Wilson, who first came to Harding as a professor in the early 70s, spoke about the university’s strict dress code when she began teaching. According to Wilson, there were some faculty members who would even measure the length of female students’ skirts to promote modesty.
In the late 90s, Harding University began to incorporate a section of the student handbook titled “Modest and Appropriate Dress.” This section included dress codes for both men and women, but for nearly a decade, the header’s accompanying picture was one of only female students.
According to senior Madeline Jones, the way modesty is presented in Christian circles and at Harding tends to focus heavily on outward appearance rather than inner traits. Jones said that modesty, though it is supposed to provide an alternative to the objectification of women, ironically leads to the objectification of Christian women. Jones said she did not grow up in a Christian household, and so arriving at university with a strict dress code was shocking.
Jones said that as a freshman, she was the “perfect Harding student” because she was too afraid to challenge the ideal view of modesty. According to Jones, “modest” clothing can have a reputation of being “frumpy, white-washed and not defining.” She says that her style and her sense of modesty now is less about how much skin she is showing but about her own self-worth, confidence, discretion and self-empowerment.
“I think modesty is so cultural and I think it is situational, most definitely,” Jones said. “I was taught modesty to want to think outside of myself and to never offend who you’re going to be with. Modesty for me is respect for myself and for other people, and I think that’s a line that gets crossed a lot.”
According to Jones, it is common for faculty and staff members to ask female students to change clothes if they are seen violating dress code. Jones said she finds it frustrating to be asked to change out of clothes that even her parents do not see as “promiscuous.”
“I feel like all we do is shame when it comes to modesty instead of cultivating uniqueness and personalized ways to view modesty,” Jones said. “It’s just like putting me in a box. That seems very counterproductive because we all deal with shame — especially women.”
That word — shame — came up in nearly every one of my interviews as I asked these women what modesty meant to them. Each spoke of shame that had been brought forth because of the judgment of others, often unjustly. At Harding, one can be asked to go back and change clothes when leaving the dorm or when entering class or chapel, like O’Brian.
O’Brian spoke of one memory from when she was a student at Harding and was asked to change. Her class had already begun when the professor publicly asked her to step out of class, go back to her dorm, change clothes and return to class. O’Brian said she was wearing capris-length pants that were a few inches below the knee, but the professor referred to them as “shorts” which are not allowed in class at all. O’Brian describes feeling embarrassed and ashamed having to leave in the middle of class to change her clothes.
“When (modesty) is done the wrong way,” Jones said, “it just cultivates shame.”
While young women’s modesty in the physical sense is often enforced at Harding, I found this to be inconsistent across campus. I turned my research to the Department of Bible and Ministry seeking answers as to what qualifies as “modest and appropriate dress” throughout our lives. Dr. Joe Brumfield, who teaches Christian Families courses at Harding, outlines several parameters of dress in his book and class curriculum, “Help for Relationships: Mate Selection, Marriage, Family Building, and Counseling.”
In his section on mate selection titled “Choosing a Real Woman (A Spiritual Woman),” Brumfield writes, “Choose someone who puts God first in the way they dress His Temple,” and “Choose someone who will still love you when you get old, wrinkled, fat and grouchy. (Do not choose someone who has chosen you based primarily on you looks, or on romantic feelings).”
Assuming that dressing “His Temple” falls in line with the Harding code of modest and appropriate dress, I was not surprised by this section. However, in the section on marriage, Brumfield includes a section titled “Suggestions for Women Who Want to Help Make Their Man Feel like a ‘Real Man.’”
“Be a female,” Brumfield said. “Don’t get frumpy and grouchy, wearing sweats and get a defensive attitude. Instead, smell sweet, put on sexy outfits, and be nice!”
Later in the section “Real Women (Led by the Spirit),” Brumfield writes that a real woman “Gives husband lots of physical intimacy without being asked — and makes herself enjoy it.”
Harding, as a Christian university, teaches its single female students that their role is to not cause their Christian brothers to stumble. Their role once married, however, looks quite different. According to junior Caitlyn Denison, these attitudes foster a dangerous culture within the university.