Hatred and Modesty

Greek pottery showing a woman holding a mirror.

Women’s clothing is a favorite pig to roast in the Message. Some preachers, like one “Brother Ron” who frequented youth camps in the early 2000s, would deliberately play the crowd for laughs by mimicking women applying nail polish or mascara. We were supposed to infer from his exaggerated performance that the women who spent time doing those things were vain and superficial. We were told that we believers should be spending our time on better, holier things – like learning how to discreetly shift our weight during five hour sermons in order to restore circulation to our beleaguered behinds and stifle the urgent cries of our bladders without appearing to fidget (because we should be too enraptured in the Holy Ghost to even feel our bladders!).

This mimicry taught us to despise women who spent time on their “outward appearance.” As I’ve mentioned in my story on No Longer Quivering, this did not at all mean that beauty standards in the Message were relaxed. It just became more and more necessary for women to conceal the amount of time they spent primping lest somebody in authority find out and question their hearts. While I was at that same youth camp where painted fingernails, lipstick and mascara were so demonized, I tried (and failed) to sleep in a dorm room where women stayed up until 1:00am wrapping their knee-length hair in curlers and got up at 4am to lock those curls in place with buckets of hairspray. Now that I’ve left the Message, I haven’t met anybody else so dedicated to controlling her locks.

But there is a deeper point here: we were taught to despise those women. To hate them. To look down on them. To think of them as “dog meat,” in Branham’s own words. This, my friends, is how hatred is inculcated in youth. “You are better than these people. You are wiser, deeper, smarter than they are. And that’s because you’re one of us, not them.” This is a very dangerous thought process to initiate. Surely I don’t need to invoke Godwin’s Law to explain the implications of teaching one group that their membership makes them intrinsically better than outsiders?

There are more problems with modesty. My Message pastor taught that there is one reason, and one reason only, why women dress “immodestly” (you know, without sleeves, in pants, in swimsuits, etc.). That reason is to attract men. My pastor used to list women’s common “excuses” not to be modest:

Pants are more comfortable. It’s too hot in the summer to wear a long dress with sleeves. It’s too cold in the winter not to wear pants. I can’t do some of my favorite activities in a skirt. I can’t swim in all that cloth.

Message women love “debunking” these arguments. They love saying that skirts are just as warm in the winter – not that many of them know better, because they haven’t ever tried pants. (By the way, it’s a total myth. Skirts are only as warm as the leggings you wear under them!) But Message pastors also love dismissing them like so much noise.

“Stop lying,” they say. “The real reason you wear small, tight clothes is because you want to present yourself to men as attractive, and in doing so you send them all straight to hell.”

I’ll deal with the issue of women’s supposed responsibility for men’s lust in a later post. For now, let me deal with the dismissal of women’s reasons for wearing the clothing that they wear.

First of all, no pastor – in fact, no man or woman at all – is capable of knowing another person’s motivations. It’s incredibly arrogant for them to dismiss everything a woman says as a pack of lies. They have no reason to believe she is lying, other than the fact that her words contradict what they have already decided to believe.

Second, there is a significant body of academic scholarship dedicated to debunking the idea that women do everything as a performance for men. The “male gaze” is the term for the fact that in our culture, men are primarily understood to be the subject (the person doing the looking) and women are the object (the one being looked at). This is where the term “objectification” comes from. Pay attention to the ads you see the next time you’re out driving, watching TV or even just browsing the web: women’s bodies are used to sell ridiculous things from cars to cologne to beer. Women’s bodies are used not only to sell things to men, but also to women: “You want to look like this” is what the ad tells women. The implied message is “because you want men (the subjects, the ones doing the looking) to approve of the way you look.”

The women’s movement of the 1960s and 70s (and continuing today) fights hard against the idea that women are objects to be looked at. Women wear what they wear because they want to wear it. Maybe they want to look good to themselves. Maybe they want to look put-together for the next job interview. Maybe they want to correct a few perceived flaws like thin eyelashes. Maybe they want to look better in photographs.

But here’s another thought: what if the things women wear aren’t all about how they look?

  • Some women wear bikinis to look attractive. Some wear them because they like the feeling of the sun on their skin and they don’t care if anyone looks at them.
  • Some women wear pants so that they can take longer strides, ride horses or climb walls, not because they want to “usurp male authority.”
  • Some women wear sleeveless dresses because they enjoy the freedom of movement in their arms and find such dresses comfortable in the summer.
  • Some women wear high heels to look attractive, but some women also wear them to appear taller so that people will treat them with more respect.
  • Some women wear nail polish because they enjoy looking down at the different colors and matching them to their outfits, not because men notice them.
  • Some women wear makeup because they like playing with colors on their faces and feeling decked out makes them more confident, not because they want men to perceive them as more sexually desirable.
  • A woman might even want to look attractive to a particular man, but not to all men under all circumstances.

You get the idea. The Message teaches that women are always, always, always constructing their daily lives around the male gaze. Everything they do is to attract men. Women, however, know from experience that it isn’t true. When I wear my swimsuit, it’s about my relationship with the sun, wind and water – it has nothing to do with a creepy lecherous dude who might ogle me as I walk by. (Trust me, they’ll ogle no matter what you wear – I’ve gotten sexually harassed in public more often in sweats and long skirts than I ever have in a swimsuit.) I’ll talk more about the dangers of the belief that women’s clothing has power over men’s behavior when I tackle Branham’s disfigurement of Matthew 5:28.

Daughter of the Patriarchy, epilogue: What does leaving fundamentalism look like?
Activism fatigue and the work of changing minds
Sexism, Judgment Day and Forgetting as a Survival Skill
The Fistfight Fallacy: rape culture's ahistorical premise

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