Monday, January 9, 2012

Of Modesty and Sacredness

I recently got into a debate about the modesty "doctrine," as it was so put, found in Christianity (and other religions) is actually harmful to women. The disagreement was sparked by the reading of this article:

Upon reading it (skimming at the time), I came to the conclusion that the young woman--as I assume she was--was extraordinarily wrongheaded. Hers was the first story I ever head of the Christian form of modesty having a negative effect on women in society.

Now, I would never dispute that some people's use and interpretation of it have lead people down these wrong paths, but that does not mean the "doctrine" itself is wrong or even necessarily right. This woman came across such heretical, if you will, visions of the modesty "doctrine" and it impacted her greatly.

I found out that she use to be a part of this particular sect within the Protestant ecclesial communities founded by a man named William Branham. He was a controversial figure and made various predictions as if her were some sort of prophet (though that isn't even the full function of a prophet). This particular group of people had a very low view of women that stemmed from the ancient idea that Eve was the cause of original sin.

This has popped up in the Church from time to time, but it is in error. I am speaking as a layman, but reading the Genesis account of the advent of sin makes it fairly clear that man--moreso than woman--is the cause of evil entering the world. It does not take a scholar to note that nothing happened regarding the forbidden fruit until Adam himself partook. It the serpent tricking Eve had did not yield any consequences until Adam, for whom she was equally made as the only proper companion, partook of the fruit. It was then that their eyes were open, and it was then modesty was born.

On another note, before we get back to the point, Adam tried to shift the blame onto Eve. He basically claimed that she made him eat of the fruit. Anyone who has ever played the "blame game" before knows that it leads know where. What might have happened if Adam had explained that he did wrong and pleaded for forgiveness? The world shall never know.

Now, this low view of women resulted in many oppressive beliefs and doctrines that were directly pointed towards women. It went right down to having to have a "ladylike" walk etc. It was quite oppressive.

Before we move into just what she says this doctrine did to her, I would like to address this first: Modesty from the Church's standpoint really tends to respect the cultures view of modesty (though they probably are inclined to enact changes in some of the African tribes and other peoples of that type who allow women to be bare-breasted. The Church, right or wrong, might be inclined to have these people cover up more so as to help them in their walk.

That said, these are the charges the author of the article laydown:
-"Modesty taught me that what I looked like was what mattered most"
-"Modesty taught me that I was always on display"
-"Modesty was not just about dress. It was also about moving like a lady."
-"Modesty was literally keeping me weak"
-"Modesty contributed to my eating disorder"
-"Modesty taught me that I was a decoration"
-"Modesty made me objectify myself"
-"When you argue that what's modest and what isn't is a valid concern for women, you tell them that their appearance matters most. You objectify them."
-"You cannot consider women a full human being unless you recognize that their lives do not revolve around the male sex drive."

I will now deal with these in order. However, I would first like to note that one point she made was that saying modesty is just a debate to be won and that men's lives are not changed by it--women's lives are.

I can see where she is coming from, actually. After all, what do men have to do with women's choice of dress. In response, let us first state the obvious: Women and men have made this choice jointly, rightly or wrongly. The way a man or woman dress are considered immediate turn-ons or turn-offs. For example, some men really enjoy scantily clad women with tattoos. Others enjoy women who primarily wear dresses and skirts or stay mostly covered (i.e. dress rather modestly).

Women do the exact same thing with men. Most ladies are not very turned on by a slob who dresses in sweats all the time. Some like a man who cleans up well. Some like a man shaved or "manscaped." Good smelling and well-dressed men can be quite the eye turners in the right environment.

So, it would seem, that men and women both have a stake in modesty. It does not merely effect women. Certain ways of dressing can insight lust more than focus on the person (for both sexes), thus men are effected by the dress of woman as must as women are effected by the dress of men. A tight shirted man that shows of his manly muscles can attract a great number of women, but not always for the right reasons. A woman with a skirt where you can nearly see her thong will attract a great number of men, but usually not for the right reasons. I personally believe that women tend to be more virtuous in this arena, but I would be remiss not to show that it is a two way street as they say. Appearance does matter, but it is not and never should be everything.

Now, onto the first point which claims that modesty made her think that her appearance is what mattered most. Perhaps the rather oppressive form of modesty in the heretical ecclesial communities she belonged to did indeed make her feel this way. But--let us be honest here--she was getting similar oppressive views of appearance in the secular world as in her ecclesial community. When she left worship, she likely saw various magazines that depicted skinny women with designer clothes and a certain glamourous look about their faces. Could this not also contribute to her issues with appearance? It at least (even if she only skimmed or glanced at such publications) had to reinforce what she was getting from her ecclesial community.

She goes to a supposed place of God and is essentially given the same message the World is peddling. It makes sense that she would be conflicted. She was oppressed on all sides with the same restrictive message. Had she left that "church" earlier and ran into the open arms of the World she would have had the same sorts of issues. Is not our post-modern society one of the most frivolous, decadent, and shallow societies there ever was? America and the World in general seem to be more concerned with what they own, who looks up to them, and how they looks than anything of any real substance. Yes, this is a sweeping generalization and there are people who take things more seriously, but you cannot say that the popular culture is not oriented in such a manner. Just have a skim through a tabloid magazine.

Now, to further her point she points at that she became vigilant about being unsexy and was more obsessed with her looks than the very people modesty is against. This may or may not be true, and I would be more inclined to say that she was equally obsessed though in a different way. Lest we forget, appearance is everything in this world and the "church" she belonged to.

The problem with this is the fact that she became obsessively vigilant about being unsexy, and completely misses the point of modesty which is only one part of the equation that is Chastity. Everyone in the Church is to participate in this and have to do it in different ways simply because every person is, as point of fact, different. Obsession made have naturally progressed from her upbringing for various reasons. Perhaps her parents would keep harping on her about her looks or ministers would make snide comments about her choice of dress, etc. However, her neuroses has little to do with actual modesty. (note: her neuroses was developed over time and experience. I do not, in fact, believe she is or was seriously neurotic in a mental health sense)

The truth is, dressing in a way that covers one's body in what might be considered a more appropriate manner is not entirely focused on sex and not attracting men to women in a lustful manner. Keep in mind that our sex drives are natural and good, and that the attraction is going to happen regardless of dress. You can be a very beautiful women whether or not you keep most of yourself covered. Think of some of the most oppressive sexual cultures in recent history like, say, the Victorian culture. They were rather puritanical on one end, but the fact remains that babies were made. Additionally, Victorians have an infamous history with pornography. The desires will be there, no matter what they are wearing. The existence of the fantasy world of pornography is one indicator of such things. As are the facts that it is likely that men still raped women, even if they were in a full dress covered from head to toe. This disordered action pays no heed to how the woman is dressed. The rapist cares not whether or not his victim is dressed sexily or not. The rapist wants to use her body and by force if necessary.

So, if not for the reason of dampening lust in men (and women), what is modesty supposed to do. Here I will deal with a strictly Christian point of view--since all cultures have forms of modesty regardless of their beliefs and the fact that the author was broadly characterizing Christians as the reason for her past ills. What does Christian teaching say about the body?
Is the body evil? All signs point to know. Such beliefs popped up in Gnosticism, other heretical views, and other world religions. The Church tells us that our bodies and our sexual desires are good, especially when they are subordinated to a will that has given itself to God almighty. The Church also tells us that our bodies become temples of the Holy Spirit upon becoming a christian. Furthermore, the Church tells us that our desires can get disordered, it is a long way back to reordering them, and that we are all persons equally loved by God.

Men and women are created equally, not in ability, but in what they each reflect. Even an atheist reflects, in some sense, the Godhead. We all can think and choose. We can forgive and not forgive. We also can create, though on a much smaller scale than an entire cosmos. Art is the proof of the creature that went mad. Whenever God conferred his image on us, that is when we became mankind. How it strictly happened is immaterial, it remains that we are all reflections of our creators whether we acknowledge it or not.

The Church simply tells us to acknowledge this fact and take care of our bodies as we would a holy place. Being a temple is not light task. So, yes, some people can take it too far but they are not so far from the truth. Modesty is showing proper respect for one's body and a guard against objectification. I will go into this more later, as it is another separate point that was made. Can this go wrong? A resounding yes is the answer. We are, after all, only human. The fact that people sin or do wrong is not evidence of the failure or lack of Truth in the Church, but rather evidence of just how write she is about humanity. As someone wise once said, 'self-control is the test and example of self-government.'

Quickly, I'll highlight how the Church appears to guide us in this matter. The vice of lust is an example of objectification at its strongest. Lust does not really care for the person they seek, but rather its own selfish desires. Lust is what causes a man to just bed women for the fun of it, using them as toys for some insane form of masturbation. Lust makes sure it is about himself or herself, and not anyone else. It's Narcissism in a sense.

The Church desires for her children to guard themselves against such things. One stricture is that we save our first bit of sex until we are in the bonds of Holy Matrimony. There are good reasons for this, but that's neither here nor there at the moment. So, we are to save our bodies for a proper time.

Next, the Church tells us that we should avoid lusting after other people and find ways to fight against that temptation (Lust, of course, being sexual in nature). To fight against such things, would require an understanding of attraction. As scientifically uninformed as ancient people were at this time, one finds it interesting that they understood that the body played a huge part in sexual desire. Other things did as well, but the presentation of the body seemed like it could be important. How might that be?

Well, in the first place, the oldest profession in the world prostitution provides many answers. Prostitutes then and today dress in a manner that attracts their clientele. They sell their bodies and their choice in dress is their form of advertising. How did prostitutes dress? Well, they hardly put anything on. Skin would be visible in various places that were considered sexy by that culture and thus clients would come calling.

Knowing this would lead to a couple conclusions: 1. dressing in a manner that exposed flesh seemed to lead to certain undesirable, in the eyes of the Church, consequences. 2. Men seem more drawn to this sort of body advertisement than women.

The Church does not condone of fornication nor adultery, and prostitution provides an avenue for both to occur, for a profit. This is clearly a bad situation for a believer. So, the Church asked women moreso than men to dress in a manner that causes men to respect their bodies in a proper manner and leads to a holy marriage. Singling out women more than men is a bit sexist, but see the logic in it. People knew then as we know now that men tend to do most of the sexual crimes and seem more drawn to visual stimulants than women. Why else would people target most pornography towards men? There is porn for women and some do enjoy pornography, but they are in the minority. Most women I've known have found it either disgusting or highly amusing and shake their head in wonder about how men find it enjoyable. Look at most advertisements and you will see the same trend. Our post-modern world is drenched in visual sexual stimulations and men are more susceptible to this than women, though women fall as well.

Now, how are men supposed behave when it comes to modesty? I personally wear long clothes and have taken a minor oath to myself to rarely, if ever, show skin. I will continue this even if my music career takes off. I don't want to be a stumbling block either. However, here is where culture will come into play again. A lot of cultures have adopted western European dress and attitudes. In general, most men's clothing is not made for the sake of arousal like say lingere. Tank tops can have a sexual effort, but are not usually that acceptable in public unless it is hot and one's job requires less clothing for comfort. Still, it would probably do these men well to just go with a regular t-shirt.

The clothes that are geared more towards attracting women are tight fitting shirts and the like. Sometimes this is an accident and sometimes it is not. In either case, it may be a troublespot. But then, men and women are different. Arousal is different for both. Perhaps men do not need to be as watchful as women. One can see how that might rankle and result in the obsession the author of the article described, but having more emphasis for women does not make it the most important thing. Any one who exalts modest dress that high is missing the entire point. Some cultures do not find breasts that appealing, so they do not mind a little cleavage. Some find them very appealing and men will stare at cleavage. Doing such a thing as that is clearly an objectification. So, the solution is clearly to show less of that. Give less of your body up to those who would misuse it. Men are called to this too, though we clearly need to have a council to decide what this means for us.

In any case, your body is a temple and something that should be respected. Taking measures to ensure that are not necessarily going to result in the struggles that the young lady who wrote her article, though they can if too much emphasis is placed on it and misunderstanding abound.

Now, her next point was that modesty taught her that she was always on display. To this I say, who is not under display? People see each other every day, unless you are a hermit, you have spent your day on display; though, I imagine that animals could ogle a hermit as delicious food. In any case, women are not alone in this. As previously stated, looks play a role in attraction and who people decide to pursue in a romantic way. It also plays a role negative things like judgements and unkindness because someone is not wearing whatever the daft fashion of the day is.

However, the fact that humans are on display does not simply pertain to their style of dress, it deals directly with how they behave as well. Their taste in clothing is simply another sort of behavior they choose to engage in. A man who consistently does good things in public will be considered a good man, whether or not he is secretly a miser that has not been caught yet. The same thing applies to a woman. Everyone is on display and that results in a few different things like playacting or serious striving to do the right thing. There it is again, a negative result in playacting. It is a negative result for the actor, but may be a good for some other person.

Do not get it twisted, as they say, negative results do not necessarily imply a lack of veracity in something or whether or not something is good. A great many things are good and can be used in improper fashions. A prime example would be, cars are a good thing because they transport people at high speeds and shorten their journeys. However, drunk drivers exist, as do car wrecks. Also, the cars we have now apparently effect our environment negatively. Does that mean cars are not a good thing? Even with the environmental argument, the issue is not whether or not cars are a good thing as much as finding the kind of cars that will not result in the Earth being destroyed (doomsday scenarios are always fun!) or will protect the passengers and driver better.

So, yes, we are all on display and that can be a damaging notion if pushed in the wrong way. In the young female author's case, she was not given any place to be less modest in her dress. Apparently, she was not allowed to be in certain types of garments ever because they were considered immodest. She describes a particular episode where a ruckus was caused by her accidentally "flashing" her grandfather. Instead of a hilarious family story, it became more than a rigamarole for the author. She was apparently horrified of the prospect of an accidental moment making her immodest, though it clearly did not--any person with a bee in their shirt is entitled to flail around like a ninny if they so choose. Here, it also seems apparent that this was going on in her head. Her description of the incident simply says that a family member made a comment about how she accidentally "flashed" her grandfather and this resulted in her mental tailspin. There is no noting of whether or not the comment was made in jest or if it was done in a scolding manner. The context and delivery of the statement here would shed light on her point. If the comment was jest, the young lady clearly over reacted. If the comment was scolding, then she is justified in saying that their form of modesty was insane. I would march in the streets with her against this tyrannical not to mention heretical ecclesial community!

Now, the lady etiquette and behavior aspect is not something I have seen directly in any of the Protestant communities I grew up in. This is partly because I am a male and partly because modesty was simply not discussed in those churches. Perhaps it was just understood. In any case, I am under the impression that women naturally walk a bit differently than males due to their skeletal structure and various other factors. Therefore, it makes some sense that there would be people who would want to emphasize femininity. However, the author states that the requirements kept her from proper exercise and made her weak.

She cites two examples: 1. the strictures on how a woman was to move prevented her from exercising. She claimed that one could run, but was not allowed to "jiggle"i.e. the woman's breast must be crushed to keep from men watching. 2. her apparent fear of having her legs open in any manner in front of men at the gym. She went as far as to change her exercise times to minimize the possibility of a man crossing her while she did an exercise that required opening and closing her legs.

Now, considering the severity of how she seems to have been brought up, those fears are very real to her and seemed valid. But, were they really? Most people at the gym do not go for the sake of checking out women, although some individuals do. As she states, she is not the keeper of men's souls and I agree with that sentiment, especially because these men were strangers (though she should still care for their souls). I would not go so far as to say she should not have some thought as to her attire. Men should as well, but that does not always happen. I will say intent plays a role here, but also that there are clearly ways to have dressed modestly without breaking her modesty.

Clearly, the difference between the dressing of say a prostitute and a regular woman is that the prostitute dresses simply to arouse men sexually. A normal woman may or may not ever do that. We certainly see cases where a woman will dress a certain way in order to garner male attention at a club or bar. Still, most women dress based on what they think looks good and not explicitly to arouse sexual attention. Their intent is good, but that does not mean that all bets are off when it comes to clothes. Care should be taken, but not at the risk of one's sanity. As I have stated, clothes that show more skin are more likely to attract lustful stares instead of interest in the person. Think about what you are wearing, but do not worry over much as there is only so much you can do.

Here is one way to eliminate immodesty in the gym: wear sweats. Sweats are usually loose fitting and highly unattractive. They also get you sweating, hence the name "sweats." She could run around with sweats on with impunity. Now, there is an issue of weather and such, but that can be worked with as well. Just put on a shirt over your sportsbra. It cannot stop all of the "jiggle" but that is only part of its function. I imagine it is also used for the sake of sopping up sweat. I have also heard tell that some women prefer sports bras minimizing jiggling for reasons other than the occasional, overly aroused boy. Girls I have know have told me that sometimes breasts can hurt, especially larger ones. I even know a friend or two who got reduction surgery because it was causing them medical problems. The sports bra is tighter than a normal bra and, I am told, would support larger breasts a bit better.

In any case, there were ways around the dilemma that presented itself and living in terror for even the slightest tent in a boy's shorts is no way to go about it. She seems to have not developed, at that time, a healthy way or asserting her modesty while exercising. Sweats may be ugly, but they are useful. In the event that one does not have sweats and only tights, shorts over the tights (because, let us face it, tights are not pants) would cover her nether-regions in an acceptable fashion. The same thing goes with wearing a shirt over a sports bra, which is not a shirt itself. She still could have exercised under modest dress. It is not like people expect you to not take care of yourself and to wear dresses even in the gym. It is not practical in the least.

So, the way modesty was taught to this young woman clearly had adverse effects on her person. She developed poor methods, views of herself, and misunderstood modesty as a result. the author apparently developed an eating disorder for the sake modesty in a misguided attempt to make herself look boyish and unsexy. The author clearly has a strong misunderstanding of what modesty is and its importance in the grand scheme of things. It consumed her so much that she starved herself. This is not the intent of the belief and should never be the result.

I wonder what she was told, because being "85 pounds" does not necessarily mean one is unsexy. She acts as if petite women never attract suitors. This clearly is not a fact, and I myself have dated petite ladies. They are just as lovely as ladies who are thicker. She seems to have thought that not having a large assets, so to speak, was going to stop men from being attracted to her. Some of them would indeed stop being attracted, but since it seems that people large and skinny get married, date, and have children without that much trouble.

Here the author admits, partially, that the issue here was in her own mind. She attributes this to the modesty "doctrine." As it was presented to her, there may be some truth in it. But, surely believing that one reflects God, has a beautiful body that is a temple of the Lord, is not a negative way of viewing one's self. If she was told this, would she view things in the same manner? I find the idea that she would rather dubious. She was given an extreme that misses the entire point, not the true form of the belief; which, again, is only a small part of Chastity. Therefore, it makes sense that her views ventured on the extreme while she grew up and that she had to discard this view of modesty to free herself. However, the way she presents the article has resulted in her pigeonholing various forms of Christianity under the banner of Conservative Christianity. Conservativism is not directly related to what the Church believes and neither is liberalism. Actually, both tend present good and bad versions of what the Church believes. Some people do not want to help the poor, which is wrong, and still others want to just give the poor everything and do not look to actually teaching them a manner that would make their lives more manageable. Teaching people to always wait for handouts cannot be good for them as well. Help people stands. Those views are not necessarily all inherent in the Church, but the point is that the Church can be considered liberal in some ways and conservative in others and that depends entirely on who is viewing their actions. She unfairly pins all of the Church as a cause of her confused views.

The next two points are related to an earlier point. The author says that she was taught to think she was a decoration and she was made to objectify herself. Is the real belief of modesty something that objectifies people, from a Christian standpoint? Clearly not, being made Imago Dei is enough to place a certain matter of pride within any human. It means that everyone is created and loved in the same manner. If you cannot hold your head up--you who are dust--knowing this, then how will you ever really respect yourself. Is not being a beautiful temple enough?

It is a misunderstanding to think that women are to be unsexy and vice versa. She was given modesty in a corrupted form and ascribing it too all ecclesial communties and the Church is wrong headed. I have known plenty of women who have no issues with modest dress.

Her next point is also related to her other points in that it is a focus on appearance. As I have shown, everyone is on display and it is not just women. Additionally, simply saying or asserting that modesty is a valid concern for women hardly objectifies her and tells her that appearance is the most important thing. It does not logically follow to say such things.

Saying something is important or is a valid concern does not mean that you should focus only on that one thing. It hardly gives you the whole picture, especially in what the Church actually believes. Sure, some people mess these ideas up, but the Church is made of humans and those mistakes will happen. The whole belief in modesty is not necessarily oppressive or scarring. I would never point someone to the kind of "church" the author attended, but I would hope that they dress modestly though I have no control over that. The author acts as if a woman's free choice is eliminated by this "doctrine." It may have seemed like that, but many laws exist in the secular world that are broken every day. Choice is hardly the issue, but there are consequences for every action. Maybe you should not wear that little black dress because it is too small or to make sure your interactions are not coloured simply by your sexuality. The World is more focused on looks than the Church is. Looks can be deceiving and looks are not everything. The author was given a certain view of it and ran away with it into depths unknown. I have never heard such arguments in my life.

Finally, the young miss makes a good point about how you cannot properly look at women if you believe it all circles around your sex drive. Correct me if I am wrong, but most of my friends are not of that mold. I am sure people like that exist, but we all respect and love women. It is not strictly about our sex drive. Sexuality is not the whole thing that everything is built on. It is not the foundation of the Church's beliefs or doctrines. Too much emphasis was placed on it and that was the result.

However, I will have to take issue with the idea that modesty is a philosophy that is dehumanizing. If it is taught and executed in a proper manner it gives humans great dignity. The Church has always been in favor of life. There have been times where people have strayed, but life has always been sacred and rules only tell you a few things that you should not or should take care to avoid. The covering of the body is done to accept its sacredness from roving eyes that take a woman's body as if it is made purely for his pleasure. Eve was a helpmate, that's what a wife or girlfriend (in a sense) is supposed to be. Not simply an object of pleasure. Most of what the author is concerned with has little to do with actual modesty. She was taught wrong and that is that.

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