Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Modesty Culture Part 10: Social Signaling

Social Signaling

When you see a man in a turban walking down the street, what do you think?

Many would think “Muslim.” Those of us who live in cities with a high (Asian) Indian population would tend to think “Sikh” - particularly if that style of turban was sighted.

This is a Sikh turban (a Dastar). Note that it is peaked in the middle, although there are other styles.
Also, Muslim turbans are not usually blue or orange.
This is actor Saif Ali Khan.

That is a great example of social signaling. The clothing indicates membership in a particular group.

Similarly, if you see a family with lots of kids dressed in matching outfits with the girls in denim jumpers, you would tend to think “homeschoolers of a certain sort.” (The Duggars, perhaps?)

Or how about this one? Do you recognize the look?

These are the dresses worn by members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, commonly known as the polygamist Mormon sect formerly run by the now incarcerated Warren Jeffs. During our recent trip to Utah, I saw a woman in one of these dresses - except it was navy blue. She was out in the 105 degree heat in it - and these are heavy wool, not light cotton.

Again: social signalling.

We are part of a particular group with particular beliefs.

“Modesty culture” is all about the same thing. Signalling to other members of the group - and to outsiders - membership in the group.

To dress like those in society at large is to identify with that society to some degree. To dress counter to that society is to signal that one is not part of that society, but rather part of a counterculture. This was done by hippies and goths in the past as well. It was a way of signalling disdain for mainstream culture and for those who chose to participate in it.

Likewise, Modesty Culture is, in part, a way to signal disdain for modern culture and for those who are part of it. 

This is one reason why I believe that it is so important to understand the origin of “modesty culture.” Reconstructionists like Bill Gothard and Douglas Phillips are expressly about the establishment of an alternative culture that will eventually take political power over the mainstream.

Social signaling is crucial to this. The members of the Reconstructionist army must recognize each other, and must differentiate themselves from the “evil” society. They must also not associate with the “enemies of God,” those “sinners,” any more than is absolutely necessary.

The so-called “enemies of God” are to be defeated, destroyed, not fraternized with.

This is attractive to much of conservative Christianity as well. We are the “godly” ones. They are the “sinners.” We must be able to tell the difference, and the social signalling of clothing is an easy way to do it.

Because it is SO IMPORTANT that we know who it is okay for our children to associate with, of course.

We can’t have them contaminated by “sinners.”

What kind of sinners? Well, we aren’t all that worried about greedy people or gluttonous people, and we seem to buy a lot of books by liars. Arrogant or greedy people seem to be fine: we even love them as preachers.

As I have worked to write this series, it has come to me that there is one sin that we feel we need to socially signal our opposition:

Premarital sex, particularly by females.

What finally caused this epiphany is hearing otherwise decent people refer to “young girls who dress like hookers.”

Since the percentage of women who are actual prostitutes in the United States is about as low as any time in history, and very, very few of the women who supposedly “dress like hookers” actually are hookers; it seems as if this might be a bit rich of a claim.

But then I thought about it in the context of social signaling.

We believe that any sex outside of wedlock (by a female) is whoredom. Any woman who puts out before marriage is a whore. Anyone who does not believe in strict celibacy before marriage - meaning pretty much all non-religious folk - is a whore. Ergo, to dress like a normal person in the culture is to send the social signal that one is not making (female) celibacy a priority. That’s how one dismisses a huge portion of the younger population as “sluts.”  

It also leads us to think of ourselves as superior to everyone else. We can be self righteous about this, and never address the deeper issues of rape culture and misogyny. We can go to the mall and decide who is good and bad by their clothing, and pat ourselves on our backs.

“Thank GOD we are not like other men.”

This sounds like the Pharisees

Yes. Yes it does. Focusing on the outward appearance. Making rules to separate the truly “godly” from the “sinners.”

And it also does this: it communicates some specific ideas.

First, it communicates that one adheres to a specific philosophy of responsibility for sexual sin. As another fellow blogger put it, “These clothing choices are not so much a fashion statement as they are an ethical and moral statement about the perceived responsibility women have for a man’s thoughts.”

It also communicates this idea:

“We few understand what it means to be godly. All women who fail to meet our standards are evil sluts. We are the ones God loves more.”

To paraphrase Matthew 23:5-7 (NIV):

"Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their dresses phylacteries wide and their skirts the tassels on their garments long, they love the place of honor on reality shows at banquets and the reputation as the most godly family most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the home school conferences marketplaces and to be called “Godly example” 'Rabbi' by others.”

As Peter Enns puts it, this view of ourselves as superior and the only “true” believers reflects our view of God as “fundamentally hacked off, retributive, touchy, demanding of theological precision, uncompromising, takes-no-prisoners-and-gives-no-quarter, whose wrath needs to be appeased so watch your step.”

“Whether or not we are even aware of it, how we act reflects what we deeply believe. In fact, as Christians, there is no truer measure of what we really believe God is like, deep down, the God that really drives us and energizes us, our life source, than how quickly we feel the need to erect walls and continually narrow the borders of who is in and who is out.”

This is never more true than within Modesty Culture. We are truly energized by the need to erect walls and keep unacceptable people out.

I am also reminded of an amazing anonymous poem that my pastor has quoted on numerous occasions:

Believe what I believe - no more, no less,
That I am right, and no one else confess,
Feel as I feel, think only as I think,
Eat what I eat and drink what I drink;
Look as I look, do only as I do,
Then, and only then, will I fellowship with you.


And, it goes without saying, “dress as I dress.”

Social signalling. Who do we fellowship with, and who are the “sinners” who are too unclean for us to be around?

We shall know them by the clothes they wear…


In the next installment, I will continue this train of thought as I demonstrate that the statement common within Christian Fundamentalism, “Others may, we cannot,” is a bald-faced lie.

Modesty Culture Part 10: Social Signalling
Modesty Culture Part 11: "Others May, We Cannot" is a Lie
Modesty Culture Part 12: Amanda's Story

Note on Social Signalling and Gender Roles:

Beyond the simple “we are the ones that don’t have sex before marriage” signal, clothing sends others.

For the typical home school “Modesty Culture” look: denim jumpers, dresses only on girls, no jeans, and other tenets of Gothardism and Vision Forum, this also sends some other cultural signals. That family also will believe in “courtship” or “betrothal” rather than dating. Typically, they will believe in extremely limited physical contact before marriage - and often no falling in love either. 

A lesser standard of dress, but still combined with an obsession with clothing typically indicates some freedom within the courtship or dating relationship, but still set lines about physical contact, and perhaps an aspiration that the wedding kiss be the first one.

There is more, though. The most strict dress codes within Christian culture - like those in Islamic countries - are linked to specific views about the subjugation, congenital inferiority, and rigid retrograde roles for women. More relaxed, but still strict standards indicate a strong belief that women should stay home when they have children, that women should marry if possible, and that women should be submissive. These are obviously just guidelines, and tend to apply more to families than to the individuals within them, but they definitely can serve as useful signals as to what a family believes.

Particularly as I have observed it within the home school movement, the signalling functions as a way that parents can identify “likeminded” families that subscribe to most or all of the same basic cultural beliefs. This is particularly important for families looking for spouses for their young men and women.

You want a daughter-in-law that will stay home with the kids, have a huge family, not kiss until the wedding, and be properly submissive to your son? Look for the girl with the long hair, denim jumper, and one of her baby siblings always attached. In theory, one should be able to avoid the girl who might want a career, or be assertive, or not home school the grandkids, and so on. And you should be able to avoid the girl that might not absolutely clamp her knees together until “man and wife.”

Not that it exactly works out this way in practice…

Note on clothing eras and social signaling:

I noted in my previous post that clothes that show the same amount of skin are viewed differently depending on the era invoked. This fits well with the concept of social signalling.

If one dresses to look like the 1920s, say, or the 1950s, one could (arguably) be making a statement that one agrees with the values of those eras. To dress like a 1950s housewife could signal that one believes in the suburban dream: a stay at home mom, washing the dishes in heels and lipstick and all that. One could say “I am Donna Reed.”

I am less sure about the 1920s, but tend to assume that most people think “my grandmother looked like that” without actually knowing what the Roaring ‘20s were actually like. 

It is a bit disconcerting that there is this strong push to return to the past. More than that, really, to return to the culture of the past, the attitudes and trappings of the past. We just wink and nod at the racism, the misogyny, the child labor, the disease, the neglect of the poor and disabled, the far higher violent crime rates, the acceptance and embrace of spousal and child abuse, the evils done in the name of colonialism and Manifest Destiny, and so much else the characterized these past eras. Why? Well, because women weren't as likely to have sex before marriage, and they were punished brutally if they did. (And women knew their place. And more people called themselves Christians.) If we could just go back in time to the glory days by recreating the cultural trappings of that era, we could create a new golden age. I recommend my review of Frank Kermode's excellent book, The Sense of An Ending for more on this.

The past has become an idol, the source of cultural "salvation," which is why Evangelicalism is currently propping up its rotting, worm-eaten carcass, while the next generation turns away in embarrassment. 

Christianity and isolationism:

I am a bit concerned with a trend within Evangelicalism and conservative Christianity over the last several decades toward isolationism. It is particularly strong within the homeschool movement, but it seems to be creeping into the mainstream. It is very much an “us versus them” mindset, with “secularism” - meaning in practice all people who are not doctrinaire Evangelicals - as the enemy.

I have been shocked to find out how many people I know have zero friends that do not share their religious and political beliefs - particularly among women. Many people only read “Christian” books, only listen to “Christian” music, only talk to other Christians (and only Republicans), and often only Christians of the same flavor. (Say, only Calvinists or Young Earth Creationists, for example.)

For Gothardism and its relatives, this is intentional. We were encouraged to only associate with “likeminded” people, because we would otherwise have our morals contaminated. These ideas are continuing to spread within the larger church, however.

One of the reasons that I am concerned about this is that isolation leads to extremism. One of the great books I read earlier this year was Why Societies Need Dissent by Cass Sunstein.  It turns out that when any group contains only “likeminded” people, the group becomes more extreme in its positions than any of the individuals were before joining the group. This tendency hold true for all likeminded groups, from terrorist cells to appellate judge panels. It applies on the left and the right, and to non-religious as well as religious groups.

Thus, isolationism causes extremism. Modesty Culture actually serves as a pretty good demonstration of this. Take a look (if you haven’t already) at part 3 of this series, where I show just how far the rules have gone: to the point where ordinary breast movement during exercise is considered to be “immodest” to a majority. If all you ever are exposed to are people who think this way, the rules get stricter and stricter - and the obsession more and more extreme. 

Note on exclusion:

One of the worst effects of this exclusion is that it sends the message to the vast majority of non-religious people that in order to be part of Christianity, they must first change their manner of dress to a form of protest against mainstream culture.

It is very much similar to requiring circumcision or adherence to Old Testament ceremonial law. First, change yourself to match our cultural preferences, and then - and only then - can you be part of the Kingdom.

Again, why are we so surprised that we are losing young people, and why we don’t seem to be making converts outside of church culture?

Note on Purity Culture...for girls:

I already mentioned this in part 8, but a key part of Modesty and Purity Culture is the assumption, the fundamental belief, that, for women, “Your virginity is the best gift you can ever give to your future husband.”

As should be obvious by this point, this is a no-win situation for girls. It’s hardly unique to Christianity, however. We have simply put a new name and a new face on the same old double standard that has existed for millennia and across religious, cultural, and geographical lines.

For your consideration, a study on “sexting.” Columnist Amanda Marcotte’s analysis is spot on:

“In addition, girls who didn't sext were also described as ‘goody girls’ or ‘stuck up.’ So while the technology is new, the ancient sense of male entitlement to demand sexual favors and then mock those who provide them is the real issue at stake here.”


  1. You mentioned the Roaring Twenties. From all I've read and the art I've seen, this was a time of permissiveness, including sexual permissiveness, as great as the Sixties; the time of Tallulah "My heart is as pure as the driven slush" Bankhead and Mae West and Al Capone and Bonnie and Clyde. So anyone who wants to go back to the Twenties as a time of "innocence and order" really doesn't know the Twenties.

    It's also worth mentioning that the Fifties were the time when folks were deathly afraid of The Bomb, with good reason; the time of Rebel Without A Cause, The Cross and the Switchblade and West Side Story, of Rosa Parks and Brown vs. Board of Education. The "perfect housewife" only existed on television.

    1. My point exactly about the 20s, although I think one could find plenty of nastiness in any era. The golden age really exists only in our imagination and on television.

      If anything, there is solid evidence that right now is the best time in history to be a woman, a child, or, at least in the First World, a minority within the culture. Not that we are anywhere close to perfect, but a heck of a lot better than we were. On the other hand, White European Male hegemony seems to be on the decline, which I am sure makes some people feel that the world is ending...

  2. Even funnier is the fact that the garments many hold up as being classier/more ladylike/modest were actually transgressive during their time. The flapper dress is an obvious example--it was the symbol of the New Woman who drank, smoked, and ran around in roadsters with men. What we think of as quintessentially 50s styles--say Marylin Monroe's white dress in "The Seven Year Itch" or bullet bras or "wiggle dresses"--were *supposed* to be provocative. Going back even further--the sort of clothes worn by the wealthy, landed gentry in Jane Austen books were not looked on as particularly modest, wholesome, or conservative (indeed, in modern movies they have to bring the necklines up above where they were historically). Actual historical study can make fashion so complex...

    1. Yes indeed. So much of fashion has always been about class, hasn't it?

  3. One (slight) downside to feminism is that, while I am free to choose to work outside or inside the home (family finances permitting)- a certain choice can still signal something I don't intend. I have had this problem with clothing: one of my husband's co-workers thought I was Pentecostal, because I wore denim skirts, long hair, and no makeup. Skirts are easier to fit than pants, I don't see the point of paying someone to cut my hair all that often, and I would rather sleep an extra 30 minutes (and have more money in my pocket) than put on makeup. (I am especially conscious of social signaling when I wear a skirt to take my three young children to the store.)

    1. It does get complicated - primarily for women. It's really a shame that we spend so much time and effort worrying about clothing in the first place. Even more so that we spend so much effort judging others in this regard.