The flip-side of modesty

The flip-side of modesty

Relax. This isn't a post about Mrs. Hall.  It's about the culture of modesty itself. Namely, modesty associated with homeschooling and (evangelical) Christianity.

I blame this post by Tim on Wine and Marble for sparking this retrospection about my own homeschool and modesty experience.

I got off easy. My parents never really advertised or promoted modesty like Mrs. Hall did. I learned it by osmosis from all the other homeschoolers I was around, and a little bit from religious-themed classes. Some of it was probably just me being incredibly insecure about my own body.

I hid my boobs underneath billowy T-shirts, and my hips in sweatpants or grandma pants. I pulled my hair back into a pony tail that I hated brushing. I hated the way makeup drew attention to my face. I wanted to disappear. Clearly, I had no issue with modesty which basically asks women to disappear, to hide their femininity. I wanted to hide mine.

My mom always tried to cajole me into wearing a little bit of makeup, buying natural colors. She tried to make me excited about fixing my hair by buying pretties. She'd help me find flattering, fashionable clothes that would suit my style, and she'd have to reassure me that showing a little bit of cleavage is not a problem. She even made and bought clothes that were V-necks, plunging deeper than the scoop-necks I finally became comfortable with.

Clearly, my parents were offering a balanced view about clothing.

Why did I feel so self-conscious and insecure? Probably a body-image issue. And partly because of what little I learned from other homeschoolers. Through the wonders of confirmation bias, I was able to quietly stand in solidarity with the other modest homeschoolers who wore frumpers, who ensured that the collar of their shirt sat no lower than a few fingers from the collarbone, who wore long denim skirts (because there's no chance of seeing any defrauding shadows in the sun!). They're covering up, too, so I'm okay.

Unfortunately, I was also exposed to the troublesome rationale behind their modesty, the issues Tim highlighted in his post. Any form of sex appeal is a problem. Sexuality is bad. Be careful around men, because they have a hard time controlling their thoughts. Control your own thoughts.

While I never was steeped in it to the extent Tim and other former evangelical fundamentalist homeschoolers were, it caused enough anxiety in me early on in high school about (hiding my) sexuality.

Now, imagine what it's like for people who have been steeped in such modesty teachings. Wait--you don't have to imagine. Just read Tim's posts. And Sarah's, who just scratches the surface of modesty issues. And Hannah's. There are many more online--just follow the little link-crumbs to related blogs.

Common modestly lessons arise:

  • Men can't be trusted to control themselves around women.
  • Therefore, women must cover up and do all they can to avoid being noticed by men and accidentally turning them on.
  • If women turn men on, it is therefore her fault if/when he rapes her.
  • Women don't have lust issues. Only men do.

This seems to frequently lead to:

  • Being uncomfortable around people of the opposite gender. Even to the point of de-friending people.
  • A fixation on sex both in terms of temptation and sinfulness, for both men and women. Leads into a shame spiral.
  • Depression, OCD, and other thought-compulsions.
  • Eating/body image disorders. "If I were skinnier, I'd have less boobs and be less noticeable. And prettier."
  • Self-injury as a way to punish the self.

I'm not terribly surprised that a fair number of people who grew up in such culture tend to reject their parents' denomination, organized religion itself--or even belief in a higher power. It sucks to worship a punishing, vindictive God who judges you by what kind of clothes and underwear you wear. It sucks when you're constantly at risk of sinning or causing another to sin just because your shirt might be too sheer. It sucks to live with such heightened sexual tension from a young age. It wears a person out.

It also is absolute bullshit that men can't control themselves, and that women are responsible for men who fail. Who wants to follow a God who sets up this pattern of failure and misplaced blame?

I don't think their parents intended for that to happen. They wanted to guide their kids in the way of Christ, but ended up contributing to their downfall, whether they left their childhood church or renounced God altogether.

Or should I call it freedom, instead? It is freeing once you renounce such modesty culture. Hannah put it eloquently in her post that I linked to above.

Kevin told me that once he left SGM and he’d been out of the dialect and culture for a while, he found that he wasn’t struggling with lust like he used to–the idea of a woman’s body alone wasn’t a turn-on anymore. He found that his desires naturally were directed at a few specific things and toward whoever he was in a relationship with, and that he could appreciate a woman’s beauty and form without lust. He was no longer being told he was a slave to these things and asked to confess and obsess on them, and when he left that environment he was freed from the mentality it fostered.

Isn't that a fascinating concept? By reducing the focus on the avoidance of sexual temptation (via modesty), you've actually reduced your daily focus on sex. If you no longer obsess on it, but rather approach the opposite sex as if they were a person instead of a potential stumbling block, then the thoughts will no longer consume you.

Somehow that's counter-intuitive to the likes of Mrs. Hall and other modesty-proponents.



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