So Much More, p. 75-93 – Part 1: Do the Slut Walk

“A&E” refers to Anna Sofia and Elizabeth Botkin, authors of So Much More. I chose the abbreviation to save space and time.

Well, the inevitable modesty chapter is here. I suppose it was only a matter of time. This one, however, goes beyond the usual list of clothing regulations into the territory of proper “feminine” deportment and manners. As usual, Webster’s 1828 is quoted.

Modesty, as an act or series of acts, consists in humble, unobtrusive deportment, as opposed to extreme boldness, forwardness, arrogance, presumption, audacity or impudence. In females, modesty has the like character as in males; but the word is used also as synonymous with chastity, or purity of manners.

Couple this with A&E’s praise of the “gentle and quiet spirit,” and we may begin to wonder how exactly A&E think girls should act.

We hear about “free” spirits, fiery spirits, fiercely independent spirits, fighting spirits, proud spirits, revolutionary spirits, and just plain “spiritedness” paraded as the essential virtues for the ideal woman. Our culture views a woman with a gentle and quiet spirit as a pushover. …

God laughs at the militant feminists who mock the real woman for her meekness, promising that it will be the descendants of His meek servants who will inherit the earth. …

A gentle and quiet spirit is not only imperishable; it is precious in the sight of God. It’s also one of the hardest qualities to cultivate. Far from a sign of weakness, a gentle and quiet spirit is the sign of a woman who is strong in faith, mind, and character.

Now it is true that the phrase “gentle and quiet spirit” appears in the Bible. However, in context, it’s not given much definition other than being contrasted with outward vanity and a statement that it is valued by God – and A&E, per usual, don’t define anything. So the precise meaning of this relatively vague phrase and its application to Christian living is, shall we say, rather debatable in the extreme. (One thing that is clear, though – Jesus did not have only women in mind when He talked about the meek inheriting the earth!)

Thankfully, A&E give us some helpful pointers on where they are going with this.

As you might guess, the modesty – or lack thereof – in our hearts is manifested not only in our clothes but also in our behavior. It is possible for a girl to be dressed irreproachably but to be shamefully immodest in behavior – by flirting, being loud and boisterous, by attracting the wrong kind of attention to herself in the wrong way.

The sexual stuff here is par for the course: it’s not rocket science that the same folks who brought us “emotional purity,” would ban flirting and “attracting the wrong kind of attention” to oneself. But “loud and boisterous” behavior is an awfully wide net, and not specifically sexual. So, do they really mean things like laughing loudly, horsing around, and being physically expressive of emotion?

Yes, or so it would seem (emphasis mine):

A godly daughter is her father’s graceful pillar, fashioned for a palace (Psalm 144:12). In her daddy’s palace, she is beautifying, supportive, and hospitable. When outside the walls of her daddy’s palace, she is his ambassador, representative, and “arrow in the hand of a mighty warrior” (Psalm 127:4). Through her countenance, carriage, and demeanor, she leaves the world in no doubt that she is a girl submitted to her father’s protection, the daughter of a king, a princess worthy of honor.

Amidst a generation of giddy, silly, loud, boisterous, undignified, clumsy teenaged girls, picture a girl who radiates dignity, regal serenity, respectfulness, grace, a gentle and quiet voice, poise, discretion, self-command, sincerity, peace, compassion, cheerfulness and humility. That girl would stand out as a woman of quality.

450px-Coronación_de_la_VirgenI don’t know about you, but to me that last paragraph reads like some combination of Grace Kelly, Melanie Wilkes, and traditional Catholic depictions of the Madonna. It also sounds heavily detached from reality, and almost impossible for most women – esp. developmentally immature teenagers – to actually attain.

To state the obvious, some women are born with loud voices and loud laughs. Some of us are physically uncoordinated. Some of us like to play sports. (Can we still do that? Seems awfully “undignified” and potentially “boisterous.”) Some of us are just plain bad at social cues, no matter how much etiquette training is hammered into our heads. Many of those things are completely outside our control – for instance, I’m not aware of any “vocal surgery” options to correct a naturally loud laugh – and require total suppression of what appear to be harmless facets of our natural personalities (more on that in a later post).

And while we’re on the subject on etiquette training, did you notice that, on average, that description above sounds rather…shall we say…upper-crust?

There’s a reason for that. Most women – in fact most people in general – do not attain things like “regal serenity” and “poise” without special training. This is what institutions like finishing schools were for. Of course, the vast majority of women throughout history never went to finishing school, because finishing school was expensive and basically reserved for the wealthy. So were all these women, hopelessly mired in the looser behavioral standards of average folk, inadequately modest in their “countenance, carriage and demeanor” and thus disobedient to God, simply because of the accident of birth that put them in the wrong place at the wrong time?

Enter the wardrobe (portal to Narnia not included)

A&E begin their section on a dress with a few little paragraphs that, I think, tell us much more about them than they do about the women they’re observing.

The theologian Henry Van Til accurately observed that culture is religion externalized. In the same way that a culture is a nation’s religion revealed, clothing is an individual’s religion revealed (and every person is religious). Clothes make a statement. They proclaim to people who you are, what you believe, what you are worth, whom you belong to, what you admire, what you aspire to, what you are for, and whether you are protected or cheap.

Looking around us on the street, we can see girls of all shapes and sizes and social backgrounds and beliefs. Nearly all of them have one thing in common: they are hardly wearing any clothing. Like all clothing, the clothes that we don’t see these girls wearing make a very obvious statement: I am a shameless hussy…I am not worth much…I just want to get attention…I live for myself…I need to be noticed…I need to look like everyone else.

We need our own messages to declare exactly the opposite – I am loved, I am cherished, I am protected, I am a woman of virtue, I am submitted to God, I am part of a civilized society, I am worth more than rubies, there is a prt of me that is not to be stared at by strangers because it belongs to my future husband.

All I can say is: wow! I wish I had psychic powers like A&E! Because right now, I can’t tell who the cheap, shameless hussies are on sight, and it makes life really inconvenient.

/sarcasm/

In reality, the only ones sending a clear message here are A&E, via a process the Autodidact describes as “social signaling” (emphasis his):

“Modesty culture” is all about the same thing. Signalling to other members of the group – and to outsiders – membership in the group.

To dress like those in society at large is to identify with the society to some degree. To dress counter to that society is to signal that one is not part of that society, but rather part of a counterculture. This was done by hippies and goths in the past as well. It was a way of signalling disdain for mainstream culture and for those who chose to participate in it.

Likewise, Modesty Culture is, in part, a way to signal disdain for modern culture and for those who are part of it.[1]

The question, I suppose, in light of this social signaling phenomenon, is whether the Bible actually tells us to dress so as to stick out like a sore thumb from the surrounding culture, on principle. I don’t see that in 1 Timothy 2:8-10 (the female modesty “prooftext”). The phrase in my Bible (NKJV) is “propriety and moderation,” and the Greek words involved seem to have more do with respect and self-control than anything else. In other words, there is no command to deliberately be as weird and countercultural as possible.

I also suspect that A&E would have a huge problem if their namecalling here (see “shameless hussy”) was reversed. If someone were to call them “self-righteous prigs,” based on nothing but their clothes, do you think they’d be happy about that? I find their use of the word “cheap” to be especially disturbing – because in this context, it has pretty obvious sexual connotations and, to be honest, reminds me of prostitution. Did they mean to imply that all girls who don’t practice stay-at-home daughterhood or adhere to A&E’s modesty standards, must be willing to have sex with basically anyone? That their dads will hand them off to the first guy who comes along without any forethought whatsoever? – which is actually worse than the first option, because at that point, by using the word “cheap,” A&E have literally reduced marriage to a father “selling” his daughter to her husband.

(As an aside, it’s highly amusing to me at the moment that most women in America are supposedly “hardly wearing any clothing,” because right now CT is closing out its coldest February on record and let me tell you, everyone I see every day is wearing plenty of clothing, and then some. Even in summer, though, I would say the normal meaning of “hardly any clothing” has to be stretched pretty generously to make this apply to most women selected at random, except maybe at the beach. I also wonder if A&E would have a problem with men going around shirtless. After all, what if they have chiseled abs or a great chest and a woman were to notice that?)

Another salient feature of this section is constantly shifting goalposts. Kate Schell wittily satirized this concept here, but unfortunately, A&E are dead serious. The bit above about “shameless hussies” was a little light on detail, but they outline their objections more clearly later:

So what does it mean to dress modestly? As regards clothing, modesty has two different meanings. The first and most obvious is the covering of oneself and not revealing things that the public has no right to see. The second is wearing unpretentious, quiet clothing that doesn’t draw the wrong kind of attention to oneself.

As well as giving others the wrong impression, immodest clothing causes others to be distracted and tempts them to sin. It’s wrong for us to dress in a way that tempts men to think of us in a way other than “as sisters, with all purity” (1 Timothy 5:2). …

Our bodies belong to our husbands – if we are not married, to our future husbands – and we need to see to it that we never reveal or show off what is for our husbands’ eyes alone.

Goalpost #1 is the familiar one: dress right or you will make boys lust. There is a tiny suggestion of vanity (“unpretentious, quiet clothing”), but even there A&E immediately shift to “draw[ing] the wrong kind of attention,” which could easily have sexual overtones as well.

Of course, even this goalpost is hardly solid. How revealing is too revealing? Are pants okay? How tight is too tight? Is any and all cleavage, too much cleavage? And so on and so forth. As the past several decades of the conservative evangelical modesty industry has ably demonstrated, ideas like this breed self-contradicory, legalistic rules like rabbits, and you can never win because somebody, somewhere, will think your clothing is not modest enough. And yes, I am obligated to mention that A&E don’t seem to have nearly as many rules for men, even though women can lust too. All that has been said before, ad nauseam. (And besides, there’s no way to beat this hilariously hot lineup of men in suits. Really, there’s not.) So I’m going to just move on to A&E’s statements about a girl’s relation to her future husband.

I already explored the problems with A&E’s idea that girls should be “faithful to [their] future husbands in thought and deed” in my Big Box series, but So Much More approaches the concept from a slightly different angle. Here, the girl’s future husband is presented as having exclusive viewing rights to certain parts of her body. This, of course, is only a hairsbreadth away from ownership of the girl’s body. In light of this, I have two questions for A&E.

First, in keeping with the lack of definitional clarity inherent in Goalpost #1, exactly which parts of my body belong to my future husband? My vagina, obviously, but earlier you implied that most of the girls you saw on the streets were allowing parts of their body that belong to their future husbands, to be “stared at by strangers.” Now I don’t know about you, but my day is not filled with naked women parading down the street showing off their vaginas to all and sundry. Thus, it can’t just be vaginas you have in mind here. So what did you have in mind? My breasts, butt, legs, what? Maybe my future husband thinks hair is the sexiest thing ever, so should I wear a headcovering all the time? Maybe he’ll love my eyes, so I should wear sunglasses. Then again, if we take 1 Cor. 7:4 absolutely literally, my entire body belongs to my husband, so I guess the safest route would be to just cover up completely.

I’m also curious why this doesn’t go both ways. In other words, which parts of a single man’s body belong to his future wife – and isn’t he required to not display those parts to the public, too? As a starting point, since obviously a man’s penis belongs to his future wife, I propose we treat men’s pants the way modesty proponents treat women’s necklines. It’s baggy sweats all the time, fellas, otherwise there might be too much…bulge…for public consumption, and the ladies will get all hot and bothered. And for you men who are too well-endowed for that solution to work, well, I guess you’ll just have to wear a dress instead.

(Unless, of course, A&E don’t really believe that a man’s body belongs to his future wife, because patriocentricity entails that subordinates – wives – belong to their superiors – husbands – and that this never works two ways. They never state this, but I think it’s worth considering whether it’s a subtext here.)

So as I implied above, you’d think the solution to Goalpost #1 would be to wear baggy clothes, so a girl’s body exposure was minimized as much as possible. But you would be wrong, because welcome to Goalpost #2: not dressing like a man (as explained by Genevieve):

I was raised to dress modestly. To me, being modesty meant wearing clothing which was not skimpy, tight, or revealing. But somehow, along the way, in seeking to become modest, I became masculine. …

As I grew up and matured, and as the fashions changed, it became harder and harder to find clothing which I considered to be modest. The clothing in the women’s sections all seemed too flimsy and impractical, and they seemed to be made for women much smaller than my height of 5’11”. And so I turned to the men’s section to find garments which were loose, baggy, and ‘modest’ enough for me to feel comfortable wearing.

Then one day, I looked down at myself and thought, “I look just like a man.” It was true. From my shoes to my sweater, my clothing had all come from the men’s section. This is when I realized that in seeking to be modest I’d become masculine.

Hey, I feel for you. Half the time the women’s section does suck – especially if you hate spandex! – and I’m sure it’s even worse if you’re 5’11”. But you really shouldn’t be blaming yourself, because the salient problem here is not that the only place you could find comfortable, practical clothes was the men’s section. Instead, it’s that modesty culture has given you an impossible row to hoe. Don’t wear form-fitting clothes; wear non-revealing ones that don’t let the contours of your body show. But don’t wear clothes that are too baggy, otherwise you’ll look like a man. After all, you still need to be recognizably feminine!

Remember when I said you can never win?

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5 comments on “So Much More, p. 75-93 – Part 1: Do the Slut Walk

  1. Just one comment regarding Henry Van Til. Okay, a few comments.

    First, Henry was the nephew of Cornelius Van Til (“CVT”), the Calvinist theologian who most influenced Rousas Rushdoony (who we also know influenced the various Patriarchists – including A&E). I wrote a bit about the pernicious effect that the CVT and Rushdoony theology had on our view of culture in a footnote to one of my Modesty Culture posts. CVT’s view was that non-Christians (and really, non-Calvinists of his particular beliefs) could not understand truth in any way – about anything. Thus, the opinions of those who are not our brand of Christian can be completely disregarded. (I won’t rehash the way this applies to cultural signals other than to note that A&E and others advocate a return to the culture of a mythical Christian past.)

    So, once again, A&E do show that their reading on these issues is from a VERY narrow range of theologians, to say nothing of anything outside of theology.

    I also will say that I believe that Henry Van Til has it exactly backwards. In large part, religion is culture externalized. Religion has always reflected the culture – which is one reason why it has so often been a factor in encouraging genocide. Even “Christianity” looked different in the Old Testament, when it reflected a patriarchal, tribal society, than it did in the New Testament, when polygamy was rejected as part of the new Greco-Roman culture.

    The culture wars are nothing new, of course. That is probably the single defining attribute of the Pharisees. They were warring against Roman culture, and seeking to return to the OT culture – and all the signals associate with it. Christ and St. Paul blew the doors off the whole endeavor, of course, by opening the faith to the Gentiles – and to Gentile culture – while revealing that most of what was “true religion” was really just cultural baggage getting in the way of a true faith in God.

  2. One other thing I forgot to add: “Independent Spirit” was a real byword for Bill Gothard – particularly for women, but also for young men. Needless to say, I was accused of being one. Now, I wear that badge proudly.

  3. Jeff S says:

    Do you think that this book, boldly challenging social norms including labeling most women as “shameless hussies” confines to the meek and mild ideal they are suggesting?

    Also, it sound like their idea of what people in the real world are like comes from a filtered source. It would be interesting to see how their language might change if they spent a year in a foreign country backpacking without daddy’s influence.

    Oh, and “daddy’s palace”?

    • Hester says:

      Sadly, they probably are getting everything through their dad, or at least other like-minded people approved by their dad. And yeah, “daddy’s palace” is pretty overblown. When you listen to/read enough of their stuff, the whole clan seems to have this odd obsession with status and fame on some subconscious level. At least, that was the impression I got.

      Maybe I’m having a slow night, but I’m not sure what you meant in your first paragraph. Could you explain it again? 😦 Sorry if I’m having a stupid moment.

  4. Susan aka VelvetVoice says:

    Having lived in an urban area most of my life, these areas are food deserts, meaning that good nutritional food is expensive if you can even find it. It’s the same with clothing, good “modest” clothing is expensive if you can find it at all. Regular people say this all the time, it isn’t just a Christian problem. I guess poor people can’t be proper Christians.

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