Appearance, part 8: Appearance and Christianity

Christianity isn’t the only religion that places restrictions, implicitly or explicitly, on the appearances of its adherents—Islam, predictably, is another that springs to mind—but it’s the only one that I have personal experience with, and I ended up with enough to say about it alone to fill a whole post. Also, I should note that my experience is with Protestant Evangelical Christianity, but I’m sure at least some of this applies to Christianity in general. This topic overlaps with appearance and sexism in that Christianity has much stricter appearance rules/guidelines for women than for men (although there are some conservative Mennonite and Amish groups that regulate men’s facial hair and everyone’s clothing), and because these rules are often, if not always, for the benefit of men. The main one that I have in mind is the idea of modesty.

Once a year, my high school Sunday school class would split the guys and the girls (because of course certain things apply to girls only and certain others to guys only), and while the guys learned about not lusting, the girls learned about helping them out by dressing modestly (among other sexual purity-related topics). Of course, what is and isn’t modest is subjective, but we were taught various modesty tests, like, “Does your shirt still cover your midriff when you raise your arms above your head?” and “Do your shorts go past your fingertips when your arms are at your sides?” If the answer was no, your clothing was immodest and you shouldn’t be wearing it around guys—because guys are visual, and even a glimpse of a girl in supposedly immodest clothing could cause them to commit the sin of lust (an idea that made me kind of afraid of men).

I went to Christian camps where two-piece swimsuits were banned; if a girl had brought one, she had to wear a t-shirt over it when she swam. The tightness and lowness of girls’ shirts and pants was also monitored, and the shortness of dresses… you get the idea. If you want to see exactly what lengths some people went to to try to define modesty, check out this post that discusses a survey where teen Christian boys gave their opinions on the modesty or immodesty of different items of clothing, as well as postures and actions. Reading through that survey made the post’s author conclude that to be modest, you basically have to not be female—because every single thing that was asked about, from wearing jeans to stretching, was considered by some guys to be immodest.

As the author of that post says, this is a really harmful attitude because it implies that women’s bodies are bad, the source of men’s sin—and that when a man lusts after a woman, the woman is at least partially to blame. And what is that but rape culture? The idea also has the effect of making women feel bad about their bodies. At a youth retreat, I witnessed one of the other girls crying when a (female) youth leader pulled her aside and asked her to change her shirt because it was short enough to sometimes reveal her belly. The youth leader did it in a really kind, gentle way, but that didn’t change the fact that a girl was being told that her stomach was a problem—or that she was in tears over it.

The woman who wrote this article has experienced even worse situations, and received reprimands that aren’t nearly as gentle or well-intentioned. The article is somewhat upsetting (because of how badly she’s treated by some people, and the effects their words and attitudes have on her; content warning for internalized fat-shaming), but definitely worth a read because it shows what this stance looks like when taken to the extreme, and what a harsh toll it can take on women and girls.

Christianity seems to have kind of an obsession with women’s appearances; besides modesty, there’s the idea of fighting vanity—the point of the mirror exercise I mentioned in this post was to help the female participants not focus on outer beauty, a goal that people support with Bible verses directed to women, like “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self” (1 Peter 3:3-4)—and also the idea that women owe their husbands attractiveness, which I mentioned in that post as well. In contrast, I don’t think I’ve ever heard Evangelical Christians discuss men’s appearances. My youth group had no rules for guy’s clothing (swimming shirtless was fine); there was no such thing as male modesty (although now there is, at least in parody articles).

I want to end with a quote from an article on modesty by Rachel Held Evans, a Christian author I admire and whose blog and books I enjoy (even if I disagree with her on some things):

While popular culture tends to disempower women by telling them they must dress to get men to look at them, the modesty culture tends to disempower women by telling them they must dress to keep men from looking at them. In both cases, the impetus is placed on the woman to accommodate her clothing or her body to the (varied and culturally relative) expectations of men. […] Women are left feeling ashamed of their bodies as they try desperately to contort around a bunch of vague, ever-changing ideals.

The article goes on to try to hash out a more biblically-accurate idea of modesty (and it’s worth reading if you’re interested in a re-examination of modesty within a Christian context)… but I’m going to end there.

Read the rest of my appearance posts here.

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5 thoughts on “Appearance, part 8: Appearance and Christianity

  1. Aqua January 27, 2015 / 6:44 am

    The article written by the woman who experienced so much body shaming and unwanted ogling (even in church) especially made me sad for her, and disgusted towards those who objectified, policed, and shamed her body.

    It’s ironic that fundamentalist Christians claim to value modesty so much, but take certain verses way out of context. And what’s modest about ruthlessly, and systematically policing womens’ bodies down to the smallest details of their outfits, while requiring women to be “sexy” for their husbands?

    Their views, and mainstream society’s, leave women trapped, with a worth tied to appearances, yet bodies are inherently shameful?

    My grade school, middle school and high school did have dress codes dictating that midriffs can’t be exposed, and shorts are supposed to be a certain length, but I didn’t think anything of it until a few years ago. And these weren’t conservative or religious schools either.

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    • cinderace January 28, 2015 / 1:58 pm

      I know, I could hardly believe how badly that woman was treated and how abusively the concept of modesty was used by some of those church leaders. I appreciated in Rachel Held Evans’s article that she tried to take a better approach and brought up the importance of thinking about where your clothes come from, rather than worrying about whether or not they’re modest enough.

      There are so many Christian men online telling women how they need to dress and why, and women too, and one thing that’s said is “Women disrespect their husbands when they dress in a way that calls other men’s attention to their bodies.” And that idea just makes it even more clear how sexist this whole thing is, like they basically think that a woman belongs to her husband and that he’s being wronged if another man looks at her body.

      Dress codes are interesting to think about… As much as I value women’s rights to wear whatever they want, it definitely troubles me how sexualized clothing for young girls has become, so I guess I don’t mind the idea of that type of clothing being discouraged by being banned at school. But by high school, if you have a million rules for what girls can wear but don’t have the equivalent for guys, that’s definitely a double standard that’s not right.

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      • Sara K. February 25, 2015 / 1:48 pm

        My high school did in fact have a dress code, and it was exactly the same regardless of gender (i.e. if a girl and a boy decided to swap clothes which complied with the dress code and then put them on, they would have still be complying with the dress code).

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        • cinderace February 25, 2015 / 3:19 pm

          That’s cool, since from what I’ve heard dress codes often seem stricter for girls, and once in a while you hear about schools forbidding kids to wear gender-nonconforming clothing too, so I’m glad that some schools at least aren’t gender biased.

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