Friday, May 31, 2013

Modesty and the Immodest Culture

In looking at modesty I'm beginning to look more and more to our culture.  It seems rather obvious, there would be no concept of "modesty" without culture. Modesty is the tango of who we are on the inside, and who we're perceived as.  It's communication, but it's also assimilation.  It's not just how you want others to see you, it’s how you see them and what you believe they will think of your appearance.  This "how you see them," is an interesting hidden factor.  How do we see the people looking at us? 

 Are you a conservative, to whom I will rebel? A progressive who will respect me for my choices? Are you a man, for which I'm afraid--or ashamed--or causing to "stumble."  I'm not saying any or all of it is okay.  With "perception" we need values and beliefs that then shape what we see into the landscape we navigate.  I believe X about how men should be held accountable, I believe Y about what I should wear in regards to other women, and I believe Z about pushing boundaries.  In a lot of this I see a sliding scale of just how much we want to push certain extremes.  The battles we choose to fight matter just as much as why we fight them.

 Reality and vision.  With a lot of feminism we run into a major divide between what is and what should be.  In part I think this has to do with the feminist movement being the starting place for feminist theory.  When talking about feminism, more than any other movement, justice and advocacy is interchangeable to the metaphysical theory.  I've always found this to be impossibly frustrating.  We need Justice, but part of theory is the “open lab” volatility, the "anything is possible," and thinking openly in general, is meant to be about extremes.  This is where communication lines turn very quickly to battle lines because the movement and the philosophy are so interconnected.  For modesty I wish we could take a step back.  To define theory from movement, because extremes and visions are not the same as the nitty-gritty of pragmatism and policy and they shouldn't have to be.  This where we get a lot of confusion about having the “right” to do something and having the “safety” to use the right.  You may have the right to wear whatever you want.  As a free person with autonomy and "inalienable rights" you should, but in going on vacation to the middle-east it's probably a good idea to cover up.  I don’t think that interacting knowledgeably within your culture means recanting a right to act any other way.

Here I'm brought back to interaction with culture and the inevitable questions of where we draw the line.  There are more examples in life where this kind of line drawing is in practice while in constant change.  Children are raised by parents freely with their own unique values, but in abuse children are protected by the state (we at least attempt this).  The state exerts power, but is often reimagined by the people in revolution or political change when the government no longer does its job or exerts too much power.  This ebb and flow of control over one to the other.  The feminist/individualist and the cultural/communitarian, giving and taking, each bring back the other. 

Norms.  Norms have never ceased to fascinate me.  Norms are so "definite" but always changing.  Norms say a lot about us.  Norms are not what is normal, but what we want to be "normal," and what we want to be normal says volumes about how we see the world.   It sounds a little roundabout but here's the rub, knowing what our intentions and feelings are about “normal” speak to why and how we judge others.  A massive part of our culture is centered on Androcentrism or "male normativity."  That boys are the base line and everything else is an anomaly.  It's an unfortunate facet of our language that "man" is synonymous with "human" and "woman" is man+"wo." 

Man is normal, wo+man is the oddity.  

Note it’s not woman as the norm and man-"wo."  This gets even more evident with sexual temptation when men are taught that only they have sex drives and women are basically sexy warm bodies.  Doing so creates isolation for both sexes.  Both with men being told that they are evil monsters who think terrible things about women and women are never taught to understand about their sex-drive.  In a lot of cases I think more women struggle with the same “lust” that men do but are never taught to label their thoughts as such.  (As to what lust is let’s table that conversation for now.)

I recently had a pastor friend of mine explain how often she and other women pastors had been reprimanded for being too "provocative" while preaching.  One even being told by a congregant, "your hair was so pretty I couldn't hear a word you said."  As you can imagine this was not a very encouraging feedback about a sermon.  Again, I have to point the finger to androcentrisim.  Many men have never had to deal with sexual attraction to their pastors, something women have had to work through for as long as there have been good looking gents in the pulpit.  Finding a "spiritual" leader attractive feels wrong and strange because sex is so shamed within male Christian culture.  Furthermore spirituality is so separated from sexuality the interaction of the two feels like sacrilege.
This is where the modesty question gets interesting.  Deconstructing androcentrisim is the first step to understanding where mutual responsibility lies.  True mutuality is equal responsibility to the culture we participate in.  As people interacting in a world together, there is a give and take to be had.  What is normative (what we want to be normal) and what is self-centric is not mutual.  But beyond that is a healthy admittance that how we dress effects the opinions and the spirituality of others WHILE giving the liberty, rights, and safety back to those who wear the clothes.

This is modesty, and this is only the beginning of the conversation.

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