The Duggar Family Doesn’t Go to the Beach, and Why That’s Bad for Their Kids

This just in from the Department of Unintended Irony: Michelle Duggar makes a public statement about modesty, just to be sure you know how modest they are – too modest for the beach – in case you were straining your neck looking for their modest stairstep children in the crowd while you immodestly sunned your heathen midriff. After all, they’re so modest, they wouldn’t want you thinking and worrying about them too much!

Michelle Duggar poses with her family in the hospital after delivering a baby.

Michelle Duggar: We Don’t Wear Shorts – Or Go to the Beach!

[UPDATE 7/1/12: The above link is apparently not working. You can still read Michelle Duggar's blog post, however, here: Michelle Duggar on Modesty and Bathing Suits.]

Okay, guys, I’m turning off my snark filter. Really. It’s starting to overheat.

Before I go any further, you may be interested in checking out Libby Anne’s post Carefully Scripted Lives: My concerns about the Duggars. I am going to talk a bit below about isolation and doctrines of modesty and purity, two things that Libby Anne explains alongside the other less savory bits of the Duggars’ lifestyle. If you’re not familiar with the Christian patriarchy movement, that post should put the rest of my post in context for you.

Back to Michelle Duggar’s words.

This kind of article infuriates me. It does. I start chugging smoke out of my nostrils and seeing the world with an extra shiny pink tint, like a greasy undercooked steak. Is it because the idea of broadcasting your modesty to the world via a platform given to you by your televangelism (oh, excuse me, “reality show”) is stunningly hypocritical? Is it because of the obvious doublespeak pouring out of Michelle Duggar’s mouth when she claims that she doesn’t judge anyone else for their immodesty, but that God says exposed thighs mean nakedness and shame? Is it because the very act of setting yourself apart – and calling attention to your religious motives for doing so – is an inherently judgmental act? Yes, all of the above. But there’s one more thing.

The Duggars are denying their children their only opportunity to see real bodies.

Little girls have a hard enough time not hating their bodies without the modesty doctrine.

Michelle Duggar is worried about inciting lust in others, and about her sons lusting after other women on the beach. What she doesn’t seem to realize is that the beach and public pool are some of the world’s least sexy environments.

You know who goes to the beach? Everyone. From babies to octogenarians. People in all states of health, age, physical fitness, ability or disability, pregnancy, hairy or shiny, small or large, attractive or unattractive. That’s why I love it. What you see at the beach is real humanity, not the glossy, smoothed out images that scream “SEX!” from billboards. Real people. Michelle should be more worried about her young children staring rudely at people’s scars, cellulite, psoriasis and stretch marks than getting turned on at the beach.

The Boys:

Some fundamentalist men enter marriage without even knowing that women have underarm and pubic hair.

By keeping her sons out of the pool and off the beach, away from real women in bathing suits, what Michelle’s doing is setting them up for even more lust, followed by disappointment with and judgment of their wives.

As much as the Duggars will conspicuously turn away from magazines at the grocery store check-out aisle, they simply can’t shield their sons from picking up the falsified images of women on billboards, on flyers in the mail, on buses in cities, in storefronts, on the walls of malls they drive past – in short, everywhere. Jim Bob and Michelle may think that they’ve created an environment that’s totally sheltered from such influences, but I bet you could already get one of their toddlers to draw you a picture of a woman in a bikini if there was nobody around to stop him. Short of locking their kids on the ranch with a high-voltage fence, Hunger Games style, the Duggar parents can’t prevent their kids from seeing sexualized images of photoshopped naked women.

What they can do is make sure those are the only images of women their boys see until their wedding nights. They might be told that women don’t really look like that, but how should they know? They aren’t even allowed to see their sisters or mother in real swimsuits. How can you take a falsified image of female beauty and replace it with a healthy one when you aren’t allowed to see real people? How do you learn to appreciate real women’s bodies despite (or, heaven forfend, because of) their deviations from the standard? I would not want to be a bride facing her husband for the first time and knowing that he’s never seen a woman with “imperfections.”

The Girls:

An idealized female form.

By keeping her daughters out of the pool and off the beach, away from real women in bathing suits, what Michelle’s doing to her daughters is setting them up for a life of shame and self-hatred. 

What goes for the boys also goes for the girls. How are they supposed to combat those same photoshopped, sexualized images and value their own bodies under those circumstances? They are fighting the body image battle alone. They are surrounded by touched-up photos of seamless, lumpless, hairless divas and their only counterexample is the bathroom mirror. Contrary to what most parents who teach the modesty doctrine want to believe, modesty does not erase competition or comparison. It just removes your frame of reference. Even now, after I’ve worked through most of my body image issues and no longer torment myself by withdrawing from food, going to the pool is an incredible release of pressure to me. I get there, sit around with normal people, notice the features that look like mine, and feel good. Like I’m normal. Just another human girl.

Women who don’t see other women end up imagining that they really all look flawless under their clothes. Because, let’s face it, clothes are deceptive. Even if they aren’t trying to be sexy, clothes create a mystery. How would a Duggar girl know if one of her sisters has asymmetrical breasts? How would a Duggar girl know that her underarm hair is normal? It’s not like they’re free to sit around and talk about their bodies like that. They’re almost as isolated from one another’s bodies as they are from the bodies on the beach. When the mind can’t replace that blank space with a real human body, it imagines the closest thing it can find: that fake image.

Growing up in “modest dress” was a profoundly lonely and insecure experience for me. I felt like a freak of nature when I saw women on billboards, magazines, and TV shows. I thought my muscles – my very source of power! – were ugly. I shaved the hair off my arms thinking it was too masculine. Eventually, I starved myself, too. Even skinny, I couldn’t figure out why I still had certain bulges that wouldn’t conform to the Standard Female Body. The only real women I saw were decked out in their most flattering outfits – even if they were skimpy, they managed to conceal any idiosyncrasies. I was literally convinced that I was the only girl in the world with stretch marks on her thighs and visible triceps (I didn’t even know what triceps were called!).

So let’s put two and two together now. Suppose a Modest Christian Girl marries a Modest Christian Boy. She brings all that insecurity into the marriage. He brings all his unfair expectations of her body. What could possibly go wrong?

The Dugggars aren’t just practicing one of their weird religious rituals. They’re actively isolating their children and implicitly training them to feel both superior and hopelessly insecure. They’re raising entitled boys with unrealistic expectations of their wives, and girls convinced that their bodies are flawed. Do I think the whole family is going to develop eating disorders or have horrible wedding nights? No, of course not. Do I think isolation hurts kids? Absolutely.

Respect

Perhaps the worst outcome of all is that both sexes of children are learning that people who expose their bodies at the beach do not deserve respect. Because Michelle and Jim Bob are fixated on keeping their children sheltered from raw humanity, the kids are receiving the message that imperfect bodies must be hidden (although fake, “perfect” bodies are everywhere to see). They are also learning that superiority that Michelle denies. Isolation does this almost by default. If you feel lonely and ostracized, you make up reasons why that makes you better than the crowd. And as a Duggar child, you don’t have to reach far to get hold of “sin” as the tool for defining the people you’re set apart from.

Boys are learning that women who go to the beach and wear swimsuits are trying to attract male lust, are “easy,” are immoral and unworthy of respect. They learn that men at the beach are there to gawk at women, are depraved and weak and unworthy of respect.
Girls are learning that women who go to the beach and wear swimsuits are trying to attract male lust, are insecure, weak and unworthy of respect. They learn that men at the beach are there to gawk at them, that they are just waiting to be “defrauded” and are bound for hell. Again, unworthy of respect.

The common thread is that both of them are judging others (yes, usually women) on their presence at the beach and choice of clothes. Real substantive measurements there, huh?

The beach and the pool are learning opportunities.

It’s good for children to experience a place where their bodies don’t attract particular attention, where they can learn to relate to others without always thinking about sex. Where they can see all kinds of bodies at all stages of life and feel less ashamed of themselves for being human. Where boys can learn to interact with girls as people, respectfully. Where girls can experience not having their bodies gawked or whistled at.

The pool is my favorite place to be. I’ve never been sexually harassed there. Even though there are lots of people around, it’s just me, my body, the water and the sun. The other people around me, relaxing contentedly, just add to the feeling of peace and happiness. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to feeling like part of a community of simple shared humanity. We’re people, we like to be warm and splash around a little. That’s all we need to know.

See also this great post on why body image matters.

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  • Joyce (Nickelini)

    Another interesting article. I guess that means that they don’t know how to swim either. (Growing up surrounded by water, I can’t comprehend not teaching everyone to swim. There’s no downside to acquiring that skill, but lots of upside.)

    On a related clothing note, last night my family watched the US women’s gymnastic Olympic qualifying event, and thought about how “modest” families couldn’t watch this, let alone participate. Sure, the girls wear too much makeup, and their leotards are sparkly, but there is nothing sexual about their performance–just strength and skill. But I guess they can’t even play soccer–heaven forbid someone sees a few inches of knee between the shorts and the socks.

    It’s just sadly unnecessary.

    • Liberated Liberal

      My mother grew up on the beaches in Naples. They went to the beach every single day they could get away with it and said many times she couldn’t comprehend life away from the water (and then ended up living in the middle of Nevada :| ). Anyway, she and all 6 of her siblings never learned how to swim! It’s fascinating.

      Anyway, evil soccer! :P

  • http://azizatunafsiha.wordpress.com Saliha

    “What she doesn’t seem to realize is that the beach and public pool are some of the world’s least sexy environments.”

    I disagree, strongly. That presumes that normal human bodies are not sexually appealing. I’ve never been around people who were so concerned with these issues that they lived in the kind of sheltered environment that you say the Duggars have made for their children, but human beings are attracted to other human beings. Stretch marks, cellulite, defined muscles, pimples and the variety of other expressions of human bodies do not make us sexually unappealing no matter what the magazines tell us.

    I live in SoCal, when I go to the beach I see LOTS of people from college youth to parents and grandparents who could very well have just walked off a magazine shoot. I also see plenty of young men and women checking each other out in spite of a little cellulite or some pimples and certainly visible muscles aren’t a turn off, quite the opposite. Even if I didn’t live in the land of the preternaturally beautiful, though, I don’t think most healthy people find other healthy bodies sexually unappealing just because they don’t look like photoshopped
    imitations of real people.

    • http://nonprophetmessage.wordpress.com Sierra

      My point wasn’t that normal bodies aren’t attractive, but that most people at the beach aren’t there to check out the opposite sex. They’re there with family or kids or a romantic partner or a particular group of friends.
      My other point was that at the beach or pool, there is an understanding that you don’t harass people. Lifeguards will kick out troublemakers if they start acting inappropriately. This disproves the idea that immodesty = uncontrollable sex.

    • Steve

      And yet, people on nude beaches somehow aren’t aroused all the time. Or tribal people where women walk around topless. If you see people naked all the time you simply get used to it

  • http:.//thisbitchwontshutup.blogspot.com EEB

    Great post!

    I would add that we are all swimming in the rape culture, and that this philosophy does nothing to help her girls or boys navigate those deadly waters. She might think she’s being all culturally revolutionary, but really, she’s just taking the base assumptions much of society has about female sexuality and amplifying them to their logical conclusion. Girls incite lust in boys, and it’s their fault. Boys are helpless against this sexual onslaught, and must be protected at all cost. This is profoundly screwed up. This is exactly the attitude that leads to my friend getting angry at my brother’s girlfriend after they moved in together (not at my brother, oh no, how dare a boy be held accountable for his sexual actions) because she destroyed his purity, she didn’t do her job as sexual gatekeeper and keep her legs shut, and how could my brother resist that?* And this is the attitude that leads to, “She was wearing a short skirt; what did she expect?” This leads to veiwing women who have sex as damaged, used goods, and morally worthless, which is why non-virgins have a harder time getting a DA to go forward with a rape trial, much less ever hope of a conviction.

    On on broader level, you’re absolutely right that this is going to lead to marriage trouble. I have seen on more occassions than I’d like a marital affair get blammed on the women involved. Yeah, okay, there might be some frowns over the guy’s behavior, but “it takes two to tango” in fundamentalist or evangelical circles refers to, in my experience, the wife and the “other woman” while the husband as viewed as a helpless victim of his sexual urges. The other woman enticed him, off course, but if his wife was doing her job–and, let’s be clear, Michelle Duggar is implicitly teaching her girls that their sexuality is entirely for their future husbands, that being immodest or sexual is bad because they are giving away something that belongs to him, and also explicitly teaches marriage courses that tell women to always give in to their husband’s physical advances –the husband would never have strayed in the first place.

    You know, at first I kind of laughed this off when I saw it, kind of shuddered with a “glad I’m not involved in that anymore” sigh of relief, but after reading what you said and giving this some thought, I am boiling mad, too. Yeah, her kids, some of them, might escape from this damaging worldview in the future, but they can never escape the kind of wounds these teachings inflict. The girls will always have to fight body shame and insecurity, and the boys will always have to work to overcome the beliefs of entitlement and excuses for bad behavior, even if they grow to embrace equality or even a secular worldview. You can make the decision to walk away from your parent’s beliefs, but you can’t really ever undo the indocrtination that colors how you view gender. (I’m not saying people can’t change, just that it’s very hard, and you have to fight what becomes instinct; ;you don’t even realize half the time that you’re having those thoughts.)

    * I may have some issues with my brother’s girlfriend, but I am very happy that he had a sexual relationship with a strong, self-assured woman that he loves before getting married. Before her, the only female bodies he saw were, as you said, the airbrushed, perfect images from advertising and the porn he suck with his friends. His girlfriend is a beautiful but very real girl, with flab and hair and a strong personality. When he gets married, whether to this girl or another woman he meets, he’ll go knowing what women’s bodies are really like, knowing that girls have a sex drive, too, knowing that sex doesn’t dirty or ruin women. Luckily, she was healhty enough to kind of walk him through his initial bullshit expectations of gender roles; no, that shouldn’t have been her responsibility–she had to undo damage that was done by my folks and our church–but she loved him enough to do it, and I’m grateful for that.

  • Contrarian

    Some fundamentalist men enter marriage without even knowing that women have underarm and pubic hair.

    Wow. If it’s true, I bet it’s because in porn, most women have removed pubic and underarm hair.

  • Liberated Liberal

    Great points, all around.

    The most secure I’d ever felt about my body was when I spent my last summer in Italy. After spending some time on the more affluent beaches of California, my self-image wasn’t extraordinarily good, but in Italy, bodies were more normal. People don’t even approve of exercise over there, so you saw what real bodies without hours in the gym and without plastic surgery look like. It felt good! I exposed my cellulite and stretch marks proudly those weeks!

    I also vehemently recommend nudist beaches and figure drawing. The nudist beaches simply normalize human bodies – the way it should be, honestly. I don’t seek them out, but I go if they’re there. Figure drawing simply pulls you out of judgment quickly. Bodies that we tend to judge as being not up to modern beauty standards can create the most astounding drawings/paintings. You begin to see the beauty in every male and female form. The beauty is there, the artist has the task of bringing it to life on paper. You also appreciate the courage and self-acceptance the model has to be in that position, and it’s simply heart-warming.

  • Steve

    You focused mostly on body image, but forgot another thing:

    In a way they sexualize people even more than secular society. They ascribe sexual meanings to body parts and actions that aren’t sexual to normal people. And by giving their kids no outlet, they are obsessed with sex all the more. If you’re told to not think something, of course you’ll eventually think about it. It’s impossible to turn off these thoughts entirely. At least not without severe psychological damage. They aren’t allowed to masturbate either, so it all builds up over time. It’s probably why so many fundamentalist churches are so obsessed with sex.

    • http://nonprophetmessage.wordpress.com Sierra

      I agree. I was afraid that if I started going down that route, my post would be even more of a TL;DR than it already is. Glad you brought it up! :D

  • Anonymous

    They seem obsessed about s-x but in a different way. Yea girls and guys will get checked out at the beach. It is just human nature. I am not saying to dress immodest but most of the time it doesn’t matter what you are wearing. Someone will look. Modesty is great but the Duggars and trier ilk have an unhealthy double standard. Why be so puritanical? Remember when they met Dolly Parton? The boys tried so hard not to look.

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      WTF Dolly Parton met with the Duggars? That makes me kind of sad, since Dolly is one of my all-time heroes. But then, she does kind of cultivate a certain mysteriousness–it’s hard to figure out exactly what she’s thinking and I think that’s very deliberate.

      What’s harder for me to understand is why the Duggars would be into her? I can think of 10 things off the top of my head about her that would definitely be frowned upon by patriarchal, quiverfull Christians…

    • Cherilyn Michener Reno

      Yes, the Duggars went to Dollyworld (or whatever it his her theme park is called). They sang with/for her and everything.

      (That is one of the three whole X Kids and Counting episodes I’ve seen.)

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      Why, Dolly? Why? You are a brilliant and talented woman. You were a successful singer-songwriter who made money off her own work at a time when men ruled the music industry You speak and write openly about female sexuality. You wrote “Just Because I’m a Woman.” You were in “9 to 5.”? WHY???

    • http://www.facebook.com/lucrezaborgia Lucreza Borgia

      PP, because the Duggars cultivate this aura of ‘every family’ to get viewership. They go to great lengths in the early days of the show to hide the crazy. They have an established base so less of a need to hide the crazy. It’s kinda like how cults get you hooked!

  • Saraquill

    Your talk of the beach and all sorts of bodies reminds me of one beach I went to that was favored by old Slavic men in speedos. I doubt that there was much staring.

    The Duggars don’t see each other naked? Seeing one’s parents or siblings is not something lustful. If you can’t be comfortable around your family, that’s really sad.

    • http://nonprophetmessage.wordpress.com Sierra

      I can’t be sure about the Duggars, but a significant proportion of the male respondents to the Modesty Survey said family members also had to be modest to prevent lust, and a few said things like, “Even my mother could arouse me if she weren’t careful.”

      http://www.patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism/2012/06/worthwhile-reads-the-modesty-survey.html

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      Their MOTHER? Um…that is just disturbing. The idea that nude bodies always need to be sexual is just really twisted to me. Still, to be fair, this is not an idea unique to conservative Christian culture. My parents are ex-hippies and my dad is an artist who did a lot of figure drawing when I was a kid. Nude bodies were totally normal to my sister and me. My parents didn’t care about us seeing them naked or about us seeing naked bodies in art or in any kind of media. It wasn’t until we were in school with other kids that we learned to think of this as “weird.” And that’s because if we ever made any reference to how non-taboo nudity was in our home, other people would generally assume that this was freaky and sick and almost certainly incestuous in some way. I was like “Huh? Its’ my mom. I came out of her vagina, for pity’s sake, so the cat’s out of the bag.” lol. (I can also definitely recall times when I got in trouble with adults in my life for referring to “naughty” parts of human anatomy by their proper names. Kids aren’t supposed to know those things exist apparently, never mind that they have them. How dare you say “penis,” you dirty girl!) But eventually we learned to say “EWWWWWW” whenever nudity was encountered because that’s just what kids did. We never really got it though.

      American culture in general seems to have decided that nudity=sex and sex=bad. Always.

  • Ursula L

    Given that the Duggars built their house to have one large boys’ bedroom and one large girls’ bedroom, I would guess that the children see the unclothed or partially clothed bodies of their same-sex siblings at least occasionally, given the general lack of privacy in their living quarters. Plus, with the way the family uses the “buddy system” to assign care of younger children to older children (particularly the older girls) they will see the unclothed bodies of their younger siblings, in the context of providing child care. I can’t remember offhand if the children all have their own beds in the new home, but in the early stories, when the family was living in a rental home, many of the children shared beds, due to lack of space. They also share clothing, with a “family closet” of hand-me-downs rather than clothes being individually owned.

    Which is a really odd mix of emphasis on both privacy/modesty and the lack of privacy and personal space. The only unclothed bodies the children get to see are prepubescent siblings, and occasionally older siblings of the same sex. Their exploration of their own bodies and sexuality is done in a setting with close contact with their same-sex siblings and enforced ignorance and lack of contact with people of the opposite sex and unrelated people.

    Which seems, in a way, even creepier than genuine ignorance of human bodies.

    **

    Also, while being obsessed with modesty while making your life a public reality show is an odd choice, I wonder if the contact with the film crew won’t be an important source of outside culture for the children. The family seems oddly comfortable with letting their children be alone with members of the film crew, an odd crack in the wall they’ve built around their life.

  • expat mom

    I feel the same way about our public baths here in Japan. It’s a chance to bask in real raw humanity, wrinkles, sags, blemishes and all. It took me a while to get used to (even growing up in a secular household in the US you learn a degree of body shame) but now I love it.

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