This is a less documented, more anecdotal post, as a result of my discovery a few days ago that all my books on this subject are in storage. I think I did that deliberately because I was tired of reading things that made me angry. So, this post won’t have a ton of sources, but if you want clarification on anything, I can probably point you to a book or essay explaining it in more depth.
I was 15 and that afternoon I was at the local swimming pool with my family. I was wearing a new-to-me swimsuit in an outdated shade of orange, but it was a “modest” one-piece and it fit my angular body well. While Mom was getting the littles slathered up in sunscreen, I stepped out of my shorts and flip flops, and tossed them onto the lounge next to my t-shirt. While I looked around the pool for friends, I untwisted my knot of hair from its ponytail holder and shook it all out in the breeze. Spotting my friends, I started toward them, but then mom called my name. “Hännah! Come here!”
She was beckoning me with a very serious look on her face. I walked toward her, and bent down. “Hm?”
She whispered, “Put your hair back up. You look…” She frowned, looking for the words. “You look too pretty. The young men will notice.”
I was confused. “What?”
“Put your hair back up. It’s long and catching the sun, and that swimsuit is…very striking. It’s too much. Put your hair back up.”
“Okay, okay. I will,” I said, walking away. I took my time with obeying her, dipping my head down and away from the people nearby, letting my hair flop across my face to hide my tears. I didn’t understand, and my stomach felt tight and my face hot. Once my hair was up, I plunged into the diving well, kicking down to sit on the bottom as long as I could before rising to the surface in a burst of cathartic energy.
I spent the rest of the afternoon away from my friends, reading a book by the poolside, wrapped in a damp towel and wearing my hair pulled back tightly. I didn’t want to be noticed.
The current church’s concept of modesty is largely reactionary and fear-based.
But I didn’t realize that for a long time after the poolside incident. It was just one of many moments where I was “called out” on some impropriety (sitting cross legged, wearing a blouse with a too-thin back, bra straps peekabooing, twirling without shorts under my skirt at swing club, peekaboo gaps between buttons on a blouse, etc.) or told another girl that she was being immodest and to cover her neckline when she bent down.
In our SGM church, we were taught that modesty was a way we helped men not to lust. In youth group, we had breakout sessions, where the girls sat in one room and listened to talks about not reading romance novels (they make you think impure thoughts and desire a relationship too early!) and about how our responsibility was to not cause the guys to lust. Therefore, we were taught how to be modest. We were taught that “correcting” each other was the highest form of Christian love, and so if we saw someone being immodest, we should speak to her about our “concern” and help her see how she was hurting the guys by her dress. And if a guy was “struggling” because of a girl’s outfit, he could talk to her and ask her to cover up. (Meanwhile, the guys were in the next room listening to a talk about the sinfulness of pornography and masturbation.)
We got really good at this. We had the checklist posted up on our bathroom mirrors. We talked in code to each other if we spotted an infraction when we were around boys. We learned to sew well enough to modesty-hack new clothes so they would be “appropriate.” We dressed up in new shopping finds and paraded them for our fathers, asking him to make sure they weren’t inappropriate. If he said something didn’t make the cut, we’d return it and start over. This was “biblical femininity” in action.
Once I was conscious of the male gaze, I was a slave to avoiding it. I became obsessed with obeying the rules as dutifully as I could. I avoided talking with boys—it might be seen as flirting. I avoided looking too stylish or doing my hair and makeup with too much care, because I didn’t want to be dressing for attention. I wore shorts and a t-shirt over my swimsuits or avoided the pool altogether, claiming that I didn’t want to get a bad sunburn. I became a watchdog for my sisters, smugly tattling on them to our dad if I caught them dressing in a way I deemed immodest. I judged my friends for enjoying time hanging out with guys in a group, thinking that this was a perverse desire for male attention.
The effects of this mindset on others (not just in my church, but in the QF/CP movement as a whole) were more personally damaging than my priggishness, but perhaps less obvious. My sister judged classic art for the nudes, “fixing” them with a permanent marker in a textbook. Friends fell into eating disorders, hoping to be less seductive if they were thinner and had less boobs to notice. Some hated themselves for their developing bodies and instead ate too much, silencing their self-consciousness with comfort food. Some took razors to their bodies in secret. Some toed the line, but just barely, attempting to get away with whatever they could without getting “called out” by someone.
This was essentially an assumption that lust is damning, women are both the objects and the cause of lust, and so we were responsible to prevent it. This, I believed, was gospel truth straight from the Bible.
Of course, women were never mentioned as having lust problems. We might have emotional fantasies and imaginary romances, but lust was a male issue. This drove me to loneliness and horrific shame, as I was a teenager with a normal, healthy sex drive. I was horny and I was mortified; this wasn’t supposed to be my problem. The church would announce a men’s meeting to talk about fighting lust and accountability for not using porn, and I would shrivel up, wishing that my secret wasn’t a secret, and that maybe there would be a women’s meeting, too. Or that I could “serve” at the men’s event and eavesdrop, and there learn the secrets for freeing myself from myself.
Later I would learn that I was 1) pretty normal, 2) not “addicted” or damned, 3) loved unconditionally by my husband and by Jesus. The bondage I had been in wasn’t as real as I thought—the mindset I had about lust and modesty fed my obsession and my shame, and once freed from the whole set of lies, I would discover that this was just a minor difficulty, not a paralyzing sin issue.
For the guys growing up in this environment of modesty culture, there was (as I have since learned from my husband, who grew up in a church affiliated with mine) a similar sense of being paralyzed by lust and shame. It was so assumed that he would lust after women that he never questioned it when accountability groups would meet and the guys would almost exclusively talk about their struggles with lust. It was as if they were powerless, animalistic and perpetually obsessed with sex. This is a caricature in Hollywood and the über conservative church—but this is not your average man.
Kevin told me that once he left SGM and he’d been out of the dialect and culture for a while, he found that he wasn’t struggling with lust like he used to–the idea of a woman’s body alone wasn’t a turn-on anymore. He found that his desires naturally were directed at a few specific things and toward whoever he was in a relationship with, and that he could appreciate a woman’s beauty and form without lust. He was no longer being told he was a slave to these things and asked to confess and obsess on them, and when he left that environment he was freed from the mentality it fostered.
As I spent time out of this culture, I found changes as well. I learned that being pretty and enjoying making myself look good weren’t sinful things, and I began to relax a bit. After being married, I have discovered that the idea that modesty is a woman’s responsibility is a very demeaning concept, and really doesn’t share anything in common with the teachings of Jesus, who held individuals responsible for their own sins, and gave grace to the naive and broken and penitent. He never said that women caused lust. Instead, he argued that lust reflects preexisting heart desires. And instead of demeaning women like the culture of his day, he respected them and made them his disciples and close friends, and the first witnesses to his resurrection.
I now realize that most of the assumptions I previously held were false, even anti-Christian:
The assumption that preventing lust is my job is wrong: only the one lusting is responsible for his or her heart.
The assumption that modesty will prevent lust is false: lust wants what it wants and will see it where it wants.
The assumption that men are ravenous, sex-crazed beings, trapped by their passions: false. Men desire companionship and affirmation and sex and love, just like women. Women experience lust and sexual urges and visual stimulation. These things vary from person to person, but not so much gender to gender. There is great compassion in Jesus for our humanity.
The Bible verses on modesty we all used as proof texts for the misconceptions and legalism we held so dear? These were largely about compassion for others and humility. True modest is not drawing undue attention to yourself. We wear what fits the occasion and is respectable. Finding the line of what’s appropriate and reverent: this is modesty. It’s a heart attitude, not a set of rules defined by gender stereotypes.
I have learned that my shame over my body was wrong. My body is hallowed because Jesus took on a body. My body is beautiful in the echo of creation and redemption perfection. My body is human and flawed and funky in my fallenness. But I am not to be ashamed of how I was made or loathe myself for it, and I am not guilty for the sins of others who may happen to lust after it. I can dress without fear, because I am not responsible for the worst possible outcome. I am responsible for doing well and living in a manner that reflects the grace I know in Jesus’ unconditional love.
Overcoming lust doesn’t happen by working harder. I tried. Overcoming lust happens by loving Jesus more than loving self-service. Shame over past lust and past sins is inappropriate–grace is active in the lives of the saints, and we are conformed to holiness by Jesus’ love. Not by working hard because we think that’s a what good Christians are supposed to do. We are transformed by taking each day on its own and not being anxious over transgressions that have already been cast away. Perfect love casts out fear.