The Personalist Project

Yesterday I got an email from a new member who has been following our modesty discussions with great interest. He said he would like to host a conversation with local friends and colleagues on the subject and wanted to know whether I had readings to recommend.

I didn't, really. I mean, I've read countless articles of varying quality on the objectification of women and the value of modesty. Member Rhett pasted a passage from The Privilege of Being a Woman, a book far superior to most, in terms of linking modesty to the beauty, dignity and high spiritual calling of femininity. Years ago, I read with great admiration Wendy Shallit's book A Return to Modesty. If I remember rightly, she was a secularized Jewish woman who found herself enormously empowered in her sense of self and her way of relating to others when she began dressing modestly, which led her to a compelling critique of the cultural status quo. I recommend both those books.

But, they only cover the issue from one side, viz., the "good side" of "modesty talk."

I had never read anything analyzing the other aspect of the problem—the one I've been struggling to articulate, namely, the way a focus on modesty can become perverse and play into the master/slave hermeneutic of the fall.

Recalling that a friend had told me recently that her college-age daughter now associates all talk of modesty with what she called "rape culture", I googled "modesty, rape-culture" and came upon this illuminating Patheos article. The author is an escapee from the Quiverfull movement of fundamentalist Christianity. She absolutely nails the point I've been driving at, though she puts it in starker terms than I'm accustomed to. [Emphasis in the original.]

The hyper-vigilance of fundamentalist men and women to root out “immodesty” conceals a hatred of female sexuality: secondary sex characteristics should not be visible except in approved circumstances. The system is designed to ensure that the only time a man is “turned on” by a woman is when he is allowed to act on his urges: in the marital bed. In other words, if a woman’s body is visible, it ought to be available for sex. Although I don’t think many men think this consciously, the idea crops up in misogynist rhetoric all the time. “Immodest” women are “asking for it,” or it’s “false advertising” if a woman in a short skirt won’t go home with you, or (in the terms of the Christian patriarchy movement) a woman “defrauds” a man (literally, deprives him of a right or property) by allowing herself to be attractive in a situation wherein sex with her is illicit or unwanted.

She makes a very personalist point too:

Something’s missing here. I hope you’ve picked up on it. The woman does not have any agency in this model of male sexuality. What she wants or doesn’t want is either erased or subordinated to what he wants or can’t have.

I think she's right. Much of the modesty talk in Christian circles, consciously or not, is framed

1) to downplay moral agency, the defining feature of personal existence. The man is treated as the victim of his urges; they are "caused" (by the woman) in him; therefore, he is not responsible for them. The woman's agency is practically limited to whether or not she covers herself adequately. If she's virtuous, she'll cover up; if she doesn't cover up adequately enough to prevent male lust, she's blameable for the problems she causes him, as well as for anything that might "happen" to her, i.e. sexual assault.

2) to re-establish a patriarchal culture, in which women are religiously enjoined to subordinate themselves to men. The woman's role is to serve men, while the man's role is to govern.

John Paul II's personalist approach to human sexuality is practically opposite to this, or rather, as far above it as it is above hedonism and promiscuity. His sexual ethics and his Theology of the Body emphasize moral agency, the essential goodness of the human body, and the complementarity of the sexes. He stresses that the call to self-giving service is a mutual call, rooted in our being as persons, not in the nature of feminity vis a vis masculinity.

The "point" of modesty in the late Pope's telling is not to hide female sexuality, but to ensure that it is properly integrated into a woman's subjectivity, so that those who encounter her are encouraged to encouter her as person—subject and moral agent—rather than as an object. Her sexuality is to be received not as an invitation to abuse, but as "a starting point for love."

A large element in the Christian counterculture, though, is a far cry from JP II. In many places:

- Girls and women are held responsible for male lust.

- Curvy girls especially are made to feel ashamed of their bodies.

- Men are taught that if they have unwanted sexual desire for a woman who isn't their wife, it's because that woman is being immodest. She should be corrected and made to diminish her sexuality.

If you think this only happens in evangelical circles, think again. When my daughter was 14, we sent her to a traditional Catholic high school with a strict dress code. She was a lovely, very innocent young girl going awkwardly through adolescence. She was a little overweight and large-breasted at the time, so that the required blouses and sweaters were inevitably tight on her. Though she tried desperately to dress within the code, she was repeatedly reprimanded for immodesty. The dress code would be "updated" on the spot to deal with her case. ("Those leather boots are not allowed, because they draw attention to your legs.") We spent I don't know how many hundreds of dollars trying to dress her "appropriately," that is, according to the ideas of the hyper-vigilant (not to say obsessed), 40-something year old assistant headmaster.

One of the woman teachers at the school, who could see that my daughter was entirely innocent of bad intentions, explained to me that, nonetheless, she was "causing problems for some of the male teachers," so we would have to try harder to find more appropriate clothing for her.

In other words, my 14 year old daughter was held responsible for the difficulty grown men were having with their sexual responses. She was made to feel guilty and ashamed of herself, though she had done nothing wrong at all

I hope everyone can see that this is perverse. I hope we can realize how damaging it must be to the self-image of a young girl. I am unhappy now to think how much I complied at the time. It bothered me. I complained a lot with other mothers having similar problems. I sympathized with my daughter's embarrassment and frustration. But I also bought her new clothes, so these male teachers could get relief. I'm mad at myself for that now. I wish I had been much more forceful in defending her from what I now see as the aggression and perversity of their demands on her. If a right sexual ethic had been in place at the school, the teachers, not the students, would have been taken to task for "inappropriateness." (I was glad to hear a few years ago that that assistant headmaster no longer works at the school.)

Here's a picture of my daughter (on the right) at 16. (She was also criticized by Catholic men and boys for her short hair, which they declared "unfeminine".) She's smiling as she relaxes at home with her siblings. By this time, we had put her in a new school. It was bigger and more secularized, but there she found herself both accepted for who she was and admired for her strong moral values. She felt liberated from oppression. (I'm telling the story with her permission.)

Unless we realize and take seriously the fact that this is something many girls and women have experienced, much of our talk of modesty is likely to backfire. Girls and women will begin to associate Christianity with oppression, repression, and perversion.

As I was finishing the post, I came upon this one by Simcha Fisher. Man oh man.

Comments (19)

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#1, Jul 7, 2014 4:47pm

Katie, I have a similar story. While researching Catholic colleges as a recent high school graduate, I visited Magdalen College in New Hampshire. The grounds were lovely and the courses interesting. The music in particular--everyone spent time in schola and the a capella groups on campus were amazing--was attractive to me.

Visitors were placed in residences with the students to get a feel for the college, and everyone was sent a package which included the dress code before visiting. I was most worried about the skirt clause, but I'd packed a few comfortable peasant skirts and my few non-t-shirt tops to go with. 

On my second day there, a female student told me my sweater was immodest. It was a fairly thick sweater--I was actually pretty hot for a mild fall day--but she insisted it was too tight and formfitting. The mild v-neck (collarbone level) was also pointed to as a problem. I was utterly humiliated, especially by her insinuation that I was distracting "other people." That general statement--that suggestion that I was being talked about and judged by others--was mortifying. 

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#2, Jul 7, 2014 4:55pm

In any case, it was enough to inspire me to call my parents and leave before the weekend was up. There were other policies I found denigrating as well, but I can still recall exactly how I felt--how helpless I felt, how unjust it was--when I was held responsible for the fact that my sweater curved around the shape of my torso. 

I did realize in retrospect that part of it was that although I was within the letter of the dress code, I had violated the cultural norm for dress. Most of those girls were from a different social background and wore neat-looking tailored skirts and blouses (and no, I don't know how a sweater is more immodest than a tailored blouse). Most were also less busty than I was. My peasant skirt and sweater stood out because they were different, which may have been the real root of the complaint--it was not a campus friendly to difference, and the dress code was one tool to exert pressure on non-conformists.

The direct result was that I wound up at Ave Maria, though, which I cannot regret! 

Katie van Schaijik

#3, Jul 7, 2014 9:59pm

I can tell you from personal experience of the faculty/staff side of Ave that the battle was raging there too.  

Tom Monaghan tried more than once to institute a policy requiring that all faculty and staff women had to wear skirts on the job. He only relented under intense lobbying—men and women dedicated to Catholic academia for decades telling him it was a bad idea.

The prime reason it was a bad idea is that it was demeaning to women. Skirts aren't demeaning to women, but a man demanding that all women wear them is.

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#4, Jul 8, 2014 12:09am

I remember some of that--Dr. Smith was not very impressed, as I recall. I also recall fondly Dr. Beiting's "rebellion fuzz" in response to the requirement that male professors be clean-shaven. :-) 

For all of the dysfunction of the Ave project, it was a good formative experience to witness up close what it looks like when men and women of faith wrestle with the application of principle (including opposing principles) and respond to injustices cloaked in the language of religion. 

Jerry DeLeo

#5, Jul 8, 2014 8:43pm

Hey Katie, Your headline made me uncomfortable but I read on.  Here is my 2 cents, I kind of agree with you.  God made women beautiful and attractive.  There certainly is nothing objectively wrong with enjoying the glory of His creation. The modesty nazi's overlook this in their pornified perspective on things.  To them, the mere sight of a woman with a nice figure or some attractive feminine feature is going to set men aflame with lust initializing a sequence of events not seen since the days of Sodom and Gohmorrah... what rubbish.  What does that say about their perspective on creation?  (That it is bad?)  And their view of male impulse control?  (That it is non-existant?)   Now I must admit I get uncomfortable when the glory of God is on full unabashed display, but I also recognize it as my problem.  There is such a distorted emphasis on the power and pleasure associated with sexuality that many simply forget they are free centient creatures.  That's too bad.  However, taken to extreme, this terribly flawed logic brings us to the burka and the flourishing egalitarianism societies those cultures are known for..

Katie van Schaijik

#6, Jul 8, 2014 8:48pm

Exactly so, Jerry.

Ian Skemp

#7, Jul 8, 2014 10:44pm

I can tell you right now that a clean shaven requirement is a deal-breaker for me, as I prefer sporting a full beard during the colder MN months. If my beard makes it difficult for women to control their urges, then that’s their problem and they simply have to deal with it…

All snarkiness aside, I find it interesting that it was a girl who called you out on your sweater, Kate. It makes me curious. Has it been your experience that women police each other more vigorously? I've witnessed and heard of women scolding other women for their manner of dress, but the only time I see it coming from a man is when that man is a figure of authority- like a dean. That being said, I'm interested to know what your experience is.

Katie van Schaijik

#8, Jul 8, 2014 10:48pm

Ian, Kate can of course answer for herself, but I can say that in my experience, it is typical for men to "delegate" women for this task. The male in authority will require a female subordinate to enforce the dress code he establishes. 

This is, of course, another form of domination behavior. 

Ian Skemp

#9, Jul 8, 2014 11:05pm

Katie, that fits in with my experience with respect to academic institutions. While male teachers are tasked with enforcing the same rules, it often falls on the female faculty members to do this for a variety of reasons. Some men don't care about the rule, while others are simply uncomfortable about enforcing it.

What I'm more curious about are situations outside of institutions. A faculty member pointing out a short skirt may just be trying to do their job, but what about those random acts of unsolicited advice? What prompts a person to be such a busybody about modesty? Is it youthful zeal? Blind reactionaryism? 

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#10, Jul 8, 2014 11:59pm

At the time I thought it was zeal and the almost paranoia about such things that school imposed. In retrospect, I think she may have been an RA and instructed to "mention something" to me, particularly with the "other people" comment--which would make it part of this master-slave hermeneutic Katie is responding to. 

To be honest, the only other in-person experiences I've had that were that intrusive were with men--one was a fellow college student who felt he needed to tell me one particular shirt I enjoyed wearing was "distracting" him (I wish I'd had the awareness and presence of mind to suggest he offer it up!). 

Katie, I posted this on a Catholic women's FB group, and got a very positive response, and one utterly horrible story from a woman whose father called her horrible things for being 'immodest' (slut, whore) even though the only thing that had changed about the style of clothing she wore was the shape of the body beneath. After hearing a bit about her background I pointed her to Elizabeth Esther's book and blog.

Katie van Schaijik

#11, Jul 9, 2014 8:42am

Ian, another feature of "modesty talk" is that it tends to inculcate externalism and judgmentalism. When we grow up with our moral attention constantly being drawn to what we're wearing and what other people are wearing, we typically either rebel or become self-righteous, judgmental types. Busybodies.

Very often, just as men resent that women dress in a way they find sexually bothersome, women resent that other women are apparently allowed a freedom they themselves are not allowed. So they point fingers.

I've seen a lot of this in teenage girls raised in very strict families. They want so badly to be able to wear a bikini or high heels, say. But they're not allowed. So they sit at the beach and talk about how immodest the girls in bikinis are. They cope with their feeling of inferiority by "tearing down."

Katie van Schaijik

#12, Jul 9, 2014 8:43am

Kate, thanks so much for the link! And for directing that poor woman to EE.

I fear we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg on this.

Katie van Schaijik

#13, Jul 9, 2014 9:07am

Thinking about the two rules TM was so obsessive about: men have to be clean-shaven and women have to wear skirts.

There are no sexual overtones in the case of beards. The policy (at Dominos Pizza) was justified on grounds of efficiency. Since beards are a long-standing tradition in academia, and since efficiency is not the "theme" of the academic life, the policy was rejected at AM.

I can't find any such justification for the women have to wear skirts rule.

Rhett Segall

#14, Jul 9, 2014 12:07pm

Your 16 year old daughter is going out to a movie with her 17 year old boy friend. Is there any point at which you would say don't wear  that? Why?

Katie van Schaijik

#15, Jul 9, 2014 1:13pm

I would never let my 16 year old daughter go to the movies with her 17 year old boyfriend!

I'm half kidding. Happily for me, neither of our daughters had a boyfriend before college. Generally, we discouraged one-on-one dating in high school. We tell our kids that that's too much intensity for that level of maturity. The "theme" of intersex relations in high school should be friendship, not romance. So, group outings are the thing.

But let me try to go with your question.

Parents should emphasize helping their daughters realize their own dignity, mostly by learning from their experience, and through conversation, not commands.  If my daughter came down wearing something that I thought drew too much attention to her  "sexual values", as JP II put it, I would tell her that. "Sweetheart, I'm worried that that outfit will draw the wrong kind of attention. You don't want to make it too hard for your boyfriend to treat you with respect."

Katie van Schaijik

#16, Jul 9, 2014 3:45pm

I would be aware (now!) that if I were to say something like, "That is way too immodest, march right back up to your room and change or you're not going anywhere," I would be misfiring. I would be embarrassing her, hurting her, and interfering with her own developing sense of self.

I know lots of young women whose way of dealing with parental authoritarianism is to change when they leave home. I mean, change their clothes. The parents have no idea what they're wearing. This is because the parents have (unfortunately) cut off conversation with their older children, who feel they have to hide from them.

Rhett Segall

#17, Jul 11, 2014 10:49am

I’d like to approach the question of modesty in dress from this definition: Modesty is revealing only what is appropriate under the particular circumstances. Thus it would be immodest to speak of intimate feelings amongst a group of strangers or even casual acquaintances. And since clothing is revelation what is modest or immodest here also depends on the circumstances. 


Rhett Segall

#18, Jul 11, 2014 10:50am

If things are done before their time or in the wrong place or with the wrong people then they are done without discretion. The result will be utterly counter productive. That organic development, which DvH so often stressed, will be lacking. The exposition of important things needs the proper context in order to be nurtured. “Do not cast your pearls before swine” Jesus said. Anne Dillard, the novelist, tells how her love of butterflies led to a terrible experience. When she was young she found a cocoon. To hasten the process of development she put a lit candle under it. She was delighted as the cocoon began to break open and apparently a butterfly began to emerge. But she was horrified when she realized the speed up process brought forth a butterfly without wings. The Spanish have this maxim: “No mates la mariposa.” –Don’t kill the butterfly.

What flows from this is the question with its underlying modesty principle:  “Is what I am revealing appropriate under these circumstances.”?  I think this can be a guideline for modesty in dress. 

Katie van Schaijik

#19, Jul 11, 2014 11:13am

Ok. But you are still talking only about "the good side" of modesty talk. You haven't addressed, it seems to me, the central problem I'm trying to highlight, namely the way modesty talk backfires

1) by making both sexes more, not less aware of sexuality

2) by putting too much of a burden to resist the entire culture on young girls

3) by inclining men to blame girls and women for their lustful thoughts and feelings

4) by reinforcing the fallen male tendency to try to subdue and dominate women

Inasmuch as these tendencies are at play in modesty talk (and they are), resistance is good—resistance not only on the level of talk, but on the level of action.

And if our response to the resistance is to double down on our insistence that girls should be dressing more modestly, we inspire more resistance, and so on and so forth in a vicious cycle.

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