Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Modesty Culture Part 9: Inconsistent Application of Rules

Anyone who has experienced - or seen - slut shaming can attest that modesty rules are applied very inconsistently. The exact same outfit will be considered fine on one girl or woman, but not on another.

In my experience, there are several characteristics which will lead to a girl being targeted for slut shaming. I would note that most of these are physical characteristics which are not in the control of the female, and that the final one is one that has nothing to do with sex, but has everything to do with gender roles.

My goal for this installment is to show that, rather than reject society’s obsession with female bodies and the insistence that women fulfil cultural expectations of “beauty,” Modesty Culture is just more of the same, punishing women for failing to meet a particular expectation of body type - or conformity to certain gendered expectations.


So, without further ado, here are the things that cause a woman or young girl to be singled out for slut shaming:

1. Large Breasts (and curviness in general)

This one is pretty much non-debatable. Anyone who is paying any attention can tell that curvy girls get the brunt of the slut shaming. For a girl with big enough breasts, she probably cannot wear actual summer clothing without someone throwing a fit. For that matter, she probably cannot wear exercise clothing - or a swimsuit. (See part 3 of this series…)

With the exception of those who get plastic surgery, women do not get to choose their breast size. It has nothing to do with their morality or alleged lack thereof. It is the body they have. Period. But that never stopped anyone from trying to make sure that no cleavage shows on anyone, ever. And, as I pointed out in a previous post, buxom girls should never exercise - and probably shouldn’t walk either.

The same goes for curvy hips. A “sexy” walking style is attributed to a curvy girl. Again, her body is her body. She doesn’t get to pick it.

Within “Modesty Culture,” then, the most “Godly” girls are typically the rail thin ones. Wait a minute! Isn’t that the same body type that is glorified on the catwalk? I believe it is.

This makes sense, of course, if the measure for “modesty” is what a man feels. Since modern American culture glorifies big breasts, but also supermodel figures, it is unsurprising that both of these play into “Modesty Culture.” One is feared, while the other is embraced, because it is easier to hide sexual characteristics.

Again, this betrays a fear of female sexuality. Things that signify in our minds the “female,” particularly in the raw physical, animalistic sense - not the cultural “femininity” sense - are to be feared.

To be truly “godly,” it is best that a female have a “boyish,” that is, non-adult-female, body, while having a “feminine” presentation. Obviously sexually mature female bodies need not apply.

Oh, and one more thing: I mentioned this previously in a footnote, but it bears repeating. Big breasts and big butts are associated in our minds (and to a degree in reality) with African Americans and Hispanics. Flat, cylindrical figures are associated more with northern Europeans and Asians. Hmm. Harder to be "Modest" when one is a person of color, methinks. Our theology reflects our racism.

2. Early puberty

It is sad, but girls who go through puberty early are at increased risk for a number of detrimental psychological outcomes.

At least some of this comes from an inappropriate sexualization by others. Our culture does this, and “Modesty Culture” is no exception. Girls who develop early are considered to be a particular threat to the young boys their age.

Again, I am surprised that I have to say this, but girls don’t get to chose when they undergo puberty. It has nothing to do with their morality or lack thereof.

But it leads to slut shaming within “Modesty Culture.”

Again, this makes sense when a man’s attraction is the standard for “modesty.” It is really uncomfortable when a man finds a child attractive. Since “Modesty Culture” shifts responsibility to the female, this result is unavoidable.

3. General societally determined attractiveness

This one should come as no surprise. When the entire definition of “modesty” depends on the male gaze, conventionally attractive women will take the brunt of the shaming. If they weren’t attractive, then men wouldn’t sin.

Again, girls get the bodies they get. They can’t control whether they are conventionally attractive or not. And it definitely has nothing to do with their morality or alleged lack thereof.

4. General societally determined unattractiveness - particularly obesity

Yes, the flip side applies as well. “With her figure, she shouldn’t be wearing that.” “Cover up! Nobody wants to see that!” Girls deemed unattractive are considered to be aesthetically offensive.

Again, no surprise, when the male gaze is the standard. A man should only have to see bodies that are aesthetically pleasing, but not to the degree that he experiences arousal.

5. Age

Did I go there? Absolutely I did!

There are a few things to unpack here, so let me start with the obvious:

Younger women or teen girls are much more likely to be punished for being “immodest.

Some of this, obviously, as to do with point 3 above. Because our culture values youth, and young is considered more attractive, younger people will naturally fall afoul of the prohibition on being “too attractive.”

I believe there are other factors too.

One, I discussed in a footnote in part 2 of this series. The “Snow White Syndrome.” The younger generation is despised for displacing the older, and therefore must be punished. Likewise, the belief that the fashions of the past are - by definition - more “godly” than those of the present.

I have one more theory too, though. It doesn’t take much to find a never ending cascade of articles (secular and Christian) whining about the young folk. Usually, this is about “millennials,” but Gen X (my generation) and Gen Y (my wife’s generation) are also implicated. We are all entitled, selfish, oversexed brats, and if we would just be as good as the old folks (Boomers and especially the WWII generation), every ill in society would disappear.

The contempt is unmistakable.

I remember a discussion with my wife wherein she opined that a significant reason why people of our generations and younger have little or no interest in socializing with - or being "instructed" by prior generations is that all we are doing is setting ourselves up to be judged.

(I will resist for the time being a longer discussion of the many economic and social changes that have privileged Boomers and earlier generations at the expense of later generations - or how millennials have shown longer sexual self control than any generation in recorded history - but I will just say that all of us - Gen X, Gen Y, and Millennials - feel your contempt, and feel it strongly.)

This is pretty predictable. In our society, the group with the power gets to wield it. If one ignores the most obvious power differential (which is racial, and thus only tangential to Modesty Culture), the next most obvious differentials are those of age and gender.

This goes double or even 100 times within Conservative Christianity and patriarchal culture.

Females are subject to males. The young are subject to the old. Thus, teen girls and younger women are at the bottom of the structure.

This isn’t flattering to those in power, but it is totally predictable. Place the burden on those at the bottom, because they can’t and won’t push back. (Except by leaving - which we have, in droves.)

The perceived sexual disfunction of our society is (naturally) blamed on those with the least power - those most easily imposed upon and dominated: young women.

Rather than confront the sins of older males, let’s just bitch about what the teen girls are wearing…


So far, these all have to do with what Bill Gothard would call the “unchangeables.” No woman ever got to choose her breast or hip size, when she went through puberty, how attractive she was, or what age she was at a given time.

There is one more, however, which IS “changeable.” Throughout history, this particular facet of Modesty Culture has been used to crush those women who dare to defy gender norms and challenge the power of patriarchy.

Let me explain.

6. Lack of conformity to gender expectations

I feel a need to discuss this one further, because it has a long history.

Let me start with a concept called the “Madonna / Whore Dichotomy.” You can read about the Freudian version of it here, but it has existed throughout the history of Western Civilization.

In a nutshell, women are divided (in men’s and even women’s minds) into two categories: the Madonna, and the Whore.

The Madonna is the quintessential nurturing, loving, mothering, pure female. The one who knows her place, and is happy there. Dickens tended to write about this sort of imaginary female, which is why his female characters are either humorous caricatures or angelic “Divine Creatures,” as Dorothy Sayers put it

In contrast, the Whore is the sexually depraved, insatiable nymphomaniac out to seduce and destroy men.

The problem for women is that if they cease to be one, they are assumed, indeed known, to be the other.

When a woman refuses or fails to conform to traditional gender roles, she is placed in the category of “whore,” and ascribed negative sexuality.

A great example of this is the story of Anne Hutchinson, who dared to debate certain Puritans on theological matters (and kicked their butts, if truth be told). Sure enough, she was accused of using her Bible study groups as a cover for orgies. (See my post on The Scarlet Letter for more on this true story.)

It wasn’t just Hutchinson. Rather, when women have dared to step outside of the “traditional” roles of housework and childcare and asserted themselves in the intellectual realm, they have near universally been accused of sexual misconduct.

Drawing by James Thurber. One of my favorite authors.

Argula von Grumbach made waves in 16th Century Germany when she wrote a letter defending a student who was charged with heresy (for accepting some of Luther’s teachings). Her husband lost his job as a result, and the family was banned from the town.

But guess what? She was also accused of sexual misconduct. She was obviously a “shameless whore,” and defended the student because she was in heat and lusting for him. Luther’s teachings resulted in “fornication and lechery/ of brazen, gross adultery” on the part of women who believed him - as shown by Grumbach’s letter.

Likewise, Katharina Schutz Zell wrote an open letter calling on the clergyman who succeeded Zell’s husband at a post to explain why he left it without properly resigning. Her letter contained theological arguments, which were not taken well. Not content to call her a heretic and a liar, he accused her of being her husband’s mere concubine, and not paying the tax for an illicit relationship.

Marie Dentière was a figure in the Swiss Reformation who openly preached the gospel and made the bold claim that women were free to do so. This ran afoul of the men, particularly John Calvin, who called her an “unruly woman.”

England’s Anne Askew called a “coy dame, and of very evil fame for wantonness.” Why, you ask? Because she kept her maiden name after marriage.

(For more on these people, and the citations for the quotations, see this excellent link.

The crazy thing is, these women were ALL upstanding people, chaste and beyond reproach - as far as any actual evidence would indicate. However, they didn’t “know their place,” so they were slut shamed.

The equation is simple:

Refusal to conform to gender roles = whoredom

It isn’t a mystery.

And it is still being taught today.

Kevin Swanson (no relation, thank God!), best known recently for his claim that Disney’s Frozen will turn your children homosexual or introduce them to bestiality, his outrageous claims about the supposed malevolent intentions of all Democrats, and his ludicrous claim that birth control results in dead implanted embryos in the womb; also, no surprise, believes that women should not go to college or work outside of the home.

Women who go to college “will have two abortions by the time they are thirty” and will “sell their flesh cheap in the marketplace.”

And this:

“Now remember, the goal is that these women have to be independent. The goal is lots and lots of birth control. The goal is lots and lots and lots of fornication. The goal is abortion. The day-after pill will help. And it will help a lot. Remember, the goal is to get that girl a job because she needs no stinkin’ husband, she’s got the fascist corporation and government-mandated insurance programs and socialist welfare that will take care of her womb to tomb. Who needs a cotton-pickin’ husband? Who needs a family? That’s pretty much the worldview that’s dominating, my friends. That’s what the college is all about.”

Yes indeed, women who want an education and jobs are whores. And this guy is a frequent speaker at home school conferences.

(In case this wasn’t obvious: my wife went to college and works outside the home. She has never had an abortion, never “sold her flesh” anywhere, has been married for 13 freaking years to one man, and has five children by him. Kevin seems to have missed a data point or sixteen million…)

(Swanson is bad enough, so I won’t do more than mention the Pearls, who have said that a woman with a job and a bank account is one step away from becoming a lesbian.)

The madonna / whore dichotomy. 

Remember it, because you will see it in action if you pay attention.

Why does this exist? Well, two reasons combine. First, the promoters of patriarchy, past and present, have well known that they had plenty to lose if women stopped focusing on serving men, and instead insisted on being equals. This was and is terrifying to many.

Second, even in our secular and feminist-influenced culture, the most powerful weapon that men or women have against a woman is that of slut shaming. Even now, a reputation as a whore is crippling in the social sense, and can cause problems with employment too. Is it any wonder that those who have the most to lose from female equality employ it?

How about some quotes from some writers of the past on the purpose of women? (I’ll be brief. I promise.)

Pope Gregory I:

"Woman is slow in understanding and her unstable and naive mind renders her by way of natural weakness to the necessity of a strong hand in her husband. Her 'use' is two fold; sex and motherhood."

John Knox, from his tract The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. Hilariously, this tract, intended in part as an anti-Catholic screed, backfired when the protestant Queen Elizabeth I took the throne of England. Good Queen Bess never forgave Knox, and they remained bitter enemies.

First, I say, that woman in her greatest perfection was made to serve and obey man, not to rule and command him…[I]t is plain that the apostle means, that woman in her greatest perfection should have known that man was lord above her; and therefore that she should never have pretended any kind of superiority above him, no more than do the angels above God the Creator, or above Christ their head. So I say, that in her greatest perfection, woman was created to be subject to man.

Rousseau (hardly a proponent of religion):

“The whole education of women ought to be relative to men. To please them, to be useful to them ... to make life sweet and agreeable to them.”

And, Martin Luther. (Women couldn’t win…)

"No gown worse becomes a woman than the desire to be wise."

Yes, the very foundations of society will crumble if women stop knowing and keeping to their place! Or at least maybe male privilege will crumble, but same difference, right?

I’ve taken time to go over this issue because I see it in action within the home school movement, the Church at large, and in my own relationships. The home school movement has many that oppose higher education and careers for women. These are usually the most vocal and strident factions too, getting top billing at conferences. Likewise, there is a significant (though smaller) faction within the Church that consider stay-at-home moms to be more “godly” than those who work. There is also a fad of books - and indeed a whole freaking organization - trying to assert “Biblical” manhood and womanhood - also known as patriarchal gender roles. These books tend to denigrate men who do housework and women who work outside the home or engage in anything resembling leadership. Even in personal relationships, my wife and I have both heard the disdainful, “Ohhhh.” when people hear she works outside the home. (Even anonymous commenters on my blog have felt the need to call me out on my “failure” and “sin” because my wife works. Yes, I delete these comments. It’s my blog.)

On a very personal note, I believe that this equation of female assertiveness with wanton sexuality is at the root of why she was publicly slut shamed during her time in a patriarchist group. That story will eventually be told as part of this series.

Hey wait! This sounds like our own secular society!

Yes, body shaming for those women who don’t meet impossible standards, dress codes that are applied differently to different shapes, fear of strong assertive women - these all mirror our society at large.

As to the last, a man who is assertive, strong, and forceful is told he sounds like a leader. A woman who does the exact same thing is “shrill.” She is considered threatening and abrasive, rather than strong and competent. Women, know your place!

I agree that our society imposes impossible standards, thanks to the magic of anorexia, photoshop, and celebrity culture. Normal, fit women fall into the “fat” category all too easily, and we think far too much about our weight. We expect women to avoid natural aging, and sell products, dyes, and surgery to “help” them meet that standard.

That is the point, though. All Modesty Culture does is substitute one impossible, inconsistent standard for another.

And, it adds something even more pernicious.

It’s bad enough to be called fat or ugly because of the shape of one’s body. That hurts.

It is entirely something else altogether to be called evil, immoral and the source of sin because of the shape of one’s body.

If you want to be “godly,” best to have the figure of a young boy, not a sexually mature woman.

Because the sex characteristics of a grown woman are evil and dangerous.

And likewise, for that matter, it is evil if one is unable to conform to partriarchal gender roles.


I’ve talked about the roots of Modesty Culture in Rape Culture and in the pernicious misogyny of the past.

However, most proponents of Modesty Culture do not consciously adhere to these vile roots. Rather, their intentions are largely good. The problem is that they have erroneously conflated a particular culture (in time and place) with “godliness” and seek to establish said “godliness” through the imposition of that culture. Key to that goal is the need for what I call “social signalling.”

For the next installment, I want to talk about “social signalling” and how it relates to Modesty Culture.

Modesty Culture Part 9: Inconsistent Applications of Rules
Modesty Culture Part 10: Social Signaling
Modesty Culture Part 11: "Others May, We Cannot" is a Lie
Modesty Culture Part 12: Amanda's Story 

A bit more on the “age” issue:

I noted that the age of the female is a factor in whether to slut shame her. There is a (sort of) related factor that is interesting, and also speaks to the “social signalling” factor.

My wife has a love for vintage fashions, and has more knowledge of them than the vast majority even of those who wear vintage styles. One of her favorite looks is that of the “flapper.” 1920s style. It’s a look that works well for her, and is a bit out of the ordinary.

However, she wears other stuff too, and people react very differently to her clothing depending on the era.

As a great example, she has an outfit that is “modern” in looks. If anything, it might be 1990s, maybe later. The skirt falls above the knee, but not by that much. In contrast, one of her “flapper” outfits is significantly shorter. By a few inches.

Yet guess the reaction people have to the two outfits. The very same people have complimented her on the flapper outfit while clucking about how short the modern skirt is.

See, it isn’t really about the absolute length, is it? It’s about the era invoked. “What my grandmother wore” = good. “What women these days wear” = evil. 

I'll discuss this more in my next post on Social Signalling. 

Note on Kevin Swanson:

Just thought I might quote this one, for fun.

“This is the vision of the Democrats, get children abused, kill them in the womb as much as possible, be sure there are as many dysfunctional families as possible, as many homosexual families as possible and children abused as much as possible, so government can grow their child welfare services even more, so that they can kill more kids, so that more adults can commit adultery, so that more kids would be murdered, so that more kids would be abused, so more government would tax and regulate and tax and regulate to produce the worst possible hellhole on planet earth.”

Um, Kevin, unlike you apparently, I actually have friends who vote Democrat. Maybe you should get out more.

Some good links on the inconsistent application of the rules:

This one, entitled “The Only Thing my Double D’s Ever Got Me Was Kicked Out of Church” is heartbreaking - and all too typical.  

A great Upworthy comic about the impossibility women face in meeting the standard of “attractive, but not too attractive.”

Some more fun on inconsistent applications:

My older two daughters are as unlike as possible in many ways.

Physically, the contrast is unmistakable. My older daughter is rail thin (and always has been). It isn’t that she doesn’t eat - she does. She just has a certain shape she was born with.

My second daughter (born just 15 months after the first) takes after me. She has large thighs and calves. She is shorter than her older sister, but has weighed more since around age 2. She is not fat by any stretch. Rather, she is strong and vigorous. Fortunately, her personality (so far) has led her to be proud of her strength and even her relative size. She is fiercely competitive, utterly fearless, and has an amazing tolerance of pain.

My third daughter largely takes after my second in all respects.

I know that our society will reward my elder daughter and punish my younger ones for their figures and their personalities. It is my sincere hope that the Church will not double down on this. But I’m not holding my breath.

All this to say that it has been “interesting” finding clothes for my girls.

My eldest, because of her really small waist, cannot find shorts that are long on her unless she shops in the 5 year old boy section. She will always end up with shorts that are considered “too short” by many. On the other hand, my other girls will probably find that pants are a bit “tight” in the butt and legs. In neither case will they conform to the “modest” ideal.

So anyway, as a (hopefully) humorous counterpart to this, let me explain how the infamous “finger tip rule” might look as applied to my own body.

I have a long torso, combined with really short legs.

And really short arms.

I thought of this when at the gym, when I realized that I had a hard time gripping some of the machines, because my arms were so doggone short.

So...for your viewing pleasure...here proof that I could wear John Stockton shorts - and even less - and still pass the “finger tip rule.” Let's just say that if I were wearing a skirt this length, I could probably be arrested.

Note on “bright eyes”:

Bill Gothard place a huge emphasis on “bright eyes” as a sign of spiritual goodness. The eyes were supposedly a window to the soul, and could reveal the spiritual state of the one who had them.

First of all, let me note the racism inherent in this. “Bright eyes” tended - at least in practice - to be blue or green, not brown. Just saying.

Let me also make a confession.

I am not physically attractive in the conventional sense. I am 5’ 7”, 160 pounds. I am not athletic in the least, and am what I would call “potato shaped.” My wife loves me and finds me attractive, but I don’t generally have women hitting on me. Like ever.

The one physical feature that I have been complimented on is my eyes.

One of the weird things that has happened to me is that one day, when my wife was working, an attractive young woman, employed in the door-to-door marketing profession, rang my doorbell, and, upon looking at me, said, OMG, you have beautiful green eyes. This isn’t the only time I have heard this. It happens reasonably regularly. Yep, that is the only thing I have going for me, physically speaking. 

There seems to be a pattern to when I hear this. In fact, I have noted exactly when I have have been complimented on my bright and beautiful eyes.

It is always during allergy season. I have hay fever, and certain times of the year, my nose runs...and my eyes water.

Nothing like itchy pollen to make one look spiritual, apparently…

One more article:

After I posted this, a friend sent me an interesting article with another example of my point.

Jessica Simpson has unfortunately become the butt of too many unkind jokes, but her story is interesting. She attempted to sign on as a Christian recording artist at the beginning of her career. She was turned down. Why?

Her breasts were too big.

She didn’t fit the “good Christian girl” look.

As the writer puts it, she eventually found a niche in Country Music, “a place where Christians will still listen and you can keep your boobs.”


  1. You find hints of "slut-shaming" even in the Apostle Paul's writings; fortunately, there it is balanced by such ringing statements as "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28) And at least twice, Paul recognized women as equals in life and ministry: Lydia (Acts 16:14-15) and Priscilla (Acts 18:2 et al). So it's hard to pinpoint Paul as a source of misogyny, since in his life there are these "lapses" where he treated women as equals. :)

  2. "We are all entitled, selfish, oversexed brats, and if we would just be as good as the old folks (Boomers and especially the WWII generation), every ill in society would disappear.

    The contempt is unmistakable."

    Thanks for this. There have only been a few Boomers that I've broached this with that hear what I'm saying--usually I get accused of being postmodern. (By people who can't really define what postmodernism is, but hey, what do I know, I'm uppity.)

    One other aspect of slut shaming: it usually excuses the boys. I heard this (alas) in a sunday school class most recently, where a school teacher said that she tells the girls at the beginning of each year to cover up because "I feel sorry for the boys, they can't be expected to concentrate when you dress that way". To me this humiliates the girls and gives the boys a free pass to ogle.

    1. Yes indeed.

      I'm also with you on the ignorance of the real concept of postmodernism. Like with feminism, I really wish people would take the time to study up a little, rather than just make ignorant comments about stuff they have no clue about.

  3. A thought which came to mind when you talked about women working outside the home: It is another form of classism. A woman who works, it is assumed, does so for financial reasons (that some women might choose to work for the enjoyment of work itself, or *gasp* because their husband wants to stay home, seems to be a foreign concept to patriarchal types), So the woman who works is one who is forced to do so because she is "low-class". Additionally, if a family is in poverty, or if the husband loses his job, and the woman goes to work to make up for that and to help out her husband (even if he is disabled and cannot work), they are seen as having "not enough faith". Rather than the woman taking on the responsibility of going to work they are expected to somehow squeeze blood out of a tiny turnip, and make it work on low or no income, all so that the woman does not go to work, and she can retain her position as baby-factory--I mean... as the mother.

    1. That's an outstanding point about the classism.

      More recently, I have been doing some research on a (potential) future post on The Cult of Domesticity. It explains a lot of the hangup Evangelicalism has about gender - and is pretty clearly based on racism and classism.

    2. Agreed. And let's not forget that even in the so-called good old days when women "knew their place," women of color have *ALWAYS* worked.

  4. I haven't actually read this yet, but it was open in my browser and I've been meaning to pass along a little gem I heard in a documentary about Isaac Newton. It is a quote attributed to him "...he who is always thinking of chastity will always be thinking of women"

    Wonder why the people in the purity cult are preoccupied with women and how women look? They're always thinking about chastity/sexual purity, so... Hm. I found that *very* interesting. I'm still pondering it.

    Here's a post about the video, which I think may be a transcript of the whole thing: http://unravelingtheword.blogspot.com/2007/02/newtons-dark-secrets.html

    1. Newton had a great point.

      In fact, I think we can use it as a starting point for identifying problematic religious leaders. Think, for example of Ted Haggard. He was well known for being obsessed with homosexuality in his sermons. And, lo and behold...

      Likewise, how many of the Modesty Culture preachers turned out to have serious sexual issues? Hmm, Gothard, Phillips, Josh Duggar...might be something there.

    2. I firmly believe there is. In fact, this is something that my own dad pointed out to us - to be wary of men that are always carping about one particular sin, especially if it's a sexual sin.

      This is one reason that Michael Pearl creeps me out. His railing against pron, pedophilia, and women who don't service their husbands "properly" makes me really uncomfortable. The country folk I grew up among would say, "He's just a dirty old man."