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Fascinating Womanhood: wounded pride


Picking up from where we left off last week, we’re about halfway through the chapter “Masculine Pride.” Helen has spent a lot of time explaining exactly what she means by “masculine pride” and went into a lot of detail on what men are proud of and all the ways we women constantly destroy them, by doing things like having a job or having interests he doesn’t share. Next she’s going to explain to us how the entire world seems designed to break and humiliate men and all the ways women are responsible to make up for how terrible the world is.

This will soon be clear (if it’s not already), but the kind of behavior and reactions Helen is about to describe as completely normal, natural, inescapable, and unchangeable are what most of society classifies as immaturity. She describes things like withdrawal and pain avoidance, which are normal human responses. We all struggle with hurt feelings and humiliation, and to some extent, we all know that it’s a part of life. We learn to process it, confront it if necessary, but ultimately move on.

However, that’s not what Helen describes.

She begins by outlying how men have grown up in a world hell-bent on making sure they are fragile and weak. Their families mock teenage boys for their youthful beards: “their mothers may have viewed it with disdain.” So, men have grown up where families show endless disdain for their burgeoning “masculinity.” Then, it’s the working world, which is “brutal,” “sadistic,” and “undermining.” Which, granted, it certainly can be all of the above. And, finally, his wife “wounds his pride” by showing “indifference” (previously described as being busy or preoccupied). All of this, she argues, leads to a very specific set of reactions that men cannot help but have. These responses, she says, are always how a man responds to his environment.

Reaction #1: Humiliation

This happens because you, his wife, has touched “the most sensitive part of his nature.” A woman who shows indifference becomes “repugnant,” and Helen is not surprised when “he reacts by being explosive.” This is one of those times when Helen’s language deeply concerns me. Her word choice has been far too consistent for phrasings like this to be accidental. Over the course of this book (and we’re almost halfway through it), Helen has deliberately chosen to use words like “violent” and “explosive” to describe how men react to wives that displease them. Almost always, these words are accompanied by “no wonder” and “unsurprisingly.” Given all the threats she makes to her readers, it deeply bothers me that she also threatens us with our husbands’ overt and physical violence.

His “explosive” reaction to finding you “repugnant” is followed by–

Reaction #2: Reserve

And she makes it clear she doesn’t mean shy. Reserve, she says, is “a wall to protect himself.” And the only possible way we could ever hope to get around this wall is making sure he is:

absolutely certain that his ideas will be met with appreciation . . . the slightest hint of misunderstanding will shatter the illusion and drive him behind his wall of reserve again . . . If [you] indicate that [you] are not the least bit interested, he will wince as if struck by a lash . . . If the girl acts indifferent at such a crisis, she has a heart of stone.

Such is the case with every man . . . He will quickly resume [his reserve] unless he can bask in the full glow of an all-comprehending sympathy . . . the higher the caliber of the man, the more he tends to draw into himself when his pride is hurt . . .

If you detect this reserve in your husband, take measure to eliminate it. If you don’t, he may be tempted to seek the company of another woman.

So, in order for you husband not to view you as “repugnant” or react “explosively,” he must be absolutely certain that you worship the ground he walks on. If you’re confused, or bored, or distracted, you are whipping him with a lash and he’ll cheat on you. This, Helen says, is the inescapable reality of manhood, especially for men of “higher caliber.” She goes on, in the next reactions, to tell us that they’ll also become dishonest, resort to blame-shifting, and start constantly fishing for affirmation.

This is what I meant when I said Helen describes immaturity as a universal, unchanging male constant. Yes, all sorts of people have the kinds of reactions Helen has laid out here. We are all capable of getting our feelings hurt, and doing what we can to protect ourselves. Yes, we are all quite capable of throwing people under the bus and lying our asses off to keep ourselves out of trouble. I’ve even done the whole “fishing-for-compliments-by-belittling-myself” thing. We’re human. We do some ugly, pathetic things.

However, this is not behavior Helen describes as immature, or wrong, or anything. This is not only appropriate, she even says that this should be what we expect from men of higher caliber.

I know I’m reviewing Helen’s book, but this is one of those times when I start thinking “surely this is crazy. Nobody thinks like this anymore.”

Unfortunately, that’s not the case. These sorts of attitudes about men are not only common, they are the dominant narrative concerning men and masculinity in fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism. Men in these circles are consistently painted as base animals. They cannot help themselves. Their reactions are completely and totally outside of their control, and the only arbiters left, the only barrier between themselves and debasement, are chaste, virtuous women. It’s our responsibility, women, to restrain the beast. Men can’t do it on their own. They need us. We commonly see this crop up in any sort of Modesty Rules discussion– “women, we need your help to keep ourselves pure! We can’t help it when we lust after women who are immodestly dressed! It’s just how we are! We’re visual!”

But do women get any sort of the same consideration?

You cannot pour your heart out to him. You must withhold feelings and confessions which would wound his sensitive pride.”

And that is how Helen finishes this chapter. She has quite efficiently done everything she possibly can to make sure that women are permanently silenced. While we sit in rapt attention, hanging on our husbands’ every word, we also have to make sure that we never say or do anything that could possibly be interpreted as a slight to his pride.


it's not the rules that are the problem


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.


objectification, lust, modesty, and… designer brands?


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–


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.