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).


  1. This is so smart and so dead on. It was the same sort of jarring cognitive dissonance I was raised with: show your femininity by making it practically indistinguishable from a male. at one point, a female in my family started wearing her father's XXL t-shirts because they so perfectly covered up everything in one, big, voluminous tent.

  2. May I go so far as to suggest that a consequence of this would be an increased focus on female "attributes" such as submission, silence, domestic industry, etc.? That is, in order to promote "femininity" while masking female anatomy, one must create clearly defined and externally identifiable gender stereotypes?

  3. Christian H: I didn't include that, but yes, "femininity" becomes strongly associated with certain outward behaviors. But while submission and domestic activity are general, flower arranging and sewing clothes are not. I've read and heard so much emphasis placed on a woman mastering the latter that I'd have to assume that there's no hope for me ever fulfilling God's role for me in life.

  4. I would like to stomp my feet and shout amen to this like a good southern baptist, but I am Methodist now, so I will simply agree with you. ;) No, really, I like my body. It isn't perfect, but God made it. And He didn't cover it up at all when He made it. Now, we wear clothes. To me, modesty is more about my inner self than my outer. When I put on clothes, I can feel inside whether I am modest or not. My motives play a part, not just the actual cut of the clothing. But, before I write my own blog post, let me say I love yours.

  5. The most irritating part of the Modesty Argument is that it fully places the burden on women. The men have no responsibility for their thoughts and reactions. I remember when my dad told me I wasn't allowed to wear a bikini because "you don't know what guys think when they see that." This never sat well with me- and not just because I wanted to wear a bikini like the rest of my friends. There's wisdom in not letting yourself hang all out but, at some point, men need to learn what modesty is and apply it to their thought life.

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  7. Hi ... found you via Elizabeth Esther.
    Love this post! I grew up very traditional Mennonite (think almost Amish) so a major emphasis was place on women being modest. I left the boxes of my childhood 20 yrs ago and am so glad I did!

  8. Thank you for writing about this! In the cult I grew up in females were made to wear restrictive girtles at all times, even the hottest days of Florida summer. This was to "help" guys not lust because they couldn't see a female's hips or backside shaking. Also, nothing the delinated the breast area...and nothing could be seen below the collar bone!!!
    Men had a lot fewer restrictions...and this was in a church run by a female!


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