The M Word Women and Modesty in Christian Culture

“I think one of the most hurtful questions that people have asked me about my rape was what I was wearing, as if it would have any kind of implications on whether or not or to what degree it was okay,” O’Brian said.

Director of Academic Resources Stephanie O’Brian sits in her office filled with colorful wall-hangings and pictures of loved ones. In the corner is a stack of posters, the one on top reading, “Rape: Consent is Not a Blurred Line.” These posters were used to promote the first ever Sexual Assault Awareness Week at Harding University.

“It is a victim blaming question,” O’Brian said, “and for the record I was wearing jeans and a hoodie the night I was raped. There’s nothing provocative about that."

"No matter what, even if you do dress ‘provocatively,’ you’re not asking for it."

"I view (dress) as an expression of self. I also think that as a woman, I should not be held accountable for a man’s thoughts, and if they cannot control their thoughts and their lust, then that’s on them."

Modesty: Christian Culture

The belief that a woman is responsible for a man’s thoughts is a common one in Christian culture, according to O’Brian. This starts with teaching young children in churches and homes about what it means to be male and female.

According to Dr. Beth Wilson, a professor in Harding’s Family and Consumer Science Department, men and women respond differently to what they see. Wilson teaches Family Relationships among other courses at Harding University and works with Hope Cottage, a local shelter for women and children who are survivors of domestic abuse.

“I look at modesty from a biblical standpoint, and to me I think it’s not exactly what you wear,” Wilson said. “But you know, we are supposed to reflect Christ, and so I think it goes beyond what I might call provocative apparel. I think any time that we draw attention to ourselves, I don’t think that’s a reflection of what we’re called on to do. I hope modesty causes people to see the inner qualities rather than just my outward appearance.”

The ideas about what modesty is and is not are varied, however in the media, the conservative Christian value of modesty is often portrayed as a responsibility of women to uphold. Religious figures in the media such as the Duggars ― stars of the former TLC reality show “19 Kids and Counting ― speak often about “inappropriate” clothing and live with an intense focus on modesty. The Duggar girls dress in such a way to not show their bare shoulders and thighs, and they shun clothes they consider too revealing.

In their book “Growing Up Duggar,” the older Duggar girls state that they are not ashamed of their bodies but want to keep them for the eyes of their future husbands. The Duggar girls write about their code word —“Nike!”— that they use around male relatives, warning them to look down at their shoes when they interact with a woman in revealing clothing.

While this view may seem extreme, some of the teachings about modesty in Christianity reflect this kind of mindset in which women must protect men from lusting over their bodies. I interviewed third-grade girls who attend a private Christian elementary school in Arkansas to ask what they knew about modesty. Their answers surprised me.

In this class of 8 and 9 year olds, I learned that these ideas about what women can and cannot do had already infiltrated their minds, even though they do not yet understand the concept of lust or know why they cannot wear clothing that is “inappropriate.”

In a school where each student attends chapel every day, in a town where half the population claims to be some form of evangelical protestant ― 50.61 percent according to a 2010 survey — these children have been taught that their bodies are both a holy temple and something that must be specifically covered to detract attention.

According to Christian blog site Patheos.com, there are a few key Biblical passages that Christians use to teach modesty, such as Proverbs 31 and its description of a virtuous woman: “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” Isaiah 3, in which the people of Judah are denounced, is often used to by Christian teachers to discourage immodest dress:

“Moreover, the Lord said, ‘Because the daughters of Zion are proud and walk with heads held high and seductive eyes, and go along with mincing steps and tinkle the bangles on their feet. Therefore the Lord will afflict the scalp of the daughters of Zion with scabs, and the Lord will make their foreheads bare.’”

These verses as well as other came across my screen as I tried to put together how exactly this Christian subculture feels convicted to live and teach modesty. A phrase that kept appearing on Christian blogs, books and websites in reference to women who dressed inappropriately was “stumbling block.” I asked Wilson what that phrase meant to her.

“Well I think that both men and women can be a stumbling block. I think dress is a part of that,” Wilson said. “We can’t control how others respond. But we can honestly look at what we’re wearing and what we’re doing and the image that is being portrayed so we each have to be accountable. If it causes our brother or sister to stumble in any way then it is a problem.”

Wilson said that she believes the issue has gotten out of control in today’s society.

“Honestly the shorts and the dresses have just gotten shorter and shorter. The necklines, at times, have gotten more plunging,” Wilson said. “So I guess I have two concerns: The bearing of the top off the shoulder and the shortness of the dresses. I don’t find them particularly attractive, and I would not personally judge them to be modest… I think it’s a matter of distraction.”

I assumed she was referring to women’s dress and asked how men’s clothing can be seen as a distraction or “stumbling block,” to which she said she did not “see much immodest dress among the young men.”

Just like the third-graders who listed the specific dos and don’ts associated with dress, Wilson described her personal parameters when it comes to clothing and said that she tries to instill these in her female students.

“I think women have a responsibility to be sure that they are not dressing in such a way that just the visual image starts the attraction sexually,” Wilson said.

The virtuous woman, as it appears, is one who protects her Christian brothers from her body.

Modesty: Harding Culture

At Harding University, a private Christian university, the virtue of modest dress is enforced by the student handbook. However, it hasn’t always been this way.

Harding College was founded 1924, but student dress was not mentioned in the handbook until 1966. Since then, the student dress code has only expanded with the fashions and trends of the decades.

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.

Modesty: Dangerous Culture?

“So she comes over and she tells me that between Cathcart and Stevens, she was walking back to her room when this group of guys with hoods on came out of nowhere and kind of cornered her, and grabbed and slapped her butt really hard and ran away,” Denison said. “And I’m just thinking, they didn’t do that to say ‘Hey, I’m going to go out and harass someone tonight.’ They just did it as a game, and that’s the problem. Things like that are funny and cute, when they’re not. And when you teach that ‘Boys will be boys,’ and if you want a toy then you get whatever you want, that type of mentality teaches men that everything else is property. So when they bond together with other like-minded men, that’s the result, and it still happens on this campus with people who claim to be strong, Godly men and Christians in the church. That’s something that honestly terrifies me: the guy who passes communion at church next Sunday could think he’s doing not doing a single thing wrong by slapping someone else’s butt.”

Denison, a survivor of rape and sexual assault herself, recounted this story of her friend’s sexual harassment as we sat around a kitchen table. Denison was heavily involved in Harding’s Sexual Assault Awareness Week in April of 2017 and also helped to create HUbrave, a social media campaign that aims to diminish the stigma surrounding open conversation about sexual assault. She uses Facebook and Instagram to tell the stories of students, faculty and alumni who are survivors of rape or sexual assault. Denison said that sexual assault is unfortunately part of every college campus, including Harding from rape to cases of cat-calling.

Jones said that she has been cat-called on campus more times that she can count, often when she goes to exercise. She also said she finds it frustrating to be the party who is punished for immodest dress but is still harassed when dressing “appropriately.”

“I like to run; I like to work out outside and it doesn’t matter what I’m wearing,” Jones said. “I think if someone is distasteful enough to even cat-call then they’re going to no matter what.”

According to Jones, no matter how modest she dresses, this does not protect her from harassment nor does it protect men from lust, like Harding culture suggests.

“Men almost get a license to be visual and make judgment about a woman, and it’s like our job to protect them from that,” O’Brian said. “And I want to give men more credit than that.”

Denison spoke about the harmful rhetoric used when discussing the ways that men and women think.

“In my bible class, we were reading a book that was about men but it was written for women, kind of like a guideline,” Denison said. “Mind you, this is an entire class full of women. But there is a chapter in there about the visual rolodex, and it’s about how men can’t help themselves from looking. And they store those images in their minds.”

According to Denison, she believes telling men they are visual, while telling women they are to be lusted only cultivates the problems that Christians fear: problems that they attempt to solve by enforcing modesty.

“To me, modesty is less clothing and more about your personality or your spirit,” Denison said. “I think when we teach women modesty, the first issue there is that we teach women modesty. If you’re going to teach them to dress ‘appropriately,’ then why aren’t we teaching men? … I feel like the modesty that is described by today’s Christian families is supposed to be this blanket term for everyone, and that’s not really how it works.”

Denison added that playing on stereotypes in this way is detrimental to Christian families.

“Teaching women who are about to be wives that you need to always appreciate your husband how he is because he’s just going to look at other women and that’s how it is—that’s wrong,” Denison said.

Denison said that she refuses to teach modesty in such a way that discredits men or shames women. According to Jones, most of the shame inflicted due to modesty issues is from other women.

“I think there are very view times, beside the catcalling thing, that I’ve been shamed by a male,” Jones said.

Denison also spoke of shaming questions that she received after her own rape. According to Denison, “it hurts a lot” when one has gone through this event and receives these accusations.

“I was asked several times like ‘What were you doing that night?’ or ‘Were you leading him on?’ It was New Year’s, and I was wearing jeans, tall boots, a long black shirt and a green vest, so it wasn’t anything wild or crazy.”

Denison said that this is why she is passionate about modesty, because enforcing a dress code does not protect people from harm, nor does telling people they are visually-oriented keep them from harming others; in fact, it is quite the opposite.

Rape culture is defined as a “society or environment whose prevailing social attitudes have the effect of normalizing or trivializing sexual assault and abuse.” If this is true, and rape culture seeks blame and places responsibility on victims, then modesty culture, which suggests that a woman must protect a man from sexually sinning because of her body, is certainly aligned with this way of thinking.

“I think this is one of the more dangerous epidemics in our culture,” Denison said. “It fuels nothing but this assault and rape culture. It’s terrifying how it all connects.”

When I asked Denison how she would teach modesty, if at all, she said it just comes down to respect.

written by sarah dixon


Sarah Dixon

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