Friday, September 10, 2010

Modesty: Femininity Deemphasized

Without even taking a poll, I’d say that Christians (especially members of the homeschooled factions) love to talk modesty (in the context of non-sexually-provocative female dress, that is). I planned to stay away from the topic precisely because I doubted that there was anything really new to the age-old discussion about what Christian women should and shouldn’t wear. However, something I read this week resurfaced some concerns that I’ve had over the years, so I decided to drop them here and see what kind of feedback I’d get.

Early on in Hillary McFarland’s new book Quivering Daughters: Hope and Healing for the Daughters of Patriarchy, she includes a journal entry from her girlhood about her father’s reaction to what she wore one day:

“So you were out running around the fair, shirt tucked in, showing your crotch and butt.” Dad kept going on about clothes, getting raped, and guys staring at one’s crotch and butt. (p. 11)

This didn’t surprise me. Hillary’s father, like other members of the modesty movement, focused on covering up the female body with loose-fitting clothing that deemphasized female anatomy. Although I don’t know the details of his views on this, the aim of most is to, at the same time, promote “feminine” dress. The result is some sort of weird Marxian dialectic where the modesty subculture ends up who knows where.

Logically, dressing “femininely” would involve emphasizing that which makes us women fundamentally different from men. The features most easily noticeable and, therefore, most often chosen throughout history have been the breast and hips (meaning thighs and buttocks). However, those are the precise areas that people prefer to cover up, hiding to the point of not even being identifiable.

Receiving the contradictory message of promoting one’s “femininity” while covering one’s female anatomy, Christian women then try a different approach: “Femininity” as a universal concept is redefined and cast in terms of highly variable and external characteristics.* Being “feminine” now means hiding one’s bust, a universal symbol of womanhood and motherhood, under high, pleated necklines, and instead outfitting oneself with flowered prints, lace, ruffles, pastel colors, soft fabrics, and ringlets and ribbons in the hair. The feminists’ division of “biological sex” and “socially-constructed gender” is then realized.

My question is this: How can a woman prize her God-given feminine identity when it’s reduced to man-made images rather than natural beauty? Perhaps the real problem is that there has been a drive towards finding practical applications while the theological and philosophical side of the discussion has been neglected.

*An obvious example is how the 1950s-1960s housewife look (e.g., June Cleaver and Laura Petrie) has become a symbol of proper dress to many. I suspect that that can be attributed to the personal taste of those who spent their young adult lives during that era (e.g., Bill Gothard).