Recent comments by presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann have stirred up the discussion about gay marriage once again. While speaking to a group of high school…
I grew up in a very conservative Christian home. During my teenage years, my family fell into what my parents now refer to as “the denim skirt cult.” You know. The one where all the girls where long sleeves, denim skirts, and (if they are extra chaste) head coverings.
Growing up, I was taught that as a woman, modesty was my priority. Not only in how I dressed, but also in how I acted. It was important to show as little skin as possible. It was vital to keep men at an arms length (no dating!) It was wrong to wear tight clothes, or anything that even showed the form of my body–hence the skirts. It was inappropriate to be alone in the same room with a boy (not to mention the time I rode in the car with one and was grounded for two weeks).
Why all of this? Because if I didn’t take exorbitant precautions, I might cause a man to stumble. Sexual thoughts might enter his mind and it would be all my fault. Because sex, even in thought, was wrong (outside the bounds of marriage, of course). And because men are visual and can’t help themselves, it falls to the woman to prevent this sin from occurring.
I haven’t worn a denim skirt for over 5 years. It has taken me almost as long to recover and recalibrate my mindset from that of the “denim skirt cult”.
That stage of my life did me far more damage than it did good. I am not against teaching modesty to young women. I’m not even against dressing very conservatively if that is what a person is comfortable with. What I am against is the way modesty is taught most of the time. I feel that when teaching modesty to young women it is incredibly important to do it for the right reasons.
“To keep men from stumbling” is not a right reason. But why? Why is this thought process wrong and how could it possibly be damaging?
1) Men are sexual, visual beings. They always have been, they always will be. They are attracted based on appearances. Nothing you do or don’t do will stop them from having that natural, innate urge within them. Men are going to be attracted to women no matter what they are wearing. If a man wants to imagine what a woman looks like naked, he is going to do that whether she is wearing a bikini or burkha.
There is nothing wrong with men being attracted to women or women being attracted to men. Outside of marriage, within marriage, single people, divorced people– there will be attraction. To say that the attraction is based solely on how a woman dresses is not only ridiculous, it is harmful and places an extraordinary burden on them.
2) A woman is not responsible for what a man thinks about her or how he acts towards her. At all. Men are capable of controlling themselves. I honestly used to think that all men were completely incapable of this. I thought that for some prehistoric reason, when they saw a pretty girl, they had no choice but to beat their chest and try to mate with her. It was all my fault if I looked even remotely attractive and I was causing them to “sin” in their thoughts. Because after all, they can’t help themselves.
Men are just as capable of controlling themselves, even in their thoughts, as women are. Men are capable of taking responsibility for what they think and feel –as they should. They have God-given sexual urges and they have God-given self-control. It is up to them if they want to use the latter.
3) The self-esteem of women, especially teenage girls, is already delicate. As women, we are constantly bombarded by images of flawless complexions, skinny bodies, long legs and big breasts. Society tells us that if we don’t match up to their impossibly high standard, we aren’t beautiful. To further exacerbate this low sense of self-worth already thrust upon is, the “denim skirt cult” mindset causes girls to feel guilty and sinful if they dress attractively. And I’m not even talking about super low-cut tops and butt-cheek shorts. I’m just talking about well-fitting, attractive clothing. For the longest time I felt an unremitting sense of guilt if I wore jeans and a t-shirt that fit well. Multiply that guilt if I put on enough make-up to make me feel like a superstar. Until two weeks ago, I hadn’t worn a pair of regular shorts for years and years. Every time I put them on I felt gross, exposed and guilty.
Instilling a sense of shame on a teenage girl for looking and feeling attractive is not healthy in any way. Making a girl shlub around in denim skirts and baggy shirts because her body is something to hide and be ashamed of is ridiculous. Telling her that SHE is to take responsibility for the thoughts and actions of the men around her is harmful and, quite honestly, has the potential to set her up for emotionally and spiritually–if not physically–abusive relationships.
Girls, it is okay to dress attractively. It is okay to wear clothes that make you feel comfortable in your own skin. It’s okay to get dressed up and feel beautiful and sexy. There’s nothing wrong with expressing yourself through what you wear. Because it doesn’t matter what you wear or how you act– what a man thinks, feels, or does is his own responsibility. Not yours.
Photo by Michelle Carl