A recent post at Pandagon by Amanda Marcotte clarified some concerns I’ve had for awhile now about certain (but not all) discussions of modesty in our church discourse. Now, while I’m guessing that many of the readers of our blog would dismiss some of her stronger claims about modesty and “compulsory femininity,” I primarily wanted to highlight one passage:
Modesty exists mostly as a reason to obsess over what women are wearing and remind them non-stop that no matter what else they do with themselves, they’re just sex objects in the eyes of the patriarchy. The end result is women are given twin messages to be sexually appealing and not to be sexually appealing all at once, and that at any point in time they are in danger of being deemed sluttily or prudishly dressed.
Now, the reason I was drawn to this paragraph is not because I think the church needs to discard outdated notions of modesty. On a certain level, I am a believer in this principle, and I’m just fine with our leaders teaching it. I also think our leaders use this principle to try and combat some highly dangerous cultural patterns.
In the popular media, women’s bodies are overly-sexualized. Women are objectified and demeaned by many of these representations. These images negatively impact both how women view themselves and how men relate to women. In many of the messages at church on the topic of modesty, I hear an attempt by our leaders to provide an alternative to the destructive messages that women encounter on a daily basis.
However, what I think is interesting about the quote above is that it highlights that if we are not careful, our discussions of modesty can reinforce the cultural messages about women and sexuality that we are trying to critique. When we overemphasize modesty (and do things like connect it to the need to protect men from their sexual impulses), we reinforce notions that whether women are immodestly dressed or fully clothed, they are only going to be viewed in sexual terms.
In other words, we should not set up our discussions of modesty directly in opposition to popular discourses. We shouldn’t respond to the oversexualization of women by saying, “Women, you should be modest and not draw attention to the sexual attributes of your bodies. By doing this, you will demonstrate you are daughters of God” By reiterating the problem in these terms, we run the risk of reinforcing women viewing their body as well as their worth (as daughters of God) in sexual terms.
We need to teach modesty as a principle, but in our discussions of the topic, we should clearly and deliberately disconnect the principle from women’s inherent worth (something women spend so much time doubting in today’s world). We should critique the sexualization and objectification of women in the media while simultaneously offering women a separate discourse through which to view their worth and identity, one which does not treat them as sexual objects, constantly under the gaze of men.