All Dressed Up

Since I’ve already (twice now) addressed the problem of how men treat women, it’s only fair that I make a point about women. While I don’t believe it’s reasonable to blame women for male shortcomings, it’s equally unfair to blame men for the things women do.

I don’t get my panties in a bunch because a woman wore a low-cut blouse or showed a lot of leg. I think this is because I have a much more narrow definition of lust than most conservative people. Conservative Christians often define lust much too broadly, allowing it to encompass absolutely everything that even remotely seems “dirty.” That may be why we’re so anxious to absolve men of their “problem” by pointing fingers at women and what they are wearing. Let’s face it, this issue has been around since forever, and what women are wearing isn’t what drives it. If it were, then we should have no problem with cultures that expect women to be covered head-to-toe. I strongly suspect that it wouldn’t matter if some women wore sweat pants and didn’t wash their hair for a week. There are still men who would try to make a case that they’re using “pheromones” or something to attract men because they don’t cover up their natural scent.

That said, I do think modesty is important. But I don’t mean in the sense that girls and women should just “cover up.” (Because I think it’s perfectly acceptable to wear shorts to the gym or a bathing suit to the beach.) I mean in the sense of how she herself treats her body and how she treats men. Immodesty comes more from motivation than from the garment in question. I’ve seen women look immodest in t-shirts while others look appropriate in above-the-knee skirts and low necklines. But somehow, we’ve cultivated the bizarre idea that the percentage of flesh showing is directly proportional to the degree of sluttiness possessed by the woman.

This is the very same stupid logic that leads people to claim that public breastfeeding is improper. The idea that there is a nipple somewhere under that baby’s lips, and that a little flesh might show around the baby’s head, is just plain horrifying to some people. The irony isn’t lost on me that in cultures requiring head coverings, public breastfeeding is relatively common and no one blinks.

We’ve grown into a society that values women for their looks. From an early age, girls are coached on how to look good. Young girls are encouraged to look (and dress) like little adults, and adult women are encouraged to look like prepubescent girls. We’re all supposed to base our self-worth on how pretty our faces are and how thin our bodies are. Is it any wonder that so many women and girls dress themselves in ways supposedly designed to make men drool? We’re taught to believe that our value rests on whether or not we can successfully catch (and keep) a man.

Strangely, culture has become fixated on the most fleeting of female traits, her physical appearance, and has dictated which characteristics are the most attractive. What we are to find beautiful today will change tomorrow. And the other side effect of all this is to fail to give real men credit for being better than that. We tell them they “can’t help it” when confronted with “hot” women. But the fact that real men are marrying real women betrays the lie. Real men love their significant others for a lot more than what can be seen.

Instead of teaching our daughters that they ought to be careful how much cleavage, back, shoulder, or leg they show, we should be helping them love their bodies no matter what they wear. We’re aiming at the wrong thing. It’s not about trying to figure out where the modesty line is and how not to cross it. It’s about having a healthy concept of ourselves without needing external proof. It’s about dressing for ourselves instead of someone else.

We also need to encourage our daughters to treat their male friends with respect. I know a lovely (read: kind, sweet, charming, intelligent) young woman who has a lot of male friends. They all treat her with respect, even though she is pretty and dresses in ways that flatter her figure. Why? Because she knows the line and doesn’t cross it; because she treats them with respect; because she expects them to return that respect; and because she doesn’t place her worth on whether or not she is dating any of them.

It’s not an insurmountable problem. For every degrading beer commercial, there is a woman striving to help us become body-confident and see ourselves in a positive way regardless of our shape. If you’re a woman in the business of helping other women love and respect their bodies, I’d love to hear from you. Let’s raise a generation of young women who don’t buy into the commercialization and exploitation of their bodies.

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4 thoughts on “All Dressed Up

  1. Well said.

    I’m very much not a conservative Christian and I don’t have kids — but I am appalled at the way the larger culture objectifies women and turns them into little sleazes with the fantasy that this is appealing to men — or anyone else. Women are told, from infancy, to be thin, polite, docile, people-pleasing, pretty and — thin!

    The size of a woman’s hips means nothing to me without corresponding attention to the size (and worth) of her brain and her heart. We focus way too much attention on the wrong things, and women and girls who refuse these pressures need all the love and support they/we can get. Women of true worth know that their intelligence and compassion will make the world better, not some Victoria’s Secret bra.

    • Yes, exactly! I’m all for being healthy, but that’s not quite the same as expecting someone to be a size 2 with a size DD bust. Though women with “good” bodies shouldn’t be ashamed of that, either–they should just also be allowed to celebrate other aspects of their personalities as well.

  2. Amy – these thoughts are so good! I’m a dad to two daughters (5 & 6), so we have time, but these are the principles we want to raise them by! My wife is a size 8 with a DD+ bust, but her whole life she was intimidated and pressured by the church to compress, suppress, cover up. Subsequently, she developed shame for who she was and a very poor body image. She was taught that she was solely responsible for what men thought and did, that their purity was her priority, when if she’d been taught to love and respect herself, her own body, she would have had much more confidence and probably preached purity as a by product.

    Thanks for your wonderful perspective.

    • My own daughter is only 6 as well. I have an 8-year-old son as well, and we plan to help him learn that he is responsible for himself. Too many girls have poor body image by the time they reach middle school, some even younger. I am so sorry your wife had such a hard time. And it’s true, if we help girls believe God designed them and they are good just as they are, they will naturally gravitate toward healthy purity.

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