15 December 2017

Dress Matters – The Modesty Talk

Growing up in a somewhat American Bible-belt culture, our youth group regularly split into guys’ and girls’ groups, during which “us gals” were given The Modesty Talk.

This usually meant a list of do’s and don’ts that translated to teenage girls as “how much can we get away with” guidelines: no higher than one inch above the knee, no bra straps showing, etc.

These talks tend to present modesty as something that is necessary purely because of men. Women and girls are told not to “cause their brother to stumble” and how dangerous their bodies are to men. I don’t like this because it presents men as helpless creatures at the mercy of women. It also puts all of the blame, if temptation is given into, on the woman.

Furthermore, this can extend to a ‘blame the victim’ mentality in cases of abuse. (A study conducted by Amnesty in 2008 found that 30% of University students thought a woman was partially or totally to blame if she was wearing revealing clothing when raped.) Secondly, these talks seem to continue to objectify women – we don’t need a list of do’s and don’ts, or a book of rules on what we can and cannot wear. No, we need to know that we are much more than just physical bodies. Women are more than their sexuality, their physicality, their appeal.

I was talking about this with a male friend in his 60’s, who had been shocked at women and girls walking around in “not even enough clothes to wear to bed.” Indeed, it is important to define ‘immodest’ or ‘inappropriate’ dress. My definition is, “dressing in a manner which promotes sexuality above anything else.” Some call it sexualised or hypersexualised dressing.

I love fashion. I am a “girly” girl. I enjoy putting together outfits. But I am also troubled by what I see others wearing: healthcare professionals, teachers, school-girls, shop assistants, researchers, professors, stay-at-home mums, writers, secretaries, and everyone in between. Too often, we suggest through the way we dress that we are sexual objects. I have become increasingly concerned about this as I have researched the sexualisation and objectification of women and girls in the media and in our culture.

At the heart of my passion regarding the abolition of sex trafficking (the victims of which are predominantly female), is the knowledge that women and girls have the right to safety, to respect and to opportunity, and that they are so much more than sex. I struggle when I see women and girls who are not enslaved, not caught up in the sex trade, dressing as though they are just sex. We can’t have it both ways. We can’t fight sex trafficking or sexualised ad campaigns and then sexualise ourselves in how we dress. We can’t object to the media using pornographic images to sell us toothpaste when we walk around dressed like ads for porn. It’s hypocritical. I tread a dangerously thin line and don’t wish to be misunderstood, but we need to lead the way for men by not allowing them to reduce us to sex or behave towards us in unwelcome sexual manners, by not putting that part of ourselves at the forefront of our personal presentation.

Rather than relating this to how many men see us, how the media portray us, or how the clothing companies dictate to us what we should wear, I want to suggest that we should dress differently simply because… We are MORE than sex. We are not sexual objects and not defined by our sexuality. We are more than how men see us, and more than what Abercrombie tell us we are. We are brains; we are talent; we are creativity; we are achievement; we are art; we are hard work; we are wonder; we are activism; we are science; we are character; we are respect; we are kindness; we are words; we are charity; we are changing the world; we are enough, and we are more. We are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). WONDERFUL are His works.

I know there is a lack of respect for us. We are seen as sexual objects in the eyes of many, and it’s hard to not put those glasses on ourselves, too. It’s hard to be subjected daily to ads that reduce women to sexual objects. It’s hard when we know we get more attention when we hypersexualise ourselves. But we have to fight it. We have to remind the world that we are more. A really obvious way to do that is in how we dress. As Christian women, we have SUCH a responsibility to do this. I’m not suggesting we start dressing in bin liners. Have fun. Be fashionable. But dress to reflect the fact that YOU are so much. You are valuable.

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27, ESV). We carry the truth of being created in the image of God, known by God, our whole selves loved by Him. This is what we need to project to the world.

Sex is a gift from God, but our sexuality is not our whole reality. THAT is The Modesty Talk.

WORDS Gemma Wilson