For the past several months, I’ve been watching the conversation unfold as the evangelical feminist movement has declared war on the modesty culture that predominates fundamentalist churches where youth pastors and other church leaders enforce a strict dress code on teenage girls and teach them to take responsibility for protecting men from their lust. I came across a particularly heartbreaking example of a girl whose weight gain caused her youth leader to send her home from church for wearing jeans that were “too tight.” In any case, one of the core assertions being made by female feminist bloggers is that male attraction and lust are two completely different things.I have been struggling with this assertion because it seems rooted in ideological necessity and not in the first-hand experience of the male brain behind the gaze which I have actually lived through.
I understand why drawing a thick line between attraction and lust seems ideologically indispensable. The basis for the culture that shames women for having beautiful bodies is the assumption that lust is an involuntary snare that men can only avoid by not seeing anything that makes them lustful (so if women wear sweatpants or burkahs, then everyone can be happy!). So the way to resolve this ideologically is to say that attraction is the involuntary feeling which is totally healthy, natural, etc, while lust is the choice to act on this feeling whether in your head through a fantasy or through busting a move in real life. And if men can just stop being ashamed of their attraction, then that will somehow kill the fantasies that haunt them when they see an amazing female body.
I like this partition in theory. I just can’t say it’s true to my experience. I’m not by any means advocating a culture of shame, but I have to be honest. If I look, then I imagine doing things, so what I have to do is not to look. Now I hope that I don’t act like the pastor that Amy Thedinga wrote about on Zach Hoag’s blog who wouldn’t even talk to her because he was so paranoid about his lust. That sucks. I don’t think I avoid engaging attractive women in conversation, but I do have to use my willpower to keep my eyes from wandering while I’m talking to them. And when a teenage girl wears a miniskirt to church, it does make me very uncomfortable.
When I was in my first year of teaching tenth grade English, the principal called me into her office. A girl in one of my classes had recently transferred to a different school and had gone to her school cop to report that I had been “checking her out” during my class. I was shocked and horrified to have this put in front of me. It was among the top five worst moments of my life. I tried to scrutinize my memory for any incident that could have possibly been misinterpreted; I couldn’t think of anything. As a male teacher, I was so paranoid about keeping my eyes from wandering. My principal believed me; she told me to avoid contact with this girl, which I was happy to continue doing.
It really hit me how differently two people can perceive the same gaze. Something must have happened to trigger this response from the girl, unless she was all-out schizophrenic or she had a history of abuse from a male relative that she was projecting onto me. It hurt me a lot to think that something I did that I honestly can’t remember doing and tried studiously to avoid doing the whole time I was teaching made a girl feel violated. I’m very grateful that my principal didn’t operate from the principle of guilty until proven innocent (which does happen too often with these types of accusations).
I remember a different incident in which I’m realizing that I did the wrong thing, based on the recent conversations that I’ve been witnessing. There was a brilliant young woman in my journalism class who started our school Latino student association. I had high hopes for her future and was very honored to have the privilege of mentoring her. She took the lead in organizing an assembly for Hispanic heritage month to put on before the whole school.
This girl had never worn any clothing that exhibited her body in any kind of way, which made her really stand apart from the rest of the girls in our high school. It didn’t seem like anything particularly prudish, but rather that she was professional and serious. In any case, during a salsa dance that she did as part of the assembly, she wore a short red skirt that scandalized me. And I confronted her about it because we had a close enough relationship for me to say something even though I was a male teacher. I said that I just didn’t want people to think the wrong thing about her and not see her for the brilliant, gifted person that she was.
At the time, I felt proud of myself for being able to have a very uncomfortable conversation with someone I really cared about. But looking back on it, I feel like a dick, and it kills me to remember seeing her smile disappear when I said that. Because I had assumed that she was trying to be seductive, and I’ve come to realize that just because the way women dress can cause men to be tempted by their bodies doesn’t mean that their motives correspond to our responses. I had no idea what the red skirt meant to her as part of that particular dance number, and it was wrong for me to judge her.
Now I do think that it’s dishonest to pretend like women are never trying to be seductive with how they dress. I don’t think it’s wrong for a woman to delight in beauty with how she dresses, even in a way that includes bodily curves, but as with any kind of beauty, it turns into ugliness when it lacks all elegance and subtlety. Many outfits today are just plain trashy. I don’t think the only two choices are sweat clothes or skirts that only come down to your waist. There are a lot of options in between, and some of the choices being made particularly on college campuses today are honestly a bit pathetic and embarrassing.
I like wearing tank-tops in the summer because I get hot very easily, but since I’m a very hairy guy, it’s an uncomfortable experience for other people when I wear them to do things out in public other than going to the pool or playing basketball. Sometimes I get comments like “Wow, you sure are hairy, Morgan” that let me know another shirt would have been a better choice.
So I wonder if we can at least say as a general principle whether male or female that we should be sensitive to the comfort of others in the fashion choices we make. This is not to say that we should obsess over dress codes or make women responsible for male lust. But I have to be honest as a man in saying that men do involuntarily imagine things that are problematic for us to imagine (especially if we’re married) when we look at certain highlighted features of attractive female bodies.
I’m sure that if I lived in a different social context like in Africa, I would have a less overly-eroticized perspective on the beauty of the female body. But men in our culture have been legitimated damaged, not by any kind of emancipation or empowerment of women, but by the capitalist exploitation of female sexuality to sell all kinds of products. I don’t think this means that women need to burkah up, but I would caution female bloggers not to put too much stock in speculation about male psychology that has been tailored to fit their ideological frameworks without verifying whether it’s actually true to to the lived experience of the men behind the gaze.
In any case, don’t ever feel ashamed to wear something that makes you look beautiful. Just try not to be tacky, and I’ll try to keep my gaze eye-level when I’m talking to you. Peace.