Modest is Hottest: And I’m Starting to Get Overheated

I went canoeing today…in pants. It was hot outside — I put on sunscreen 3 separate times and my face still burnt — but I was with a group of men and women my age, since there were, you know, menfolk present, I didn’t feel like wearing shorts.

If they made board shorts for women, I’d buy 50 of them. Do you know how short everything (at least everything that looks even moderately youthful) in the women’s section is? All the shorts I own are closer in length to Daisy Dukes–so I only really wear them when I have to. Plus, if it’s hot outside, I can always keep cool by wearing a skirt.

But you can’t go canoeing in a skirt. So I wore pants. Midway through, we beached our canoes, and some of the guys canoeing in t-shirts and swim suits jumped in the lake. Eventually, whether they were wearing suits or not, all the guys took off their shirts and jumped in. After a lot of coaxing, a couple of girls finally jumped in (but they were pretty much fully clothed).

Swimming looked fun, but jeans take forever to dry if they get soaking wet, so I dipped my feet in the water, and watched from the shore.

A while later, once everyone was back on land, a boat drove by–and one of the guys in our group catcall-whistled at a woman on board. “Maybe she’ll wave,” one said. “Maybe she’ll do something more,” the guy quipped, while standing just a few feet away from me.

Now, I’ve been a female human in Protestant spaces long enough to know how I’m supposed to act. I’ve been reprimanded for having shirts that ride up when I move, or expose my midriff, enough to get it. I have years of practice with this. For canoeing today, I wore a belt, so my jeans didn’t sag. I wore a t-shirt that was long enough to not show any skin when I bent over. I took note when leaning over that I didn’t accidentally stick my butt in anyone’s view.

But all of my attempt at modesty — all of my efforts to shield these Christian men from thoughts of lust — didn’t work. Because even if I (and the fully clothed women swimming near him) didn’t wear clothing that could provoke lust, this person was still thinking lustfully about a different woman, anyway.

I didn’t complain in the moment — though if I did, it would probably just confirm what one of them had been talking about earlier — how much women complain.

I’m tired of everyone expecting it to be my responsibility to control Protestant men’s lust. Because it seems to me like, more often than not, they end up lusting after women completely independent of whether or not I’m sweating my tail off in jeans or staying cool in short shorts.

What if we taught Protestant boys that it was their own responsibility to control their thoughts around girls? Can you even imagine how jarring it would be if we flipped the script and started reprimanding boys (or disparaging their character in public) for lusting, instead of always just lecturing the girl for her selfishness/carelessness and calling her character into question? (We shouldn’t do this, obviously, because vindictive action isn’t a helpful response.)

Many people’s gut reaction to this is: well then don’t wear the freaking jeans! If he’s going to be thinking that way anyway — and your actions can’t make an impact — then why play by rules that aren’t even working?

I get that. I do. But I’ve been objectified enough in my life … I’m not really looking to experience that feeling so frequently again. No, I don’t think it’s my responsibility to control men’s thoughts. But in my experience, people (men and women) who have seen me in tighter/shorter clothes seem to view and treat me less respectfully, and that gets annoying real fast.

I remember the first time my ex-boyfriend was with me when I got catcalled walking down the street in Seattle. I didn’t even think it was that bad, as far as catcalling goes, but he was really bothered. Apparently he’d never actually been standing there when someone he knew was catcalled. Which is like, uh … okay. This has been happening since I was 12, but I’m sorry it’s uncomfortable for you?

I’m not against wearing heels, but it’s helpful to know, descending on the situation, that men notice them a lot more than I first realized. Big picture, I am still figuring out where I stand on this. I’m not sure if it’s the best response — it still feels like I’m conforming to a system I think is harmful and perpetuating a huge double standard. I don’t think I have the best answer on how to respond, but I am so frustrated with having to deal with it, so I am playing by Protestant culture’s modesty rules for now.

But all day today, I’ve been wondering;
What does it feel like to not have to go through life needing to think about how others are perceiving your modesty, at any given time?

I’d love to know. I don’t think that was even a passing thought in any of these guys’ minds. Taking of their shirts, how tight their shorts were — if any of this gave them pause, they didn’t show it.

Until Protestant culture starts demanding that men take as much (or — gasp — more?) personal responsibility as women on this issue, I will probably choose to play by their rules, to some extent.

But I can also choose the people I want to spend time with, and the church communities I want to be involved in. I left the Bible study that reprimanded me for wearing a shirt that exposed my midriff when I bent over. For the past 8 years, I’ve attend a church where, on the majority of Sundays, you’ll find a woman preaching.

I’ve never felt objectified in my church. (I have, however, complimented a pastor on her outfit and — graciously but plainly — been told that she gets that a lot, but she’s noticed that men get feedback on their preaching right after the sermon, and no one is rushing up to make sure to complement them on their amazing shoes.)

Being in a church space with a variety of women in leadership has given me an experience with Protestants who had not fallen prey to the sexist twisting of God’s message I have experienced in some way, shape, or form in most of the other Protestant spaces I’ve been in in my life.

I don’t think we’ll be able to solve Protestant culture’s problem with modesty any time soon. But by allowing a variety of women to have leadership roles in our church spaces, and by finding gracious ways to identify harmful narratives or behaviors and start encouraging a new narrative in the spaces where we have influence, we can at least start on the path of some very needed progress.

Until then, I’m going to buy some (non-jean), faster-drying capri pants. Because modest is hottest, but I’d rather not be completely burning up the next time I’m around men on a hot summer day.

They still make capri pants, right?

Postscript: Yes, I outgrew my capris and haven’t bothered to buy new ones. I don’t like shopping and that’s on me. (Also, I know this post is very heteronormative, but I’m still new at learning ways to better address that.) As Protestants, I wish we were more intentional about discussing our flaws and seeking to address them. I’m tired of keeping quiet, giving everyone the benefit of the doubt, and finding myself again and again needing to decide if I want to leave communities for this same set of reasons.

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