Earlier this week I wrote a primer on rape culture and Christian modesty teachings and how they overlap; now I want to spend some time deconstructing the analogy used in this post on modesty, in which the author tries to understand how difficult it is for men to be around women in bikinis by comparing women to cake:
Let’s try and put ourselves in a guy’s shoes. 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.
This is how I imagine it is for guys. Girls are walking around all the time with barely any clothes on at the beach or pool! Guys can never get a break from it, even if they’re trying to see past all the bodies to find the smiles and personalities within the girls.
There are some major problems with this comparison, and while I don’t think the author of the post intended to write an analogy that promotes these problems — I think she was genuinely trying to be empathetic towards her brothers in Christ and exhort young women to do the same — I do think it’s important to examine the issues that are present, intent or not.
First, she’s assigning a moral value to the act of eating chocolate cake, and she’s making the assumption that trying to “stay away from carbs or sweets” and “using all of our willpower to not eat the chocolate cake” is a normal state of being. But eating chocolate cake is not, in itself, a sin. Food doesn’t have a moral value (sometimes the provenance and/or production of food can be a moral issue, but let’s leave that aside for now); kale and yogurt are not more virtuous than cake and ice cream. It’s morally neutral. Food is, in fact, something that all human beings must eat, on a regular basis, or they will die. God made us as biological creatures that can get energy and nutrition and pleasure from a vast variety of foods. And living in a state of constant dieting, of constant self-denial and rationalizing and obsessing — not to mention doing all of this while keeping a chocolate cake on your kitchen counter — is evidence of a disordered relationship with food, not a “normal” one.
Second, chocolate cake is not sentient. It has no wants or desires. It does not have to consent before you eat it. It exists solely to be eaten. While some foods may have a secondary artistic or aesthetic quality, the primary purpose of food is to be consumed. To not consume a food is to allow it to spoil, and thus to invalidate its designed purpose. Women, on the other hand — and more broadly, bodies — are designed for many purposes, none of which is to be consumed without agency. To treat a body as a consumable object, a commodity, is to vitally degrade the personhood of that body, and to dishonor the image of God reflected in that person.
Furthermore, there is (unfortunately) no universe I’m aware of in which cake chases you around and forces you to eat it. You are in charge of what goes in your mouth. You get to choose whether to eat the cake or not eat the cake. Hunger is an innate biological mechanism that is beyond your conscious control, but — assuming access — you get to choose what food to satisfy your hunger with. Just as you get to choose whether to think lustfully about another person. Sexual attraction is an innate biological mechanism that’s often — usually — beyond our control; but when we use our sexual attraction in order to objectify someone, that’s an active choice we make.
Except, of course, this particular chocolate cake isn’t just sitting in a bakery, minding its own business, being chocolate cake in its natural environment, is it? No – it is being a chocolate cake at you. This cake is deliberately, maliciously chasing you around, leaving you no escape, demanding that you succumb to its ooey-gooey deliciousness. This isn’t a cake you can say, “Hey, do you mind, I’m dieting” to, it’s not a cake you can decide you can’t safely be around and retreat to the cakeless confines of your own apartment — it’s a cake that follows you to your house, to the office, to church, a cake that violates your boundaries and harasses you. This cake is personal; this cake is targeting you. Getting this cake to respect your boundaries would take a restraining order. Equating this sort of cake-harassment to women who are wearing bikinis in their natural environment — the beach, the pool — is a tremendously false comparison, one that assumes that if a woman is wearing something “immodest” she is doing it at men, deliberately, in a malicious attempt to sabotage their self-control.
And sabotage their self-control to — what? Here’s the most insidious thing about the cake analogy. When the author writes about being followed around by chocolate cake, she says that after all that time being tempted, she would “break down and eat the cake.” In the same way, she implies, when a man is constantly surrounded by the temptation of women in bikinis, he will eventually break down and — do what, exactly? She doesn’t clarify. What is it the girls in bikinis are making the guy break down and do? The implication of the Cake Analogy isn’t that he’ll break down and think about boobs; it’s that he’ll break down and consume the women’s bodies. Not just consume as in lust; consume in a way that has a direct effect on physical body of the cake, er, woman. The implication, in other words, is that he’ll rape them — or not rape, exactly; he’ll have sex with them, and it couldn’t really be nonconsensual sex, will it, when they were making themselves available to be consumed like that, so irresistibly enticing? Cake doesn’t have to give consent to being eaten because cake exists in a state of consent by its very nature. Do girls in bikinis exist in this same state?
That’s the problem the author runs into by creating this parallel between women and cake — she doesn’t fully flesh out (ahem) the analogy to explain what it is a guy who is unable to escape the sight of women’s bodies will be driven to do. She elides attraction into consumption. She leaves it open to interpretation, creating a vacuum in which a woman who wears a bikini is responsible for anything and everything a man might do to her. She drove him to it. You know, it. Whatever unspecified sin it is. The woman you put here with me, God — she made me eat it.
The underlying problem with Christian culture’s modesty rules is that they’re part of a vision of the world in which the male experience is preeminent, and women’s experience is secondary. You can call it patriarchy or kyriarchy, if you want; the bottom line is that even though this seems to be a world that revolves around women’s bodies and sexuality, everything the women do is in relationship to how it will be seen by the men. Men are the central characters in this story. The Cake Post describes a world where a woman’s clothing choices must be dictated not by her own comfort, or her sense of style, or her budget, or whether she likes to feel the sun on her tummy when she’s at the beach — all the ways that our clothing choices can be expressions of our own unique God-given selves — but foremost by how she is seen by the men around her. It idolizes the male gaze.
And at the same time that it does this, it debases men into children who cannot control their thoughts or their bodies, who are powerless against the irresistible temptation of women in bikinis.
And it negates the power of Christ in their lives. The men in this vision of the world are unsupported by Christ against temptation and lust; His grace is not sufficient for them, His power is not made perfect in their weakness, and it turns out He will totally allow them to be overtaken by temptation beyond their ability to bear.* This is a world in which the destructive sexuality of the female body and the helpless attraction of the male viewer are more powerful even than the Holy Spirit.
This is the idolatry of the male gaze. This is rape culture. And this is why the cake analogy is a lie.
Stay tuned for Part 3, coming Friday (probably), about being fat in the face of modesty rules and where we can go from here.
*Thanks to Bethany for these scripture verses and for sending my mind that direction.