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