Feminism constantly tells women we have no reason to be ashamed of our bodies, our desires, our gender, our career goals – of anything really. We can do and be whatever we want and nothing should hold us back. It sounds good in theory, but like many things humans do it can be taken to extremes.
Take the Women’s March from a few weeks ago as an example. If you want to march around with what one blogger I follow delicately called a pink taco on your head I won’t stop you. But those of us who don’t do things like that aren’t any less “women” than you are, nor are we less interested in being treated with dignity, respect, and equality. In fact, that’s a big reason we express our notions of feminism (and femininity) in different ways.
Today, I’m going to take society’s claim that there’s no need to feel shame about the kind of woman you are to heart and say I’m not ashamed of modesty. Depending on your background this word may have provoked a strong reaction. Perhaps you think modesty is a repressive, old-fashioned list of rules telling women how not to dress and act. Or maybe you think modesty sounds safe – a way to hide from attention you don’t want any more. But modestly is about so much more than a set of rules for covering yourself up. It’s more powerful and – dare I say it? – sexy than we often think.
Let’s start with a working definition of modesty: Modesty is concealing what you do not want everyone to know or see so that you can reveal yourself only to someone you trust. It’s typically associated with the idea of sex and how much skin you show, but it has to do with other things as well. For example, you might also exercise modesty by not calling undue attention to yourself or by reserving certain parts of your personality for people you know well. Read more →
I mentioned a couple weeks ago that I recently read a book called A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue by Wendy Shalit. One of the first things she tackles in this book is the “polarized debate about sex,” particularly between the conservatives and the feminists.
She challenges conservatives to “take the claims of feminists seriously,” because you can dismiss however many studies and stories you like as “exaggeration” but the fact remains that “a lot of young women are very unhappy …. I want conservatives to really listen to these women, to stop saying boys will be boys, and to take what these women are saying seriously.”
To the feminists, Shalit writes, “I want to invite them to consider whether the cause of all this unhappiness might be something other than the patriarchy.” We’ve gotten rid of that just about as much as possible, and things have gotten worse rather than better. Perhaps men aren’t the enemy.
But just a little over two months ago Emma Watson, British actress and UN Women Goodwill Ambassador, gave a speech about feminism where her vision for gender equality sounded remarkably similar to ideas Wendy Shalit arrives at while defending the power of modesty. Are we starting to find common ground, and is there hope for a peaceful resolution to “the war between the sexes”?
A Trip to the 18th Century
It might seem odd to take a 3-century detour when talking about issues in modern culture. But when I started reading Francis Burney’s novels Cecelia (1782) and Camilla (1796) as part of an independent study my junior year of college, I was struck by how the gender issues facing those heroines were so remarkably like what women in my church regularly complain about. Where are the “real men?” we ask, looking around and seeing adult men who act like overgrown boys and have little interest in committing to marriage. We typically blame feminism, for telling boys that it was wrong to be “masculine” and to stop oppressing girls by taking care of them.
A contemporary of Burney, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote a book called A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), which is often considered one of the first feminist writings. When you actually read her book, however, it becomes clear that she is arguing for arguing for a reexamination, not a dismissal, of the traditional roles between men and women. She believes men and women are equal in God’s eyes, but that argument doesn’t mean they don’t both have distinct roles to fill.
Both these writers were responding to a moment called “sentimentality,” which encouraged men to indulge their emotions and abandon their traditional roles of protectors and providers. The result was something like what we see today — when men are no longer encouraged to protect or respect women, more and more women are victimized. That’s where we made our mistake, both in the 18th and the 20th/21st centuries. We thought men would treat women better if we told them to stop being manly, when in fact the opposite is true.
When Emma Watson introduced her talk about gender equality and the #HeForShe campaign, she first addressed issues people have with the word “feminism.”
the more I spoke about feminism, the more I realized that fighting for women’s rights has too often become synonymous with man-hating. If there is one thing I know for certain, it is that this has to stop. For the record, feminism by definition is the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. It is the theory of political, economic and social equality of the sexes.
One of the key points of Watson’s speech is that both men and women must be working together if we are ever to achieve a gender equality that benefits and protects both men and women.
How can we effect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation? Men, I would like to take this opportunity to extend your formal invitation. Gender equality is your issue, too. Because to date, I’ve seen my father’s role as a parent being valued less by society, despite my need of his presence as a child, as much as my mother’s. I’ve seen young men suffering from mental illness, unable to ask for help for fear it would make them less of a man. …
If men don’t have to be aggressive in order to be accepted, women won’t feel compelled to be submissive. If men don’t have to control, women won’t have to be controlled. Both men and women should feel free to be sensitive. Both men and women should feel free to be strong.
When we turn issues of gender into a “battle of the sexes” instead of a friendly discussion or a cause to work on together, both men and women lose the battle. You can’t build peaceful relations on a foundation of strife.
Wendy Shalit discusses essentially the same issue, though she comes from the perspective of restoring part of the traditional gender roles (I suspect Burney and Wollstonecraft would both approve). Rather than pushing for an increasingly “nonsexist” approach to raising boys (in this example), she argues for “a good dose of sexist upbringing: how to relate as a man to a woman.”
Today we want to pretend there are no differences between the sexes …. We try to cure them of what is distinctive instead of cherishing these differences and directing them towards each other in a meaningful way. We can never succeed in curing men and women of being men and women, however, and so these differences emerge anyway — only when they do, the emerge in their crudest, most untutored form (p.153).
She also goes back to a previous century to illustrate her arguments, all the way to 1630 and 1631 — the years Richard Brathwait’s The English Gentleman and The English Gentlewoman were published. Shalit’s reading of these texts is that there was a “link between male obligation and female modesty” where men attained “perfection” by treating women with respect (p.99-102). In this century, men were not compelled to respect women by an outside authority — they were taught that this was the only way for real men to behave.
The argument from external authority labels a man as evil if he date-rapes or sexually harasses a woman. From the standpoint of modesty, he is behaving abominably, but more crucially, he is really missing the whole point. He hasn’t understood what it means to be a man (p.104).
The feminists who see patriarchy as oppressive balk at this idea, but Shalit assures them, “I doubt that if men are taught to relate courteously to women, women would be suddenly thrown out of all the professions, as some contend. Maybe, on the contrary, it would be much easier for the sexes to work together.” Isn’t this, at its core, what Emma Watson’s brand of feminism is asking for? men and women who can work together toward common goals with mutual respect. Isn’t that something we all want?
You might have noticed a lack of blog post last Monday. I’d been planning to write something about a book I recently read called A Return to Modesty by Wendy Shalit, but came down with pneumonia. The only reason there were posts on the past two Saturdays is that they were already written (it seems like whenever a Bible study comes together really well so I have an extra Sabbath post ready “just in case,” something comes up that gives me a reason to use it).
It’s been nearly two weeks now and I still don’t feel fully recovered (much better, though!). So instead of a thoughtful book review, I want to talk to you about a song that’s been stuck in my head. Or rather, a specific version of the song.
You’re no doubt familiar with the song “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” You might even have heard Idina Menzel and Michael Bublé’s new cover already, but if you haven’t seen the video yet please take a few seconds to at least glance at it, since that’s a big part of what I want to talk about.
Apparently they’ve tried to turn this song into a cute family-friendly version for the holidays. If you close your eyes, though, it still sounds like a man trying to seduce a woman. But then you open your eyes and see a cute little pre-adolescent kids acting out the roles. In the words of Jubal Early, does that seem right to you?
In the original score, written in 1944 by Frank Loesser, the two singing parts are called “wolf” and “mouse,” with a male voice usually singing “wolf” and a female voice usually singing “mouse” (thought not always — did you know Joseph Gordon Levit could sing?). Actually, it turns out we can talk about Wendy Shalit’s book after all, since she mentions “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” in her modesty book.
Now this song is very stereotypical because certainly not all men are hungry wolves and not all women reticent mice. Indeed, I’ve known quite a few hungry woman and mousey men. However, the simple fact remains that a young woman in 1948 had a hundred and one reasons to say no to sex, if she wanted to say no, and those reasons were credible. The story we are told today is that all these reasons, such as a father waiting up for you, were oppressive to women. And yet in their absense we can appreciate how an earlier generation of girls was made powerful by them. (A Return to Modestly, p.55)
If she’d seen this music video, though, I’m not sure Miss Shalit would have put her discussion of it under the heading “Girls Who Can’t Say No” as a contrast between today’s culture and that of 1948 (the year Loesser sold the rights to MGM). I think she might have moved the discussion to one of the many passages in her book where she talks how much we as a culture sexualize our children. For one thing, she draws a parallel between assigning sex-education classes to younger and younger students and increasing levels of student-on-student sexual violence in schools.
The associative link between the disenchanting of sex and increased sexual brutality among children works like this: if our children are raised to believe, in the words of the New Jersey kindergarten teacher, that talking about the most private things is “no different from talking about an elbow,” they they are that much more likely to see nothing wrong in a certain kind of sexual violence. (A Return to Modestly, p.19)
Now, I’m not saying this cute little music video is going to lead to increased levels of sexual assault among children. Rather, it bothers me as part of a trend that portrays young children in more and more sexualized ways. Most people I know would hope their 10- or 11-year-olds didn’t understand what’s going on in this song — they wouldn’t be encouraging them to sing it. And if this little boy was older, I’m not sure which interpretation of the song this performance would make me lean towards. Does “mouse” want to stay but feels she should leave, and “wolf” is persuading her to do what she wants? Or is “mouse” really trying to get away, and “wolf” is blocking her escape? Depends on how you sing the song, and how you feel about the line “What’s in this drink?” that was cut from the video, but not the version on Idina Menzel’s CD.
Am I over-thinking this? Perhaps. But it saddens me how many people think this is just a cute little video and don’t seem to see the potential implications of two children singing what is a rather adult song. Sure they’re adorable and talented, but was it a good idea for the adults who were in charge of creating this music video to use them like this? I really don’t think so.
The subject of Godly femininity has fascinated me for a number of years. It’s well nigh impossible to be a woman in the church without reaching the point where you’re comparing yourself to Proverbs 31, and if we’re honest we rarely (if ever) feel we measure up to that standard. The picture of a virtuous woman is not meant to discourage us, but that can still be how we feel.
Similarly, reading New Testament verses addressed to women can make us feel like it’s impossible to be a godly woman, or even make us angry that God’s idea of femininity has so few elements of feminism. It is not always easy to hear, much less heed, admonitions for women to have “a meek and quiet spirit” (1Pet. 3:4, KJV), submit to their husbands (Eph. 5:22), and wear “modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety” (2 Tim 2:9).
Many of the words used to define Godly femininity in the Bible have come under attack in modern times. When we hear “submission,” we think doormat. When we hear “modest,” we think frumpy. When we hear “gentle and quiet,” we think shy. Often, this type of reaction shows a misunderstanding of God’s intention for feminine conduct. As discussed in “Redefining Meekness,” our current definitions fall considerably short of the Biblical standard. The Greek words translated meekness carry the idea of strength of character that balances our emotions, expresses anger properly, behaves with gentleness, and helps establish our relationship with God.
The subject of modesty has been thoroughly covered (perhaps “done to death” would be a better phrase) by many other writers. So all I’m going to say about it is, check out Olivia Howard’s Fresh Modesty blog for proof that you can dress modestly and attractively. And honestly, even if modest does sometimes look “frumpy,” would we rather be looked down on for being too covered than for dressing slutty?
Content With Quiet
In Western culture, gentle meekness and silence are seen as negative qualities. They may be okay in principle, but in practice it holds you back from reaching your full potential (whatever that means). It is generally the loudest person in the room who gets the most attention, and we often assume that is an ideal we should strive for.
I’ve touched on this subject before, when writing about introversion. Both shyness and introversion are generally considered “bad” traits (though that is starting to change in regards to introverts). In Susan Caine’s words, “Shyness is the fear of negative judgment, and introversion is a preference for quiet, minimally stimulating environments.” They are not the same, but share quietness as a trait. Many people assume this quietness is a sign of weakness.
Also, shyness implies submissiveness. And in a competitive culture that reveres alpha dogs, one-downsmanship is probably the most damning trait of all.
Yet this is where the shy and the introverted, for all their differences, have in common something profound. Neither type is perceived by society as alpha, and this gives both types the vision to see how alpha status is overrated, and how our reverence for it blinds us to things that are good and smart and wise.
All too often, we hear people twisting Godly traits beyond recognition to make them seem less appealing. We also see traits that God hates exalted by society. I have a hard time finding balance between these two extremes. I struggle with shyness, but I can also speak before I think and wish I had exercised the virtue of silence. I intend to dress with modesty, but sometimes settle for frumpy or wear something a bit tighter than usual because I know guys will notice. I seem to go from walk-all-over-me peacefulness to stereotypical red-head temper with nothing in between.
We can’t let ourselves pick and choose qualities we admire (I like this trait from the Bible, but I like this idea from feminism) to make a “self” that we feel comfortable with. Christ calls us to get outside our comfort zone and follow Him, not matter what outside pressures say. In many cases, our challenge as Christian women is to move past the negative reactions society has to Godly traits and follow His teaching in spite of what the world says. God doesn’t ask us to be shy, frumpy doormats, but neither does he want us to hold on to worldly ideals that conflict with His way of life. He wants daughters clothed with strength and dignity who submit their lives to Him and know when to keep silent and when to speak.
I recently finished a delightful little book called How to Be a Hepburn in a Hilton World: The Art of Living with Style, Class, and Grass. It is written by a publicist for Warner Bros. Records named Jordan Christy. The basic idea behind the book is that in the years since Audrey Hepburn graced the silver screen, our culture has come to uphold standards of behavior that are simply unacceptable for smart girls to follow. This book sets out to show “modern ladies how they can be beautiful, intelligent, and fun while retaining values and morals.”
One of the most welcome things about this book is that it is not a Christian guide to modesty. I’m not saying those types of books can’t be helpful, but it was refreshing to find a book written for women who want to (or have to) work in a business setting instead of on an idylic homestead. It tells girls you can be modern as well as feminine, that you don’t have to wear ankle-length skirts to be modest, and that acting like a lady can be fun instead of restrictive. I think it would be a great book to give girls who feel like the commonly presented Christian ideals of womanhood are shutting them out (for the record, this does not include me, but does describe some of my close friends).
Just to be fair, there were some things I did not like about the book. In an effort (I assume) to keep the text relevant to modern readers, Christy uses many examples of actresses, characters, and reality shows. There were enough to become excessive (and I didn’t recognize most of them). Her writing style might also seem blunt and off-putting to some readers.
Chapter 1: Keep Your Chin Up and Your Skirt Down
“If we want [guys’] undivided attention for a bout 2.4 seconds, we should keep wearing our glittery minis and doing the bend-and-snap. But if we want a real relationship with a real gentleman, we should just keep being our smart, classy, fabulous selves.” Or, for those who’ve never worn a mini skirt in their lives, don’t be tempted to compromise.
Chapter 2: Words, Words, Words
This chapter advised reading and increasing our vocabularies so we can become better conversationalists. She also covers knowing when to speak and when to keep silent, quoting George Eliot: “Blessed is the man who, having nothing to say, abstains from giving us wordy evidence of the fact.”
Chapter 3: Use Some Elbow Grease
“Unfortunately, that hard-work-doesn’t-hurt mentality appears to be in short supply these days. Why? It’s become painfully clear that our society just doesn’t support a sincere work ethic anymore.” Be that as it may, if you want to be a classy, respectable young woman, you have to be willing to work.
Chapter 4: Choose Your Friends Wisely
We need to find friends “who will help us kick our own vices, not just drag us down in the mire with them and theirs. If we’re struggling with self-image and potential eating-disorder thoughts … we need to find ourselves some normal, curvy friends who will take us to counseling and won’t care if we’re a size 2 or a 10.”
Chapter 5: Let Him Come Calling
“Regardless of the guy’s current status, bank account, background, or beliefs, if he’s interested, he will do the pursuing. There’s no need to interfere with the ways of nature! Doing so will only scare him off.” This is one chapter I had a little disagreement with. She doesn’t allow for anything in between completely-ignore-the-guy and obnoxiously-pester-him-with-text-messages-every-few-hours. If you’re already friends, shouldn’t you be allowed to Facebook or e-mail him once in a while to keep in touch?
Chapter 6: Dress to Impress
Two quotes this time: “While it may seem frivolous to some, our personal style does more talking than we ever could about ourselves — and we want to make sure it’s saying nice things!” “While it can be tempting to want to keep up with the current inseam trends, the respect we’ll receive from not exposing our chest region and upper thighs is worth so much more than the five-seconds stares we’d get from a bunch of ogling buffoons.”
Chapter 7: Less Is More
“Our society is undoubtedly of the flashier/louder/faster/stronger mentality, and for some reason makeup tends to fall into the same category, but it really should be placed indefinitely in the less-is-more category. … We need to realize makeup is a simply something to enhance certain features — not a daily necessity that needs to be applied from sunup to sundown.”
Chapter 8: Have Your Cake and Eat It Too
“You can healthfully and happily maintain your weight without taking any weird voodoo pills or sprinting a marathon on the treadmill every week. You simply need to find a steady balance between those leafy greens and that Sprinkles cupcake. Let’s become the new poster children for happy, healthy young women.”