Women’s Bodies Are Not Male Commodities

Yesterday I came upon two interesting blog posts that discuss the way men’s absolute fixation on women’s bodies undermines their ability to see women as anything other than objects for their consumption, gets in the way of women being valued for their talents, interests, or achievements, and results in the policing of women’s bodies and activities. One of these bloggers used The Modesty Survey to write about evangelical Christianity’s modesty doctrine while the other used a the reception of a Doctor Who fan’s TARDIS dress to write about the fixation on women’s bodies in secular cultured.

Reading these two posts in tandem was fascinating and thought provoking. I’m going to quote briefly from each to give you the basic idea, but I’d highly recommend reading both in their entirety (they’re each lengthy but well written).

First, The Story of Me and Modesty, on Tell Me Why the World Is Weird. In this post blogger PerfectNumber recounts the effect the The Modesty Survey had on her when she read while growing up in a conservative Christian community:

So I read and analyzed these results, paying particular attention to the statements that the majority of those guys agreed with, trying to figure out how I could modify my lifestyle to accommodate all this.

Okay, can we just stop and look at what we’re doing here and how COMPLETELY MESSED-UP it is?

So we’re asking a bunch of horny teenage boys to fill out a survey to describe in vivid detail their sexual fantasies and what turns them on, so that the girls can take detailed notes and structure their lives to avoid those things.

Right, because male sexuality is absolute truth. Whatever a horny teenage boy thinks when he looks at a random woman is clearly the authoritative perspective on the matter.

Is there no room to say, “Sorry, but you’re wrong. When you saw me bend over and pick something up, you thought I was doing it to show off my butt, but you’re wrong. You’re wrong.” No, instead “modesty culture” teaches that if men have misconceptions about whether I’m dressing to “flaunt my body” then I’d better change how I dress so they don’t assume that. The horny guy’s perception of the situation is the only one that matters.

For every single question, there were a few that thought that the item in question was “immodest.” And from reading some of the comments that explained their answers, I found out what that meant. As it turns out, no matter what I wear, some minority of guys out there is raping me in their heads.

No longer was I worried about “causing a brother to stumble.” I was horrified at the idea that no matter what I wore, it was going to “cause” some guy to think about raping me. That is completely evil and offensive and 55 levels of NOT OKAY. No longer was I interested in modesty because I wanted to “help” the guys- no, I wanted to save my own dignity and not be thought of as a sex object.

And I remember looking at the survey results over and over again, trying to make sense out of any of it. … What to do, what to do?

There were mornings I wanted to wear a cute little shirt (not tight or revealing- except that it reveals the fact that I am a girl) but chose a loose t-shirt instead. Because, I had been taught, “Is looking great in that sexy outfit really more important to you than your Christian brothers’ staying out of sin?” Let me repeat: My cute and feminine clothes were NOT “sexy.” But since I want to help out the boys as much as I can – Jesus says we’re supposed to sacrifice our own desires and help others – sometimes I guilted myself into wearing a dumb-looking shirt.

There were times in church, I was enjoying the worship music and careful not to move my legs too much, because it might make guys think about my butt. There were times I was in a public place looking for a water fountain, and I walked farther than necessary so I could find one with fewer people around- fewer people to look at my butt when I bent over. And one time, a group of friends (including a few boys) wanted to video-chat on Skype, but I had pajamas on, so of course I said no.

The turning point for me was when I challenged the idea that “Is looking great in that sexy outfit really more important to you than your Christian brothers’ staying out of sin?”- in other words, no matter how great the personal cost to me, I should cover up in order to help the boys. NO! Sometimes the cost is too great.

So I’m done. I’m going to wear what I want to wear.

[read the whole thing]

Next, Treat Her Like a TARDIS Princess! by Sara Lin Wilde:

A smiling woman, Sasha Trabane, wears a ballgown made to look like the TARDIS from Doctor Who. She shows off the hand-painted inner panel for the camera.

First things first: Sasha Trabane is awesome. Let it be stated explicitly and firmly and without qualification. She’s awesome.

This is the girl who created the above absolutely stunning ‘TARDIS Princess’ formal gown, complete with phone-box label, windows, and – best of all – a pull-back panel that reveals how, as Doctor Who fans know, the interior of the TARDIS is bigger than the outside.

So she’s creative. She’s talented. She’s devoted to the fandom she loves, which is a hugely positive quality as far as I’m concerned. …

Except for some jerks on the Internet, it’s not about that. It’s about whether she looks pretty enough in her dress to get a thumbs-up for her efforts. …

As the poster on Tumblr points out, it’s a good object lesson for us silly girls out there: “Remember, ladies: your pursuits are meaningless if you can’t express them in a way that’s sexually pleasing to all men.”

… But the problem is, Sasha didn’t do it to be sexy or please the male onlooker or make boys like her better. She did it for her own reasons, which in and of itself is awesome, because too many women in our culture buy into the idea that they’re supposed to put all their effort into pleasing male eyes, and it’s a near-ubiquitous message that’s not easy to shake off.

But sexist dudes can’t accept the possibility that maybe this is a woman who didn’t make that dress to please their eyes or tickle their dicks. It’s a form of sexism that makes me blind-raging-mad. If Sasha were a man, she could create whatever amazing thing she wanted to honour her passion for Doctor Who (or Firefly, or My Little Pony, or whatever) and people by and large would focus exclusively on the merits of her creation. But because she’s a woman, sexist pigs can’t separate the value of what she’s made or done from the question of whether she’s appropriately ornamental, because that is what a woman is supposed to be – an ornament that either pleases the male gaze or gets discarded as defective.

[read the whole thing]

The longer I’m out of evangelical culture the more I think the differences between it and mainstream culture, at least when it comes to gender, are vastly exaggerated. It’s also becoming clearer why evangelical culture’s emphasis on modesty proves attractive to so many: while it ultimately fails in its goals (as PerfectNumber points out so well), the oft-stated ideal is for women to be seen not as sex objects to be drooled over but as valuable daughters of God. Modesty offers an allure of protection and elevation even as it ultimately fails women by leading only to further objectification.

Let me finish with two things. First, we women neither exist to serve as objects for male consumption nor choose how we dress solely (or even usually) for the benefit of men. And second, reading this sort of thing impresses on me once again how much without hyperbole that old feminist slogan is. “Feminism is the radical idea that women are people.” Why yes, yes it is.

A Letter from Hell, and Self-Reinforcing Beliefs
Red Town, Blue Town
On Orgies, Bisexuality, James Dobson, and Evangelicals
A Matter of Patriarchy
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Sarah-Sophia

    I must be missing something because that dress doesn’t look sexy to me.

    • J. J. Ramsey

      I gather that you mean that the dress doesn’t appear to be designed to be a “sexy” costume. If that’s what you mean, then I agree. It looks to me like it’s designed to be a fun and clever homage to Doctor Who. Whether Ms. Trabane looks hawt in that dress is totally beside the point, and judging her on hawtness seems like a tremendous amount of point-missage.

      • Nimue

        SUCH A COOL DRESS!! I am kind of in awe. Also, I have just enough sewing skills to know that that dress is way too complicated for me to make, so I’m pretty impressed with her on that part, too.

    • Nebuladance

      That is exactly the point.
      The dress was never about being sexy, but the people who commented on it were ONLY concerned with how sexy it did, or did not, make her look. They were not interested in the fandom, the craftsmanship of the article, the artistry in the inside panel, or the sheer dedication such a project must have taken. Their sole concern was how the dress made her look.

    • Rae

      Well, the article is missing something a bit – the nature of many of the comments.

      They weren’t just “this isn’t sexy enough” as in that the dress needed to be lower cut or anything. They were “she’s too fat to wear something like that” or “I don’t want to see that.” They weren’t just shaming her for not being appealing *enough* like she was in some neutral “meh” space, they were shaming her for being *unappealing* to them. They were complaining that she wasn’t covered up enough.

      And, interestingly, that’s an approach I have actually seen some people – again, mostly men – approach the modesty doctrine from, the “ew cover up!” mentality. Where they’re telling some people to wear “modest” clothes because if they don’t cover up their bodies they’re too sexually attractive, yet they’re telling other people to wear “modest” clothes because they don’t want to see bodies that are sexually UNattractive to them, either. It’s an amazingly gross, fat-phobic double standard there.

  • ako

    I expect that a great many sexist guys will continue to misconstrue the problem with their behavior over the TARDIS dress. Because they persistently refuse to get that it isn’t about their feelings of attraction (there’s nothing wrong or unfeminist about not finding Sasha Trabane attractive – I think she’s very attractive, but it’s a matter of personal taste), but about making attractiveness central. So no matter how many people point out that the problem is them ignoring everything else about her in favor of their feelings about her attractiveness, they keep going “Feminists have a problem with what I said? They must be demanding that I feel attracted to the fat girl!” Because the idea that a woman, especially a woman who is publicly visible, isn’t defined by her attractiveness to men is unthinkable.

    I read the Modesty Survey back when it first came out, and had this weird moment of anxiety as I thought about how impractical all of the restrictions on movements would be. Fortunately, I was raised in the sort of environment where “You are responsible for other people’s sexual thoughts, and have a moral obligation to not inspire them” wasn’t taken seriously, so I shrugged it off and continued to stretch, bend, carry messenger bags, climb fences, and generally live like a free person.

    • http://noadi.etsy.com Noadi

      Yeah. They are totally missing that the point is that it is an amazing dress that a lot of time and love of Doctor Who went into. Their opinion on how attractive she is JUST DOESN’T MATTER whether it’s favorable to her or not. BTW, I would love to have a dress like that and I don’t even like wearing dresses, it’s just so cool.

      • http://abasketcase.blogspot.com Basketcase

        I saw this on my friends Facebook feed, and all I thought was “OMG that is SUCH an awesome dress”. Which is what the photo is about. The model has no bearing on it being a seriously cool piece of costume.
        Thankfully, when I showed DH the photo, he said the same thing – that is one cool dress. So angry at these men who need to put her down because she is “larger than they like”

  • http://tellmewhytheworldisweird.blogspot.com/ perfectnumber628

    Thanks for linking to my post, Libby Anne! ^_^

    Also that tardis dress is awesome. Wow.

  • Karen

    This gives me a chance to brag on my 14 year old son, who is an enthusiastic member of the Bowie High School Dr. Who Club. I posted that picture on my Facebook page. Andy shared it with his only comment being “Awesome dress.” He thanked me for showing the picture and discussed the artistry required to design and construct the dress.

    • Mogg

      I showed the photo to my boyfriend with nothing other than “You have to see this photo.” His immediate reaction was “That is AWESOME!” followed by “A lot of work and care went into that.”

      Your son sounds like a great kid, with excellent taste in television :-)

  • Jason Dick

    When I saw that Tardis dress a few days ago, I thought it was really inventive and fantastic. But it also made me think of this song (Content advisory: excessive use of the word “vagina”):

  • Christine

    I think part of it is the whole “there’s no geek girls” myth – so of course she can’t actually be into Doctor Who. Girls only dress up like that to get guys’ attention. Of course, if she was considered attractive by those guys they’d complain that she was appropriating geek culture to get a guy.

    I have always found conventional attitudes towards women’s bodies to be very confusing. And it drives me crazy that the standard response to weight concerns (I’ve been having a few issues with babyweight, and have discussed it a couple of times with close friends) is “Oh, but you look fine.” That has NOTHING to do with what I said, why does weight = looking fat?

    • http://equalsuf.wordpress.com Jayn

      Cosplay seems to have a way of hitting all the possible insecurities a woman might have, especially when dressing up as a particular female because so many of the outfits are revealing and designed for conventionally thin bodies. I have a couple costumes myself that make me self-conscious (even though I love them) because they show off my mid-riff and have short skirts. And I don’t have the added baggage of being a larger woman.

      You might be right about the idea of women not being geeks. Cosplay seems to have myriad ways of erasing female geeks. If you’re thin and wearing something revealing, you’re just faking it to get attention. If you’re wearing something not so revealing, you might find yourself sidelined from photo-ops or cropped out later. If you’re not thin and wearing anything, go away because the menz don’t want you here.

      On a final note, I cannot get over how awesome that Tardis dress is.

      • Carys Birch

        I /love/ cosplay. I don’t participate in it anymore, because I can’t win… there is no way to be a non-thin woman and not be doing it wrong in the eyes of almost everyone there — men AND women. I’m as thin as I’ve ever been as an adult right now, and most of the time I feel pretty happy with my body, but I don’t have a super high tolerance for ridicule. Geeks can be really cruel and hostile to the out group. Which is sad and ironic.

    • Snipe

      I wish more people would understand that weight issues do not equal looking fat. I’ve been struggling with losing that last fifteen pounds for a while, so I know what you mean.

  • Marlena

    The comments on twitter about Sasha completely miss the point that she is an incredible dressmaker, who deserved the prizes she won for that costume. I was lucky enough to see it in person and it looked even better live.

  • TheSeravy

    Thanks for covering this topic Libby! This kind of objectification (I find) is especially bad on the internet where people feel safe behind their computers. Oh the Youtube comments. I do give those sexist bastards credit for the ability to pervert everything performed by a woman into a way to please them sexually… or fit in a kitchen joke. I distinctly remember this one video about a girl who is trying to beat her own record for stacking. Top comments were all crude jokes about fast hands and penis. And that girl was YOUNG (like 12 or 13 young). This kind of stuff hardly ever happens on video with men in them. It pisses me off so much to see women degraded for their accomplishments. Children have to grow up around this BS.

  • Nurse Bee

    I think that dress is awesome! And even as a Christian, I thought the so-called modesty survey was completely inappropriate and disgusting (one of my “favorites” was a girl/women wearing a purse across her…b/c of course we do that to call attention to our chest, not to keep our hands free or discourage purse snatchers).

  • http://ripeningreason.com/ Rachel Marcy (Bix)

    Isn’t policing modesty already a form of immodesty? How is it modest for teenage boys to ponder, in specific detail, girls’ bodies and scrutinize their clothing choices?

    Also, the dress is really cool. That’s very clever and skillful.

    • Christine

      Pretty much. Here’s that opinion from someone who believes in encouraging modesty: http://www.ncregister.com/blog/simcha-fisher/how-to-be-immodest-about-modesty

      She isn’t, however, from what I can tell here, part of the “modesty culture” that Libby and others complain about – the specific problematic aspects are absent. However the version of modesty that she encourages makes it easier for the harmful modesty culture to sound reasonable.

  • jose

    I have a question concerning marriage. There’s an essential distinction between the spouses: the woman can get pregnant and pregnancy is always a big deal. Even if you use condoms and birth control, you never know. The husband doesn’t need to worry because he never gets pregnant. So unless intercourse stops taking place at all, there’s a layer of inequality there, inequality enforced by the husband by creating the chance of pregnancy.

    I can see the “consent” response incoming. But my problem with this is independent from consent. If the wife consents, that just means she’s validating the inequity—or worse, caving to it. The sex-based difference in what can happen doesn’t depend on whether you consent or not. It’s still there.

    The only solution I can think of to overcome this structural inequality is to completely give up intercourse. And why not? After all it’s not like there aren’t other things in store to have fun, right?

    • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ M

      Yes of course people are going to respond to you with “but consent”. Women can truly consent to sex. Yes, there’s a risk of pregnancy, but as long as both parties know what will happen with an unplanned pregnancy (my husband and I had this discussion before the first time we slept together, back when we started dating), there isn’t really any inequity. Sure, biologically, the woman bears the risks, but consent means she agrees to that risk as well.

      That doesn’t mean she agrees to have a baby, of course. It means she agrees to relationship-affirming sex, fun sex, kinky sex, and/or whatever sex, and also to the (hopefully) very small chance of an unplanned pregnancy that she will then deal with. Biological differences don’t have to mean inequality.

      • jose

        “Sure, biologically, the woman bears the risks, but consent means she agrees to that risk as well.”

        Yes that’s my point. The relationship is not equal. Biology prevents it for as long as the chance of pregnancy is on the table. Whether this inequality is agreed upon or not doesn’t make it equal. You don’t get rid of something by agreeing with it. You’re still at risk and he is not. Let me emphasize pregnancy is a big deal. No minor annoyance we’re talking about. That’s a difference between the spouses in which the wife is always on the losing end.

        Compare this to a lesbian couple and the problem is evident.

      • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

        jose – I think the problem you suggest is solved by free and ready access to birth control and abortion.

    • Anat

      Equality does not require sameness or identity. There are many approaches to equality and fairness. Sometimes it’s enough to apply the same rules to everyone, sometimes it is better to compensate for historical or inherent differences, sometimes it is better to enforce an equal outcome. Promoting an equal outcome that neither ‘side’ wants doesn’t look like a good idea. Making as many means available for preventing or undoing that which is a major factor of the inequality works better.

      The couple that is having piv sex, whether for pleasure or procreation, is working towards a shared goal. And yes, one partner shoulders a significantly heavier burden. It would be a good idea for the couple to remember that when they consider all their other contributions to their partnership. Or do you think the only equal relationship is the one in which every single effort is split exactly in half between the two?

  • http://beholdconfusion.wordpress.com/ Sara

    I read the Modesty survey a couple of months ago and was floored by the results. Worse were the comments men made about how women who dressed “immodestly” (I’m putting that in quotes because “wearing the zipper on your coat half way unzipped, therefore making your boobs more prominent, was considered immodest, the silliest standard I have ever heard). They talked about how these women had no respect for themselves and were actively looking to make the men around them “stumble.” I wrote about the modest survey on my blog when my anger was fresh. http://beholdconfusion.wordpress.com/2012/09/10/where-to-begin/

  • Holly

    All of the complainers should have submitted a head shot to the TARDIS dress lady to see if she had any interest in attracting any of them in the first place.