by Kristen Rosser cross posted from her blog Wordgazer’s Words
“Don’t cause a man to stumble.”
“Don’t let yourself go.”
These are some of the central messages evangelical Christian women continuously receive from our churches. Similar messages come simultaneously from secular society: Be sexy. Be attractive. Female empowerment includes sexual empowerment, which means “you respect your needs, realize your desires, and accept the sexual aspect of yourself. Break away from the stereotypes that society enforces on women, on how to behave, the Do’s and Don’ts which most of the time subdue the spirit and confidence of a person.” And this sounds like– and can be– good advice.* Except that too often women’s response to this advice still seems to be not actually focused on the woman as herself, but on how men see her.
And it’s not hard to understand why. To an extent rarely, if ever, experienced by men, a woman’s identity, status and social approval are a function of how she looks. This is why female leaders and politicians’ clothing and hairstyles are often the subject of media discussion, while male leaders and politicians are almost never subjected to such scrutiny. This is why women on magazine covers are usually in some state of undress, while men most often appear fully clothed. This is what sociologists call “the male gaze.”
As this academic paper describes it:
Though this may not necessarily be common knowledge, we can all buy the argument that a woman’s place in society’s stratification is defined by the outward manifestation of her person, and that person is identified first and foremost by her gender. . .women, in the majority of societies around the world, live lives of spectacle. . . females seldom find themselves in the role of spectator, or in the case of film, in the role of control. Women form the spectacle. They are the objects while males are generally the subjects. (Emphasis added.)
When you look at an object, you are seeing more than just the thing itself: you are seeing the relation between the thing and yourself. Some objects are made to be looked upon. . . .The painting of female beauty offer[s] up the pleasure of her appearance for the male spectator-owner’s gaze. But the spectator-owner’s gaze sees not merely the object of the gaze, but sees the relationship between the object and the self. . .WOMEN ARE MADE TO APPEAR AS OBJECTS OF DESIRE based on their status as OBJECTS OF VISION. . . The male gaze is so pervasive in advertising that it is assumed or taken-for-granted. Females are shown offering up their femininity FOR THE PLEASURE OF AN ABSENT MALE SPECTATOR. “Men act and women appear”[.] . . . Oddly, the female viewer also looks at the exterior of women as an “object of vision.” She surveys their appearance as she does her own, through the eyes of a man.
(Emphasis in original.)
The idea that women’s primary status is as “objects of [male] vision” is so long-standing, so internalized and deep-rooted that we are hardly aware of it. But it’s there, and it affects the way both men and women– Christian and non-Christian alike– view themselves and one another.
The blog A Woman’s Freedom in Christ recently posted a clip of a video in which actor Dustin Hoffman discusses how he had been used to thinking of women, during the creation of his 1982 movie “Tootsie.” He says he had an epiphany that changed his attitudes about women when he was told that though he could appear believably as a woman in the film, the makeup artists could not make him beautiful. Mr. Hoffman actually tears up as he recalls how it came to him that he had spent his life up to that point considering a woman’s physical beauty as the single criterion for whether or not he would even try to meet her or get to know her:
“I think I’m an interesting woman, when I look at myself on screen, and I know that if I met myself at a party, I would never talk to that character, because she doesn’t fulfill physically the demands that we’re brought up to think women have to have in order for us to ask them out. . . There’s too many interesting women I have not had the experience to know in this life, because I have been brainwashed.”
Hoffman is talking about the male gaze here– and he expresses it in terms of brainwashing. He literally was unaware of the way this viewpoint had affected his behavior his whole life, until viewing himself as a woman showed him how narrow and limiting to actual women it really was.
The question, then, is whether the male gaze is somehow part of Christianity? While it’s true that the human writers (all those we are sure about, anyway) of both Old and New Testaments were male and wrote from a male-centered perspective, there is no indication in the Bible that the “male gaze” is God-ordained or divinely sanctioned. God’s recorded interactions with humans, though accommodating such human perspectives, repeatedly ask humans to lift their gaze and try to understand God’s perspective. “‘My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways,'” declares the Lord. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.'” Isaiah 55:8-9.
Proverbs 31, the famous passage on finding a good wife, says, “Charm is deceitful and beauty is passing, but a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised.” (v. 30.) 1 Peter 3:3-4 says to women, “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment. . . rather, it should be that of your inner self.” Paul advises Timothy that women should adorn themselves “as is proper for women professing godliness, with good works.” (1 Tim. 2:10) It’s interesting how Christians, instead of focusing on Paul’s desire that women seek to be known for actions rather than appearance, focus so strongly on the verses immediately prior to verse 10, which do speak in terms of women’s outward appearance. This ends up turning the whole passage into a proof text for “modesty” in dress– when the passage, read as a whole, is really a refutation of that outward focus.
In fact, both the 1 Peter verses and the 1 Timothy verses, written in a time when males and females alike covered their bodies in swathes of robes, really aren’t about “modesty” in terms avoiding sexual display, but about not showing off one’s wealth through elaborate hairstyles (“see, I have a maid to do my hair!”), gold jewelry or expensive clothing. Churches were largely comprised of poor people and slaves (see 1 Cor. 1:26), so it was important not to flaunt markers of high social status or to show partiality to the same (see James 2:1-9).
Christian teachings about women’s personal appearance, therefore, should be centered on changing this focus on outward appearance to a focus on the heart and actions.
However, it’s very difficult for us as Christians to shake the longstanding cultural/social male-gaze focus on women in terms of their appearance, both historically and now.
Christians in earlier centuries took to heart much more than we do today, the New Testament’s words on displays of expensive ornamentation. But often the very absence of ornamentation became part of women’s pride of appearance, as shown in George Eliot’s classic novel Adam Bede, in the attitude of respectable farm-wife Mrs. Poyser:
“The most conspicuous article in her attire was an ample checkered linen apron, which almost covered her skirt; and nothing could be plainer or less noticeable than her cap and gown, for there was no weakness of which she was less tolerant than feminine vanity, and the preference of ornament to utility.”
By contrast in the same novel, Bessey Cranage, the blacksmith’s daughter, is held to be “the object of peculiar compassion [being set apart as an object of pity for moral weakness], because her hair. . . exposed to view an ornament of which she was much prouder than of her red cheeks– namely, a pair of large round ear-rings with false garnets in them, ornaments condemned . . . by her own cousin. . . .”
Thus the point of Paul’s and Peter’s words was lost– for rather than focusing on a woman’s inner self, the focus of those more austere times was still on women’s outward appearance, simply reversed to glorify outward plainness of dress rather than outward glamour.
Today, Christians are adept at holding, at one and the same time, attitudes that women should be outwardly beautiful/sexy and modest/sexually concealed. The shaming of Christian women for supposedly not staying attractive for their husbands, is a prime example of the former (while by contrast, Christian men remain nearly exempt from any teaching that they should try to remain attractive to their wives). And as to the latter, it’s hard not to notice current summertime focus in Christian blogs on women’s swimsuits and “modesty.” As the Word of a Woman blog humorously but pithily points out:
Summer is upon us kiddos and you know what that has meant (at least in my Facebook feed)? A plethora of articles from my well meaning Christian friends that tell me what I can and cannot wear at the beach or even in my own swimming pool if I am going to claim to be a proper Christian lady. Bikinis are taboo my friends and not just for me but also for my 10 year old daughter if I don’t want her to grow up to be some sort of floozie. . . Where is the line between too sexy and just sexy enough? Because the same folks who tell me there are rules about me wearing a bikini also tell me there are rules about not “letting myself go” and making sure I am still sexy enough for my husband. Sigh. It is exhausting.
The same blog also showcases the current Christian trend in which women ask men what they think of women’s clothing choices, and men rate everything from sleeves to shoes in terms of whether it might “cause them to stumble.” Amusingly, the blogger points out that even a “Modest is Hottest” T-shirt is immodest by some of these standards. We Christians appear to be skilled at not only perpetuating the male gaze, but elevating and catering to it.
But all this focus on women’s physical appearance– whether too sexy as a cause for men to stumble, or not sexy enough as a cause for them to stray– unfairly places the burden on women for the actions and attitudes of men. As Rachel Held Evans’ book A Year of Biblical Womanhood states, “While young love is certainly celebrated in the Bible . . . nowhere does it teach that outer beauty reflects inner beauty. The Bible consistently describes beauty as fleeting.” Evans points out that Proverbs 5:15-19 advises men to choose to remain satisfied with their wives through the natural aging process. As she puts it, “Both husbands and wives bear the sweet responsibility of seeking beauty in the other at all stages of life. No one gets off the hook because the other is wearing sweatpants or going bald or carrying a child or battling cancer. Any pastor who claims the Bible says otherwise is lying. End of story.”
Jesus Himself placed the responsibility for lust squarely on the person doing the lusting (Matthew 5:28), and said nothing whatsoever about women’s personal appearance, in that context or any other. Jesus always related to women in terms of their personhood, not their appearance. As Evans points out in the same section of her book, “The gospel writers never rated the hotness of Jesus’ female disciples.”
In the midst of a male-centric culture, Jesus and His apostles sought to turn off what we now call the male gaze, encouraging men and women both to see themselves through God’s eyes, in terms of a kingdom-of-God focus on the inner self rather than outward appearance, and on actions rather than looks.
So what business do we have, as Christians, catering to the male gaze? I suggest we stop worrying so much about what women are wearing and whether they’ve lost or gained weight, and just let our sisters be who they are and dress according to their own consciences and preferences.
Sound like a plan?
*Even the most conservative Christian women can be sexually empowered when they develop their own principles informed by their own understanding of the faith and of themselves, rather than what they’re told by religious traditions and leaders that they have to be and do.
Comments open below
NLQ Recommended Reading …
‘Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment‘ by Janet Heimlich
‘Quivering Daughters‘ by Hillary McFarland
‘Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement‘ by Kathryn Joyce