Ministry and miniskirts

The title of this post was the name of a fake class advertised in an April Fool’s edition of my seminary’s daily newsletter.  The newsletter lightheartedly announced that the class, available in the following semester, would be taught by a faculty member with a reputation for dressing to the nines—colorful dresses, gravity-defying heels, etc.  She’s also one of the smartest people I know, as well as one of the most self-assured and dignified.

I thought the announcement was clever and funny, and a perfect fit for the April Fool’s edition.  But I also wished that it was real.

I still wish it.  I’ve wished it with especial verve this past week, because for some reason, my social media has been populated with stories, videos, and conversations about women dressing modestly, and I would love to have this professor’s voice in my head to help me handle this discussion more coherently.  But in this instance, all I’ve got are my own thoughts on ministry and miniskirts.  Here they come….

Let me start here: I don’t need to wear a miniskirt with my cleric to raise eyebrows.  Walking into my local grocery store wearing my dog collar and a pair of jeans will do it.  While browsing through the bananas, my experiences have ranged from the woman who told me, “Good for you!” to the people who just don’t seem to be able to stop staring.  So a lot of what I am about to say rests firmly on the foundational knowledge that for many people, there is still a dichotomy between the authority, status, and expertise conveyed by a clerical collar, and the female body.

Which is why I reject the idea that women need to dress in a particular way to be worthy of respect. 

Women—like every other person who walks this earth—are worthy of respect because they are people.  The way that they dress should not change this fundamental truth.

Yet the prevalent cultural notion is that it does.  It’s a belief is embraced by men and women alike, and it usually shows its ugly face in the form of two expressions:

1)      Women should dress modestly to protect themselves from sexual predation.

2)      Women should dress modestly to keep men from stumbling into lustful thoughts and actions.

Note the difference: in the first, women should dress modestly to protect themselves.  In the second, women should dress modestly to protect men from themselves.

And hey, before we go anywhere else, can we just pause and notice that both of these expressions tie a woman’s respectability (represented by her clothing) to how well she manages her sexuality?  Omigosh so tired of this.  There is so clearly a double-standard here—women are judged based on their ability to keep their pants on, while men are afforded status based on how frequently they can get women’s pants off.

Speaking of pants, let’s move on:

1)      Women should dress modestly to protect themselves from sexual predation.

First, a pragmatic response: there appears to be no statistical relationship between women’s modesty and sexual harassment.  Women who live in Saudi Arabia, where the wearing of a hijab is enforced under Sharia law, are as likely or more likely to encounter rape and sexual harassment as women in the U.S..

Second, a wake-up call: telling a woman to dress modestly to prevent rape is like telling her to go to the dentist to avoid being punched in the teeth.  Rape is a violent act wherein the victim’s consent, by definition, is absent.  Clothing choice does not imply consent, in the same way that refusing to floss does not imply that I wish to be punched in the mouth.  Are we all clear on this?

“It’s an artistic choice, NOT an invitation!”

2)      Women should dress modestly to prevent men from stumbling into lustful thoughts and actions.

There is something inherently problematic in holding someone else responsible for your behavior.  By and large, we as a society realize this.  Most vegans do not insist that the rest of the world give up meat, eggs, and dairy to prevent them from lusting after cheeseburgers.  There has been no fervor lately to reinstate the Prohibition in order to keep recovering alcoholics from stumbling.  “Let’s consider the way the child was dressed,” said no one in a case of pedophilia, ever.

“Hold on now, that’s going way too far,” you may be saying right about now.  “Children are innocent victims.  Women are capable of realizing that the way they dress affects men’s ability to see them as people.”

This point was made in a speech about bikinis by Jessica Rey, a purveyor of a line of modest swimwear, who mentioned a widely-cited 2009 study run by Dr. Susan Fiske of Princeton in which men’s reactions to people in various clothing was observed and rated.  Rey summarizes:

Some men showed zero signs of activity in the medial prefrontal cortex [when shown photos of women in bikinis], which is the part of the brain that lights up when one ponders another person’s thoughts, feelings, and intentions.  Researchers found this shocking, because they almost never see this part of the brains shut down in this way. A Princeton professor said “It’s as if they’re reacting to these women as if they were not fully human.”

“So,” concludes Rey, who had just a few moments before cited a series of media articles tying women’s empowerment to the bikini, “it seems that wearing a bikini does give a woman power: the power to shut down a man’s ability to see her as a person, but rather as an object.”

Wow.  OK.  Just in case the problem with this statement isn’t smacking you in the face like the tail of an irate haddock, let me break it down for you: This perspective makes the woman the gatekeeper of male libido.  All males, everywhere, for all time, 100% of the moral burden of not objectifying women rests squarely on the female population of the world.  You know what?  When 18% of the women of the world are victims of rape, and 1 in 3 women are victims of abuse, this point of view is neither rational nor excusable.

And by the by, it also doesn’t do justice to the study.  The sample pool of this study was 21 heterosexual undergraduate male college students.  That’s a fairly small pool of what is, I think we can agree, a hornier-than-average segment of the male population.

Not only did researchers note that the men were absolutely capable of overriding their first impulses, they also emphasized that not all men reacted the same way to those photos.  In fact, according to this article, the ones who didn’t show activity in the prefrontal cortex were also the same men who scored highest on a scale measuring “hostile sexists”—that is, men who believe that women are inferior and are actively undermining male authority.

Suggesting that the men whose brains objectified women in bikinis were already predisposed to objectify women, period.

So maybe the solution here is to change the focus from getting women to stop wearing bikinis, to asking what we all, collectively, as a society that professes a desire to uphold the intrinsic value of personhood, can do to stop the objectification of women.

It’s a tall order.  Billboard, magazines, commercials, movies—basically every conceivable form of visual media everywhere—not to mention all types of social institutions, contribute to the objectification of women.

That doesn’t mean it’s hopeless.  It just means that it’s hard.

In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell speaks about the Implicit Association Test (which you can take here!).  He took the test to measure his attitudes toward race, and was shocked to find that he had “a moderate automatic preference for whites.”  (Gladwell, it might as well be noted, identifies as half black).

Gladwell also notes that people’s test scores changed if they were calibrated, before the test, with positive images of the group against which they were prejudiced.  For example, thinking about Nelson Mandela before taking this test could improve your scores.

Similarly, the more often women are perceived in positions of respectability and authority, the more often they are seen to succeed, the more power they achieve and wield successfully, and the more often that is celebrated, the more likely we all are to cultivate a more egalitarian view of women.

Which leads me to the actual reason why I dress modestly:

3)      Women should dress modestly because right now, feminine power has a uniform.

And that uniform is “modesty.”

I hope someday that changes.  I hope that someday the personhood immediately afforded to a woman in a power suit is just as available to a woman in a bikini.  But right now, as that Princeton study shows, we’re still fighting to convince everyone that women are not inherently inferior to men.  You’ve got to pick your battles.

So I dress modestly—a standard, by the way, that I consciously choose to measure myself, and which sometimes includes miniskirts, shorts, exposed shoulders, and tall boots.  Usually not all at the same time.  (Truth: occasionally I over- or under-shoot, like that one time I wore a little black dress that was a little too little to a seminary Christmas party.  Modesty has a learning curve.)

I dress modestly not because I hold myself responsible for “keeping men from stumbling”—and make no mistake, it takes training not to wonder what I did wrong when a man catcalls or made lewd comments to me—but because I want my clothing to express the respect I have for myself.

I dress modestly, and in a way that demonstrates that I think of myself as beautiful.  After much consideration, I see no conflict of interest between dressing in clothing that flatters—nay, celebrates—my body, and dressing modestly.

I see, in short, no conflict between ministry and miniskirts.  But I work in a world where many do, and I’ve made the choice to enjoy that the clothes I wear—and the body under it—will challenge others’ perceptions of what authority, power, and respectability look like.

Because frankly, if a young woman in a cleric choosing a cantaloupe of appropriate firmness in your local grocery store is enough to make a person stare, then maybe, just maybe, such a person needs to see just that.

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