Modesty as Fauxgressivism: Co-opting the Language of Empowerment and Ignoring the Real Problems


I really like Audrey Hepburn. Her Oscar-winning turn as Princess Ann in Roman Holiday is a standby favorite of mine, as well as her portrayal of a blind lady caught in a web of deceit and terror in the 1960s movie Wait Until Dark. I tend to gauge people – often unintentionally – by their reactions to this style icon and all around awesome lady.

My idolization of Ms. Hepburn may come as a surprise to those who would choose to imagine me as a scary feminist drone. Her sense of fashion and style – traditionally feminine and modest – seems at odds with a woman who is more comfortable in basic jeans and a tshirt than a frilly dress. There’s a sense of grace and beauty in Hepburn’s style that I am unable (and frankly unconcerned) about capturing. I know emulating it will fail, for me, at least, because I am not her and have a distinctly different bodily shape.

I can admire her, but I don’t have to be her.

It seems that proponents of modesty rules within American Christendom frequently miss this lesson. Jessica Rey, fashionista and swimsuit wear designer, uses style icons from Hepburn’s era in inspiring her two piece “modest” suits (yes, they are two pieces, not one, and each expensive piece must be bought separately). This hearkening back to the 1950s era style icons is a not-so-surprising pushback against the sexualization and pornification of modern “sex-positive” culture. Unfortunately, this fashionable throwback seems to also come with the attendant regressive ideologies as well, unfortunately recast in new language.

Modesty proponents in the twenty first century church have responded to feminist criticism by adapting and co-opting the language of feminism for their fatalistic and regressive ideas. This trend appears most recently in an article in The Atlantic Sexes blog, by the managing editor of Christianity Today, Katelyn Beaty. After summing up the modesty discussion and feminist flack (and discussing Rey’s swimwear at length), Beaty adopts the language of feminism in imploring women toward modesty (apologies for the length of the quote):

Read together, Rey's proposal and the reactions to it offer a modesty ethic that avoids blaming women for men's sexual misbehavior (or, in Christian parlance, "for making a brother stumble"). Here, there is freedom for individual women to practice modesty not primarily to preserve men's sexual purity, but to preserve their own dignity. To show in outward form the inward truth that they matter to society for their minds, their leadership, their passions, and their talents--talents that have nothing to do with how many heads they can turn. Modesty can become a form of female power. In Rey's words, this is "the power to be treated as an equal, to be seen as in control, and to be taken seriously. It seems the kind of power [women] are searching for is more attainable when they dress modestly."
Of course, men of all stripes will continue acting like the ones in the Princeton study, ogling women whether they wear bikinis or burqas. And it will take more than clusters of women donning one-piece swimsuits to counteract things like Porn Star t-shirts for six-year-olds and American Apparel ads (the ones supposedly for women, that is). When it comes to the pervasive sexualization of women and girls in Western culture, change needs to occur at the top levels of corporate leadership and political power. But it can also begin at the level of personal choice. Many women have an enormous amount of agency in choosing what they wear or don't wear, in a variety of social contexts. Women can conscientiously signal, via symbolic dress, that their sexuality is only a piece of their personhood. Sure, a one-piece swimsuit will go only so far in stemming the tide of female objectification. But it may be a start. (emphasis mine)

Beaty here co-opts the language of empowerment and uses it to reinforce old modesty rules in new fauxgressivism. “Empowerment,” in the eyes of the new modesty movement supporters, is fighting back against the sexualization of secular culture by casting one’s self as a lone warrior against objectification in choosing to dress modestly. This new empowering language obfuscates the patriarchal reasoning for modest dress and instead attempts to place women in the driver’s seat - casting it as "personal choice" not to be sexualized. The modest woman is a superhero in her own story, combating the societal pressure to be sexy and look sexy and let herself be sexualized! By wearing that crew neck shirt, the Christian modest woman is giving a righteous “heck no!” to a culture of sexualization!

But such baptism of the language of empowerment fails to grasp the point behind feminist criticisms of modesty rules and modesty culture. It is not because of willingness to be objectified that women dress immodestly, nor is it because of an inability to stand up to sexualization that we wear miniskirts. The very concepts of what is modest or immodest extend from a patriarchal, cultural male gaze. As such, whether or not I wear a bikini or a one piece to the pool this summer has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not I will be objectified.

Feminist criticism of both modesty culture AND sexualized/pornified culture stems from the same place – that women are not objects for male consumption, and that the way to change the male gaze is not within the purview or power of women.

I am not responsible for men deciding to objectify or sexualize me, just as I am not responsible for making sure they do not have lustful thoughts. The power to change the male gaze lies not with my clothing choices, but with the men who choose to see me as an object.

Beaty acknowledges male responsibility in the topic sentence for her concluding paragraph, but does so in a fatalistic, deterministic, and depressing manner (highlighted above). The feminist looks at that thought and replies, “Why is it considered a given that men will objectify?”

We create our culture. Culture is not some unknowable force, but consists of people working together and making decisions. The male gaze is powerful, but it is not so powerful that we cannot hope to change it. By assuming that the only personal choice involved here is that of women who need to be “empowered” to dress modestly, Beaty erases the role of men creating and inhabiting the male gaze.

Can’t men be taught not to see women as objects? Why is it my responsibility to demand respect with my clothing, rather than for them to give me respect because I am human? Why is the burden on me to fight sexualization, rather than those who are doing the sexualizing? It may be my “personal choice” to dress modestly or immodestly, but it is hardly my responsibility to combat my own dehumanization by doing so.

I refuse to lean in to my own objectification, whether it be through dressing modestly to “prevent” it or dressing immodestly to “cause” it. I refuse to participate in my own objectification by assuming that my clothing choices have any bearing on my dignity or inherent worth as a human being. I refuse to play a part in the patriarchy because I am a human being who believes that men are human beings who are capable of seeing me as human. What I wear has no bearing on how the male gaze chooses to perceive me, and the sooner people recognize that, the sooner we can move toward true, real empowerment – not this regression sold as “girl power.”


Sidenote: let’s stop using “burqa” as shorthand for extreme modesty, hmm?