Warning: This post contains nudity. Respect is expected. Before you comment, please read my comment policy. Sexist or slut-shaming language will not be permitted.
The other day, Beauty Redefined had a post on their Facebook page about modesty. Several people commented that immodestly dressed women had low self-esteem. Although BR didn’t say anything to indicate that they hold that opinion themselves, they also didn’t contradict those comments either.
I’ve written about modesty once before when I discussed the place that objectification has within modesty culture. If you’re in the mood for a rant, it’s a great post, but I’m not here to rant today. Rather I’m here to wonder.
“Wonder” is such an interesting word. It can either mean “to contemplate” or “to marvel.” Today, I’m going to do both.
I’m noticing a trend within modesty culture that disturbs me. I know of no word that describes it, so I’ve decided to refer to it as anti-corporeality—being against the body.
On one level, I love what BR is doing in trying to expose the patriarchal power structures that dictate beauty and self-worth to women through the male gaze.
Notice how objectifying ads like this one from Tom Ford constantly degrade and dehumanize women, sometimes even violently, using their bodies for male pleasure while denying women agency. Sometimes it’s a matter of personal interpretation, but often the creators of the ads are obvious in how they wish it to be interpreted. This one says, “my breasts are for men.”
Unfortunately, I often see that attempt hijacked by modesty culture. Rather than teaching women and girls that they are more than just a body, it seems that the teachings edge towards the other extreme—that women and girls are not bodies. There’s an underlying current that suggests that having a body, acting on sexual desires, or being visible is shameful.
Here’s where I wonder.
When you tell women that they are more than just a body, implying that they should keep themselves covered, I wonder if you are also telling girls that focusing on their bodies at all is wrong. When you link clothing with self-esteem, I wonder if you are reinforcing the idea that appearance is the source of self-esteem. When you hastily generalize being “sexy” with being objectified, I wonder if you are telling women that sexuality is dehumanizing.
Self-esteem and “modesty” are not directly related. On the contrary; they’ve been inversely correlated for me. In the IFB, I was taught that my body was a temptation. I was told that it was my responsibility to be modest in order to protect boys and men from lusting after me and that if I caused a man to stumble, I had committed a form of adultery with him.
I learned to be ashamed of my body, to disconnect from it, to fear it. There were times when I considered taking a knife to my face and my chest, mutilating myself to prevent men from wanting to lust after me.
At the same time, I was taught I was supposed to be attractive for my husband when I got married so that he wouldn’t cheat on me. My mother assigned books for me to read that told me that it was my duty to sexually satisfy my husband. At conferences, I listened to speakers who preached that sex in marriage was like going to a restaurant—as long as you fed your husband often enough at your “find dining” restaurant, he wouldn’t be tempted to go to that cheap MacDonald’s across the street.
In that way, I learned to hate my body, for it could never measure up to the ideals I saw on TV or billboards.
Modesty culture destroyed my self-esteem.
Over the last four years I’ve been going through a transformation. It wasn’t just a rejection of modesty culture as a toxic philosophy; it was a journey into the wonder of my body.
Nudity and sexuality can be beautiful and sacred, even with a camera present. In this picture, I see nudity and sexuality that honors rather than degrades. (Photo taken by Solus-Photography and modelled by Alex B. and Mike Cooney; used with permission. Click on the picture to see more of her beautiful work.)
Of course, first I had to do the work to free myself from modesty teachings. Feminism played a wonderful role in opening my eyes to the oppression inherent in rape culture (which I explain is related to modesty culture in my other post). It was key in helping me recognize that I wasn’t responsible for other people’s thoughts or actions—that I had a right to be treated like a human being regardless of my appearance.
Then in February, I started what I now see was a full-blown paradigm shift. I dedicated the month to reading about and celebrating the female body. I threw a yoni party (read about it here), complete with vagina straws and tampon crafts. What began as an archetypal reverence apparently became internalized. I didn’t even realize it until this past week when I saw the modesty post from BR.
As soon as I read the first comment linking self-esteem with modesty, I thought, “But that’s not true. I wear things all the time that I would have considered ‘immodest’ at one point, and my self-esteem is fine. I love my body.”
The last four words left me in awe.
I love my body.
Sometime between February and now, I fell in love with my body. I love the way it moves during yoga, when I dance, when I run, and yes, even when I have sex. I love my vagina, my sacred yoni. I love my breasts, small as they are. I love my legs, with the varicose veins beginning to form. I love the hive scars that scatter across my chest . . . and the cutting scars that speak of my survival. I love my eyes and my lips and my neck. I love my hair. I love my feet. I love my hands.
I don’t love my body because I look like a model or because it’s “perfect” in form or execution.
I love it because it’s part of me.
I am not just a body. I have a mind too. I celebrate my mind every day with writing, reading, discussions, even daydreams.
But I am not just a mind, which means that I also celebrate my body. Part of celebrating my body can involve things like taking a bath, exercising, eating, or snuggling into clean sheets. However, part of celebrating my body also involves celebrating my sexuality—learning to belly dance, wearing something that makes me feel sexy, actually having sex. If I listened to the modesty movement, I would think those things are objectifying and harmful to my self-esteem . . . except that they’re not.
A yoni puja is the worship of the yoni. There is something beautiful and sacred about the yoni that can only be seen when one stops fearing and hating the female body.
Objectification is not about how much skin is or isn’t showing. It’s about the cultural lens through which we choose to view the body.
I objectified myself all the time when I ascribed to modesty culture because I constantly thought about myself in terms of what I did to others. Am I attractive enough to keep my husband faithful? Am I covered enough to prevent a man from thinking about sex with me? Is it okay to wear shorts on a hot day, or would I be looking like a tramp? Do I compare with a porn star in bed? Should I be like a porn star in bed?
What stopped me from objectifying myself wasn’t clothing. My self-esteem didn’t rise because of an extra inch of fabric. Rather, I learned to stop objectifying myself by living in my body. It is not a temple in which my spirit is housed. It is the part of me that connects to the world. I’m not ashamed of it or objectified by it.
I wanted to insert a video at the end here, but I can’t figure out how to do so. Please visit Hysterical Literature, a project that seeks to film women reading books while being sexually stimulated off-camera. Although there is no nudity, those who fear female sexuality would find this objectionable and uncomfortable. I think it is a beautiful illustration of the body/mind blend of being a woman. Also, if you’re interested in reading some great posts about sexual ethics, check out Sarah Over the Moon’s series.