This summer I got to spend some quality time with a beloved friend of 30+ years.
We had gone to college and graduate school together. She is godmother to our first two children, and she and Jules defended their dissertations on the same day high up in the alps of Liechtenstein.
Life going the way it goes, though, and living many states apart, we've been very little together in the last 10 or 15 years. Even telephone conversations are few and far between. But we found it easy to pick up where we'd left off, as if time and distance are of no account at all between true friends.
My thinking has changed in rather fundamental ways over the last decade, alienating me from many people and groups I used to be close to. Sometimes it seems to have gone so far that I feel a little alarmed at myself. Am I still myself with so much changed? In strong, healthy moments, I see that only what was false and unreal about me has been stripped, while the deepest truths and commitments have become clearer and stronger, with new insights and experiences seamlessly woven in. In sicklier moments, though, I can worry that maybe I'm just undergoing a gradual dissolution of the self.
So it was deeply reassuring to notice how much her thinking has changed and developed along lines similar to mine. What makes it particularly reassuring is that many of her personal excellences coincide exactly with my worst shortcomings. She is highly disciplined in her prayer life, for instance—in all areas of her life, really—while I am wretchedly indolent and disorderly. So, nothing about the changes in her thinking can be attributed to lack of prayer or faith or discipline. And on point after point, issue after issue, principle after principle, we were of one mind.
In a few places, though, I was disconcerted to discover how radical I seem to be becoming.
One of those places is the issue of modesty. In recent years (see here and here for more) I have found in myself an increasingly strong reaction against the very word and concept—not the virtue itself (who can be against a virtue?), but against the travesty that is everywhere (among Christians) preached and taught in its place. I notice myself resisting practically all attempts to establish it by way of clothing rules for girls, no matter how comparatively moderate. Such rules now strike me as inescapably demeaning and controlling. They are (as I see it) bound up with the subordination of women to men. And they (practically always) do more harm in terms of a girl's developing sense of self than they do good in terms of protecting her from objectification by others.
My friend's obvious intention to follow my reasoning carefully and sympathetically was clear and beautiful. (If only we all had friends like that around us every day!) Even so, I struggled to communicate my thoughts, and to express the "why" of my intense internal resistance to even very modest "modesty rules."
Today, re-reading a book by Kay Bruner called As Soon As I Fell, I came upon a section that helped me understand myself better. The book is about her life and the painful midlife crisis (not completely unlike my own) that involved bitter disillusionment, profound changes in her thinking, and then a better, freer, happier, fuller way of living her faith and her relationships.
Kay Bruner and her husband were Protestant evangelical missionaries sent as Bible translators to the Solomon Islands. (Both had been raised by strict evangelical parents, in whose footsteps they were following with zeal.) The onsite training they and other missionaries underwent involved some "cultural sensitivity" instruction. They would be living and working in a highly sex-segregated society.
I learned that as a woman, I could not look a man in the eye during a conversation. I was required to wear dresses that covered my knees, and the skirt needed to be full and flowing, so that I wouldn’t expose my legs. That first day, we learned how to hold our skirts so that we would never accidentally flash anyone while getting up from the floor, where everyone sat. I could not step over anything that a man might afterward handle, because I might contaminate things with my menstrual blood, even if I wasn’t currently menstruating. If I went to the produce market, where food would be lying on the ground, I needed to hold my skirt close to my body, because even my skirt floating in the air over the food would contaminate it. I would swim in long shorts down to my knees and I would hike in long skirts down over my calves.
She was no feminist, and so accepted all of it.
On a surface level, I could go along cheerfully with these cultural norms. It was required, and I was going to succeed. Besides, I was a guest in this culture, so it seemed respectful and appropriate to do what the locals did. Wearing a skirt, wearing a pair of shorts over my bathing suit, these were small sacrifices to make in light of the important task we were called to do. It really shouldn’t matter that much.
But still, it affected her.
Deep down, though, these extra rules for women became a subtle reinforcement of the self-condemning framework I already lived in. Every time I had to remind myself not to look someone in the eye, every time I was worried about where my skirt was, or if my shorts were long enough, it whispered in my head that I was not an acceptable person, that there was something inherently offensive about me, and that it was up to me to protect other people from me. [my bold]
I hope it comes through that the issue isn't the excessive strictness of the rules (this is a country where women normally go topless). It's the underlying attitude toward women. And it's the subtle effect of those rules on an individual woman's personal subjectivity. It has an effect on men too—inducing or reinforcing a sense of entitlement when it comes to women's dress. "We are entitled not to be disturbed by women's bodies. If we are disturbed, the woman is at fault."
In Islamist societies, this general principle goes so far that the victims of rape are considered responsible for the lust the sight of them incited in their attackers. So the victim has to be lashed or killed or given in marriage to her rapist.
I don't think we fully escape this violent mode of inter-sex relations unless we recognize that it is nothing other than an extreme manifestation of the evil effects of the fall in Eden. I mean to say: that same tendency to blame and shame women for male lust is in us too.
I have come around to the opinion that much of the "modesty talk" in the Christian counter culture springs from that evil tendency, and girls feel it, even if they don't know how to articulate those feelings. They experience themselves as being illegitimately controlled by other people's rules, which were written for other people's convenience, and they resent it. I even think at least some of the in-your-face immodesty of today's fashions represents a valid protest against that control. "You have no right to tell me how to dress, and to prove it, I'm going to dress in exactly the way you say I can't."
I don't mean there's no such phenomenon as girls or women deliberately or thoughtlessly provoking lust in men. I mean, rather, that when it comes to what we could call the subjectivity of immodest dressing, the issue is highly complex and delicate and can't be addressed—or rather, gets aggravated by—the application of modesty rules-for-girls.
Of course, the most important reason for dressing modestly is self-respect. But two key things about self-respect:
1) It has to come from the self. We can't induce it in others by establishing rules for them to live by. On the contrary, pressing others to conform to rules they don't understand and don't agree with almost always causes deep injury to their self-respect.
2) It will take radically different outward forms, according to individual cases. So, for instance, for a young woman raised in a household with authoritarian parents who insisted she always where skirts below her knees and sleeves below the elbows, a choice one day to wear a short, sleeveless dress to a college dance may be exactly a brave act of self-assertion and self-respect. "I am my own person. I don't have to live by my parents' rules. I can make choices for myself." Meanwhile, for another woman—like Wendy Shallit—who grew up absorbing the libertine mores of the surrounding secular culture, and who had become accustomed to feeling like a sex object—the choice to wear longer sleeves and hemlines was a courageous act of self-empowerment.
The point is, it was self-empowerment.
If we want to heal the culture—this culture, the one we actually live in—we have to begin by understanding that. And we have to conscientiously rid ourselves of our long-standing habits of disempowering self and others. It was those habits, I claim, that led to the mess we're in now.