Modesty is a cruel bludgeon, something of which I was reminded by this very fine post from Lauren Nicole: Modesty, Lust, and Emotional Rape. Lauren is a Christian, and she writes for Christian audiences (as I have done many times). Her orientation may be evangelical, but she’s right on the money when it comes to identifying the problem:
Dear men: If you believe my neckline is causing to stumble, you have bought into the lie that women are the problem, NOT YOUR LUST.
Whether “lust” is a sin is a theological question. But whether men — religious or otherwise — ever get to hold women responsible for their arousal is a psychological as well as a religious one. And the answer, as I’ve written before, is always no.
So below is a post originally inspired by Rachel Hills. Here was her question that led to this open letter to a 16 year-old girl:
I wish that I could offer you specific fashion tips that would guarantee that creepy older guys wouldn’t hit on you. For that matter, I wish I could share with you how to dress in a manner that would assure that your peers wouldn’t frequently judge you, either to your face or behind your back. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you how to ensure those things — because the sad truth is that no matter how you dress, no matter what you wear, you will be perceived by some men as a target for their unwanted advances.
You may have heard people say things like “girls who wear short skirts are asking for ‘it’”. By “it” they may mean anything from rape to crude comments and penetrating stares. But as you may already have noticed, girls aren’t immune from harassment when they’re wearing simple or “modest” garb either. I’ve had plenty of students who’ve been accosted while wearing sweatpants or long dresses. I’ve had Muslim students who chose to wear head coverings, and they’ve been harassed both religiously and sexually. The bottom line is that there’s nothing you can wear that will guarantee respect from others. And the reason is that the root of this problem isn’t skin or clothing, it’s our cultural contempt for women and girls.
Have you noticed the way this works yet? If a girl is thin, she’s accused of being “anorexic”; if her weight is higher than the cruelly restrictive ideal, she’s “fat” and “doesn’t take care of herself” or “has no self-control.” If she wears cute, trendy clothes she “only wants attention” and if she wears sweats and jeans, she “doesn’t make an effort.” If she’s perceived as sexually attractive, and — especially — if she shows her own sexual side, she’s likely to be called a “slut.” If her sexuality and her body are concealed, she’s a “prude.” As you’ve probably figured out, the cards are stacked against you. You cannot win, at least not if you define winning as dressing and behaving in a way likely to win approval (or at least decent respect) from everyone.
The advice I’m going to give may sound clichéd, but it’s important nonetheless: you should dress in a style that makes you comfortable.
Comfort, of course, has many dimensions. There’s physical comfort to consider. A fashion choice that leaves you sweating and itchy on a hot day, or shivering on a cold one, is by definition uncomfortable. When the weather’s warm, wearing more revealing clothing is often as much a matter of comfort rather than style.
Of course, there’s a psychological aspect to comfort, too. The more revealing your clothing (regardless of your reasons for wearing it), the more of your body others can see. It’s important to be honest with yourself about how that makes you feel. Different people have different levels of comfort with having their bodies noticed. That’s a normal variation, and the key thing is to be aware where you are on the spectrum. If your peers or parents urge you to dress in a style that leaves you feeling vulnerable and uncomfortably exposed, you have a right to push back against them. The reverse is true, too.
It’s important too to note that however much skin you are revealing, you are never responsible for another person’s inappropriate behavior. Save for the blind, we are all visual people. We notice each other. There is no right not to be seen. But there is a right not to be stared at with a penetrating gaze of the sort that makes you feel deeply uncomfortable. While it may seem that you get those leers more often when you’re showing more skin, you’ve probably noticed that you get those creepy stares at other times as well. And the key thing you need to know is that men can control their eyes — they really can — and women can control their judgment. Your body is not so powerful that it can drive others to distraction. (And yes, if we’re honest, sometimes we wish that our bodies were that powerful, particularly if it meant drawing the attention of someone to whom we are attracted!) If some men choose to be distracted by you, that is their choice, a decision for which they (not you) are solely responsible. No matter what anyone tells you, you need to remember that.
It is not inconsistent to want to be seen and not be stared at. You know the difference, I suspect, between an “appreciative look” (which can feel very validating) and the “penetrating stare” that leaves you feeling like crawling into a hole. While people are not required to give you the former, it’s not unreasonable to expect them to avoid giving you the latter. It’s also not unreasonable to want guys your age to be interested in you, and want the creepy old ones to leave you alone. Remember, it’s not hypocrisy or naiveté on your part to dress in a way that you hope will get you that positive attention you want without also bringing the negative attention you fear and loathe.
Sometimes, of course, we need other people’s insight and advice. There are little fashion rules that it can be helpful to know (even if only for the sake of breaking them, like the old one about not mixing browns and blacks, or not wearing dark-colored bras under light-colored tops.) Friends and family members may have suggestions for what colors or styles are most flattering to you, and sometimes those suggestions may be helpful. I’m certainly not suggesting you shouldn’t listen to those tips. But I want you to know there’s a world of difference between saying “you know, I think lime green isn’t really your color” and saying “you shouldn’t wear short skirts, because then men will think you’re easy.” The former bit of advice is rooted in an aesthetic truth (aesthetics is a fancy term for the study of what is beautiful or good), the latter in an anxiety that is based on a false assumption about male weakness.
It’s okay to ask, when headed to a new school or a workplace or a party, about the dress code. Few of us want to stand out as totally different from everyone else. Most of us can figure out that what you wear to a birthday party at the water park is different from what you would wear to a funeral service in a church. Dressing for the occasion is part of living in a community with others. But that standard should still have room for a lot of flexibility. A bikini is probably not appropriate at Thanksgiving dinner (unless you’re poolside), but when it comes, say, to school, don’t let anyone tell you that can’t dress up (or down) depending on how you feel.
Here’s a key point: As a father and a teacher and a youth leader and a feminist man who has been around a while (and worked with thousands of young people), I want you to know that while not all men are safe and trustworthy, men’s bad behavior is never, ever, ever, ever, ever “your” fault. Your miniskirt doesn’t cause guys (of any age) to do anything they don’t choose to do (no matter what they say to the contrary). It’s not your job to dress to keep yourself safe from men.
Lastly, let me say that finding your own style is an adventure. It involves a lot of trial, and some not infrequent errors. I promise you, ten or twenty years from now you’ll look at photos of yourself at 16, roll your eyes, and say “What was I wearing? What made me think that looked good?” Despite what some folks tell you, these are not the best years of your life. Not even close. And in terms of your style and your beauty, you aren’t anywhere near your peak. I say that not to belittle you, but to reassure you that you don’t have to get it right yet. You have much more time than you think.
All the very best,