This was posted earlier on the blog http://toeveryonethatbelieveth.blogspot.com/ . We thought it was such a great post that we wanted our readers to enjoy it. Thank you Amy Grigg for your wonderful essay!
I’ve seen a lot of people post that swimsuit video
lately. I appreciate the commitment to modesty that I’m sure led many to share it. The speaker, Jessica Rey, is a savvy, articulate businesswoman, and a talented designer, and it’s easy to see why so many people found her message appealing. Women today hear a lot of voices telling them how they should look, dress, behave, and live, and it can be frustrating for women to feel so disempowered by cultural messages that tell them that the only value they have is in being sexually appealing to men, that what they have to say is only incidental to how sexy they look when they say it. Efforts to resist this cultural tide are necessary and laudable, and I applaud those parents who are raising their daughters to value themselves intrinsically, and to disregard what the fashion magazines show them about the importance of having a perfect body or a stylish wardrobe.
I think, however, that this presentation swings too far in the other direction, and I am disappointed with its message, especially when I see it in the context of a rising emphasis on modesty that also devalues women, though more insidiously. Though it is indeed objectifying to teach a woman that her value lies in wearing fewer clothes and showing off her body so as to turn on the boys around her, it is also objectifying to teach a woman that her value lies in wearing more clothes and covering up her body so as to keep the thoughts of the boys around her pure. The better message is this: wear what you want, like, and feel comfortable in, not for its effect on other people, but so that you can be happy and free as you go about doing many good things in the world. And stop judging other people for what they wear as they go about living their lives, because it’s none of your business and it’s not about you.
Ultimately, the speaker is promoting her own swimwear line, and her suits and promotional materials seem quite lovely. I applaud her good business sense and style, but I disagree strongly with her methods of self-promotion. Rey’s speech is very problematic, for several reasons. First, she’s misrepresenting the Princeton study she relies on for most of her argument. Most social science research is easy to misinterpret to serve one’s own ends, and this study is no exception.
The study in question, presented by Dr. Susan Fiske at Princeton, was conducted using a sample of 21 male Princeton undergraduates (note that in this type of research, an acceptable sample size is 30+, and that the more data points you have, the more reliable your findings). These men were asked to fill out surveys that gauged if they harbored “benevolent sexism” (i.e. women should be protected by men, women should not work outside the home) or “hostile sexism” (i.e. women are incompetent and inferior to men, women are trying to take away the rights of men, etc.). They were then shown brief flashes of pictures of fully clothed and swimsuit-clad men and women, and their brains were scanned for activity. Note that all the swimsuit-clad women were wearing bikinis. The researchers did not use pictures of women in “various states” of undress, or with “varying amounts” of clothes, as some articles have suggested, and there were no one-piece swimsuits to compare–there were only two conditions: fully clothed and in a bikini. Please also note that the images of women wearing bikinis did not have heads.
As for the men’s reactions, the researchers found (via brain scans) that those men who harbored strongly hostile sexist views also saw the bikini-clad women as less human, and did not have brain activity in the part of the brain responsible for evaluating another person’s thoughts and feelings. Note that this refers to a small subset of the already-small sample size: only the men harboring the most hateful attitudes towards women.
This is hardly an earth-shattering finding–that men who are generally horrible to women, when presented with headless images from a swimsuit catalog, do not see the models as people, and have parts of their brains light up that are associated with “things
you manipulate with your hands” (which should tell you what these college boys are doing with their free computer time, not make you reevaluate your choice of swimwear).
The headline could just as well read: “A Few 19-Year-Old Frat Boys Can’t Relate To Real Women, Study Shows.” Stop the presses.
I also take issue with the speaker’s highly selective overview of the history of women’s swimwear. She skips over the Romans, who bathed nude and are depicted in murals wearing clothing very similar to a bikini. She skips over the many cultures in which topless and nude bathing are seen as perfectly respectable and natural. She lingers smugly over the bikini creator’s introduction of his invention, noting that the model who introduced it was a “stripper,” as if to tar all women with the same brush, neglecting the fact that all change is seen as scandalous when it first appears—after all, not so long before the bikini, women had been wearing horse-drawn houses to go swimming. Times change. Culture changes. And acceptable dress standards are bound up in culture—and they change, too. Pioneer women would find capri pants scandalous. That doesn’t mean we need to compare bare ankles to stripping. Your great-great grandmother would find your one-piece swimsuit inappropriate, while you label it perfectly modest. But we live in different times and cultures, and there are no absolute rules for determining what is “modest” across all time and space. (As proof, I would note that the speaker, believer in modesty, is dressed in a perfectly lovely outfit, one that would nevertheless get me labeled “immodest” and kicked out of class at BYU—for showing my shoulder. So if you’re about to argue that “the world changes, but the Lord’s standards of modesty never change,” you may want to re-think your argument. And your spokesperson.)
Furthermore, it is not the responsibility of women to manage men’s sexual desires. Full stop. It is not women’s job. Even if it were, it’s hard to see how a one-piece swimsuit is markedly more “modest” than a two-piece, or how men would be rendered incapable of sexually desiring women thus attired (something no study cited even attempted to address). In fact, there is no point at which a woman would be sufficiently clothed to negate a man’s sexual desire. Men in countries in which women are swathed in robes from head to toe still manage to notice that they are women, and still find them attractive and desirable. They complain that their eyes and ankles are seductive and leading them to sin. If it were true that men could not control themselves, a more effective solution would be to put out their eyes or ban them from the beaches, not to mandate a dress and behavior code for all women they might encounter.
Here’s the truth: Men are people, their bodies made in the image of a divine Father. Women are people, their bodies made in the image of a divine Mother. Our bodies are beautiful and God-given, not shameful. They connect us to the earth and to each other. They allow us to relate to each other in enjoyable ways. They are also not the only way we relate to each other. Men and women are capable of relating to each other as human beings, no matter what they’re wearing. This is part of being an adult. We are capable of dealing with our sexual desires, which are normal and healthy and good, without shaming ourselves or those with whom we come in contact. Fetishizing normal female body parts–be they breasts, navels, shoulders, knees, or (gasp!) ankles—and insisting they be covered because we cannot control ourselves—does real harm to both women and men.(1)
Look, wear whatever you want to the beach. Wear a bikini. Wear a burkini. Wear a one-piece. Wear a house, if you like. If you want to, wear one of the swimsuits the speaker is selling
—they are cute, after all. But whatever you wear, wear it because it makes you comfortable, because you like the way your body looks and what it can do. Don’t wear it because a stranger—or a loved one—has convinced you it’s the only way to get respect, or the only way to be attractive, or that your body is a dangerous minefield of potential temptation for all the men who lay eyes on you and it’s your responsibility to remove that temptation, you irresistibly sexy woman, you. Don’t give in to the lie that your body is all you have to offer—but also, don’t believe the equally insidious lie that your body is shameful or dangerous or needs to be covered up (but “stylishly!”) in order for you to be a person of worth.
You have the right to be treated with respect, no matter what your size or shape, no matter what you’re wearing. Men are not slaves to their hormones. They are capable of treating you with respect in all walks of life. If the cited study shows anything, it’s that the men who can’t see you as a person, no matter what you’re wearing, are the kind of men who weren’t worth your time in the first place, who were already likely to hate and devalue you. And their demeaning attitude is not your fault. It isn’t your responsibility to prevent others from sinning. Jesus did not say “Whosoever lusteth after a woman…should tell her to put more clothes on, already, she’s causing him to have impure thoughts!” Jesus laid the blame at the feet of the man whose heart was filled with lust, not the women he dehumanized. And so should we. Because lust is a problem of the heart, not of the wardrobe.
(1) There are so many examples of people taking this way too far. The speaker, for instance, decries the rise of the bikini and the fact that now, even little girls are wearing it. Perhaps she has not considered that a two-piece swimsuit is much more practical for parents running their little girls to the bathroom—rather than peeling off a heavy, wet swimsuit from the shoulders, the child can use the potty unassisted. Anyone who sees a little girl in a swimsuit and thinks “sexy underwear” is the one with the problem, not the child.
Pictures from theseasong.com and castlesandcrowns.com
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Amy Grigg is an engineer by profession, a writer by inclination, and a teacher by disposition. She lives with her husband in southern Maryland, and she blogs regularly about gospel topics at toeveryonethatbelieveth.blogspot.com
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