I was thin as a kid. Always big for my age, but not chubby. Then I hit puberty and got wider before I got taller. Stretch marks etched into my thighs, my face rounded, and I felt thick and overstuffed and elephantine.
I grew self-conscious about the reverberations of my steps (did I sound extra-heavy?), the ways my hips suddenly filled chair seats (how expensive is liposuction?), the jiggle of my body while running drills at basketball practice. I grew quite self-aware. I felt like everyone was looking at me, or trying not to, and laughing behind their hands.
This isn’t a unique story. Adolescence is a 10-year walk through a field filled with landmines of insecurity and embarrassment. What teenager hasn’t looked at a magazine then the mirror and felt wrong?
But it wasn’t just the magazines I measured myself against; it was also modesty. I had long since learned that, as a woman, I was born on a pedestal set on a stage. The audience is filled with randy men, so I must perfect the disappearing act. Not with magic, but with modesty.
I must be pretty but invisible — pretty enough to be acceptable, but not so pretty as to draw special attention.
As a child, the performance was manageable. Wear the clothes your mom buys and your cousins hand down to you. Avoid certain stores and sexy movements. Don’t admit you like the fashions worn by the girls who go to public school. But juggling that constraint with teenage insecurity is an act of constant anxiety. I felt gross, yes, but knew even in my grossness, men wanted me. Maybe they wanted other, prettier girls more, but they wanted me too, by default, because they are predators and I their prey. I had to be overly self-aware, to protect myself from their lust and them from my beauty.
This fact was talked about regularly in girls-only situations, but wholly ignored in mixed company. You didn’t bring up that the dads and sons at the potluck were nasty perverts who only learned restraint because of Jesus; you didn’t bring up that the moms and daughters were naturally-inclined harlots who had only learned restraint because of Jesus. But the fact was always there, as long as there were female bodies present. We, the women, were too large in our seductive powers to be ignored by the suppressed, ravenous men, though no one spoke of this inter-gender tension, the elephant in the room.
So I learned to perform. I sat primly on the stage, wearing the right costumes, hoping all at once to be seen and disappear. I wanted to be seen, but … not on the pedestal, not as an object.
Feminism has a name for this. It’s called the male gaze. Evangelical culture is based on the assumed perspective, desires, and sins of heterosexual men. So women become the looked-at. We are the gazed upon, the spectated, the object. We are on display all the time. And we have to perform, to remain pleasing to them but to keep them from lusting, to be feminine enough to contrast with their masculinity but not so feminine as to annoy them with our emotions and weakness.
Pretty but not too pretty. Confident but not sexy. Attractive but not attracting. On the pedestal, but pleasantly, passively statuesque. On the stage, but as a prop rather than an actor.
You know where you find this kind of pressure outside evangelicalism and fundamentalism? Everywhere.
Modesty culture claims to be an alternative to the offensive limelight raunch culture puts on female sexuality, but it does so by sexualizing everything about them, from the skin of their shoulders to the movement of their legs.
Modesty culture tries to contradict the societal message that girls’ worth is tied to their bodies, but with the very same message that girls’ worth is tied to their bodies.
Modesty culture says it’s all about not drawing praise or male attention to yourself, but then being modest is presented with a bonus incentive that men will notice your godly dress and become attracted to you. And it’s okay for men to be turned on by your virtue, I guess, just not your collar bones.
This isn’t the intention, I know. Parents and preachers look at modesty and see it as a healthy alternative to the pressures the beauty and porn industries put on even young girls. I appreciate the good intentions. But the doctrine, the culture of modesty is deeply flawed and but a spiritualized version of the male gaze and sexual objectification.
One of the most freeing things I’ve done in my life is knocking over the pedestal and exiting stage left, and shooting the damned elephant in the room. My body is not here for your viewing pleasure. My body is not here to be pretty or pure for men. I will not waste my life being anxious about taking up too much room in anyone’s gaze.
You cannot free your daughters from the objectification rampant in society by telling them to choose every outfit, hairstyle, and movement based on how men will perceive it. You cannot free your daughters by placing them on a pedestal and telling them to perform their way to a good husband and heaven. You cannot free your daughters by deifying patriarchy.
Let your daughters take up space. Let your daughters know they are more than their bodies, but their bodies are just fine as they are. Let your daughters know they don’t have anyone to please but themselves.
And then maybe, just maybe, they will learn to free themselves.