t be removed and talked about as if it was something that wasn’t me. That included my boobs. So no, they’re not.

      And, I think you know that, but you said it anyway, because… I don’t know. I’m not going to guess at your motives, but you followed that comment with acknowledging it as “tongue in cheek,” which… if you move in the same circles of the internet as I do, you know that’s called “ironic sexism,” and it’s not any better than regular sexism.

      I also want to pose a question, because this is extremely important to move this conversation forward. When you say you “struggle” with something a woman is wearing, are you sure you aren’t just appreciating her beauty? It’s completely natural for people to look at whatever person we find attractive and think “wow.” That’s NOT bad. That… really, really, can’t be helped. All of us, men and women, have that reaction. It’s chemical, and automatic.

      Reducing a woman down to something you think you can use in a fantasy or to fill your need for sexual gratification? That’s the problem– and, I know this is going to be blunt, if that’s what you’re doing, that is purely your problem. That cannot be changed by anything a woman wears or doesn’t wear, but has everything to do with your belief that people are there for you to use for your sexual appetites.

      Just because you have been trained by your culture to view some woman as “not available for my sexual gratification” based on their clothing and some women as “totally available because of what she’s wearing” has nothing to do with the clothes, and everything to do with your mentality about her clothes, and that’s what we need to work on.

      • Well said forgedimagination! I am male and I certainly understand hormones, and I don’t want to diss petrushka, but somehow I never got the memo that I could blame my discomfort or distress on the way girls and women dress.

        Instead I had to rely on respect and self-control. By the way, when I was younger, you could put a girl in a space suit and I could imagine what was under the space suit!

        Something else I never learned to do is blame store vendors for making me want to steal things by not locking up their merchandize. They would set it right out there on the shelf in the open! How could they tease and abuse me so?