(Content note: Misogyny, body policing, discussion of Rape Culture.)
Today we’re going to talk about why a false modesty drive is just one of the last salvos that fundagelical culture is firing in their vain attempt to grab back control over young women before it’s too late and those women get too old or just too confident enough that they run out of fucks to give about what people think of their clothes or behavior.
“Modesty” is that catch-all term that controlling folks use to describe that quality shown by a woman doing her best to look asexual and non-threatening to men. It’s a big part of the Purity Myth. Some women like to dress in such a manner just because they happen to like dressing that way, but that’s not the case for all women who feel compelled to do it. Patriarchal cultures put a lot of store by how well they control the sexual expression of their women, and they also tend to stress that men can’t help but react violently and explosively to any and all challenges to their authority. Unfortunately, none of these cultures has a real definition of what makes a clothing article modest or immodest. Modesty depends entirely on the viewer, and viewers’ opinions are far from universal. Something one person deems “modest,” another might deem “immodest.” You’ll notice I usually use scare quotes around the terms–that’s because I don’t think that clothing can be modest or immodest, and because I know that there’s no single definition of the terms. Really, given its fluid nature and its difficulty to achieve, it’s no surprise at all that “modesty” is a virtue these cultures trumpet to the skies and push hard on women.
A new campaign running around the Christosphere lately is called “Modest is Hottest.” It tells young women to dress “modestly” (a term that, remember, shifts and bends dramatically depending on who’s talking and to whom, especially in Christianity) to be considered sexy to men and get approval from them. Oh, we’re still trying to appeal to men, but these “modesty” proponents are just trying to install their own definition of what should appeal to men. We’re still totally objectifying women’s bodies and associating their personhood with their external appearance and sexuality, we’re just doing it in a different way–and even Christians (such as the one I linked to here) are seeing this bizarre campaign for the harmful catch-22 that it is.
Back in my Pentecostal days, we used to say the same thing, that “modest” women were more attractive. We didn’t even think twice about the fact that we were basically saying that attractiveness was still the goal and that we were basically telling young women that we wanted them to be pretty for men, just in this one certain Jesus-y way rather than in the way “the world” (that’s Christianese for the secular, non-churchified public sphere) advised. There was absolutely no way women could win; if I dressed too “modestly,” I got advice about how to do my hair and what kind of dresses would look best on my body. If I dressed too “immodestly,” I got side-eye from the women in my church and prayer groups. Despite all the pamphlets and books my church put out about what was modest and what wasn’t, there was this magical shifting line I had to hit with my choices, and there was always, always, always room for criticism.
I can’t even tell you how screwed-up this mentality is. Be pretty–just not the wrong kind of pretty. Be this kind of pretty instead. Don’t seek men’s approval, but definitely seek their approval. Don’t care about what people think about your body, but definitely care infinitely about what people think about your body. Don’t be sexual, except be totally sexual.
Even when I was dressed in a way I thought was very modest, men would sometimes stare at me or avoid me. I was always responsible for their tender male egos and lusts. When I first joined this group, I was a teenaged girl–a child–distinctly underage! But as young as I was, I was held totally responsible for adult men’s behavior and thoughts. I should have realized how pathetically screwed-up these folks were right then and bolted, but instead, I contorted myself to meet their approval.
This “modesty” idea made the women in my church a little weird sometimes. There was a super-popular hairstyle among the younger women at the time that the non-fundamentalist guys in my college group called “the Pentecostal pouf,” a sort of mullet with a teased-up ball of hair in front. Not all women could pull off the pouf; it required comparatively shorter bangs (and we’re talking here maybe a foot’s length), so a woman with totally uncut hair would not be able to achieve the right look. But our church taught that women should never, ever, ever cut their hair. Some women obviously just cut their hair discreetly, just as many of them wore discreet cosmetics in total defiance of the ban on makeup. But some of them got around this prohibition by–I am totally not exaggerating here–burning their hair.
Yes. You heard me.
Oh, did you think the only “loophole” Christian women buy into is the one for sex? No, loopholes exist everywhere in Christianity. Give people rules, and a certain number of them will game the rules however they can.
So they’d use hot curling irons or sometimes just matches’ fire for the heat. Using these tools, they would frizzle their hair to the point where they could just break it off to the desired length. No scissors were needed, so this tactic was totally fine as far as they were concerned.
This hairstyle was inducing young women to possibly hurt themselves to get around the no-scissors rule. I remember talking to them about it and how they thought this dangerous letter-of-the-law workaround they’d discovered was the most clever thing ever devised by humans. My reaction was to stop wearing the pouf entirely; as a new-ish convert, I certainly had the bangs for it, but I could see a distressingly near future in which my hair wouldn’t cooperate and thought I might as well reject the idea immediately instead of waiting and potentially hurting myself to achieve this weird standard of beauty.
Nobody even wondered why my denomination’s young women so highly prized a hairstyle that relied entirely on a hair length unachievable by following the rules. We never even thought about it. We had this bizarre double standard going where we said with our mouths that we prized uncut hair, but with our actions we demonstrated that we most prized hairstyles achievable only with cut hair.
And that’s what’s going on with this “Modest is Hottest” movement. They say with their mouths that they want women to not be objectified, but they’re demonstrating only the objectification of women by reducing them to their bodies and clothing choices. They say with their mouths that they prize “modesty,” whatever that means to them, but with their actions demonstrate that the goal of “modesty” is the same goal as what they imagine is “immodesty”–approval of men, approval of society, expression of sexuality, and most of all immunity from victimization.
It’s a real pity that we can’t hear more from women who were very modest and still got victimized and treated like crap (like I was). Instead we get more pontificating from people who don’t realize that they are just part of the problem, like Bindi Irwin.
Bindi Irwin (Steve “Crocodile Hunter” Irwin’s daughter, who is now a young adult) is busy telling everybody who will stand still long enough to listen that she feels “really bad” for young women who are “wearing revealing clothes or hardly wearing any clothes at all.” She went on to add: “Just dress like who you are. Don’t try so hard. A pair of jeans and a T-shirt is just as gorgeous and even makes you look classier.”
As one of those pieces I’ve linked so ably points out, “classier” is just code for “not slutty” here. It’s not a real word; it doesn’t actually mean anything objective. Even Bindi concedes that the ultimate goal is to look “gorgeous” (for who? Why, for men, of course)–just as long as that goal is reached wearing clothes she happens to prefer rather than the clothes preferred by the young women she’s attempting to control. She still wants male approval; she just wants it under her own terms and wants other young women to accept her terms to get that approval. Her own clothing choices are, to say the least, examples of her own subjective standards; I found oodles of photos of her wearing spaghetti-strapped, form-fitting dresses, which I did not repost here because who the hell cares what a teenaged girl wears, and who the hell sexualizes a child for her clothing choices? She might choose to sexualize people’s clothing choices, but it’s wrong to do that, and I’m not going to engage in it. So have a portrait of a lady in a near-burkha instead (that’s one of my favorite shades of blue, incidentally, so there).
Did you also notice she doesn’t think that young women dress like who they are? What if a crop top and booty shorts is who I am? What if multiple piercings and tattoos are who I am? Wouldn’t it just suck for Bindi Irwin if young women examined all their available choices and made the ones that appealed to them most, and already dress like who they are? Why does she assume that young women aren’t dressing exactly as they please already? Why is it so important for her to police other people’s choices?
And the “don’t try so hard” thing is just laughable–an old tactic used by body-fixated misogynists. If a young woman tries hard to look good, you see, she is demonized for being vain and shallow. If she doesn’t spend enough time, then she is going to look like she doesn’t, at which point she is demonized for not caring about her appearance. Bindi Irwin just wants young women to spend about the amount of time she thinks they should spend, and that’s not a timeframe she’s willing to qualify or quantify. She couldn’t even if she tried, of course. The goal is for a young woman to spend enough time on her appearance to meet society’s approval, but not to look like she does. It, too, is a moving target impossible for any young woman to reach; there is always room to criticize women for spending too much or not enough time on themselves for male approval. I get the feeling here she isn’t even discussing “jeans and a T-shirt” in the same way I would, consequently; when a woman wears nothing but jeans and T-shirts, she faces censure from society for not trying hard enough. I see shocked-yes-shocked-they-are tabloid photos of celebrities wearing jeans and T-shirts and then I see all the comments mocking them for not having taken enough time for their appearance to meet society’s approval. So I don’t believe her when she talks about someone wearing that outfit looking just as “gorgeous” and “classy” as someone wearing something she deems “immodest.” And it’s worth noting that when she chooses to dress up for special occasions, she certainly doesn’t wear jeans and a T-shirt herself.
What’s really disheartening to me is seeing the comments on pages that discuss Bindi Irwin’s “brave” stand against immodesty. Page after page of people discussing women’s clothing choices as “advertisements” or “uniforms” or “job applications,” page after page of declarations that a woman is due only the respect she earns through her choice of attire. Let’s take them one at a time:* Advertisement. Really? What’s being advertised? The woman’s availability for sex? So if a woman wears totally “modest” clothing she’s not advertising sex and is totally free of any fear of being mistaken for someone advertising her availability? And if such an advertising woman is raped then it was at least partly her own fault for falsely advertising her availability when she was not in fact available? Why are we assuming that a woman who is making this “advertisement” is available to all people who feel entitled to her sexual attention? Why are we assuming that a woman who doesn’t “advertise” is totally safe? This is a repulsive and misguided notion, and we need to get away from assuming that a woman’s clothing choices indicates her sexual availability or that she’s making those choices as a method of communication to total strangers. I once bought a gorgeous, way-too-expensive little tank top that I learned (hilariously, much) later was a) see-through and b) DECIDEDLY LINGERIE AND NOT OUTDOOR CLOTHING, and I totally assure you that I wasn’t wearing it to advertise my sexual services to anybody. And even if I’d known about these qualities about this top, I wouldn’t have been wearing it to do so. If I wanted to advertise, I know how to do it. My clothing choices are about me, not about anybody else. The people making it about themselves are saying more about themselves than about me.
* Uniforms. The rape-apologist not-really-a-joke goes that a man wearing a cop uniform will be treated as a cop, and a woman wearing a sex worker’s “uniform” of immodest clothing will be treated as a sex worker. I just want to ask why someone would treat a sex worker poorly. The problem is that our society treats street-based sex workers like human garbage, and many of them wear what they do because people identify it as the uniform of a sex worker. Not all sex workers dress that way, and every sex worker I’ve ever met was way kinder and more respectful of others than any “modesty” proponent I have ever run across. The idea being spread here is that it’s okay to pull back on the courtesy throttle if you encounter sex workers, and I disagree with that. I think all people are due basic human courtesy and respect and dignity no matter what their occupations are. And even if immodest clothing was a sex worker’s uniform, no consensual sex worker is universally available to all men no matter what–that “uniform” does not imply ease of access. We need to get away from assuming that sex workers have no right of consent and we especially need to get away from assuming that we have some right to victimize people in occupations we consider low-status.
* Job applications. This one’s the most repulsive of them all. The idea is that a man who walks into a job interview with stained and ruined clothing probably won’t get the job, and a woman who wears “immodest” clothing is applying for.. wait, I must have missed something. What job is she applying for? Who is paying her to wear other clothing? Who is deciding her employment status? Did she actually ask anybody to give her anything at all based on her clothing? This one puts the speaker above the woman in question; the woman does not have her own agency and her own right to dress as she pleases. She must always dress to gain the approval of the speaker. She must always be “applying” for a “job” that only exists in the speaker’s head. Her ability to judge her own clothing choices for her own very real job interviews is pushed aside. She always has to be interviewing. I guess the job she’s interviewing for is the viewer’s respect. That says some really awful things about the person who’d say something like that. To paraphrase Barley in The Russia House, nobody’s selling anything to these people, and nobody gives a fuck whether they hire them or not. Is that the real problem? That nobody cares if these imaginary bosses approve or disapprove of the millions of “job applicants” sailing past them in the river?
* Earning respect. And then there are the winners who think it’s perfectly acceptable to show someone less respect if that person is wearing less than the viewer’s idealized amount of clothing. This is nothing more than caste-mentality thinking here–this idea that it’s okay to abuse someone of lesser status, this idea that someone wearing more expensive or more “modest” clothing is due more respect than someone who is wearing something of lesser status or “immodest.” Very Christian mindset, isn’t it? Did Jesus talk about showing respect only to those people who meet certain standards? Oh wait, no, he didn’t, not even once. He identified with the oppressed, with the people who were mistreated, with the people that were dehumanized. But modern toxic Christians, stuffed to the gills with Prosperity Gospel and caring more about controlling people than following their supposed Savior, won’t have that kind of love anywhere near them.
Are you noticing that all of these ideas involve women signaling others somehow? That all of these ideas center around women’s bodies and clothing as being about others rather than about the women themselves? Women’s bodies are seen as public property, their behavior and clothing as statements made to the rest of the public. A woman who is sexually available is thought to signal it through her clothing, and at that point she is seen as sexually available to all men. Her right to consent is erased; her right to basic respect is gone. She appears to be sexually available whether she is or not, and therefore agreeing to her own imminent victimization by anybody. She loses the right to say no. (It all reminds me of the popular BDSM retort: “I might be a sub, but I’m not your sub.”)
Ultimately, “modesty” advocates like the super-misguided Bindi Irwin aren’t helping anybody at all. They’re just setting up a new moving target for young women to try to hit. They still insist women dress a certain way to get respect, and they still buy into the needs-to-die-now-in-a-fire patriarchal attitude that women are non-humans who are due only the amount of respect (and remember, by “respect” I mean basic human civility and courtesy, not privilege, not special treatment, not idolization or veneration) they earn by following society’s dictates about “modesty.” They’re not changing the actual dysfunctional setup that leads young women to become more sexualized or to choose the clothing that they do; they’re not actually changing men’s attitudes about how to treat women. They’re not actually fixing anything. They’re just insisting yet again that the problem is all women’s fault, and that women are wholly responsible for any mistreatment they get. They’re just saying over and over again that women’s bodies are not their own and that all their choices are some kind of signal or permission slip to strangers.
They’re just enforcing that whole Madonna/whore dichotomy our society has suffered since the goddamned Middle Ages. You think a rapist doesn’t see that stuff and feel validated in what he does? Listen to rapists sometime if you want some stomach-churning input: they talk about how their victims deserved it and about how “everybody” does what they did. They talk about how they seek out victims who won’t get a lot of sympathy or who will be too ashamed to speak up about their abuse.
What Bindi Irwin and these “Modest is Hottest” dipshits are doing is normalizing victimization and giving permission to predators to prey upon those who don’t deserve society’s protection or sympathy.
Worst of all, there are two sides to this coin that “modesty” proponents don’t seem to see. If women can be put on a pedestal for their “modesty,” then they can be knocked down from it through “immodesty.” If women are being denied unasked-for jobs, wearing sex-worker uniforms, and making advertisements of universal sexual availability through “immodesty,” then what’s really happening is that they are opting out of society’s sympathy and protection for any incidents of mistreatment they receive.
But women get mistreated no matter what we wear. Being “modest” is no assurance that women will not be victimized, no assurance that we will be safe. Women get harassed constantly when we’re committing the crime of Being Female in Public, and it doesn’t matter at all what we wear. Women get treated with disrespect constantly when we’re taking up space or talking or moving through the world, and no matter what measures we take, it’s going to happen. And wringing our hands over the idea of men victimizing the wrong women, of victimizing women who maybe weren’t actually advertising anything or asking for anything from them, is not the solution. Parsing out our sympathy only for the virtuous “modest” women who totally didn’t deserve victimization and deciding how much blame a victim should assume for her own victimization is not going to fix anything.
The only way women can win this game is not to play at all.
We need to opt out of this game. It is dangerous and unhealthy and not a fun game at all.
Nobody’s asking Bindi Irwin for her opinion, and nobody cares if she “feels bad” that women are dressing the way they want to dress. That’s something she’s going to have to resolve on her own. Her desire to control other young women’s choices and police other people’s decisions is not anybody’s problem but her own. And as long as she keeps buying into the idea that a woman’s body is public property, that a woman’s clothing choices make her deserve good or bad treatment by others, that a woman’s sexuality is dangerous and must be controlled, then she’s not going to change anything.
What we need here is not a band-aid slapped on Rape Culture.
What we need here is a total sea change in how we treat people, an about-face and a whole new direction: a total destruction of this idea that it’s okay to treat some people better than others, that it’s okay to withdraw basic courtesy sometimes, that other’s choices of clothing or even behavior make them lesser human beings, that a woman’s choice of clothing opens her up to a well-deserved victimization.
I’ve got a really good idea instead.
Instead of parceling out respect to people based on clothing choices, why don’t we just assume everybody is worthy of basic respect? Instead of trying to decide jusssssst how much blame a woman must assume for her own victimization, why don’t we put the blame entirely on the people doing the victimizing? Instead of wringing our hands about what young women are “advertising,” why don’t we assume that these young women aren’t offering or advertising anything at all? Why don’t we stop assuming other people’s clothing is about us at all? Why don’t we hold all adults as being totally responsible for their own thoughts and behavior?
The solution to a perceived lack of modesty in young women is not to stress modesty harder. The solution is to teach people to respect others no matter how they dress or behave, and stop seeing women’s clothing choices as some kind of job uniform or advertisement done for the benefit of men. The second Bindi Irwin quits trying to control other women’s choices, the second these “Modest are Hottest” weirdos lose their lurid and bizarre fixation on women’s bodies, the second our culture starts showing basic human respect to women no matter how they are dressed, that’s when this whole over-sexualization thing will stop–
and not a moment before then.