Some Thoughts on Modesty

A ViewPoint by Princess O’Nika Auguste

We teach girls shame. “Close your legs.” “Cover yourself.” We make them feel as though by being born female, they are already guilty of something. And so, girls grow up to be women who cannot say they have desire. They grow up to be women who silence themselves. They grow up to be women who cannot say what they truly think, and they grow up—and this is the worst thing we did to girls—they grow up to be women who have turned pretense into an art form.
—“We Should All Be Feminists,” a TED Talk from author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Image licensed through Stock Photo SecretsThis quote reminds me of a particular day when I was a teen girl on my home island in the Caribbean. It was the weekend, and I was lying on my bed reading a book, probably by Mills and Boon or about Harry Potter. Even when I was young, I would go through several books a day. It was a hot day, so I had the window open. I lay on my bed in shorts and a tank top with my legs opened, without a care in the world. Then my mom came in and said, “Close your legs! Men would only want you for sex. Close your legs.”

When she said this, I was upset because I was not even thinking about sex. I was thinking, It’s hot; it’s my bed, and I want to read.  In my mother’s defense, she may have just found out that I might have been sexually active. Still, her words stung, and I quickly changed my position on the bed and cried.  My mother wouldn’t have seen it this way, but she shamed me that day, and I thought I had done something wrong.

She made a similar comment about my lack of interest in cooking and other typically feminine things. In fact, it wasn’t just that I had no interest in cooking; I also had a terrible fear of fire. Back home, you needed to light the stove with a match, and I was terrified of that. She told me that I thought sex alone was how to keep a man and that I was good for nothing else.

She did not admit that I was good at history, English, and writing. As a teen, I was interested in my books, archaeology, mythology, and pop culture. I knew from a young age that I wanted to be an archaeologist, historian, or some kind of academic, as well as a writer and poet. This was where my talents and my future lay.

She probably wouldn’t admit or even remember making these comments, and I believe she did the best she could. When you know better, you do better.

It wasn’t just my mother. Both the church and secular society place a set of norms on young girls, expecting them to be “wife material” by remaining virgins, learning to cook and clean, and being modest. And even though we are to remain virgins, we are also expected to be skilled at sex. All of this is too much pressure for young girls.

In many Christian communities, this unhealthy pressure can be found within their views of modesty. For instance, we see this happening when Christian community members claim that women must be careful how they dress to not tempt men, since men are more visually oriented than women. Women are blamed for bringing lustful thoughts to men, something the church has ingrained into their psyches. Hence we have Christian men and women, mothers, and other relatives telling young girls, teenagers, and other women to cover up and close your legs because you don’t want to tempt men.

By placing all the fault on women, the church is engaging in a form of “slut-shaming,” a buzzword that refers to the social stigma placed on people, especially women, who are seen as violating societal expectations of purity and modesty. Slut-shaming is tied to rape culture and victim-blaming, a perspective that acknowledges that rape and sexual harassment are normalized by society’s unhealthy views of sexuality and gender.

Shaming women for being immodest or sexual beings goes back to the early Church Fathers, particularly St. Augustine of Hippo and Tertullian, who considered women weaker, more sinful, and the cause of lustful thoughts. According to these early theologians, the roots of their “weaker female sex” argument lies with Eve and the Genesis account of the fall of man.

The church has long held the view that Eve—and, by extension, all women—was the cause of sin. Kim Haines-Eitzen poignantly explains how Eve was seen as both the “mother of all living” as well as the “bringer of death” (Haines-Eitzen 2002, p. 72). Tertullian places even Christ’s death on Eve’s hands, as well as blaming her for her husband’s sin. In his treatise On the Dress of Women, Tertullian (Chapter 1) writes:

You are the devil’s gateway; you are the unsealer of that tree; you are the first foresaker of the divine law; you are the one who persuaded him whom the devil was not brave enough to approach; you so lightly crushed the image of God, the man Adam; because of your punishment, that is, death, even the Son of God had to die.

St. Ambrose (On Paradise, pp. 10, 47) writes:

We know that Adam did not sin before the woman was created; indeed, after woman was made, she was the first to violate the divine command. She even dragged her husband along with her into sin and showed herself to be an incentive to him.

The solution for women’s weaker, more sinful nature was a sustained state of virginity. In her book, Forgetful of Their Sex: Female Sanctity and Society, Jane Tibbetts Schulenburg writes:

According to the patristic writers, such Christian models of virginity had successfully repudiated their own female sexual identity; they had negated their unfortunate biological nature; and thus acting in a manner ‘forgetful of their sex’ they were able to transcend the weakness and limitations inherent in their gender. It was then as sexless, gender-neutral beings that these virgins were viewed as near spiritual equals (Schulenburg 1998, p. 128).

Virginity brought the weaker gender near equal to men as well as closer to God. As the Bride of Christ, women that remained virgins were considered “untarnished” for God, and Augustine believed that virgins would receive “a unique and transcendent glory” (De Virginitate, p. 25).

Image licensed through Stock Photo SecretsBy praising virginity, the Church Fathers were claiming that sin was intricately tied to women’s sexual natures. To be a nonsexual being is the only way to not only be pure but to not entice others toward sin.

I have another memory of being shamed as an undergraduate student taking summer school classes. In Louisiana, it was not just hot but humid, and I would get nosebleeds. One day, I shocked everyone by wearing shorts and a t-shirt. Most of the time, I was much more covered up, but I was too hot. When I walked across campus, I was told that I should change because I was attracting attention to myself. This time I had courage to say, “I am hot, and I am not changing. We are so brainwashed that even on a blazing hot day where someone is getting nosebleeds and is dehydrated that we tell them to cover up and that they are attracting attention.”

The female body is seen as sexual whether it is deemed chaste or not. Girls told to close their legs and cover themselves are sexualized from an early age. I do understand that society has norms; however, enforcing these norms on girls with the idea that they are looking for sex and/or attracting men who have lustful thoughts is blaming and victimizing them for their bodies and, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie states in her TED Talk, (“We Should All Be Feminists”) for simply being female. Sometimes I am just hot! Nothing sexual about that.

Whether or not young girls are sexually active, we should not be shaming them. Maybe my mother was trying to help me, but her approach was shaming. She sexualized me when the last thing on my mind was sex. Society has to redefine what it means to be modest because all we are doing is sexualizing, shaming, and silencing girls.

Girls are told, “If you hadn’t worn what you wore, ‘he’ would not have assaulted or harassed you.” “Don’t walk the streets like that, because you will be seen as a prostitute and you will attract unsavory men.” Because men are visual, women must dress “properly.” All this is victim-blaming and does not hold men accountable for their own actions. Girls should be not shamed and silenced just because men view them as sexual objects.

No. If it is 100 degrees, and I am getting nose bleeds. I will wear what I want. I will lie on my bed any way I want when I am reading a book.

When you know better, you do better; hence, I believe there is hope for the church and for society. We need to stop allowing Augustine and the flawed theology of other early Church Fathers into our hearts, minds, and society, because they have nothing good for women except slut-shaming and blaming women for all men’s lust and sin.

 

Sources:

Ambrose. On Paradise. http://www2.iath.virginia.edu/anderson/commentaries/Amb.html

Ambrose. Genesis. http://docslide.us/documents/st-ambrose-the-great-commentary-on-genesis.html

Haines-Eitzen, Kim. “Sinners and Saints, Silent and Submissive? The Textual/Sexual Transformation of Female Characters in the New Testament and Beyond.” In The Gendered Palimpsest: Women, Writing, and Representation in Early Christianity. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012.

Schulenburg, Jane Tibbetts. “At What Cost Virginity? Sanctity and the Heroics of Virginity.” In Forgetful of Their Sex: Female Sanctity and Society, ca. 500–1100, pp. 127–175. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998

Tertullian, On the Apparel of Women. Translated by Rev. S. Thelwall.. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885). Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0402.htm

 

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