Short Skirts, Mean Girls, and Yoga Pants: Modesty As Objectification

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“Setting standards is not legalistic; regulating others BY our standards is legalistic,” writes blogger Phylicia in a post about how a conversation with her boyfriend convicted her of the immodesty of wearing yoga pants.

I could not have typified the cognitive dissonance inherent in modesty culture any better than Phylicia, one of its proponents, just did. Phylicia attempts to break down the Five Myths About Modesty in a long, unwieldy post. However, her own cognitive dissonance between what she should feel comfortable in and how men treat her results in a mish-mash of confusion. This dissonance and distance from one’s own bodily form is a marker of the oppressive nature of modesty culture – women end up not being able to own their own body and their own choices because everything is sublimated to the “honor” of a Christian brother.

Phylicia’s myths range from “It’s a man’s job not to look” to “men don’t notice what we wear” to “lust is HIS problem.” She’s trying, admirably, to respond to the common feminist arguments against modesty. As such, her posts fits into the same-old-same-old standard of misogynistic pressure and internalized sexism we see. So much is not worth responding to over and over again. But a part of what she quoted from her boyfriend did strike my interest. Her boyfriend, in opining on the controversial yoga pants, says:

 Yoga pants make it difficult to work out when the girls are right there and the pants are so tight, it’s basically like the woman is naked. A friend of mine even said when a girl wears yoga pants… it shows all the form and features while covering up flaws, like imperfections of the skin or cellulite. They are designed to be appealing.”

The problem with yoga pants, it seems, is that they prevent a man from realizing that we’re human beings. That, because they cover up “flaws,” and only show form, they give men license to dehumanize. The question, then, is not one of modesty – rather, it is (as it always has been) one of objectification. 

Modesty standards – not wearing that bikini, not wearing those yoga pants, not wearing that v-neck shirt – are all a form of attempting to combat objectification, to prevent being seen as less than human. But, modesty culture insists men and women lust in ways that are so entirely different as to be alien to each other. Within this culture, the stark gendered differences create an environment ripe for objectification, regardless of clothing – because the eye is being trained to notice clothing and presentation before noticing the person wearing them. 

Modesty culture is training wheels for an objectifying culture. It teaches us how to view women as pieces, rather than as a whole. When we’re doing the vetting to make sure they’re modest enough, we cut them apart into pieces, noticing the slightly too short skirt, the little bit of cleavage, and the length of a leg long before we notice the human wearing them. And because modesty standards sanction and approve this cutting up and objectification by pushing a narrative in which men are prone to do this anyway, it’s extremely hard to get out from under the standard.

On November 7th, I went to a tour stop for the Secret Keeper Girl organization, and wrote about it for RH Reality Check. One thing I noticed but didn’t take the time to mention in the article because I didn’t have enough room was the judgment of other women embedded within their rhetoric. There was a lot of talk of “mean girls” who care only about “fashion” and “boys,” and these mean girls were readily equated with short skirts and immodest dress. The organization seemed to – unintentionally, but still – set up a hierarchy of dress, implicitly stating that women who wear short skirts and immodest clothing have attitude problems and aren’t worth hanging out with.

This conflation of clothing with self-worth and attitudinal orientation is a dangerous one to make, because it allows us to objectify others on the basis of their clothes. It gives us permission to judge others before they even open their mouths, and it assumes that we are right in doing so. This is the ultimate problem within modesty culture – it makes those who follow the standards feel superior to those who don’t, because they have succeeded in “expressing their worship of God” with their clothing. When we tie social cues from clothing into a faith lifestyle, we naturally and purposefully objectify. It builds objectification into our very theology, instead of challenging it. It gives us a carte blanche to judge women who don’t live up to our standards, even if we don’t feel like we’re actually judging them. Having pity on the woman who wears yoga pants in public? Is still judgment.

Modesty standards are simply the other side of the objectification and sexualization coin. Even if I were to take all the precautions and dress as modestly as humanly possible, I have only treated the symptoms of objectification, not the root cause. And the root cause lies within a culture that considers another person’s body – particularly a woman’s body – fair game for judgment and validates that judgment with spiritualized narratives about lust and worship.

I am not fair game. I am not a prize to be won nor an animal to be hunted. I am human. I am whole. And I contain multitudes. Get to know me.