My youngest daughter Kelsey is strong-minded, as a college editor-in-chief (which she is) needs to be. That has led to some fascinating discussions on what it’s like for a 21 year old woman to sit in evangelical churches. Rather recently, she challenged the way modesty is often handled in local churches. In a follow-up email, she added some thoughts that I’d like to share with you (with her permission), to start the discussion on the best way we can teach this important biblical principle to today’s generation.
So I never really got to finish my thoughts on why I thought the way the church has approached modesty in my experience is harmful. I pulled out a few thoughts from my journal and added to it here. This is really long, so if you make it all the way through I will be grateful.
In all honesty, there are some things that as a man you will never be able to understand.
You don’t get whistled at walking down the street. You don’t experience the feel of men’s eyes helping themselves to your body on a regular basis. You don’t get cat calls walking out of a coffee shop that only get worse when you put your head down, ignore them, and walk quickly. I’m sure you’ve had a girl whistle at you a few times in your day, but the fact is this isn’t a constant reality for you. And for me, and most women, it is.
I can’t think of the last time I went more than several weeks without receiving an unrequested comment or call from a stranger about my body. What you then, as a man, also probably don’t know is that it makes absolutely no difference how we dress. The type of comment might change (“why so covered up, pretty lady?” is as offensive to me as whistling at my sundress), but the frequency doesn’t. Men are able to objectify women with little provocation. In some cultures, seeing a women’s hair or ankles is considered tempting and evocative. Men can undress a woman with their eyes whether she is wearing a bikini or a burka.
The world tells women on a regular basis that they are objects. If they dress “modestly” and are virgins they’re called a prude. If they wear slinky tank tops and sleep around they are called a slut or whore. Either way, women are objectified and considered a sex object.
When women are constantly having this degrading message beaten into them all day out in the world, it would be wonderful if they could come into a church and find refuge from objectification. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
Growing up, I went to my share of modesty talks and was told it was my responsibility to cover up my body so that I did not lead boys into temptation. I went to a private middle school that walked around handing out oversized (and smelly) t-shirts to girls supposedly not covered up enough. I have a vivid memory of sitting between Willy Hanson, who was sporting a cut-off, and a girl in a spaghetti strap tank top, when the head of the school came in with her bag of t-shirts and made the girl put one on and completely ignored Willy. In high school I got a rash from having to wear a shirt over my two-piece swimsuit at a church camp while all the guys were allowed to run around without a top at all.
This way of approaching modesty gives women the exact same message as the rest of the world: your body is a sex object. You are a sex object. Your body is dirty and needs to be covered up.
Telling women to cover up for men holds women responsible for men’s lust. And that’s rape culture. It’s no large leap from that to telling women it’s their fault they were raped because they were wearing a short skirt.
My freshman year at Baylor, I went to a seminar for all freshman women on basically how to not get raped. The whole time I was wondering why the freshman boys weren’t forced to go to a seminar called how to not rape girls. And you know why? Because it’s seen as my responsibility. It is my job to cover up my breasts so they don’t lead men to lust, and it is my job to not attract or flirt with a man in case this leads him to have sex with me against my will. At their nature, these two responsibilities are not such different things.
I dress modestly because I have known my entire life that I am loved and I have worth and I am valuable, but it is increasingly rare for women to grow up with an intrinsic sense of self-worth like I did (thank you!). Far more beneficial than telling girls to put on a t-shirt to cover up their bodies is to tell them they are loved. They have worth. They are valuable. They are more than a sex object. Because the world isn’t telling them that.
It is even more crucial for men to hear the same thing: Women have worth. They are valuable for far more than their breasts. No type of dress gives a man license to objectify a woman. It is men’s responsibility to change the way women are talked about and looked at by men.
Basically, I believe the church is objectifying me as much as the world. Yes, the church is giving women a different solution: modesty as opposed to parading their bodies around for men to enjoy. But a different solution is not good enough. It’s time the church stopped obsessing over the length of my skirt and changed the message all together.
This is me (Gary) again. This post is already pretty long, so I’ll refrain from making any other comments except for this short one: what Kelsey hits on that the church might be missing is that whenever Paul addressed relations, he spoke to the men first. He doesn’t tell wives to submit to their husbands until he tells husbands to become sacrificial living martyrs for their wives. Have we missed this with our youth? Have we made young women (rather than young men) bear the burden of dealing with lust?