Thursday, June 20, 2013

Whosoever Looketh On A Woman...

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 and

I've been a little overwhelmed by the response to this post.  It's clear that many of you have strong opinions about modesty, swimwear, and a host of other things.  That's fine, and I appreciate spirited discussion.  However, a few commenters have gone overboard, so I'm going to give a quick reminder on the ground rules here.  You've been warned, and I will delete all comments that don't follow these rules of common courtesy.
1.  Stick to the topic of the post.  (This post is not about breastfeeding, moral relativism, alcoholism, or autism.)
2.  Avoid questioning the faith, testimony, faithfulness, righteousness, or intent of other people, including me.  That's just rude.  Avoid sweeping generalizations about people you do not know.  
3.  Along the same lines, do not insist that you, personally, know the mind and will of God.  Not only is this incredibly arrogant, it shuts down reasonable discussion.  You do not have the "God" trump card in your hand.  Avoid the temptation to play it.  Do not call others to repentance, dump GA quotes on them, or drive by with links to the For The Strength Of Youth pamphlet.  
4. Engage a person's ideas, not their character.  On the flip side, if someone has engaged your idea and disagreed with it, do not claim that you are being persecuted.  Refuting your argument is not the same thing as persecuting you.
Thanks, all!

FURTHER UPDATE:  I think this discussion has reached its natural end.  Thanks, everyone, for participating.  Comments are now closed.  Check back later this week for a follow-up post that will address some of my conclusions from this conversation. 

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Together Forever

This started out as a short “What I Wish I’d Said In Church” post, but I found I had more to say about it than I thought, and it quickly morphed into an actual post.

Our lesson in Relief Society last Sunday, from the Lorenzo Snow manual, was about temples, and our teacher did a great job presenting the blessings of the temple and talking about the peace that could be found within its walls.  Some of the women shared beautiful and tender feelings and experiences, and I was touched by how deeply the temple had touched their lives and healed their hearts.

Though I have a somewhat uneasy relationship with temple ordinances (a topic I’ve discussed elsewhere), I still find the temple beautiful and holy, and I’ve come to understand its importance in binding us together as a community and as children of God.  A question in the middle of the lesson helped me crystallize some thoughts I’ve had these past few years.  A class member, who joined the church a few years ago, asked a question posed by her mother (who is of another faith), “What happens to those of us not sealed in this eternal family relationship you care so much about?  What’s the alternative?  Where do we go?”  

I’ve actually thought a lot about this, because in some ways, I think the Mormon focus on eternal families is a solution in search of a problem.  We make a big deal about living with your family together forever, forgetting that kids grow up and have families and kids of their own, that presumably they want to be together forever with, except that their kids grow up, and so on.  So how do we imagine it will work, exactly?  Do we imagine a really long dinner table with our whole family, back to Adam, sitting at the same table, and yelling back to Methuselah to “pass the peas!”?  A giant game of Monopoly?  After a while, the whole construct gets hard to wrap your mind around.  

I think of members of other Christian denominations who believe that they are good people and that their family members are good people, and that they and their family members are going to heaven, and I don’t think that they imagine that they will be separated from their families, who live in the same place (heaven) that they do.  So I don’t see “eternal families” in the “families can be together forever” sense as a really big unique selling point of Mormonism.  I think there must be something deeper, some other purpose for this emphasis.

I’m impressed by Joseph Smith’s focus on sacralizing relationships, and his sense that we as people, as communities, need to be bound together, that we need to create welding links between parent and child that will ultimately bind us to God.  There’s a good argument to be made that one of his big reasons for polygamy is to fulfill this mission of sealing people together in bonds of connectedness that would tie them together in this life and in the next.

In the end, I see sealing in families as a statement of intention.  Most of our ordinances are outward declarations of an inward commitment—baptism is a statement that we intend to stand as witnesses of God and bear the burdens of those around us; the sacrament is a statement that we intend to always remember Christ; and sealings are a statement that we intend to create a marriage—or a family—that is tied together by bonds of love and devotion to God.  I think that a sealing signals our intent, but doesn’t on its own create the bond (any more than the baptismal font creates the disciple)—we do that, through our daily actions, by the way we treat each other.  

Furthermore, I think God honors relationships of many kinds.  D&C 130 tells us that “the same sociality that exists among us here will exist among us [in heaven], only it will be coupled with eternal glory.”  And, in my case anyway, the sociality I enjoy on earth doesn’t consist solely of my family members—I also enjoy the company of friends and neighbors and coworkers and mentors, people I love who enrich my life and strengthen my faith in God.  

Which I guess leads me to what I really think about sealings:  I don’t think it’s accurate to say “you need to be sealed to someone to get into heaven.”  I think it’s more accurate to say: it won’t be heaven unless we are there with those we love.  It isn’t that a sealing is required for salvation, but that salvation consists of building eternal bonds with the people we love.  And sealings are one way we signal the importance of those eternal connections, a way we invite God into the relationships that form the backbone of our mortal existence.

I add a caveat at the end here, of course, because of the damage I’ve seen a particular understanding of our sealing doctrine do in the lives of people who are horrified by the idea of being with their family members a moment longer, let alone for eternity.  When we teach, we should remember victims of abuse, incest, and violence, divorced members escaped from a horrible ex-spouse who trampled on their dignity, those with family members who are cruel and unkind, who betrayed their trust, our brothers and sisters for whom the good news of the gospel looks like a nightmare.  I know people who live in fear that God will force them to live forever with an abusive spouse or parent, because, after all, they’re sealed to him/her.  If you are in this camp, my simple testimony is: God is not a jerk.  Nephi said it more eloquently: “I know that God loveth his children, nevertheless I do not know the meaning of all things.”  The tenet of my faith is more simple: any God worth worshipping is not a jerk.  God won’t give us a platter of horrors and call it “heaven.”  As Jesus said—even earthly parents know how to give good gifts to their children.  We don’t give our kids rocks and snakes when they ask for fish and bread, and neither will God. Amen.