We are fortunate today at Sixoh6 to have Melanie Springer Mock join us as a guest blogger. Dr. Springer Mock is Professor of English at George Fox University, Newberg, Oregon. In 2009, she won the GFU Undergraduate Faculty of the Year award, and in 2015, she won the GFU Undergraduate Scholar of the Year award. She is the author or co-author of five books, including most recently Worthy: Finding Yourself in a World Expecting Someone Else (Herald Press, April 2018). Her essays and reviews have appeared in The Nation, Christian Feminism Today, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Christianity Today, and Mennonite World Review, among other places. She lives in Dundee, Ore., with her husband and two sons. Here, she challenges us to think deeply about the consequences of teachings about “modesty” for women.
Almost every spring, a large group of conservative Christians descend on the university campus where I teach; they are here for a regional conference and, so far as I know, are renting the university’s facilities for a week. I realize they have arrived because I see young women everywhere, not wearing the usual outfit favored in springtime by a majority of my students (shorts, t-shirts, flip-flops), but rather long skirts and dresses, described at length in the group’s guidelines as modest and “an image of Christian discretion.”
The conference includes athletic competitions, for which the girls and their coaches are instructed to wear culottes or skits that hang below the knee. The clothes should not be white. Shoulders cannot be bare. When I see these young women playing sports in long skirts, while their male companions compete in shorts, a quiet rage simmers inside me, and I want to go liberate all these girls from the weight of fabric and expectation that keeps them fettered. Instead, in an act of (passive aggressive) protest, I make sure my own workouts take me within sight of this conservative Christian crowd, my tank-top and shorts a repudiation of their oppressive ways. I doubt they even notice.
When I read in Christianity Today this weekend about a study showing that Christian men have significant higher body esteem than do Christian women, my first thought was a very uncharitable No Shit. And my second thought was of the conservative Christian young people who will be arriving on my campus soon, and who have grown up in a culture teaching them that women’s bodies are to be covered in cloth and hidden away. That women’s bodies are to be reviled because of their power to tempt. That it is women’s bodies—not men’s agency—that causes others to sin.
The study, published in last summer’s Journal of Psychology and Religion, examined the question of whether “faith buffer (s) a negative body image.” Researches Mary Inman and Charlotte vanOyen-Witvliet of Hope College “wanted to understand body esteem in relationship to gender, conditions of self-worth, and people’s experience of their relationship with God,” they told Christianity Today. Their conclusion was that although women express a stronger sense of unconditional love from God than do men, these same men report having higher esteem about their bodies than do women.
To which I say again: No shit.
After nearly 50 years of walking in this female form, I’ve been consistently told—and have consistently internalized—contradictory messages about what it means to have a body read as “female.” As with most Western women, I live with a persistent drumbeat of what my body should look like, and while fads and fashions have shifted over my lifetime (thank god for that!), I am daily reminded that my body does not live up to the expectations demanded of it by my culture: to be lithe and wrinkle-free and (a certain kind of) feminine and sexy and perfect.
Above, a reminder to Christian women and girls that God wants them to be modest. But, not, like, frumpy. Because they need to think about higher things than fashion. But they also need to be sexy for their husbands. But not for any one else, including themselves. It’s a delicate balance, and most of them fail. Also, no one likes a girl with low self-esteem. [Image: a navy and blue skirt that is at least “four slender fingers above the knee,” a white shirt with cap sleeves, to be layered under a yellow cardigan (because white can reveal undergarments), flats, and a gold necklace, because “modesty” doesn’t mean you can’t have some flair! But not in a tacky way.
But mass media cannot be wholly—or even mostly—to blame for those who have grown up in Christian cultures that take expectations about women’s bodies and give them a biblical-flavored vibe. Complicated messages about women’s bodies are everywhere in Christian culture: in books and blogs; in Christian films and podcasts; in sermons and Bible studies. Which is why it’s little wonder that many Christian women express a sense of God’s unconditional love, but then also reject a belief that their bodies are unconditionally lovable, just as they are.
After all, women learn that their bodies have great power, and that a flash of bare shoulder is enough to make men stumble into sexual sin. Rather than suggesting men might have agency, and might make the choice to see women as more than their shoulders, legs, or chest, we are told that it is our job to keep men safe from sin, and that our bodies should be covered, an “image of Christian discretion.”
Covered until marriage, that is. Because our bodies are to remain pure and undefiled until we marry the One God has planned for us (God always has a plan, and there is always the One). At that point, our bodies can be viewed as sexy and alluring, to our husbands alone, who retain rights to what is now his. Ephesians 5:22 says that wives are to submit in all things, don’t you know. Some evangelical leaders have, in recent years, gone so far to say if a woman lets herself go—if she gains weight, or is no longer “attractive”—her spouse has license to look elsewhere. “Men have a tendency to wander,” Pat Roberson famously said to a viewer in 2013, worried about her unfaithful husband. “You have to fix yourself up, look pretty.”
And, while some Christians will contend they are edifying women’s bodies by keeping them holy and pure, too often, when women’s bodies are assaulted, the institutional church chooses to stand with the men who assaulted them. In late 2017, a megachurch congregation gave its pastor a standing ovation when he admitted to a “sexual incident” twenty years earlier, and asked the congregation for forgiveness. Never mind that the girl with whom he had the “incident” was a teen; never mind that the incident was assault; never mind that the victim’s name was not mentioned in his pseudo-apology. Women can go ahead and cover up their shoulders, because covering up seems to be something many Christians are good at , enabling men in power to abuse women’s bodies, again and again and again.
So I wonder: What would happen if we truly believed that women are image bearers of God? What would happen if the language we used to talk about God—and about gender—reflected that belief? What if the ways we acted, in our churches and community, let women know they were valued, beyond what their bodies can offer as sexual objects, mothers, wives? What if we truly believed we are all fearfully and wonderfully made, just as we are? What would happen if little girls could run freely, without the weight of expectation, allowing them to be who God created them to be?
Well, then, I imagine women might actually believe their bodies were created lovable, a reflection of their unconditionally loving Creator.
Readers, how do you engage and counter messages about the worth of your body? About modesty and desire? Do you recognize yourself in the story that Melanie shares? How can churches meet the challenge of teaching women to “actually believe their bodies were created lovable”? Share your ideas here, please!–RB-F