Last night, hit by both “my brain is flat-lining after a long day” and an absurd level of contentment–despite running into the awkward moment earlier in the evening at the grocery store checkout when my debit card declined a $5 transaction and I was scrounging for pennies in my change purse [we’re okay, it was just coincidental timing with a check going out earlier than I thought it would]–I pulled out Regina Spektor, my 4B pencils and a sketchbook.

I hadn’t drawn in a while. The kneaded eraser was new and I worked it until it was soft, sharpened pencils, trimmed my blending stick, and finally started sketching. I was trying to sketch the back and shoulders of a woman, but little things were off. The shoulders were too short or too slumped, the arms were slightly off-kilter, and the neck was ungainly. I realized this was more than just being out of practice. I just really didn’t have a good grasp of the anatomy of the way the shoulder meets the arm and the back. I didn’t know how to shade it properly, and I didn’t have internet to pull up an image search for reference. This made me realize two things: 1) I need to take a figure drawing class [I’ll have to save up for that], and 2) I hadn’t done any serious nude figure studies before.

I have always loved drawing people, but when I was really into it, during high school, I mostly kept myself to just drawing faces. Drawing the body came with too many unspoken taboos–once, I drew a flamenco dancer in a red dress, and left her body as shapeless as I possibly could, altering the dress to be “modest.” Carolyn Mahaney’s Modesty Checklist was all the rage at our church at the time, and every girl who was “serious” about her faith had it practically memorized. It was taped up on the wall by bedroom mirrors, and we were all quick to help each other adhere to this list. It would be normal to hear one girl comment to the other that her neckline was revealing and she should go adjust it–and did she need any safety pins for that? I went along with it, and accepted it as good.

Some of the points made by Carolyn are just fine. I agree with the principle of the thing. There’s a place for being discreet and being modest and not dressing inappropriately. But the spirit of that checklist however–I now realize–is blatantly legalistic. The mentality it promotes created a subconscious fear of the body–even a bizarre detachment of “self” from the body–in the minds of girls who were taught to believe in the message of this highly detailed modesty rulebook.

How Modesty Made Me Fat” is one girl’s experience living with this mindset (afraid of being seductive, pretty, sexy, noticed) and while her struggle became extreme, it’s pretty true to the insidiousness of this way of thinking. Homeschooled girls don’t always dress like homeschooled girls because they “aren’t socialized enough.” Homeschooled girls mostly dress like they do because they are taught that the female form is something to be afraid of (and by inference, inherently sinful). I have been that girl, afraid to get noticed for having a feminine body.

To a degree, this awkwardness is part and parcel with normal adolescence. During puberty we are more self-conscious and have to learn to identify as whole selves with our newly-matured bodies. But fear is not healthy and trying to hide who we are as women is just silly.

This fear of a normal, adult body affects how you see everything. For example: around the time this checklist came out, my sister and her friend took my mom’s art history book (a huge, gorgeous book full of giant glossy pages with color images of every major artwork until the late 20th century), and they pulled out a big black Sharpie and drew 1) boxers on Michelangelo’s David and all the other male nudes, and 2) one-piece bathing suits/bras on Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and all the other female nudes. From my understanding of the story, they thought my parents would be glad to have all that wicked nudity taken care of so that the book would be “appropriate.” Instead, my mom was [rightfully] mortified.

This mindset breeds fear of self in women, and more than that, it objectifies men. These modesty teachings are promoted with good intent–to “keep our brothers from stumbling” [lusting] and to protect girls from . . . men’s lust. The logic doesn’t work; the assumption is that men are helpless against their natural attraction to the female form and the sometimes inevitable result of desiring that form, and so all men (in the minds of these girls) become helpless slaves to lust.

This creates even more unnatural distance between the sexes in homeschool/conservative Christian circles. Girls become (naturally) suspicious of guys, of being alone in the same room (even if it’s a public area!) as a man (what if he decides to rape me?!), of being told by a guy that they look pretty (Oh no he must be lusting after me! Did I dress modestly enough?), etc. I’m using a bit of hyperbole here, but the underlying point remains: extreme modesty teachings creates unnecessary fear in the minds of girls and teaches them to assumes the worst of men and the inner thoughts of men.

This teaching also hurts how boys and young men think about themselves. Their sexual desires become the central evil in their lives and undue focus is given to how sinful these [normal, natural] desires are. Lust is sin, yes. But talking to adolescents mainly about lust and modesty and how evil sexual desire is will make them feel utterly enslaved to these things.

It’s the “don’t think about pink elephants” principle–talking about how wrong something is in an unbalanced manner will feed an unhealthy fascination with the issue. Guys don’t have to be slaves to lust. It’s possible for a guy to acknowledge “that woman has a beautiful body” and not be aroused sexually. But the all-or-nothing modesty/lust paradigm leaves no room for this, and so men remain suspect and are brought to assume that they can’t help themselves if they do lust–and the women just need to be more modest, to protect everyone. It’s really demeaning for both sexes.

Now, not every conservative Christian or homeschooling family believes this just like I described above. However, there’s a lot of this mess influencing a lot of people, and I heartily believe that this is not how God intended us to see each other or our own bodies. The body is often a beautiful thing and it is possible for a woman to be womanly and attractive without generating lust in men. It’s also possible that a man will lust after a woman in a potato sack, just because he knows she’s a woman.

Blanket assumptions about the hearts of others are never really unhelpful, and the thinking patterns they create are difficult to overcome. Christianity needs to refresh its theology of the body to combat these assumptions.

And I really need to find a model so I can practice drawing shoulders. Any volunteers?


  • Elise Pryor-Harden

    Very good article. I noticed something in the family picture you linked. The men in the photo all “get to” look normal. Does this mean that they also “get to” be a part of the world? I figure the women only get out to do the grocery shopping and to church. It looks like a barrier to moving gracefully in society has been put in place for them.

    They might as well wear burkas. To me, they look oppressed. I certainly do not see righteousness, or piety. They look genderless, neither man nor women.

    Visceral reaction, here…

  • well said dear friend. I shall have to read your blog more often. 🙂

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