In Jesus Feminist, Sarah Bessey emphasizes that she is a feminist because she is a Christian. It’s a sentiment that many other feminists of faith have echoed: the principles found in the Bible coincide with many of the core tenets of feminism. They love Jesus, and Jesus radically affirmed the value and equality of women, and so they radically affirm the value and equality of women.
That’s beautiful, but it is not my story. I didn’t come to feminism through my faith; in many ways, feminism helped me heal from Christianity as I’d learned it, and opened my mind to a Christianity that looked different. I discovered mainstream feminism, which led me to Christian feminism, which led me to egalitarianism, which led me to mainline Protestantism, which, if I stay in my childhood religion, is where I likely will settle.
I know a number of my readers lean conservative, but I want to be up front about this: I don’t know if feminism is the only alternative to modesty culture, but it is where I have found escape from purity culture. It is where I have found safety and peace in this regard, and many of the following principles are therefore rooted in that belief system.
As many “Jesus feminists” will tell you, that doesn’t mean these principles are not found in the Bible. If that is important to you, please research it; the verses, the interpretations, and the doctrines are there. But I largely am basing these suggestions on feminist theory, as well as my own experiences, conscience and common sense.
Some of these ideas may seem incongruous for this series as they aren’t specifically about clothes, and modesty supposedly is. (I mean, proponents say it’s about the spirit, the heart, but they measure it by skirt length.) But, for one thing, I’m not interesting in inventing more rules; there are enough of those already. And on the other, modesty does not exist in a void. It is nestled in broader purity culture, the evangelical zeitgeist which centers virginity at the heart of the gospel. It is nestled in a vacuum of consent and autonomy. It is nestled in shame that affects every part of a woman’s life. So to adequately uproot the harmful conclusions of modesty culture, we must uproot many of the premises on which it is founded.
Without further ado, here are some principles that might help your children and teens (or you) navigate the fraught task of getting dressed in the morning, some principles I wish I’d learned long before my twenties:
Dress contextually. So much of modesty could be simplified in this one concept. Just like you would dress contextually as far as practicality goes, wearing closed-toed shoes on a hike or a tux to a wedding, it’s wise to dress contextually in a cultural sense, wearing business casual at the office or flip-flops to a picnic. It’s also good to respect other’s beliefs and context, even when they differ from yours. So if you are visiting an Amish community, you probably shouldn’t wear your favorite short shorts.
Dress for your body. I don’t mean this in a sizeist way, like, “fattiez can’t wear stripes, lol.” More like: Helping your young daughters understand they don’t have to force themselves into trends and standard they aren’t truly comfortable in is invaluable. Help them explore a variety of styles and pieces so they can create outfits they feel flattered by and confident in. They don’t need to look like the runway models or the pastor’s daughters; what matters is that they feel good in their skin, and whatever fabric they drape over it.
Dress for your personality. Even when purity culture admits modesty isn’t all about hiding your boobs, there’s a big emphasis on not drawing attention to yourself that too often gets legalized into dressing a certain way, whatever that particular congregation or group deems correct. It too often assumes that you can know that someone is vain or narcissistic for wearing one outfit over another.But this is so subjective. Some people are vivacious and will naturally be drawn to loud patterns and sequins. Some are iconoclastic and will enjoy the anachronism of steampunk. Some are artistic and will mix pieces in unexpected ways. All these people will stand out in many contexts. And that’s okay! Children are not dough; throw away the cookie cutters. You can embrace and encourage them to embrace their creativity, even when it doesn’t look like yours.
Dress for your conscience. As parents, you can guide your children and teach them about your beliefs, but as they get older? Trust them. Yes, help them discern what the range of appropriate dress would be for the environment they’re going into. But let them experiment with what they wear. Let them follow their own convictions. Let them be autonomous.
Destigmatize the body. At its core, purity culture modernizes gnosticism, villainizing not only (female) flesh, but knowledge of it. Too often, girls are not taught even the names of their body parts, much less how sex or reproduction work. Purity is reduced to ignorance, and the body becomes a mystery and a burden.
How can modesty teach a girl her supposed inherent, mystical dignity when it ties her worth so closely to her physical body? When her body with its beauty is something to be covered? When her body with its impulses is something to suppress? When her body with its purity is something to be untouched? Modesty reduces a girl’s body to a forbidden fruit ripening for her future-husband to consume. And until then, no one can know it — not even her.
As I said before, modesty claims to be an alternative to the oversexualization of Western society, but it does so … by oversexualizing. A little girl should not be afraid of causing a man to lust because of “the idea of cleavage.” A teenager should not be afraid to stretch in the presence of men. A woman should not be afraid to say anatomically-correct words.
Bodies are more than their sexual functions. Bodies are more than stumbling blocks. Bodies are more than symbols of human depravity.
My proposal is this: Teach kids about their bodies. Teach them hygiene and nutrition. Use the correct names for body parts (this is also really important if a child is ever sexually abused, so they can explain what happened without the added confusion or embarrassment of learning or using genital terms). Answer questions about sex. Don’t save all this for one big, awkward talk when she gets her first period or engaged. Don’t shame her for being curvy or beautiful. Don’t hush normal curiosity. Teach kids bodies are normal, weird, lovely, diverse, and morally neutral.
Respect boundaries. Modesty culture can turn into a specter of pseudo-accountability. But encouraging girls to evaluate and police each other’s devotion/dress length only leads to the toxicity of superficial community. And convincing boys that women are “asking for it” with certain outfits, are communicating universally recognizable promises to them, only leads to the entitlement of rape culture.
Teach your kids about consent. Teach your kids they have the right to say no or yes, and if others don’t respect that, they can speak up or fight back. Teach your kids they have the responsibility to respect others’ no or yes. Teach your kids, especially sons, that clothing is not a contract and no one owes them anything. Teach your kids that accountability is good when mutually decided upon with a friend or mentor, but it is not a free-for-all; others’ choices aren’t necessarily their business.
Embrace differences. People are not mannequins. They don’t come off a conveyor belt static and identical. We humans are a big, multifaceted species. So someone wears a religious garment? They have acne? They walk funny? They have an accent? They have a different body shape or hair texture than you? They wear a skirt or get a piercing you never would? Treat them the same as you would your mom, or your pastor, or your best friend. Everyone has dignity and value.
People are valuable because they are people, not because they are pretty, talented, rich, charismatic, or just like you. Classism, sizeism, ablism, bullying, meanness, and entitlement don’t happen in a void. Teach your kids about privilege. Teach your kids how fashions and opinions change over geography and time, and how different cultures and communities influence what we think of as normal, appropriate, and ideal. You don’t know strangers’ stories, and can only guess so much based on appearance or small talk.
If you must theologize this (and this is one of my very favorite doctrines), call it imago dei. God looks like the guy on the street corner with crooked teeth and that spoiled classmate who wore real diamonds in third grade. God looks like Rihanna and Mother Theresa. God looks Chinese and Norwegian and Ethiopian and Argentinian. God looks like you and me. There is an echo of the infinite in everyone you meet.
Of course, I’m just a former modest girl turned feminist with a chip on her shoulder. What are your suggestions, dear Internet? How do you approach this subject with your children? How were you taught how to dress appropriately without being shamed?
A smattering of resources for further study:
The Healthy Sex Talk: Teaching Kids Consent, Ages 1-21 from the editors at The Good Men Project
Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Christian Purity by Dianna E. Anderson
Damn Girl Ya Look Good by Marie Lodi, et al, at Rookie Magazine