I remember settling down for what I thought would be a normal (boring) day in my afternoon class, The Nature of the Church, only to be unpleasantly surprised by a lecture on modesty. This was more than a lecture; it was an accusation addressed solely to women. I listened with growing rage as the professor – who looked deceptively wise because of his white hair and matching beard - listed the specific fashion trends he found offensive and immoral. He followed this list with instructions for what specific “worship movements” were inappropriate. I’m sure you don’t mean to be a distraction, but you should really think about where attention is being drawn when you’re jumping up and down during worship. He all but suggested we wear bed sheets and sit in the corner without making any sudden movements as they might be mistaken as sensual.
At the time, I did not know how to respond to his indictment, but now that I am several years older and wiser, I would like to offer a rebuttal. My rebuttal is not addressed to only this particular professor because this was certainly not the first time I had heard teachings on modesty; it was just the first time it made me mad. As a young girl my skirts were measured, my necklines tested, and the tightness of my clothes evaluated. When I became a young woman I was lectured on my spiritual duty to be modest. Men are sexual beings, I was told. They are visually stimulated and it’s very difficult for them to control themselves. Thus it is your responsibility to dress modestly in order to keep them from stumbling. Dressing immodestly was beyond distasteful; it forced men to think about sex. My body was dangerous; it had the power to steal a man’s thoughts from God! So of course I was more than willing to reject the many blacklisted articles of clothing and physical movements.
One of the main reasons why I was angered by this professor’s rant was he never addressed my male peers. He is not the only one who fails to address the other sex. Here is what is said to Christian men on the subject: Oh yeah and you guys dress modestly too. Don’t take off your shirt while you’re working out. Talk of spiritual duty or threat of constant inspections were absent from their instructions. In fact the one practical rule they were given was never enforced. If I decided to whore it up and run on the treadmill in my sports bra, I would be told immediately to go put on some real clothes and would later receive some measure of discipline. On the other hand if a young man was caught lifting weights without a shirt, nothing was said. After all it was just the male body; there is nothing offensive about that, no sensuous curves or slender delicacy to take in. Only the female body is understood to produce evil, not the male body. Thus both the standards and the measures taken to uphold them promote inequality.
Consider this: in no other cases of over-indulgence or addiction is it acceptable to blame anyone but the individual who cannot control themselves. Can an obese person blame food? Can an alcoholic blame liquor? Can a shopaholic blame vendors? Can a pedophile blame children? No, of course not! But when it comes to a man’s inability to control his sexual desires, women are to blame. Let me be clear. I am not angry at modesty. I am not even suggesting that Christian women should start revealing more skin. Each woman should dress according to her level of comfort because the conservative teachings on modesty are discriminatory and thus invalid for two reasons.
First of all, singling out women in modest charges assumes only men have sexual desires. News flash: women are also sexual beings - even CHRISTIAN women! Just because they sometimes desire sex in different ways, does not mean they desire it less. They think sexual thoughts and dream sexual dreams. They too look admiringly and even lustfully at male bodies and use these images to imagine a sexual encounter. So, if Christianity is going to insist that it is a woman’s duty to keep the sexual desires of men in check, then it must also insist (with equal conviction) that it is a man’s duty to keep the sexual desires of women in check. Let’s just be honest here: Good luck with that! Enjoy the pressures of trying to control someone else’s mind.
Lastly, modesty is completely subjective. There is no absolute standard even within one particular culture. So to require women to conform to the varying and often contradictory “modesty” definitions of all Christian males is maddening! Some men find the lower back sensual while others could care less about that area and are more interested in a woman’s neck or her legs or her breasts. The only way to make everyone happy is to dress in a burka, but even this is unsuccessful. In cultures where women keep their body completely covered in loose fabric, adultery and promiscuity still occur regularly. (In her book Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali notes the occurrences of honor killings in Somalia, Ethiopia, Holland, and all over the world. Honor killings occur when a young Muslim woman is killed by the men in her family because she has brought shame on them by losing her virginity before marriage or committing adultery. Hirsi Ali also notes that a number of young women kill themselves because of related “sins.”) By contrast one might wonder why there are no reports of female Christian missionaries being sexually violated by the indigenous men of the Ecuadorian jungles. After all according to conservative American teachings, these men who see women walk around in almost nothing ought to be sex-crazed animals. So because the standards are impossibly illusive and even the most extreme measures are not good enough, all women should be free to dress as they feel comfortable without fearing an ill-reputation or scathing rebuke.
Women must be released from the impossible burden of keeping men from sin. The definition of modesty is ever-evasive and too often controlled by the men who are too weak or too lazy to take responsibility for themselves. There is nothing evil or shameful about the female body which would require it to be hidden in the manner often suggested. Women who are criticized for not covering enough of their sensuous curves or are denied the identity of a sexual creature, may take solace in the fact that they are not alone but more importantly, that they are not the problem.