Thursday, May 21, 2015

more than just a body

Soon after Christianity was established in Corinth, the new converts wrote to Paul, concerned about the matter of women covering their hair when in public. Christian men who came from a Jewish background found uncovered hair to be extremely inappropriate, as Jewish customs dictate that a woman is not to leave her hair uncovered while in public. Those from a Gentile background, however, did not share this belief, and Gentile women therefore found nothing wrong with going out and about with their hair showing.

The Church was young and fragile, not yet strengthened by years of unification under the umbrella of Christianity, and Paul was afraid that this matter of debate could tear the Church in Corinth apart. His response to their concern was that it was the woman's duty to cover her hair. In answer to a previous concern of the Corinthians, Paul made mention that when making decisions in "gray areas" (those areas of debate within the Church that don't have a definitive commandment associated with them), members of the Church should consult the Holy Ghost and their own conscience, but also keep in mind the effect their actions would have on others. It can be assumed that his suggestion that women cover their hair fell into this second category—to those of Jewish background, a woman's hair was considered extremely sensual, and by covering her hair, a woman would make men who converted from Judaism more comfortable.

After discussing this section of 1 Corinthians this morning, my New Testament professor related this issue to one that a modern audience could more easily understand: current LDS standards of modesty. He showed examples of questions BYU students have asked regarding exactly what "knee-length" is, threw out the hot topic of yoga pants and leggings, and then then posed a question: If Paul were to come into our class today, would he tell the women that it is their duty to wear modest clothes so that they would protect the thoughts of men?

He waited. This was clearly not a rhetorical question. After a few tense moments of silence and a request for somebody to speak up—nobody seemed to want to be the person to tackle this touchy subject—I raised my hand and shared my thoughts.

The short version of my answer is No. I could theoretically have just said no and been done with it, but I didn't, because this is a subject that I personally feel needs to be addressed more often.

The point of dressing modestly is NOT to protect the thoughts of men. And, in my humble opinion, men and women who believe that are missing the point of modesty. A woman who believes that she should dress modestly solely to encourage clean-mindedness from males can be covered from head to toe in clothes Grandma would approve of and still conduct herself in a very immodest way.

Modesty isn't a list of what types of clothing are appropriate to wear. Modesty also isn't a list of body parts that can show without sending men into a highly-sexualized frenzy. Modesty is an attitude of respect for God, for the body He made for you, and for yourself as a whole. And it's that attitude that should dictate what you find appropriate to wear and what you find inappropriate to wear. It's as simple as that.

Implying—or some cases, outright stating—that the point of modesty is to control the thoughts of men is objectifying, demeaning, and disrespectful.

It sends the message that a woman is no more than her body and that her body is the thing that men will use to determine her worth. It says that if a woman shows a little more skin, men would see her only as a sexual object and BAM! No more respect. No more being treated like a normal human being. No more acknowledgement of my value as an accomplished person with values.

I'm not okay with those messages. A woman's value does not lie in her body and the way she chooses to cover it. And every woman has the agency to choose how she finds it appropriate to treat and cover her body. Everybody might not agree with a woman's personal dress standards, but nobody can dispute that she has the right to choose for herself.

As soon as I finished sharing my thoughts on modesty, several male hands shot up into the air. When called upon, the guy sitting in front of me was quick to rebut. "I disagree," he said forcefully. "Your agency ends where my agency begins." He then began to go on a tirade about how it is in fact a woman's duty to protect the thoughts of men and that they shouldn't wear yoga pants or tight clothes or low cut shirts, because it makes it too hard for men to have clean thoughts. One of his comrades went as far as to say that the main purpose behind modesty is to protect the minds of men and keep their sexuality in check.


I sat there slightly flabbergasted, quite literally biting my tongue and restraining myself from smacking the guy in front of my upside the head. (I never would have done it, but I'll admit that I kind of wanted to.) 

Let's get something straight here: I do not believe that women are responsible for making sure that men keep their thoughts in line. That being said, I do promote dressing modestly, and I'm glad that dressing modestly makes it easier for them. BUT I am no more responsible for their thoughts toward me than they are for choosing my wardrobe. Nobody would think to go up to a man wearing a tight t-shirt that shows off his biceps and abs and say, "Excuse me, but could you please wear a looser fitting shirt? Girls could be viewing you as not but a sexual object." There is clearly a double standard working here, and it can often feel like men like the ones who argued my points want to claim a monopoly on being carnally minded.

Because let's get something else straight here: Women have sexual thoughts, too. Yep, that's right. The fairer sex is capable of thinking about sex. Maybe it's not in the same way as men and it's not as frequent or as strong or as graphic, but it's still possible. Yet nobody goes around telling men to dress in a way that helps women keep their thoughts clean.

As a woman, I obviously don't know how the mind of a man works. I've never experienced thinking like a man, so I don't claim to be an expert (or even well-informed, for that matter) on the subject. But what I can testify to is that I know a lot of amazing, respectful, disciplined men. And I have ever bit of confidence that men can choose to banish inappropriate thoughts if they find that sort of thought cleansing important. I'm not going to say it's easy, because I don't know if it is or isn't. But I have confidence and faith and trust in the capabilities of men. It's true that some choose not to live up to all that they can be, but I'm not about to judge the entire gender based on the follies of those outliers.

It is for this reason that I take great issue to the first refutation that "[a woman's] agency ends where [a man's] begins." A man does not have to like the type of wardrobe that a woman chooses, but that does not give him any right to choose a stopping point for her agency. In addition, that statement and comments this classmate made imply to me that he does not believe a male's ability to keep his thoughts in line or to simply look away (when possible) when presented with a woman who is dressed in a way that might be found to be provocative. By claiming that immodestly dressed women eliminate a man's agency, he did nothing but a disservice to himself and to men in general.

Now, dear reader, I hope that you don't interpret these thoughts as an attack on men or an effort to place blame or find fault. I also hope you don't come away thinking that I don't believe in the principle of modesty in appearance and deed or that I don't think it's important to be a good example to those around us. Because I believe quite strongly in modesty, and I believe that being a modest person endows one with great strength.

What I hope I conveyed is that modesty is about more than just a person's body. It's about attitude and intention. My personal experiences with learning about modesty and discovering how I can best show respect to my Creator and to myself in the way that I dress and act has led me to believe that understanding the principles behind modest dress is nearly as important as the way we choose to practice modesty.

I don't dress the way I do for men. I don't dress the way I do for my friends. I don't dress the way I do for anybody but myself and my Heavenly Father.

I choose modesty because I feel more comfortable with who I am when I wear modest clothes. I choose modesty because I am so grateful to have a body, and treating it with respect is one way I can show my thanks to God.

I choose modesty because I am more than just a body.

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