Aug 12, 2014

If the Skirt Fits, Wear It? Choosing Clothes in a Sexualized World

By Anna Ilona Mussmann

“Your dresses should be tight enough to show you're a woman and loose enough to show you're a lady.” Edith Head (legendary costume designer of old Hollywood)

Fashion once sanctioned only one silhouette at a time, and to this all fashionable ladies were obliged to conform. They all wore long, clingy gowns in the beginning of the Nineteenth Century. They all switched to crinolines by the Century’s mid-point. Nowadays, however, we can go public in anything from a floor-brushing maxi-dress to a pair of thigh-bearing shorts, and no one who sees our clothes will think that we look particularly eccentric. Yet this freedom is rather illusory. Today, the pressure to conform comes from the over-sexualization of our culture (about which I’ve written elsewhere). Modern women are supposed to rival the financial and political achievements of men, but also to sport pouty lips and eternally-youthful figures. In fact, we are encouraged to objectify ourselves (why else would girls post provocative selfies online for strangers?).

Even among liberals, our culture is not without voices against blatant sexualization, but such conversations are hobbled by fears that modesty or chastity would limit personal freedom. A great deal of this concern is undoubtedly tied to the idea that women can only achieve equality by imitating [the worst versions of] male behavior. Our culture seems to say, “The only way to prove that no one else owns you, girl, is to give yourself away for free.” Yet in practice, the result of this role-shift seems to be that women now try to achieve an ever-more-impossible ideal of photo-shopped beauty (and now, instead of just attracting one man and marrying him, we must attract a whole string of men).

Even classy gals who would never appear in a string bikini are influenced by the messages of our world. We all are tempted to run on the sexiness-treadmill in some way. For one woman, the models on the covers of the supermarket magazines trigger feelings of inadequacy that can lead to envy, discontent, or disordered dieting. For another, the lure comes from our culture’s notion of romantic love, and results in a search for a man who will “fulfill” her (only God can do that). Yet others seek to wield power by wearing a certain neckline, a certain hemline, or walking in a certain way.  Some women even react by becoming embittered against all men. The problem with all of these sins is that they separate us from God, kill our souls, and deliver disappointment and misery instead of the promised happiness.

From the Christian perspective, modesty and chastity actually liberate us. They cast aside our culture’s sexiness-treadmill, and, far more monumental, they align with the real purposes of human sexuality. As Christian women, we know that our physical bodies are mortally wounded by the fall into sin, but they are also a gift to us in this present life, and in the final resurrection, they will be gloriously healed. It behooves us to treat them with respect (remember, Christ has a human body, too). Modesty is a way of showing respect for something that God designed. Yet how is that accomplished?

It is always tempting to approach the subject of modesty with a set of concrete, enforceable rules and regulations. In one sense, it is perfectly logical to decide that if the female body arouses sinful lust, and if lust should be avoided, then the female body ought to be kept under a burqa. Problem solved, case closed, sin over (and the bonus: the female could save a whole lot of money that would otherwise be spent on cosmetics). Muslims aren’t the only ones who take this approach. I knew a group of Christian homeschool families who required their girls to wear long-sleeve blouses and ankle-length, denim jumpers when they went swimming (denim was selected because it is not clingy when wet). They felt that covering up their daughters would not only protect young men, but also help the girls to escape worldly standards of beauty and to behave like virtuous women. Unfortunately, as any Lutheran could tell you, sin comes from the human heart, and logical human efforts to make sin impossible usually backfire into fresh wrongdoing. Research has found that people can be conditioned to perceive certain sights and imagery as more or less sexual. I would suggest that an insistence on hiding all bodies may lead people to find certain body parts more erotic than they would otherwise. When groups obsess over ensuring that a girl’s butt or legs don’t show, they inadvertently reduce women to mere sexual objects (ironically, as is often pointed out in the blogosphere, this objectifying is a mark of the pin-up Hollywood world that they were trying to flee in the first place).

So, when discussing modesty, let us not talk as if women are essentially walking pornography. However, let’s not play dumb, either, as if men aren’t wired to respond to visual stimuli. Let’s help our Christian brothers avoid sin by dressing sensibly. Let’s teach our teenage daughters to find confidence in appropriate, rather than revealing, clothes. Deep down, any women beyond her teens probably knows that her clingy t-shirt is getting her more masculine attention than she would otherwise receive. Yet discussions about the sartorial side of modesty are often simplistic. If we merely divide clothes into a pile of “physical revealing” and “non-revealing,” we would leave many other implications untouched. The thing is, clothes have a tremendous effect on our feelings, on our position in society, and on how others treat us. They are culturally subjective, yet genuinely powerful.

Clothes are often tied to female insecurity (probably because our culture teaches us to link our appearance and our self-worth). A few months ago, my sister, my husband, and I watched a What Not To Wear episode. The hosts did an instant, on-stage makeover for a woman who walked into the building in outrageously cheap, revealing, and costume-like attire. She fought their critiques until the end, yet when she saw herself with a beautiful haircut and attractive, respectable clothes, she began sobbing. Her entire demeanor was transformed by what she saw in the mirror—she was happier, more at peace, and more ladylike. She had not believed before that she could look like a dignified, lovely woman. The funny thing is that my husband didn’t “get” it. His reaction was, “So they changed her outfit. So what? Why would anyone cry because of clothes?” My sister and I couldn’t help laughing at his thoroughly masculine outlook, because the tears weren’t about clothes. They were about identity and human value.

Adult women who know that they are valuable don’t wear skanky outfits. They just don’t. They don’t need to. As we choose our wardrobes, it is important to remember that they are a way of telling ourselves what sort of people we are. We should dress like dignified, lovely women who belong to the ruler of the universe. This means more than just avoidance of skank. It also means making an effort to look like women who are going places, women who are going to accomplish things, and women who took a shower that day. This may mean that we must humble ourselves and study the way that our fashion choices affect others. Some of us do need to show less skin or buy a size up (you’ve probably heard the advice that a trusted male friend, brother, father, or husband can be consulted briefly about this). I realize that fashionable modesty is harder for some body types than others. I myself am so short that most v-necks are too low on me. It is worth the effort to observe how other women of one’s own body type are able to dress successfully, or even to get a few key pieces tailored to fit. 

Yet modesty does not come from a denim jumper. It comes from daily repentance—repentance of our sinful quest to find self-worth our appearance, achievements, or power over others. It is the result of the beautiful, amazing, shocking fact that Christ values us so much that He died for us. As we live the life of new creatures, purchased and won from the power of sin, death, and the devil, let’s remember the advice to wear dresses that “are tight enough to show you're a woman and loose enough to show you're a lady.” Be a lady, because through Christ, you are one. 

***

Anna writes as often as she can, although sometimes it is with only one hand because her baby son requires the other. After graduating from Concordia Wisconsin she taught in Lutheran schools for several years and became so enthusiastic about Classical Education that she will talk about it to whomever will listen. She is a big fan of Jane Austen, dark chocolate, and the Oxford comma. Anna and her husband live in Pennsylvania. Anna's personal blog is Don't Forget the Avocados.


Title Image: "Do Not Be Afraid," vintage card

8 comments:

  1. This is an important message that women of my generation have heard often and is very fitting for the culture we live in. Your post has sparked some ideas that are not meant to be critical, merely just more food for thought:

    Would our Lord ever refer to a woman as a "skank" or refer to her clothing that way? What does this word imply? Is it an image that encourages us to love the woman wearing "skanky" clothing, or does it conjure up judgmental or even resentful feelings towards her?

    Also, as a wife and mother for over a decade, my problem does not come from dressing too sexy. It comes from struggling to even see the point of changing out of my pajamas or to have an interest in sex as I am weighed down by the demands of homemaking and childrearing. I think many women could use encouragement as to HOW to rediscover, and then in turn, USE their sexual power for the good of her neighbor, namely, her husband.

    Thank you again for the post. This is one of my favorite topics :)

    Rebekah

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    1. Rebekah,

      This for adding to the discussion. You should write an article for SDMW about embracing God's gift of female beauty (even when one feels like wearing pajamas). I would appreciate reading it. :-)

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    2. If I can come up with something, I will definitely let you know. It is one of those things where you would want to choose words very carefully. I'll think on it.

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    3. I wonder if it's fair to say that a tendency to live in sweats (or the equivalent), and thus to experience all of the issues that go along with that, is a modern problem. Did bygone social pressure to look neat and tidy, white gloves and all, provide a certain protection against this? Interesting thought. Of course, there are pro's and con's to all social pressures.

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  2. It also means making an effort to look like women who are going places, women who are going to accomplish things, and women who took a shower that day.

    I've worn the same basic outfit for the last 18 years or so: jeans or jean shorts and a t-shirt or modest tank top. I gave up trying to dress fashionably when I was in my teens because I realized I had no idea of what was cool and actually didn't care. Plus, every time I tried a new look, my mom would find fault with it, and I got tired of arguing about whether or not yellow and pink could be worn together. But jeans and a t-shirt? No one was going to question that. (I do wear dresses or skirts to church. Woefully unfashionable ones, I'm sure, but they're clean, neat, comfy, and I like them.)

    Is jeans and a t-shirt an outfit you would characterize as being worn by a woman who is going places and will accomplish things? In those 18 years, I've graduated summa cum laude from college, gotten married, had three children, begun homeschooling them, started my own online business, and written six novels and a hundred short stories and articles. I'd like to think that I've accomplished things, though perhaps because they're things I could accomplish wearing jeans and a t-shirt, they don't amount to as much as if I'd worn slacks and a blouse?

    The other terrible truth about me is that I only look like "a woman who took a shower that day" twice a week because with three kids age 6 and under, that's how often it's feasible. I don't look gross and greasy the other five days, but neither do I look coiffed. My hair is in a braid or ponytail 7 days a week.

    I agree with your article on the whole, but I disagree with the idea that we need to look put-together or fashionable to look like women who belong to the ruler of the universe.

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    1. There's a big difference between put-together and fashionable, isn't there?

      I have to confess that I spent a great deal of my childhood dressed in calico jumpers and prairie bonnets (I adored Laura Ingalls books). In my youth, I had no fashion sense at all-- my "looks" definitely stuck out in a crowd, and I didn't really care that no one else was wearing long, full, red plaid skirts with t-shirts and cotton over-shirts to college classes (my sisters would say, "Oh, Anna, that is so something *you* would like"). I am still not a trendy dresser and I'm not into high-maintenance style. I do, however, rather enjoy clothes now, and feel like I have finally gathered a sense of what looks good on my body. I am not one of those really, truly polished women who are never seen without flawless make-up and neatly coiffed hair (I'm just not that good at make-up and hair!). I do look more approachable now, and I do feel more confident about my ability to be taken seriously in different situations, which are both good things.

      I hope that my paragraph didn't make you feel as if your accomplishments or value as a Christian woman were being belittled because you don't invest more of your (limited) time in fashion. I'm not intending to say that we need to be fashionable.

      There's a difference between following trends, or being a skillful applicator of makeup, and showing respect for oneself and others through one's appearance, isn't there? Exactly what you, personally, need to wear in order to do this and to feel put-together is a pretty subjective and individual question. For me, "put-together" means that my clothes fit me well [this is why I have five pairs of jeans, each one in a different size, to deal with the whole pregnancy/postpartum thing], are appropriate to the occasion, flatter my body type, and are things that I enjoy wearing (and that my husband thinks makes me look cute).

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    2. Oh no, you didn't make me feel belittled -- I was feeling more like, "Wow, my sense of 'being presentable' doesn't include showering every day. Am I alone in this?" :-)

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