I just got back from an incredible weekend at the Renew & Refine Retreat for Writers, and I have Things To Say about it and the things I learned and what it was like to be in the woods communing with God and like-minded writer-types and lots of mosquitos, but I can’t do that post justice right now. I’m hoping that my resolution to post on my blog more regularly will stick, and you can expect to see a post about the retreat soon. But for now, I have some indignation that needs to be channeled, and so here I am. (Aren’t you lucky!)
There’s a post going around — one of the myriad of posts that pops up every spring when the sun comes back and women everywhere start shedding their sweaters and baring their knees and upper arms — that is written by a woman who wants to explain why she chooses to wear a one-piece bathing suit instead of a bikini, even though she feels it to be a tremendous sacrifice, and why she believes other women should make a similar sacrifice “for the guys around [them]“. Then she makes this analogy to demonstrate how
hard difficult it is for guys during swimsuit season:
I think we can all agree that as girls, exercise is important to us. We want to stay healthy and are often working on getting fit. We work out and stay away from carbs or sweets. We use all of our willpower to not eat the chocolate cake on the counter! Now, let’s pretend that someone picked up that chocolate cake and followed us around all the time, 24/7. We can never get away from the chocolate, it’s always right there, tempting us and even smelling all ooey gooey and chocolate-y. Most of us, myself included, would find it easy to break down and eat the cake. And we would probably continue to break down and eat cake, because it would always be there. Our exercise goals would be long gone in no time.
So, listen. I’ve seen a lot of smart posts lately about Christian modesty culture and how it fuels rape culture, and I was hesitant to write another one; but I decided that (a.) this is an issue that needs to be chipped away at over and over again, by as many voices as possible; (b.) I have an audience and a perspective that is in some ways unique; and (c.) part of the learning process for me involves writing it out, putting it into sentences and taking them apart and looking at the pieces and putting it back together again.
So I want to start by defining some of the terms used – modesty doctrine and rape culture and other things as I think of them; then I want to deconstruct the post’s analogy between women’s bodies and chocolate cake; and lastly I want to examine the particular way that fat bodies interact with Christian modesty culture. To keep this from becoming a giant wall of text, I’m going to break it up into three posts.
Please understand that I am neither a theologian nor a women’s studies major. I’m taking this on as a layperson in both fields, but also as a woman who lives in a world that is steeped in rape culture and Christian culture and modesty culture and thin culture, and as someone who identifies herself as a Christian, as body-positive, and as a feminist.
Let’s talk first about rape culture. Rape culture is, per Wikipedia, “a concept which links rape and sexual violence to the culture of a society, and in which prevalent attitudes and practices normalize, excuse, tolerate, or even condone rape.” Melissa McEwan wrote a tremendously helpful 101 post in response to people asking her to define “rape culture,” and I’d encourage you to read the whole thing. Here’s an excerpt:
Rape culture is 1 in 6 women being sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. Rape culture is not even talking about the reality that many women are sexually assaulted multiple times in their lives. Rape culture is the way in which the constant threat of sexual assault affects women’s daily movements. Rape culture is telling girls and women to be careful about what you wear, how you wear it, how you carry yourself, where you walk, when you walk there, with whom you walk, whom you trust, what you do, where you do it, with whom you do it, what you drink, how much you drink, whether you make eye contact, if you’re alone, if you’re with a stranger, if you’re in a group, if you’re in a group of strangers, if it’s dark, if the area is unfamiliar, [...] to always be alert always pay attention always watch your back always be aware of your surroundings and never let your guard down for a moment lest you be sexually assaulted and if you are and didn’t follow all the rules it’s your fault.
Rape culture, put as briefly as possible (which is difficult because rape culture is one of those nefariously multifaceted things that has its fingers in nearly every aspect of our society) is a cultural mindset that “legitimate rape” is only ever violent stranger rape, the kind of rape where a bad man jumps out of the bushes and overpowers a woman who is in no way doing anything (like being intoxicated or wearing revealing clothes or walking alone at night) that could be construed as contributing to his assault of her, and in which she fights back and yells “No” as loudly as possible. Other forms of nonconsensual sex, our culture says, where maybe the woman is drunk or wearing something skimpy or underage or leading him on or she’s had sex with him before or she’s had sex with anyone else before or she’s married to him or she’s trans- or she doesn’t fight back hard enough or she’s coerced into consenting or the victim is a man — those aren’t rape-rape, says rape culture. (Click through to Melissa’s post for links to instances of all of these situations being argued as “not really rape,” if you need proof that this is how our culture really does talk about rape and sexual violence.)
Hear me say this: Any sex that is not with someone who consents fully and without coercion and doesn’t withdraw her or his consent during sex, is rape.
Now let’s talk about how “modesty” is used within Christian culture, and then I’ll circle back around to rape culture and where Christian modesty culture fits into that paradigm.
Evangelical Christian culture centers its modesty doctrines around two key passages: the one where Jesus says that a man who lusts after a woman has committed adultery with her in his heart, and the one where Paul admonishes believers not to cause a fellow believer to stumble. In this context, women are taught that they are responsible for “helping” their brothers in Christ to not think lustfully about them, mainly by dressing in a way that doesn’t cause the men who see them to have lustful or sexual thoughts about them. Men, after all, are visual creatures, says Christian culture; they have little control over the fact that seeing a woman wearing revealing clothes makes them feel lust, and a woman who does so is essentially making a man sin. So it’s up to the woman to cover her body appropriately, or risk causing the men around her to stumble.
There are a few problems with this doctrine. The first is that it conflates sexual attraction with sinful lust. Emily Maynard wrote a brilliant post about this, where she said:
I propose that we’ve lost sight of what lust actually is. In fact, we have confused biological sexual attraction with lust and called it sin. [...]
God created you to desire another person for affection, intimacy, and relationship! Being physically attracted to someone is not lust. [...]
Don’t get me wrong. Lust is serious and lust is a sin. But lust is about control, not just sex.
Lust is dehumanizes a person in your own heart and mind. It is the ritual taking, obsessing, and using someone else for your own benefit rather than valuing that person as an equal image-bearer of God. Lust is forming people in your own image, for your own purposes, whether for sexual pleasure, emotional security, or moral superiority. In lusting, you are creating a world where every other person exists for your approval or dismissal. Lust reduces the complexity of each individual and their story to something you get to manage. Lust certainly can have a sexual component, but when we reduce it merely to sexual reactions, we miss out on God’s heart for all people: infinite value.
Lust is not a passive thing that happens to a guy who sees a girl’s cleavage. Lust is not a boner. Lust is an active behavior, a choice to use a person’s body or appearance or sexuality for your own selfish pleasure. It is taking something that does not belong to you — someone else’s body, whether the physical thing itself or just the image of it in your mind — and using it for self-gratification, filing it away as something to get off to instead of honoring that person as the image-bearer of God. Lust transforms its focus from person to object.
And as such, the responsibility for lust lies entirely with the luster, not the lustee. No spaghetti straps or tight shorts can make a person lust after another person. And no high necklines or denim jumpers can prevent a person from choosing to objectify someone.
There’s a reason that Jesus addressed his rebuke against the lusters, not the lustees. “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away!” he admonished — not, “If your right eye causes you to stumble, the woman you’re lusting after needs to put on something less revealing!”*
But within Christian modesty culture, the responsibility for men’s lust lies with women and their clothing choices, and it’s completely fair — expected, even — for men to feel angry at and robbed by women who show more of their bodies than men feel is appropriate. Dianna E. Anderson has compiled a list of comments from men who replied to a Christian “modesty survey” — they include things like, “[Women who dress immodestly] are distracting good men, dishonoring God and marriage, and offering themselves cheaply”; “If you flaunt yourself, you have the attention of lots of guys, but you instantly lose their respect and admiration. I would never consider courting a girl that advertises her body like a product”; “It actually really angers me. I find it disrespectful…. Do they realize that they have just caused someone to have sexual thoughts about them in their mind?”; and “It’s not their body to flaunt. It belongs to Christ and their future husband. How dare they flaunt something that God did not permit them to flaunt?”
These comments are not outliers; they represent the backbone of Christian modesty doctrine, the same doctrine that instructs 8- to 12-year-old girls to check their outfits by bending forward in a mirror to make sure no “future cleavage” — seriously — is revealed, thus conditioning them to the male gaze and their own dangerously sexual bodies before they’ve even hit puberty. Christian modesty culture says that women’s bodies are not only inherently sexual, but inherently sexual at men; and that men will sexualize women’s bodies unless women take active steps to mitigate their inherent sexuality by viewing themselves through the male gaze and covering up anything that might entice a man to “stumble.”
So it should be pretty apparent how modesty doctrine fits in with rape culture. It’s simple, really: modesty teachings center on the objectification of women, and say that being objectified is the natural state for a woman’s body unless she takes care to prevent it from happening. It says that men can’t help but objectify and lust after women’s bodies, and that women are responsible for making sure that their bodies are as un-objectifiable as possible.
When women are responsible for how men mentally use their bodies, it’s not a far from there to making women responsible for, or at least complicit in, how men physically use their bodies.
When a man is powerless over what his mind does when he sees a woman’s cleavage, it’s not far from there to making a man powerless over what his body does when he sees a woman’s cleavage.
When woman who wears clothing that the viewer doesn’t perceive as sufficiently modest is thought to be “flaunting” or “advertising” herself, it’s not far from there to saying that “she was asking for it.”
Even if the people who promote modesty doctrine never lay a single finger on a woman, they are still advancing a narrative that feeds rape culture, that says that women’s bodies exist primarily to be looked at by men, that says women are responsible for how men sexualize them. They reinforce objectification. They advance a narrative about sex and relationships in which men use and women are used, a narrative that leaves no place for agency or consent. And this is rape culture.
So those are some basics on rape culture and modesty doctrine, which turned into a much longer post than I’d envisioned but which, I think, lays a necessary foundation for the writing I want to do about the Cake Post and about how fat women fit (or don’t) into modesty doctrine.
I’d love some feedback and discussion about this, especially since I Am Not An Expert and this whole topic is pretty new to me. What do you think of this? Have you encountered modesty teachings before? Do you like cake?
*Women can lust too, of course – both sexually, and also emotionally and mentally and morally, as Emily described above. But the conventional wisdom in Christian culture is that men are sexual and visual, and women are emotional; and when our only definition for lust is “feeling sexually attracted to someone because of the way they look” and we’ve erased the fact that quite a lot of women, too, have sex drives and can be visually stimulated, we only ever talk about lust in the context of the male gaze. So while I don’t want to overlook the fact that women can be just as culpable in this area, the only conversations we have about lust are framed in terms of how men view women, and this is the conversation I want to critique.