Browsing Tag

modesty

Feminism

to the moms who want to hate on middle-school girls

[this satirical post is in response to Kristen Welch’s “To the Middle School Girls at the Pool who Told my Son He was Hot]

Listen, moms, I get it.

You live in a culture where anything goes. Where the public shaming of girls is acceptable. We sacrifice their education on the altar of “not distractings boys,” and we joke about how their “Instagram feed has more duck faces than a pond.” As mean and petty as those jokes are, our culture says they’re hilarious. You live in a time when we’ve figured out another way to shame women, and this time it’s not for reading “sentimental nonsense” like Jane Austen, it’s for having a twitter handle.

What our culture decides to use to control women changes so often, I know it can be confusing to handle all the messages the media throws at you– about “hook-up culture” and how young we are when we loose our virginity (hint: for most of us, it’s after highschool).

Maybe you can’t see how girls are explicitly told every day that the only thing that matters about them is their bodies. Whether it’s being sent home when you’re in kindergarten for wearing a spaghetti-strap sundress or the fact that I had an insanely hard time finding a picture of “middle-school girls” that wasn’t actually of 18-year-olds for this post, we’ve been taught practically since the day we were born that the only thing anyone cares about– even moms like you– is whether or not we’re wearing a bikini. Culture says we have to or no one will love us, and moms says we’re disgusting slutty whores when we do.

I know, moms– I know it’s hard to train your sons to be respectful and decent human beings who don’t mutter the insulting “like I care” under his breath when a girl gives him a compliment. It’s so much more convenient to expect middle-school girls to be invisible and silent, and since that plays right into what culture says, too, that makes your job a lot easier. You shouldn’t have to bother teaching your sons how to communicate to a girl respectfully; a sincere “thank you, but I’d like to spend time with just my family today”– after all, any middle-school girl who makes her presence known is obviously just “aggressive” and “tempting,” and you should be able to make fun of her on the internet as much as you want.

Maybe no one has told you these things, so I thought I would:

Honey, it’s not okay to act this way. It’s not becoming. It’s immature and contributes to a world where middle-school girls are the butt of all our jokes, when in reality middle-school girls are people.

See, I can look past your snide remarks and your sense of superiority because you think you are raising your family so much better than whoever is raising that little slut in the bikini. I can ignore that you decided to take a little girl’s moment of vulnerability and exploration to see someone who is craving hits and clicks and views. I can see that you’re just a mommy blogger trying to figure out where you fit in this dog-eat-dog World Wide Web.

But it’s not ok to humiliate little girls on the internet. It’s not ok to send the message that any girl’s existence around your son isn’t to be tolerated. It won’t make you feel better about yourself. And while it might get you page views, it’ll only be from other arrogant people who think they have the right to judge a little girl for having an opinion and being a person in a public place.

I’m trying to teach women and girls that they have the right to exist, to be people, and you aren’t making it easy for any of us. I’m trying to show us that we don’t have to hide who we are just to make a judgmental mom at the pool happy, that we should be allowed to see something we like and go for it– and if he doesn’t like us back, it’s not the end of the world. I’m trying to make it possible for all of us to live in a world where a girl can say “I like you,” and she isn’t humiliated by a mommy blogger with an agenda.

I’m cautioning them not to let moms like you determine their self-worth.

I’m trying to teach them to respect themselves. I’m trying to teach them that they have the same rights as anyone else.

~~~~~~~~

[note: obviously, I didn’t see the incident Kristen described in her post. If she is describing what happened accurately, then it’s possible the girl involved was either oblivious to or ignoring signals from her son. That’s not ok– learning to understand and respond to social cues, while difficult for many, is a part of growing up, and I think our culture needs a lot more “just respect people’s boundaries, ok? OK.”

However, it’s also likely that Kristen did not see what happened accurately. She described the girl involved as “aggressive,” and while she might have been, it’s possible this girl simply violated social conventions about the meekness and quietness and voicelessness of women by being open and honest. We, as a culture, tend to overestimate or exaggerate the behavior of women.]

Update (6/10/15): This post is meant to be satirical in nature; I apologize for not making that clearer. I do not actually think that Kristen is merely “craving clicks and views,” or that she’s “just a mommy blogger with an agenda.” I borrowed the wording of Kristen’s post and reversed it, intending to make it clear how ridiculous and awful it is to assume the worst about someone that you do not know at all. The unfortunate thing is that Kristen’s post isn’t satire: she meant every misogynistic word.

Photo by Michael-kay Park
Feminism

how purity culture and raunch culture objectify women

PurityVsRaunchCulture

I have another guest post up today at Convergent Books! I’d love to know what you all think of the argument I make here.

As a teenager and young woman I avoided looking in the mirror because I didn’t want to see my breasts, or my thighs, or my butt. I was ashamed of them. In the church culture of my childhood, those parts of my body were sexual, so I had to make sure no one could see them. My sexuality was to be hidden and feared.

Now I am learning to love my body and my sexuality, and I’m beginning to understand all the damage done to me by the shame I inherited for simply being a woman with a woman’s body.

So I get it. I understand the urge to throw off the shame and celebrate our sexuality. I can see why some women get a thrill from stuffing dollar bills into a stripper’s G-string, or the attraction of competing in a wet T-shirt contest. I can understand why women flash onlookers in the French Quarter during Mardi Gras, why it’s “liberating” to be a Bunny, why more and more women read Maxim and Playboy.

But is this “raunch culture” that Ariel Levy describes really liberating? Is Miley Cyrus “embracing her sexuality” when she straddles an eight-foot inflatable penis? Does any of this truly empower women?

You can read the rest here.

Feminism

patriarchy in homeschool culture

patriarchy
[this is what “The Patriarchy” looks like in my head]

I grew up in a subculture of evangelical Christianity that’s known as “Christian Patriarchy,” which is what the people who preach and teach this “lifestyle” un-ironically call it. I was also peripherally a part of the Quiverful and Stay-at-Home-Daughters movements, which are all separate things. A family can be Quiverful without preaching Christian Patriarchy or requiring daughters to remain at home until marriage, for example.

However, that’s not what I’m going to be talking about today.

One of the ex-fundamentalist Christian feminism blogs that I read is Wine & Marble, by Hännah Ettinger. She wrote one of my favorite posts on sex, and I highly recommend her as a writer. Yesterday, her sister, Clare, wrote the fantastically-titled post “Fuck the Patriarchy,” about how she was kicked out of her “Homeschool Prom.” It went viral today, showing up on Gawker, Fark, Cosmo, Jezebel, American Conservative, NYPost, and it should be up at the Daily mail and HuffPo pretty soon.

I was curious to see how each of these sites would handle a story about a homeschool prom, so I followed her story all over the internet, and, of course, ended up in the comment sections. Most were your standard internet outrage, but there were some people questioning the validity of her story (because of course there were). It was interesting to me that a bunch of different men thought that Clare was lying or exaggerating supposedly because men who were “ogling” her wouldn’t have asked her to leave.

It actually took me a second to figure out the rationale behind that, because it seemed so obvious that of course they would ask her to leave if they were “tempted” by the “strange woman” who was “dressed like a harlot” (not saying that she was, just that they thought she was). To me, asking Clare to leave was the entire reason why they were there. When Clare said these men were “chaperones,” that was instantly what I assumed.

However, to these (male) commenters, it seemed counter-intuitive that any man would ask a woman they thought sexually attractive to vacate the premises. If they found Clare attractive, why admit to enjoying the show– or asking the show to leave?

That’s one form of patriarchy, all on its own; implicit in many of those comments was the belief that women exist for the sexual gratification of men, and that men will compulsively ogle women they find sexually attractive, that “boys will be boys.”

However, what the chaperones did in pointing Clare out to the “Mrs. D” of the original article was another, more archaic form of patriarchy: the form of patriarchy where men are the guardians of honor– both of their own, and of “their” women. I’m not sure what the homeschooling culture is like in Richmond (not much like mine, if they have a prom), but at least some of the people in that community are probably familiar with books like Beautiful Girlhood:

One day a handsome young gentleman alighted from a train … As he paced the platform, he soon attracted the attention of a young girl. She watched him flirtatiously out of the corner of her eye, coughed a little, and laughed merrily and a bit loudly with a group of her acquaintances; but at first he paid no attention …

At last he noticed, turned, and came directly to her, while her foolish little heart was all in a flutter at her success …

“My dear girl, he said, tipping his hat, “have you a mother at home?”

“Why, yes,” the girl stammered.

“Then go to her and tell you to keep you with her until you learn how you ought to behave in a public place,” and saying this he turned and left her in confusion and shame. It was a hard rebuke; but this man had told her only what every pure-minded man and woman was thinking. Girls can hardly afford to call down upon themselves such severe criticism. (130-31)

Things like this are the subtext at events like “Homeschool Proms” that are chaperoned by conservative Christian homeschooling fathers. When those men saw Clare in a theme-appropriate dress, looking like a woman and enjoying the evening with her friends, what they saw was a “foolish girl” who deserved the “harsh rebuke” of being escorted out by security.

In this culture, it is the sacred duty of every man to police the actions of every woman. Women are not to be trusted with decision making, let alone gifted the ability to make up their own mind on what they want to wear to their Senior Prom. If a man in this culture even notices a woman sexually, it’s a problem, and she deserves to be confronted and chastised because of it.

There’s two options available to men in these situations: either the girl is simply “silly” and telling her that her dress could cause “impure thoughts” is information she should be grateful for, and she should humbly leave in shame and humiliation– or, she is dressing provocatively on purpose, which makes her a “strange woman” who is “playing the harlot” and she definitely deserves to be confronted and removed. When Clare stood up for herself, that put her firmly into “strange woman playing the harlot” category.

It’s rape culture on steroids. It’s “she was asking for it” dressed up in Bible verses and cutesy Victorian language about knights and fair maidens.

Theology

it's not the rules that are the problem

chains

When the speaker walked up to the platform, he pulled a piece of fencing behind him. It looked like a Norman Rockwell-style white picket fence, complete with painted grass along the bottom. He set it up where the podium ordinarily was and launched into his chapel message. During the course of his talk, he moved around the white picket fence, moving closer, then farther away, at times knocking it over and jumping over it pell-mell. He was using it as illustration, and it was simple enough, powerful enough, to stick with me. It provided a helpful mental image, especially when coupled with the main thrust of his message:

Fences are there to protect us.

Fences keep us safe– they keep dogs inside the yard, they keep children from running out into the street. Some fences can even keep things out– like the seven-foot-tall chain link fences with barbed wire that surrounded campus. Fences, he said, are good. And not just the literal fences– especially not the actual fences we pin around our yards. No, the most important fences are those we use to protect our hearts, our spirits, our morality, our souls.

It’s not hard to tell what sin actually is, he claimed. Take sex, for example. Obviously, having sex (and by this we all knew he meant heterosexual vaginal intercourse), is a sin. That’s crystal clear, he said, and we all nodded along. But what about everything else? he asked us. What about… kissing? French kissing? Cuddling? Are these things sin, too? And he told us, no, probably not, but shouldn’t we avoid doing them anyway? Remember your fences— they are only there to protect us. To keep us from sin. If we never even cross the fence, there’s no way we can go anywhere close to the sin.

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

When I talk about the way I was raised– which, in real life, is not very often– I get a lot of significant looks. And I’ve found it doesn’t typically matter how brief I try to keep it, or how minimal a detail I reveal. Mouths drop open. Eyebrows disappear into hairlines. They choke, their eyes go wide, and they start sputtering things like “what?!” or “that’s insane!” or “holy shit, how did you survive that?”

And “that” is almost always legalism.

And that? That is nothing.

It’s easy for me to talk about the legalism my childhood, teen years, and college years were absolutely drenched in. Legalism was a huge part of my life, and it affected almost everything I did, almost every choice I made. It determined what I would wear, what I would read, what I would watch, what I would listen to, what I would pay attention to, the people I would believe, the news sources I could trust, the people I chose as my friends. Legalism, in my life, was virtually all-consuming.

But it’s the part of my life that I think is funny.

I tell stories about how the Dean of Student Life at my undergrad college had previously worked as a prison warden– and was proud of it. I joke about people carrying rulers around to make sure that my skirt was exactly three inches below my knee. I bandy around with all the crazy stories– all the ways that my life experience was so horribly different from theirs. About how boys and girls couldn’t sit next to each other, how there always had to be at least an entire chair or a foot of space between them. How we sewed all the kick pleats in our skirt shut, because skirt slits are like playing peek-a-boo with the backs of our calves. How I have five-minute-long songs memorized on why the King James is the only good Bible.

It’s the part of me that rarely ever bothers me at all, really. Living under it was oppressive, don’t get me wrong, but now… it’s mostly just something I can brush off and ignore. It’s fodder for good stories, and that’s about it.

So, when I start trying to talk about my experience, trying to explain what exactly about it that was so horrific, I am eternally frustrated by the fact that the only thing many people seem to hear is the legalism. And they respond with sympathy– “oh my goodness! All you went through was so horrible! I can’t imagine trying to live under the weight of all those rules! How like the Pharisees they were! Legalism is so awful!”

And then they move on, almost completely untouched, and I want to scream and pull my hair out because, to me, it feels like they’ve completely missed the point. Yes, legalism is awful. You won’t get any argument from me.

But legalism isn’t the problem.

Rules– they can be good. Healthy, even. Even when there’s a lot of them. Just because a system has what seems to be the presence of a lot of arbitrary rules doesn’t necessarily make it bad. I can understand why that seems counter-intuitive– to us Westerners, where individuality, autonomy, and independence are some of the most crucial parts of our identity, rules seem innately oppressive. Less rules somehow equals more freedom, and freedom is good. But that’s not always the case. Even though it’s difficult for me to understand Shari’ah  law, I can understand that the rules are not what make it oppressive in some places.

It’s the beliefs enforcing the rules.

But I have a much harder time explaining that, and when I start talking about a subject that includes some level of legalism– like “modesty,” for example– it suddenly takes over the conversation and it’s like we can’t focus on anything else. I want to talk about the beliefs, the entire complicated, messy, nuanced system that under-girds all the legalism, but then it all gets de-railed with one aside of “oh, I totally understand what you mean! Aren’t those rules so ridiculous? We just need to get rid of the rules, and then everything will be peachy!”

Or, I’ll read an article, blog, a facebook post, and they’ll build an entire argument around “we have to keep the spirit alive, but just get rid of all these pesky rules. Freedom in Christ, yo!”

And all I want to do is start stomping my feet and shouting “no, no, NO, NO, NO!”

Because the spirit, the beliefs, the ideas, the system that keeps the legalism alive is the problem. There’s nothing there worth protecting, and all of it deserves to be destroyed. Because this system is built on an ugly foundation of power, abuse, domination, and control. The people who perpetuate it aren’t there because they genuinely love people and want to protect them. Legalism gives them the power to wield massive control over entire groups of people– but they can only do that not because of the rules, but because of belief.

Belief in a God whose most dominant, over-riding characteristic is a demand for absolute righteousness, for the acknowledgement of his children that they are completely broken, miserable, worms, barely even worthy of his attention. Belief in a God that is so gracious and loving that he daily overcomes his disgust, his revulsion, to reach out of heaven and show mercy to us. Belief that we, as humans, must exercise all of our resources, all of our attention, in a daily battle to crucify our flesh and take up our cross— but these words mean something different, something harsh and bleak and wretched. Belief that everything about our human experience is tainted, stained, and worthless– that there isn’t anything that can be enjoyed, because all of it is unclean. Our bodies, our music, our entertainments, our world– all of it is is ruthlessly designed to pull us off the straight and narrow, and that if anything feels good, it must be bad, and if we enjoy something, it is only because our hearts are deceitfully wicked and who can know it. We must not ever follow our heart, trust our instincts, go with our gut, because that is only lust and once it has conceived it brings forth death.

That is what is underneath it all– dark, creeping, insidious.

That is what I want to shine a light on and expose. That is what I fight.

Because I believe something different.

I believe in a God whose most all-consuming characteristic is love, and it is that love that drives everything else he does. I believe him when he says that his very existence is that of love, and I trust in him because he loves us so much that he is angry with what we do to ourselves. He hates the oppression, the power systems, everything that exists that allows one person enslave another.

I believe in a God that is so gracious, merciful, and loving, that it compels him to continually create a world where justice and equality will be true of all of us, a place where there will be no fear, no doubt, no pain, and that he works with us, his creation, to build this world.

I believe that we, as humans, must exercise all of our resources, devote all of our attention, to loving our neighbor.

I believe that God looked on everything that he had made and called it good.

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.

Feminism

my body is not a stumbling block

culottes 2

The picture above was taken while I was in high school. I am wearing a specific pattern of “culotte,” or “split skirt,” that was distributed by First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana, and Hyles-Anderson College. This particular pattern was voluminous– there was an 8-inch yolk, and box pleats circled around my hips. The idea behind the pattern was that the yolk and the pleats created enough space that you couldn’t see what my actual shape was underneath all of that fabric. I was not allowed to wear any other kind of culotte pattern— not the “loose” basketball shorts, or “loose” Bermudas, or anything else that was permissible for many of the young women I knew– although, as far as I can remember, all the women in my church wore this pattern.

I developed a gigantic, curvaceous, apple-bottom ass when I was around 14. I have the stretch marks to prove it. And as soon as I started developing, the comments started flooding in.

Samantha, you have a lot of junk in your trunk!

Samantha, have you thought about Spanx? Your butt wiggles when you walk.

Samantha, you should put some control-top panty hose on. It would help with that jiggle.

Samantha, you need to be very careful when you walk up to the piano. Don’t take such a large step onto the platform.

Samantha, suck in your stomach and tilt your hips forward. It’ll help your bottom be less noticeable.

Samantha, you need to work out more. Your bouncing rear-end is distracting my husband. 

I could go on. I have searingly vivid memories of hundreds of comments like this, given to me by incredibly well-meaning men and women– people in my church who honestly cared about me, who to this day still care about me, and who I still respect and love. These men and women have played such a huge role in my life, but every time I think about the instructions I received from them concerning modesty, I want to curl up into a ball until the pain goes away.

They didn’t mean for this to happen. I’m positive they’d be horrified if they knew I carried these wounds with me– wounds that still bleed, even though it’s been years since I’ve heard anything like this.

When I picked out my wedding dress, a gorgeous sleeveless gown with a sweetheart neckline, my immediate concern was what people would think when the wedding pictures went up on facebook. I would likely never hear it directly from them, but I could see their faces in my mind– their lips purse, their faces twist, their heads shake. Look at that dress, they would tut-tut. Her neckline is so low! I can’t believe her parents would let her wear that. And her husband, what must he be like, to let his wife flaunt herself like this?

When I pushed my credit card across the counter, I felt… proud. Because I knew what I’d just accomplished, and it had been monumental: don’t let the bastards get you down, and I thought, and I scheduled my first fitting.

So, today, when I read this article on her.meneutics by Peter Chin, I had to fight with myself. Because I could hear all of those people– people I respect, people who mean a great deal to me– I could hear them in his words. I could hear how loving and gentle he must feel. I could practically picture the look on his face– the tenderness and compassion he truly feels and wants all Christian women to know, to understand how sincere he is, how he doesn’t want us to be hurt by his words, that all he wants is to encourage us to do, think, feel, and react in the way that he thinks is “appropriate” and “mature.”

But all his words did was make me want to scream. To pick up anything and smash it. To lay in my bed and cry until I couldn’t feel anything anymore.

Because, honestly, while I appreciate how kindly he worded his thoughts, it doesn’t change the fact that the ideas he’s promoting hurt people. And yes, they hurt me, and I’m a human so I’m not above reading things into what he said that aren’t there, but I am desperately trying to be fair. I’m not taking issue with his wording, or with his motives– I take issue with the idea.

To say that “modesty is the loving prerogative of the mature” is to instantly label anyone who disagrees with him as unloving and immature, and this is how he begins his argument. This immediately silences anyone who disagrees with him, because we can quite easily be dismissed. We think he’s wrong not because we have research, or personal experience, or even the Bible on our side– we disagree with him because we aren’t exercising true Christian love and maturity. This comment is setting up a false dichotomy between him and the “otherness” of women who have been abused and silenced by teachings exactly like what he’s promoting.

And then he goes to Romans 14, which he does, thankfully, quote the passage in full, instead of ripping out single verses that is so common in this format. But, just because he gives us a lot of context doesn’t remove a basic problem with what Peter, and so many others like him, have done. By using Romans 14, Peter is borrowing from and contributing to a culture where women’s bodies are less than objects– we are unclean objects.

To be fair, he never explicitly says this– in fact, in some places, it seems like he’s trying to deny this idea, but the problem is that women’s bodies as unclean objects is the fundamental premise behind “modesty.” You cannot remove this concept and leave modesty teachings any ground to stand on.

I realize that is a huge claim, so let me explain.

In explanations about modesty like what Peter has given here, the pattern to their argument is:

1) of course, a woman’s body is beautiful, and good. God made it.
2) however, a woman’s body is also sexual, and that sexuality causes men to lust after them.
3) so, out of love, shouldn’t women do everything they can to make sure their brother doesn’t sin?

And then, they frequently go to Romans 14, or passages like it, to talk about the idea of the stumbling block, and how it is every Christian’s duty to “help the weaker brother.”

However, the “weaker brother” in the case of modesty is all men, and the situation being considered is that at least some men see women’s bodies as unclean, and shouldn’t we cater to that? Shouldn’t we do everything within our power to help them avoid temptation and sin? Isn’t that our mature Christian duty?

Hopefully you can intuit the connection. Romans 14 is talking about Christians who think some things (like food) are unclean, and some don’t, but the people who don’t think an item is unclean should still be aware of those who do, and make accommodations for them. When you replace the concept of clean and unclean food with women’s bodies, the only result is that women’s bodies can be perceived as inherently and integrally unclean.

(Some could argue that it’s not our bodies that are unclean, only how we choose to dress those bodies, but that’s not consistent, because the argument goes that men are lusting after the women’s bodies, not their clothes.)

When I was a teenager, and my womanly body began developing, the reaction was not to my clothes– it was never to my clothes. It was to my body, and most of the attention focused on my rear end, which could not be disguised no matter how I walked or what I wore. Nothing— and I do mean absolutely nothing — could change the fact that I had a large, shapely ass or hide it well enough to remove it from my “weaker brother’s” field of vision. No matter what I wore, I was still on the receiving end of cat calls, jeers, slurs– I was stared at, grabbed at, slapped, and mocked, because my body was unclean, and my body was under the purview of what men thought about it.

If I was touched inappropriately, it was not because he was a pervert, it was because I was dressed “inappropriately” (to borrow Peter’s term) and it had caused my brother to stumble.

If I caught one of the young men (or even married men, on occasion) staring at me, it wasn’t because they were not exercising self-control. It was because what I was wearing had caused them to lust after me. It was my “Christian duty” if I was going to “love my weaker brother” and “be strong and mature” to do my dead-level best to make sure that never happened.

But, over the course of well over a dozen years, what I discovered was that no level of modesty could prevent even good, godly, Christian men from lusting after my body if they weren’t exercising self-restraint. I could not make myself shapeless enough, ugly enough, undesirable enough, to escape male attention. It just wasn’t possible.

But what I have learned since then is that there is nothing about my body that I need to hide. My body is beautiful, wonderful, given to me by God, and meant to be fully enjoyed. My body is not unclean– there is nothing about myself, my physicality, my sexuality, none of it, that can “cause” men to lust, or force good men, against their will, to objectify me. I a person, with all the complicated messiness that entails– and my body is fully a part of who I am. It can’t be reduced down to “clean” or “unclean” based on how I dress it– to try to do that is to deny my humanity.

And I love my brothers enough to know that they are capable of making the choice not to objectify and demean their sisters– no matter what they look like or what they’re wearing.

Feminism

the bikini and the chocolate cake

chocolate cake
[trigger warning for rape culture]

I’m going to take a break from the series, for today, because I feel that we need to sit down with a cup of coffee or tea and just chat about something. If you move in the same circles I do, you’ve probably heard about this post from Made in his Image. There’s a lot of good things being said about how destructive the modesty culture can be, so I’m not going to rehash a lot of that here. I wanted to shine some light on the biggest problem with this specific post.

I got sunburned on my ass a few weeks ago, when nothing else on me got sunburned at all. We were only at the beach for an hour, and I ended up having to spread aloe vera all over my butt for a week and sit down funny for a few days. Why did I only get sunburned on my bottom?

Because it’s the only part of me that’s never, ever, seen the light of day.

I grew up in Northwest Florida– the part of Florida known as the Emerald Coast. It is a stunningly, breathtakingly beautiful beach. We rarely ever went– only when family came to visit, usually, and those visits were sparse– because it was considered ungodly to go the beach. And if we went, I wore a t-shirt and culottes. My mother made swim-culotes out of a really light, swimsuit-type material.

Even in college, when I’d left a lot of those childhood beliefs behind, I couldn’t bring myself to wear a swimsuit to the beach. I bought an amazingly cute tankini– I still think it’s cute, even today– and it generously covered my badonk-adonk, but I still felt incredibly nervous wearing it. I ended up wearing cute-off shorts on top of it when I went to the beach with some friends, and faked being asleep when I overheard them making fun of me for that choice.

Yup. “Modesty” is a sacrifice. It’s a sacrifice I made for most of my life, and paid for my standards with humiliation and embarrassment.

But, when I went to the beach with my husband a few weeks ago, I wore a bikini for the first time. It wasn’t “skimpy,” not that it matters, and I was able to take off my cover-up without shame, without the sharp knife in my gut telling me that I was dressing as the “strange woman” from Proverbs. It was a victory for me– a small triumph over the shame and oppression I’d known for over half my life.

That’s the only thing the modesty culture does.

It hasn’t stopped a lot of men from ogling me– not even Christian men. I’ve gotten cat calls, jeers, shouts, obscene gestures, propositions, and whistles all while “modestly” dressed. I’m talking full-blown “modesty.” High-necked t-shirts, a-line and loose knee-length skirts. Sometimes I looked cute, sometimes I looked dumpy. It doesn’t matter. How I’ve been dressed has never made a difference whatsoever in how many men have treated me. I was raped while wearing a knee-length skirt and a long-sleeved, loose and flowing top that covered my collar bone. Modesty has never, in my experience, stopped a man from doing whatever he wanted to do with my body– whether it was physically manhandle it, goosing me or grabbing my vagina through my skirt in the middle of chapel, or simply objectify it.

Let me say it again: men who do not see women as human beings could not give a flying f*** how a woman is dressed. She’s a woman. She has boobs and a vagina, and that makes her public property in a world where I’ve been screamed at, cursed at, for refusing to even acknowledge a cat call from a car.

When I started dressing however I wanted, modesty be damned– when I started wearing shorts and tank tops, for example, none of that sort of behavior increased. It stayed exactly the same.

But, this article, like every other article I’ve read on modesty, emphasizes that it a woman’s obligation to help protect men from our bodies. It’s our duty to make sure that we make it possible for men to forget that we’re a woman– which is, frankly, impossible. I don’t care how loose your clothes are– if you have T&A, there’s no getting rid of it, there’s no hiding it.

So what happens?

We have articles where the author has to stubbornly insist that she’s not “insecure about her body,” and clarify that she is “independent in her swimwear choices.”

We have articles where the author compares women to an ooey-gooey chocolate cake.

And let’s look at that for a second. Rachel has this to say about her metaphor:

Now, let’s pretend that someone picked up that chocolate cake and followed us around all the time, 24/7. We can never get away from the chocolate, it’s always right there, tempting us and even smelling all ooey gooey and chocolate-y. Most of us, myself included, would find it easy to break down and eat the cake. And we would probably continue to break down and eat cake, because it would always be there. Our exercise goals would be long gone in no time.

I’m going to try to be fair here: Rachel was probably, in her head, only referencing masculine lust here. When she wrote out this dandy little metaphor, she was probably only thinking that “breaking down” didn’t mean anything besides a man thinking less-than-platonic thoughts about the woman in the bikini.

However, regardless of what I’m positive were the best of intentions, Rachel has just contributed to rape culture.

Because, in this metaphor where a woman is a chocolate cake, the woman has no choice. A woman, plain and simple, just is a chocolate cake, and the fact is that, as a woman, there’s nothing she can do to change that.* She doesn’t have a say in the matter. She’s a woman. She’s ooey-gooey and smells like heaven, and so she gets eaten. No one asks her if that would be ok. No one asks her if that’s what she wants.

Because she’s a cake.

She exists to be eaten.

*I would like to point out that gender and sexuality are a sliding scale– I’m not trying to exclude transgender people, just dealing with the essentialist and gender binary nature of the article.

*edit: I have changed some of my wording (9/6/13) based on reader response.

Feminism

black lace and thigh highs

thigh highs

I don’t remember which year it was in college, but I think it might have been my senior year, since I was sitting in the balcony for chapel, and I think that was the only year I was ever assigned a seat up there. But, it was before One of the Most Awesome Rule Changes Ever, because I was still wearing hosiery.

Before I go any further, I should probably explain that my undergrad college had a strict dress code– to “encourage professionalism,” as they explained it. Of the few dozen or so rules women had to follow, one of them was that we had to wear panty hose in the morning until chapel at 10a, then again at dinner, to church on Wednesday, and all day on Sunday or during Bible Conference. Most of the time, my skirts were long enough that I could get away with knee-highs, but, sometimes, I wanted to wear a knee-length skirt. I loathed high-waisted panty hose, so my compromise was thigh highs. It never occurred to me, however, to invest in a garter belt. Because, after all, garter belts are “lingerie” and therefore inappropriate for an unwed young woman.

On this particular morning, when I got up along with 4,500 other students to exit chapel, I realized that my thigh highs had given up the Holy Ghost and were slipping down. I did everything I could to keep them from slipping even further– I pinched my legs, wobbling up the stairs with my knees locked together. I tried to take incrementally tiny baby steps to the bathroom, horribly and powerfully and shamefully conscious of the two thousand men swarming around me– and I was on the balcony level, where the seminary classes were immediately following chapel. Men in dark suits started flocking toward me, and the closest bathroom was so far away I knew I wouldn’t make it before my stockings were visible.

When I was just a dozen steps away from a bathroom, a seminary student stopped me.

“Did you know we can all see your . . . your, uhm, underthings?”

In that moment, my embarrassment and humiliation flashed into rage. I wanted to scream, or hit him. Anything. “Yes.” I managed to grit out. I didn’t know if he was a floor-leader or not, and yelling at a floor leader could net me fifty demerits for “disrespect.”

“You need to take care of this right away. You know that by . . . well, by wearing things like those you’re encouraging men to lust after you, right?” His voice was so soft, and gentle– he was speaking the truth in love. Admonishing his sister in Christ, edifying her.

I almost sawed my tongue in half. I was so angry words just kept piling up in my throat and choking me. I merely pointed at the bathroom and kept the rage-fueled tears out of my eyes.

“Oh, oh . . . well, ok.” And he walked briskly away, confident and secure.

When I finally got to the bathroom, I didn’t even make it into a stall before I ripped the stockings off and shoved them into the trashcan. I spent the next hour, my lunch hour, sitting in that empty bathroom and crying.

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

During some point in graduate school, one of my friends got engaged– and the engagement pictures appeared on facebook. They’re an extraordinarily beautiful couple– seriously, his fiancé is one of the most gorgeous women I’ve ever met. The pictures were all lovely, especially since he’d hired a photographer to take pictures of the proposal, and you could see the surprise and delight on her face when he got down on one knee.

One of the shots the photographer managed to get was her throwing herself into his arms after she’d said yes– and her arms lifted the bottom hem of her adorable dress up high enough that you could see the top of her lace-edged thigh highs.

My immediate, instantaneous, gut reaction was to frown in disapproval. Her dress was too short– if you can’t make simple gestures like hugging someone without showing off your sexy under garments to the world, you need to rethink that clothing choice.

But, there was a voice inside of me, a tiny, hushed voice I did my best to crush into silence. But it’s a beautiful picture. Intimate. And sexy. A sliver of myself I’d been taught to squash my entire life envied her and her ability to wear black-lace thigh highs. I wanted to wear something–anything–made out of black lace. And yes, I wanted to wear something with the Parisian flair she’d cultivated, and have pictures of me biting my rogue-painted lip and peeking out from under a fedora.

I clicked through to the next picture and did my best to forget all about it.

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

Me and my husband honeymooned in Chicago. It was only a five-hour train ride from Ann Arbor, where we were married, and it was a destination that fit our pace. We like museums, and pizza, and symphonies, and Chicago has plenty. Oh, and pancakes. If you’re ever in Chicago, you must visit Wildberry Café. I swear, best pancakes I’ve ever had in my life. And that’s saying something, since my mother and grandmothers make incredible pancakes.

For one of our evenings out, we went to the original Cheesecake Factory and then went to see Les Misérables. I wore a stunningly beautiful ruched black-and-white damask print dress, knee-high slouchy suede boots, and, yes, black lace-edged thigh highs. On our walk to the restaurant, the dress rode up a little bit, and you could see the top of my thigh-highs. I looked down at one point and noticed the lace peeking out–just barely, and I stopped in the middle of a crowded sidewalk.

Burning-hot pain knifed through me, and I had to fight not to gasp out loud.

I tugged my dress back down and kept walking, trying to keep the boiling red flush out of my face. But, my dress kept riding up, and I had to keep stopping to tug it back down. After the fifth time, Handsome stopped me. “What are you doing?”

“You can see my thigh-highs!” I whisper-yelled back at him.

“So?”

I stared at him, shocked, and the crazed and panicked busyness of my thoughts blanked out. “What?” I was baffled. What does he mean, “so”?

“What does it matter? No one cares. I don’t care. You’re gorgeous, and beautiful.” And he kissed me, right in the middle of the sidewalk. I was too stunned to really kiss him back.

And suddenly, just like that, I was laughing. Because he was right– none of it mattered the least bit.

Feminism

caring for raiment and loving fashion

raiment

I don’t remember how old I was the first time I went shopping with my grandmother– I think I was about thirteen or fourteen, probably. It was around my birthday, and she decided that we needed to have a day, just the two of us. We went to the mall, and she wanted to buy me something I liked– her treat. I was ecstatic. At this point in my life, I couldn’t remember having something that wasn’t a hand-me-down from girls at church or purchased at a thrift store. To have something new was going to be amazing. And I would be shopping with my grandmother, who to this day is one of the cutest, most fashionable and stylish women I’ve ever known.

We were in one of the department stores, probably Penney’s or Sears, and in the shoe section. I remember staring at a display of juniors shoes– Mudd and the like. There was one shoe in particular–a black leather mary jane pump. And I wanted it. Oh, I wanted it bad.

But then the internal monologue started up. The thousand-and-one reasons why I couldn’t have it– shouldn’t even want it, in fact. The heel is too high– what are you trying to do? Add an inch to your stature? And why care you for raiment? It will make you vain. You’ll attract attention– a boy’s attention. You don’t deserve something that pretty. You’ll make it harder for boys not to stare at you. You’ll make the other girls mad.

My grandmother saw me staring and asked me if that shoe was what I wanted for my birthday.

Yes was trying to burst out of my mouth. I took in a deep breath and did the right thing. “No.”

She knew better than to believe me. “Why not? Don’t you think it’s cute?”

Yes! It’s the cutest shoe I’ve ever seen! It would go so perfectly with my plaid skirt! “It’s too worldly,” I said instead, trying to muster up some self-assurance. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the look on my grandmother’s face– she was surprised, and a teensy bit horrified.

The rest of the day did not go much better. She kept trying to steer me toward cute, age-appropriate clothing, and I kept heading straight for the drab, matronly, sack-like garments. She wanted something bright, colorful, something flattering and stylish. I was becoming a young woman, she said, and my clothes should reflect that. And I was miserable, because I was fighting with myself the entire day. All those gorgeous clothes, the adorable shoes, and I wanted it all. They were pretty— couldn’t I, just once, have something pretty? But no, there was a carousel spinning around my head, a carousel of guilt, shame, fear of being judged, fear of causing a boy to stumble and being an adulteress in my heart, fear, shame, guilt,  fear, shame, fear.

We eventually left the mall– with a CD, I think. And I remember being in bed that night and my grandmother sharing her concerns with my parents. Couldn’t she see that I was trying to do the right thing? Why is it so hard?

The single time I ever gave in was when my mom bought me a knee-length aquamarine chiffon skirt and a sky-blue draped blouse with flutter sleeves. I will never forget the look of disappointment on the other girl’s faces, or the look of revulsion and pity on the pastor’s, or the pastor’s son telling me that being able to see my calves had caused him to stumble and fall, or my Sunday school teacher admonishing me to think about what clothes like that could make people think. I wanted to run home, tear my clothes off, and burn them.

I never wore it again.

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

Nothing changed in the next four years, and, suddenly, I was in college– a college where matronly, sack-like garments were the norm. Not only were they the norm, anything else was against the rules. Pencil skirts, chiffon blouses, empire waists– all of it was suspect and could land you in discipline committee facing a bear-ish woman asking you why you thought it was a good idea to dress like a whore. I remember a few girls– five, rather distinctly– who I judged severely any time I saw them. They were cute– they had co-ordinated outfits, they knew tons of styling tricks for their hair, they wore cowboy boots and chambray shirts, maxi dresses with lace cardigans, and I remember quite viciously loathing them.

I never stopped to think about why my feelings were so intense– I did not know these girls. I only ever spoke to one of them, and I had mentally categorized all of them as a “slut.” They cared about their appearance so much, it was obvious that the only thing they cared about was getting a guy’s attention. If they really had a pure heart, they wouldn’t put so much thought into the clothes they were wearing, or their make-up, or their hair. They were shallow, vain, empty-headed little girls.

Or so I thought. Looking back, they were probably the only brave women in the entire college.

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

My senior year, my best friend Rachel* and I had a bad case of senioritis. We escaped off-campus every single chance we could, picking up Sonic and heading for downtown, to a shabby-chic hipster bar with collapsing velveteen furniture and cavernous corduroy sofas in the basement of an abandoned hospital. We went on photography adventures, or we spent entire weekends down by the pier, letting the salt wind play with our hair. Sometimes we would sneak out in the middle of the night to go to the “emergency room” and explore the beach around an old lighthouse. When it was rainy, we hid in Barnes & Noble with chocolate cheesecake and tall mochas. She would get a stack of design rags, and I would pilfer the sci-fi section. We would settle in until the last minute until we had to make a mad dash back to campus before they locked us out.

On a dark and stormy night, there was nothing new in sci-fi, so I picked up one of Rachel’s magazines and flipped through it. It was Vogue, and it was their spring fashion show issue.

I was ensnared.

The moment I touched it, I was that fourteen year old staring a pair of mary jane pumps. I wanted to reverently touch every page, revel in Burberry and Prada and Gucci and McQueen and Betsy Johnson, and I wanted to throw it away from me for the wicked thing I knew it to be. Stop it, Samantha. All this can do is cause you to covet. Why care you for raiment?

I kept looking, loving, adoring, the lovely falls of lace and silk, leather and satin, art and beauty.

You shouldn’t be doing this. It will just hurt, because you’ll never be able to touch any of this. Look at all these poor women, parading their flesh for money. They’re just another kind of prostitute.

And I kept looking, ignoring the stinging sensation of guilt that was turning my stomach into knots. For a few more weeks I kept looking, knowing it was a guilty pleasure. I tried to convince myself, again and again, it was ok just to look. I wouldn’t actually start wearing any of that. Me and my sack-like clothing were just fine.

For a month I tried to tell myself that, and then I saw a crochet-lace floor-length skirt, and I could not help myself.

I bought it, even though it was $80, and I wore it nearly every single time I could possibly justify it, and even times when I knew I couldn’t, and people would judge me because I’d worn it for four days in a row, but I didn’t care. It was beautiful, and it was the first time I had ever felt pretty.

And I learned, slowly, that there is nothing wrong, or sinful, or shameful, about beauty.

There is nothing shameful about dressing my body in a way that I know makes me look attractive. I can buy a top that flatters my shape, and yes– makes my boobs look fantastic. Instead of buying jeans that disguise my rear and are so baggy I appear shapeless, I can buy a pair of jeans because they make my ass look positively bite-worthy. I will buy shorts that show off all the sun my skin has soaked up. I will buy v-neck t-shirts because they look the best on my sloped shoulders, and cleavage be damned. And yes, that t-shirt will have writing across my boobs, and I will not give a flying frack in hell if it stretches or clings. I will buy that knock-out teal lace dress with the wide belt that skims across my thighs. And yes, I will wear a layered chiffon spaghetti-strap tank over a dark wash trouser short to any place or event I damn well feel like.

And no– I will never again ask if an piece of clothing is modest. Clothing cannot even be modest or immodest. Modesty is humility. Modesty is accepting praise with grace and kindness. Modesty is avoiding arrogance and vain deceit.

And no– I will never again ask “would a man stumble if he saw me wearing this?” I REFUSE to mentally participate in a rape culture that removes any blame from the rapist, that assumes a woman’s clothes are her consent. Clothing and what a woman wears is not her “advertising what’s not for sale.”

I love fashion. I love clothes. I love going to a new boutique and running my hands over bouclé and chiffon, picking up jewelry and watching it flash in the light. I love wandering around a shoe store, slipping my feet into scraps of lace and turning my ankle and calf in front of a mirror to admire the sloping curve I’ve worked so hard to have. I love being able to wear a practical, down-to-earth form of art. Art you can touch and wrap yourself in– art you live your life in. That’s what clothes are to me, now– not another tool for oppression and shame, but my personal freedom and ability to express my personality and beauty.

Feminism

guarding your heart and victim blaming

[trigger warning for abuse and rape]

guard heart

Her.meneutics recently ran an article titled “Guard your Heart” doesn’t mean Christians can’t date. It was interesting, and I think worth reading. Didn’t say a whole lot that was particularly new to me, but it made me moderately happy to see thoughts like these running on a “mainstream” discussion outlet.

What really caught my attention was in the comments. The amazing Dianna Anderson pointed out a few statements in the article that had left me with a bad aftertaste I couldn’t identify, but tasted familiar. There are moments when I read something, and it just… feels off somehow, but I don’t know what it is. Dianna hit the nail on the head, beginning by quoting the statements that had just not felt right to me:

“‘A number of my female friends learned to guard their hearts from a parent after years of emotional abuse. Until they did so, they were wracked with shame and insecurity. Their wellsprings were not life giving, but toxic.‘ That’s pretty victim-blamey. So’s this: “Unwise dating relationships can have a similar effect. When a woman gives her heart too freely to men who might abuse it, she endangers the wellspring of her soul.” A woman being vulnerable is not the reason she gets hurt by other people. A woman gets hurt by other people BECAUSE OTHER PEOPLE CHOOSE TO HURT HER. End of.”

Two thumbs up to Dianna. I couldn’t have said it better. But, then there was this response, from Sharon Miller, the author of the article:

“Dianna, I am curious about how and where you locate personal agency. “Victim” is not an identity we should ever use to label a person’s identity. Even when a person is totally victimized by another, they have agency in how they respond to the victimization. Labeling women as complete and utter victims, to my mind, is the most agency-robbing thing we can do. What’s more, it leaves no space for acknowledging personal folly or sin. While some women are victimized due to no fault of their own, being hurt by a man does not, by definition, make a woman a victim.” [emphasis added]

Oy vey.

My reaction to Sharon’s comment was visceral, and immediate. I could instantly feel myself recoiling, and even now, as I’m writing this, I’m having to fight back nausea. A headache is fluttering around the edges of my vision. I don’t want to write about this– I don’t want to touch this with a ten-foot pole, but I have to. Not just for me, but for every woman I’ve ever known who has been damaged by teachings like this one.

First, let me start out by acknowledging that there can be power, for some, in adopting a “victory over the victim mentality.” I know, because it helped my mother who experienced a lifetime of abuse. Throwing off the “victim label,” as she puts it, allowed her to begin the healing process. She refused to be defined by what had happened to her, or limited by it. She didn’t want to see herself as a victim, because, to her, that gave her abuser more power over her, even though he was gone.  She was done with letting him control her thoughts and her actions, her emotions and her responses. She wanted no more of it.  Claiming “victory” allowed her to do that.

But, for me, being instructed by pastors and teachers and professors and counselors that I needed to take responsibility for my “personal folly and sin” left me broken, damaged, lost, and confused for three long years after my abusive relationship ended. I desperately wanted– and “desperate” isn’t a strong enough word, here– to do the right thing. I wanted to be the kind of girl I had been taught to be. I needed to acknowledge responsibility for my own actions, repent for my own sin. Of course, John* had sinned against me, he had abused me–but that didn’t mean that I was a perfect person. There were still things that I could have done better, lessons that I could learn from my mistakes.

That mentality nearly destroyed me.

For the first month after John had broken our engagement, I was determined that I could change. I could make myself a better person– someone more worthy of him. He was right — I hadn’t been submissive enough. I’d been stubborn. I’d had the sheer arrogance to tell him what he could and couldn’t do (like he couldn’t call me a “God damn fucking bitch,” or like telling him it would be a bad idea for him to quit his job, my trust fund isn’t supposed to pay for his college education). I was determined to mold myself into the woman he needed me to be– to take responsibility for what I had done wrong, to own it.

After it became clear to me that getting back with him would be a horrendously bad idea, I still tried to take responsibility for what I had done wrong. To this day, thinking back to some of the situations that I “allowed” myself to be in, that I spent three years “taking responsibility for” make me sick. I have literally vomited when I thought back to some of the things “I had done.” I can’t speak about some of these incidents without bordering on hysteria and panic, the shame is so powerful and overwhelming. Some of them, I will never be able to talk about without anyone. I . . . can’t. Reliving some of those memories are painful enough that they leave me feeling violated and crippled all over again. The mental gymnastics I go through to never have to think about those moments can be exhausting.

Two memories, in particular, are so horrific to me that they created a deep phobia I’d never had before the abuse. They happened in two different bathrooms, so to this day I have a deep-seated need to have an utterly immaculate, bleached from top-to-bottom, scrubbed-within-an-inch-of-my-life bathroom. If it’s not clean, it’s like an itch, or a weight dragging me down. Not having a clean bathroom creates an insidious feeling inside of me that I’m the dirty one.

Eventually I began having mild to severe panic attacks, more and more things were triggering me, and it took me a long time to see it but I was depressed– nearly suicidal, at several points. I couldn’t tell which way was up, and “owning my mistakes” and “taking responsibility for my sin and folly” were tearing me apart.

It was my husband, then my boyfriend, that first helped me see the truth. It was the first time he had ever seen me triggered. I’d told him, very briefly, that my ex had been abusive and had raped me. But I didn’t tell him the things I was struggling with, so the first time I was triggered and ended up in the middle of a full-blown panic attack, I expected him to abandon me. I expected him to see me for the broken, damaged woman I saw myself as and run away screaming.

Instead, he held me, smoothed my hair, let me shake and cry and rock until the panic subsided, and he was quiet. He didn’t say anything, just touched me and comforted me. When the panic attack was over, I started trying to explain what had happened, and I was using the only words I knew how to communicate– the words of victim-shaming. The words that placed fifty percent of the blame solidly on my shoulders. The words that took responsibility for my sin, that tried to do what I’d been taught was the “Christian” thing.

He would have none of it. He stopped me in the middle of a sentence, made me look him square in the eye, and he said these words:

This was not your fault.

I protested. I denied it. I told him, well, of course, not everything was my fault, but there was still things that happened that I was to blame. He stopped me– again, gently taking my chin in his hand and wiping my tears away.

No. This is Not. Your. Fault. You have nothing to be ashamed of. 

I couldn’t accept the truth in that. I couldn’t see it– I had been so completely blinded by the Christian rhetoric of victim-shaming that I was trapped into a mentality that told me it was sin, that I was a sinner and therefore culpable. But my husband took me into his arms and told me, simply, that I was not responsible for what had happened to me. That John had taken some of my strongest qualities– my loyalty, my stubbornness, my dedication, my commitment, my inability to surrender or give up– he had taken all of those things and used them against me.

John had sought to control, dominate, and abuse– and the abuse kept me living in fear. The choices I had made were not really choices at all– telling myself that I should have kept fighting, even after John had torn a gash in my knee with his watch and put his hand over my throat, that it was a choice to submit to him– ignored the very real threat I was under. He had me so mentally twisted and living in so much fear that doing something out of self-preservation was not a “choice” I made. It was not “folly.”

My healing began when I realized that I was a victim of abuse. That there was absolutely nothing that I needed to “take responsibility for.” That I, in fact, did NOT have the “agency in how I responded” to the abuse.

The abuse I suffered was not some perverted form of heavenly punishment for my sin. The shame and guilt were not the result of my conscience, or the “pricking of the Holy Spirit”– they were caused by damaging indoctrination I’d been put through that told me from ever single angle– from modesty and purity teachings down the line to complementarian rhetoric— that being a woman makes me responsible for any abuse directed toward me.

It was not my fault, and it’s not your fault either.