I have a daughter, who at the mere age of 4 years old, has already endured barrages of Disney Princess culture, Barbie fashion, and the latest trend of “sexy” makeovers of 80s toys like My Little Pony and Care Bears. Trying to keep these forces at bay are her two parents who are on the progressive ideological spectrum surrounded by the odd suburban subculture of the United State’s fourth largest city. Given our context, we often feel like the little Dutch boy plugging holes of the dike to keep the surmounting flood waters from wreaking devastation.
Since she became aware enough to understand, we encouraged our daughter to take care of her body and know all her body parts with their correct names. Oh the fun you endure as a parent when your 3 year old announces in the grocery store check out line, “I have a wedgie and it made my vagina hurt.” And against the never-ebbing tide of commoditized body image, we started talking to our daughter about modesty.
Though I could not pinpoint it at the time, something felt amiss about encouraging her to be modest. Should I hope she treat herself with modesty? Eventually, I answered with a short, “no.”
Rather, I hope for dignity in her essence and her being. I hope her to experience joy of herself and her body as it belongs to her.
Modesty calls down a subjugation from external forces, the machinations of power and puritanical repression. Dignity is something birthed from within our very being and nature – an internal power that includes a healthy body image, but even more deeply also embraces a body-positive stance, a healthy enjoyment of what any body looks like and a transcendence of how one’s own is perceived by others.
In the Eve & Adam creation myth, shame was the reason for their modesty. They removed their natural complete and whole selves, bodies and all, and hid, replacing their wholeness with a disembodied shame. Literally, they were no longer comfortable living in their own skin. They rejected the naked dignity of their own image of God in exchange for fig leaves and bitterness and enmity toward their natural selves which were no longer at one with the world and God.
This culture of body shame continued in the form of modesty codes and social norms. This 1868 Harper’s Bazaar drawing demonstrates the proper skirt length for girls’ at various ages. Break the code, and you are an improprietous pariah. Only since the cultural revolutions of the 1960s have people in the west felt free enough to push the envelope of this patriarchy or attempt to topple it all together.
Because of patriarchal systems throughout nearly every culture, these notions to cover up shameful bodies have been drastically relaxed, if not abandoned, for men, but they have only been reinforced for women and girls in many circles. A man may be as sexual as he pleases and he is only being “macho,” whereas a woman who embraces her body and her sexuality gets called a slut.
We’ve taken a cue from these puritanical notions of modesty for women and cultured them as a society.
As Chimamamda Ngozi Adiche said in her TEDxEuston talk entitiled “We Should all be Feminists“:
“We teach girls shame; close your legs, cover yourself, we make them feel as though by being born female they’re 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 do to girls, they grow up to be women who have turned pretense into an art form.”
-Chimamamda Ngozi Adiche at TEDxEuston
My daughter may have been born into this culture of shame and pretense, but I refuse to allow the amount of clothes a person chooses to wear or not wear have any bearing on the amount of respect and honor I show toward her or him. As one recent commenter on Samantha Field’s blog Defeating the Dragons said, “Another inch of fabric does not make a difference if a man cannot see a woman as a human being.”
This is step one in dismantling the disembodiment culture, the rape culture, the culture which says women are not good enough, the culture that enforces stereotypical gender role expectations.
There is a lot more we can do to re-embody ourselves, but we still have a far distance to travel. For instance, instead of shaming girls for their actions on social media (a la Kimberly Hall’s viral blog post “FYI (if you’re a teenage girl)” in which she has now redacted the awkward hypocritical beach photos of her sons), we must teach our boys to think with more than just their hormones, and that consent is always a necessary thing with anyone. Shaming another person’s body should never be an option. As a man and father, I must model an embodied self, being comfortable in my own skin around others (admittedly, society makes this is a vastly easier task for a man, but I still do not always feel comfortable with myself). I have friends in the Pacific NW who participate in the SlutWalk Seattle, rallying against male privilege and assault towards women and in the process reclaim the word so many use to shame women. Those of us identifying as Christians should read writers thinking about embodiment and justice issues like Julie Clawson at onehandclapping (who also shares my possibly unhealthy addiction to Doctor Who).
If my daughter eventually chooses to wear revealing clothing, I have no reason to love her less nor to judge her. If she does it for herself out of her own dignity, I will honor her being herself and exploring her notions of personal style and self-expression. As long as she is not harming herself nor any one else, I hope to be an understanding and supportive father in all that she is and all that she does. In the end, if we can find ourselves in a new and loving embodiment of the self, we just might be taking a step forward.