A few weeks ago, I was in Sofia, Bulgaria, for a day. I stopped for about twelve hours between night buses to see the sights, including a beautiful, vibrant mosque near the center of town. I did some online research on dress protocol beforehand: cover your skin, wear something on your head, take your shoes off. Nothing unexpected. I had a scarf and a maxi skirt in my backpack for this purpose. I was happy to be respectful, and excited for a new experience. I arrived at the mosque, circled around to the front, and . . . walked away. I felt nervous, suddenly, and upset.
I sat down several meters away and took a deep breath. I had personal squabbles with the dress code, yes. But the problem was the man standing at the door enforcing it. No matter how polite and respectful he was, this older man was looking at my body and making a judgment about how I could present it. I felt vulnerable, scrutinized, and reduced to nothing but an object of sexual interest. The intention of the rule, of course, didn’t matter. Nor did the friendliness and discretion of the man at the door who imposed the rules. I didn’t feel threatened when I eventually entered the mosque. But eight years after my last negative encounter with a dress code, the fear and shame—and the amount of courage required to ignore it—was surprising.
I was a squeaky-clean teenager—no sex, no drugs, only occasional rock n’ roll. I was also a homeschool student with outstanding grades and near-perfect youth group attendance. Despite my “good kid” credentials, I learned that parents at my homeschool extracurricular gatherings still considered me a bad influence.
The accidental ringleader of a rather tame circle of newly conscious feminists, I ruffled many a feather railing against the dress code, among other things. For the most part, these rules were enforced—obsessively—by women. And though the written codes would sometimes pretend to be gender-neutral, the rules themselves targeted girls’ clothing and girls’ bodies. I sometimes wonder if they knew that policing boys’ clothing would not change the way teenage girls felt about them. For some reason, though, this insight did not go both ways. They supposed that if girls just looked blander and wore three layers of shirts, boys would stop flirting with us.
Once, while playing the cello in a loose, inoffensive t-shirt, another player’s mother came up behind me and pulled the neckline up to my collarbone. She smiled at me and then sat down again. Meanwhile, my sister was sent home for wearing skinny jeans, openly accused of “trying to get sexual attention.” One dress code I encountered encouraged shapeless, unisex t-shirts while forbidding stretched fabric between the breasts—try putting those two rules together without wearing a pillowcase!
Often, women would cite their own sons as the reason for policing girls’ behavior: “I have teenage boys,” they might say, “and I don’t want them exposed to lust.” Frequently, homeschool activities were described as a “safe space” for the sons of conservative families: “They want to know they can come here and not have to see immodest girls.” I would fume in the car on the way home: why is it my fault that no one taught these boys to control their thoughts and behavior?
I know from experience that lust is a choice I can make or not make. Pretending it is different for men not only erases women’s sexuality but it also undermines the moral agency of men. There is no way to avoid seeing immodesty, particularly if your definition is skinny jeans and an exposed clavicle. Nor can anyone avoid being the subject of someone else’s lust—even if we all run around in burlap sacks. But the actual usefulness of such codes is not the point. These adults are trying to protect their sons (always sons, not daughters!) from a perceived danger. Lust is a fairytale witch that catches helpless, unsuspecting boys, puts them in a pie, and eats them up. The person who lusts is not responsible for treating another person like an object or mentally placing himself in a sexual situation. No, he fell into a trap laid by a girl who dared to be pretty.
Imagine if we treated every sin like this: “It wasn’t his fault he stole the car. After all, it’s a car!” Girls are not inherently dangerous, pretty or not. But boys who have been taught that sexual decisions like lust are not in their own hands are both dangerous and in danger. This narrative is false, sexist, and hazardous. It excuses boys’ inappropriate behavior, making girls responsible for keeping boys from even thinking about sex—eventually conveying to young people that women are also responsible for men’s sexual behavior and even violence. But let’s not forget, it also takes away boys’ sexual agency, making them passive victims of women’s “charms.” It can also prompt them to feel less masculine if they don’t find sex irresistible. The whole system leaves girls at heightened risk for sexual assault and sets boys up to abdicate responsibility and feel bad about themselves if they don’t objectify women. In other words, it promotes toxic masculinity.
Now, even if lust was not a choice, I am suspicious of the idea that more revealing dress automatically makes inappropriate behavior harder to avoid. Women have always been victims of men’s lust and sexual violence regardless of their clothing choices. Further, it is based on an often false and always overstated assumption: that the way a woman dresses is her invitation to men to think sexual thoughts about her. Men who imagine this are, of course, more tempted to think sexual thoughts. But in fact, most women like to go about our lives in peace—dressed with some personal flair but roughly like everybody else. Full-length denim skirt, yoga pants, or bikini—attractive people are attractive. Even when women are totally covered, men entertain themselves by imagining what they might look like. This is the ironic but age-old erotic function of veils. Sexually objectifying a person is a choice, and we all have a responsibility to resist the temptation to objectify others. When parents behave with such overprotective anxiety about what other kids look like and cast girls as “dangerous,” they communicate to their sons that they are powerless in the face of that choice.
The attitude toward modesty that I encountered as a teenager feeds rape culture (a social setting where sexual violence against women is normalized) in two major ways. First, boys are encouraged to think that they are powerless in the face of sexual desire and that girls are dangerous. Second, modesty culture normalizes the sexualization of girls. But it is not teenage boys who write, enforce, or capriciously add to dress codes. It is their parents.
In my senior year of high school, I tried theater. During show week, I had to bring in my own “New York City cafe” outfit for a three-minute scene. For three days, this outfit was continually rejected and reworked until my dress code-approved skinny jeans and leather jacket were replaced by a large shirt and a long, dated skirt. By the end of this mess, I was so sensitive and vulnerable I did not even want to be looked at. Why the scrutiny? Finally, I heard through the grapevine that someone’s dad had complained. Looking at me on stage in skinny jeans was too much of a temptation for him. I had to make my seventeen-year-old body less attractive so a fifty-something man—with teenage daughters of his own—would not imagine me naked. That was my problem.
Are all overly-anxious parents personally sexualizing girls? No. But their efforts to control girls’ bodies indicate a preoccupation with sexual potential. A girl might be a growing adolescent, but she is expected to be warier and more mature than a boy. She is responsible for his thoughts and behavior in addition to her own, and she is forced to think about her developing body primarily as an object of problematic male attention.
Modesty culture has serious consequences for the girls it targets. I was led to believe my body was dangerous to the men and boys around me. This idea still lingers, guilty, in the back of my mind. It is not just my body, though. I feel responsible for men’s emotional response to me, for holding their hands through fragile “not all men” moments, and even for apologizing for my expectation of equality. I am often most comfortable as the “chill feminist,” the one antifeminist men are surprised by and willing to tolerate. I tell myself I’m being a Trojan horse, a good pastor, or a peacemaker. But often, I am just trying to fix the feelings I feel like I caused by taking up space I am entitled to.
If I had been a little more vulnerable to the message of the “dangerous body,” I might have tried to flatten my breasts, worn baggy clothes, or developed an eating disorder. As it is, my body just holds a lot of shame, confusingly mixed with a fierce, fierce love. I am loyal to my body. Created by God, I believe it deserves my love. But it also sometimes feels like a land mine. For many years, the voice in my head whispered: “one wrong move.” Wear the wrong shirt and you might destroy a marriage. Make eye contact and you could cause a fight. Be too feminine, too attractive, too noticeable, and every man distracted during worship, every argument over lunch, and absolutely everything that goes wrong today will be your fault. Women do not want you talking to their husbands. Naturally, this made everything from working with male mentors to going to the doctor a complex source of embarrassment. It is also profoundly narcissistic, not to mention naïve, to make women think they are so uniquely problematic and notable. But it is also an easy response to what evangelical modesty culture taught me. Pretty women are homewreckers, whether they like it or not. As a result, I felt dirty, guilty, awkward, and scrutinized.
Nowadays, I try to enjoy dressing like other women. When I catch myself feeling embarrassed at the beach or reconsidering the lipstick before church, I remind myself that no one else’s husband is after me and it is okay to be attractive. I buy regular bras not designed to flatten my chest. I let my hair down and wear pretty things when I preach. I am working on allowing myself to be who I am, out loud, without apologizing. Maybe most difficult, I want to stop judging other women’s motives for clothing choices I would not make.
As I think about raising my own kids someday, and how I might encourage them to make tasteful, respectful clothing choices without sexually shaming them, I increasingly think this is how I will do it: stop judging. Don’t assume the worst. Don’t encourage defeatist, fatalist thinking about sex. Bolster confidence in kids’ value as whole people, people who are worthwhile whatever they wear and whomever may or may not look at them. Teach and embody strong narratives of consent. Do not pit boys and girls against each other in a battle of good and evil. Encourage respect for people less wealthy than you, like not bragging about how much your shoes cost or wearing diamonds to volunteer at a soup kitchen (more likely the real meaning of “biblical modesty”!).
Anxiously regulating what girls wear is not going to make this world better. But raising thoughtful people will. I believe God wants something better for us than fairytale witches and sexist dress codes. Yes, we all look back and regret certain clothing choices. But we do not have to suffer sexual shame or question our worth because of them, and we do not have to take responsibility for other people’s sinful thoughts and actions. Instead, we should focus on creating a culture of safety and thoughtfulness in our churches and communities.