Last week, an acquaintance shared this article about a woman who was confronted by another woman from her church regarding how she was dressed. The link to the article was accompanied by this acquaintance charging women to “have your husband inspect your outfit before you leave the house!”
I shared that with my own husband. He looked at me, his eyebrow raised in puzzlement, before he burst out laughing. He told me that he couldn’t imagine me doing that, nor would he want me to. He and I have an ongoing agreement that we are both adults and do not need to be monitored like small children who don’t know any better, so I wasn’t really surprised by his reaction.
The thing that stood out to me were the particular criticisms of the writer’s clothing. The woman who confronted her wanted to know,
Do you think wearing your shoulders out is okay for other men to see while they are trying to worship?
Don’t you think your high heels with your toes out are a bit much?
She was not only fixated on the specifics of the clothing she found objectionable, she was placing it in the context of how it would affect the men in the church.
This is a problem.
I agree that there are standards of dress and that modesty is a good thing. Where I disagree is why. In fact, it’s why I dislike modesty culture just as much as I dislike the “immodest” styles that are available. It’s not the outfit, it’s the motivation—on both sides of the Great Purity Divide.
Ironically, I dislike the purity movement for exactly the same reasons I don’t like porn and provocative clothing. In both cases, the catering is done for the benefit of men. And it’s why I don’t give a rat’s butt about a woman wearing a cami with her bra straps showing, or a bathing suit that doesn’t make her look like she’s pretending she doesn’t have boobs, or a pair of sweat pants that says “sweet” on the rear, any more than I care about baggy dresses and “mom jeans.”
When clothing is chosen with men in mind, it doesn’t matter whether it’s chosen to entice or to “respect.” In both cases, the motivation is someone outside the woman choosing the outfit. That’s not healthy for anyone. Here’s why, and these apply in both situations:
- It reinforces the imbalance of power. Here’s the idea: Men have power, women don’t, therefore everything we do as women must be done keeping men in mind, including how we dress. What a terrible way to live.
- It implies that men are only ever interested in one way of interacting with women. It causes a relationship between men and women that is entirely based on sexuality, rather than mutual respect. On the one hand, skimpy clothes are intended to be sexually arousing for men, which objectifies women. On the other, “modest” dress assumes that men are looking at women as mere sex objects and that their bodies must be hidden to prevent this.
- It sets up an impossible standard for women. Either she must conform to a certain kind of physical beauty or she must conform to a certain kind of moral purity, but the lines are never clear enough and the rules are never specific enough. How thin is the ideal body? How big do breasts need to be in order to be perfect? How many inches above the knee is too short? What constitutes too tight?
- It makes women responsible for the actions of men. Either we’re supposed to show off our assets so those clueless men finally take notice, or we’re supposed to cover them up so those oversexed men won’t be distracted. It’s classic blame-the-victim. When a woman seen as attractive is single, people wonder what her flaws are that she couldn’t land a man. When a woman is assaulted, she’s often asked what she did to provoke the attack.
- It assumes that male-female pair bonding is the ultimate goal for every woman. Female clothing is supposed to be chosen to please our future husbands. This ignores the fact that there are lesbians and women who don’t want to get married.
Ultimately, what’s more important than the dimensions of the clothing is that a woman chooses it with no one in mind except herself. A woman who is empowered does not choose her clothes based on what anyone else thinks she should wear. It is my belief that if more women dressed in ways that made them feel good about themselves, we would no longer need to continue to argue about what constitutes appropriate clothing and where the modesty line is.