Stumbling blocks, modesty and respect

Thursday, 29 July 2010

This week I was interested to see The Rebelution's Modesty Survey getting coverage on a number of blogs. I remember seeing a couple of pieces about it when the survey was conducted in 2007 and received glowing endorsements from several high profile church leaders and Christian writers. I felt it would be an interesting issue to address now because a few weeks ago I decided to make a point of writing about issues within Christianity a bit more often here.

The Rebelution is a site and organisation set up by two of the younger brothers of Joshua Harris, he of I Kissed Dating Goodbye fame. I was leant another of his books, Boy Meets Girl, by a well-meaning friend while at university and all it succeeded in doing was making me slightly uncomfortable and worried that I had upset God by spending time with my boyfriend unchaperoned and kissing. Ho hum.

Anyway, The Rebelution probably isn't your cup of tea unless you're into all that return-to-biblical-patriarchy-homeschooling-modest-gender-roles kinda stuff. Much as I respect the decisions of people who want to do it (as long as it's not hurtful or abusive) you know it's not my cup of tea. And many of you at this point are likely to think 'LULZ, FUNDIES' and escape as quickly as possible. But looking at this from inside the Christian bubble, it's a concern.

It's interesting to note that the Harris brothers have responded to criticism of the survey and the onus it puts on women to do everything they can in order to 'help' men's feelings. One woman expresses concern that the attitude of the survey was one of victim-blaming. Alex replies and recommends she read A Return to Modesty: Discovering Lost Virtue, the controversial book by Wendy Shalit which claims that if women just went back to wearing long skirts, covering up, keeping quiet and stopped holding hands with men in the cinema, we wouldn't have eating disorders, men would respect us and premarital sex, rape and sexual assault wouldn't happen. Which is fine, as long as you blank out (as Shalit obviously does) the fact that all these things definitely happened pre-1960. Nice bit of victim-blaming there.

As has been pointed out in the post about this over at Sociological Images, the problem with the survey is that it takes worries about clothing and attitudes to a whole new level. I think the majority of churches end up giving their youth groups talks about these sort of issues and I'm not going to go into what's problematic or not problematic about this. It can be done well or really badly and that's another post. But in my experience these talks usually cover the same areas - the showing of 'too much' cleavage and the wearing of items like hot pants and boob tubes.

Although the 'guys' at The Rebelution state it wasn't their intention to be too legalistic and prescriptive about the survey the questions tell a different story. Young men are quizzed on whether or not they feel a variety of things are 'modest' or 'immodest', from high heels to the application of lip gloss to a bag strap across the chest to perfume to every item of makeup, clothing and underwear you can imagine and most confusingly - posture and movement.

48% of respondents felt that a bag with a strap across the chest 'draws too much attention to the bust'. 39% think tights with designs (eg stripes and polka dots) 'draw too much attention to the legs'. A third felt that 'girls with less curves can wear clothes that girls with curves should not'. 75% believe that 'the way a girl walks can be a stumbling block'. 75% believe that 'seeing a girl's chest bounce when she walks or runs is a stumbling block'.

I'm wondering if we're all expected to wear maximum impact sports bras 24/7 as a consequence. I mean these are things which are just natural aspects of a woman's body. There comes a point - probably around the time that you're worrying whether demin jackets with pockets or stretching in front of a male are 'stumbling blocks' or not - that you're overthinking things. In a big way. I can imagine young women reading the results (and there were a lot of teenagers involved in the survey) and worrying that they might have to monitor their every move in order to be as 'helpful' as possible.

Some of the questions were open-ended and the answers given were extremely wide-ranging.
How do you feel about girls who purposely flaunt their bodies?

"Women like this disgust and frustrate me. They take advantage of something that God intended to be beautiful. They lure men away from that which they truly love. They make men like me fight and struggle, and cause many to fall. THESE WOMEN SHOULD NOT BE ADORED OR FOLLOWED!"

"Saddened; disappointed; sometimes angered. They're distracting good men, dishonoring God and marriage, and offering themselves cheaply--which makes me desire even more strongly a girl who is modest, who is valuable...I always remind myself that if a girl flaunts herself before I marry her, she'll do the same thing afterward. As a husband, that would make me pretty mad."

"Yes, you can turn me on, but don't expect me to respect you. Yes, I might find you attractive on the outside, but that won't make me think of you as attractive on the inside."
I honestly worry about these men and for the women they look to make a life with. Some men attempted to answer from a more sympathetic point of view but it comes across as no more palatable - 'I would wonder where her father was!' being one answer, the assumption that such girls must have mental and emotional problems being another. In a previous post on this blog I know I talked about the problematic opinion which can be so prevalent among some Christian men - that women who adhere to certain standards of 'Biblical femininity' are to be loved and adored and respected, but all women who don't are treated with disdain. In wider culture we know it as the 'virgin/whore' dichotomy. It's really noticeable in some of these responses.

In the post at Sociological Images there is some great analysis of the words used by respondents when speaking of 'immodest' women and the way that it shows that the 'woman as evil temptress' stereotype is very much alive and well, with the words being used to describe them often having violent connotations - 'forces', 'manipulates', 'destroys'.

On the other hand, other open responses did encourage me that somewhere out there, young men are getting good teaching about what it means to treat women with respect and love.
As a guy, what is your responsibility in this area? What is your role in guarding your eyes and mind (as opposed to the women's role of dressing modestly)?

"Think biblically about women as God's creation, some as your sisters in Christ. All are to be treated respectfully and honored."

"Ultimately, responsibility for stumbling lies with each of us personally. I cannot blame a sister's dress for a lustful thought than I can blame a gun for a murder.

"Let's be honest. We're men, and we're responsible for ourselves. We're responsible for our thoughts, for our lusts, for our character. We won't be able to blame the girls when we're called to give account for it in the judgment day."
The Harris brothers wrote that there had been overwhelming demand for this survey and little demand for one which dealt with young womens' desires. Consequently they hadn't looked at it from a female point of view. You wonder where this has left the young women who eagerly awaited the results of the survey. To what extent is their view of sexuality and relationships defined by what men want and expect rather than their own feelings - and do they feel that they are personally responsible for the 'sins' of the opposite sex?

The survey itself and many of the responses show that there is definitely a long way to go in terms of teaching about relationships and attitudes. There's the obsession with women's actions as 'stumbling blocks'. All too often it falls back on outdated stereotypes about 'what guys and girls do/want' which insult everyone - and the often accompanying teaching that males should take the lead or be in charge in all aspects of relationships can be just as confusing and unwelcome.

More posts on this over at Feminist Riposte, Jezebel, Sound Teaching and Women's Views on News.

Should we be aspiring to look like anyone?

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Women and Equalities Lynne Featherstone has announced plans to organise discussions with representatives from the fashion, media and advertising industries in an effort to combat the negative effect they have on women’s body image.

Her views on the extent to which the media – particularly the airbrushing of photos - affects self-image have been widely reported this week, following her admission to the Sunday Times that she hopes to see airbrushed images labelled with a warning.

The ‘kitemark’ would serve to educate young people that the photography they see in magazines and on billboards is misleading and not representative of ‘real’ human bodies. Said Featherstone at the weekend:

“All women have felt that pressure of having to conform to an unrealistic stereotype, which plagues them their whole life. It is not just the immediate harm; it is something that lasts a lifetime. Young girls are under intense pressure the whole time.”

This is fair enough and it’s admirable that she’s so concerned about the problems so many people – male and female – face as a result of feeling they have to live up to unrealistic expectations. It would be great to see more diverse representation of sizes and body types in the media.

Unfortunately, in her concern she seems to have fallen into the old trap of naming a celebrity she thinks is a great role model looks-wise, which usually serves to replace one standard of approved attractiveness with another.

That role model is Christina Hendricks. Featherstone described the actress as ‘absolutely fabulous’ and claimed that we need ‘more of those role models’ as opposed to seeing only ‘incredibly thin’ women as our inspiration.

It’s classic ‘skinny backlash’ stuff and something newspapers and magazines have been particularly fond of doing in recent years. Worried that women feel bad about their bodies because of stunningly beautiful but very thin models? Why not tell them they should aspire to look like stunningly beautiful but curvy celebrities instead.

This is the trend which has spawned countless newspaper and magazine articles about ‘real women’ - a term usually used to describe women with well proportioned hourglass curves. And the media has certainly pounced on Featherstone’s comments about Hendricks, with a number of articles bearing her picture being published.

Some news sources such as the Daily Mail are claiming that she thinks we should all aspire to be the same dress size as the actress.

Okay then, so what are we supposed to do now if we’re neither runway-thin nor in possession of Hendricks-style curves? Is it too much to ask that people (and newspapers) could stop trying to dictate who we should see as ‘role models’ purely because of their looks or their clothes size and promote messages of self-worth which aren’t related to vital statistics?

As Featherstone’s comments have prompted the inevitable newspaper and radio discussions, plenty of similarly irritated women have vented their frustrations via Twitter. Said @hannahkaty:

“I didn’t realise that a role model for women was solely determined by her clothing size.”

An outraged @BookElfLeeds commented:

“Why don't we have an equalities minister saying ‘right, no more debasing of women down to tits and ass any more’.”

Other reactions from Twitter have shown that many women also feel that although body image is an important issue, it’s not the only problem the equalities minister should be worried about.

As women most of us care about damaging messages relating to body image. I think it would be great if young people were more aware of the extent to which images are airbrushed. What we don’t want is to be patronised and told which celebrities we should be aspiring to look like.

On the positive side of things, some people have highlighted the fact that their children already feel pressured about their size and that this is a prime example of why something needs to be done.

Featherstone has addressed the backlash via her own Twitter account and her blog, reiterating that her comments were taken out of context and saying:

“The last thing we need is to move from one impossible idealised and unobtainable image of the super skinny kind to another impossible and unobtainable image of the curvy kind!”

Too right, Lynne. It’s a pity the tabloids probably won’t have as much to say about that as they did about Christina Hendricks.

This post originally appeared at BitchBuzz. Image via r9M's Flickr.

I really like my church

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Over the last week or so I've been taking a break from all things internet-based in order to take a much-needed holiday. Luke and I spent a few days in Paris trekking round the sights (see above) and have spent the weekend catching up with friends and family. Tomorrow I'll be back to my usual, constantly tweeting and blog-reading self but in the meantime I was inspired to write a quick post after attending church today.

I really like my church. Since we started attending, just over two and a half years ago, we've made some wonderful friends, got involved in a lot and have been able to develop and grow in our faith. This summer the church is focusing on the theme of 'family' (as in the church family) and today Simon, one of our leaders, spoke on the importance of both diversity and unity in the church. We're a really diverse congregation; as was pointed out this morning at least 50 nationalities are represented, as are people of every age and from many different backgrounds and walks of life.

It was so encouraging to hear a sermon in which the fact we all have different qualities, gifts and personalities to bring to the church and that the goal of our church family is to encourage differences and the richness they bring, rather than stifling - but at the same time fostering a sense of unity, family and compassion for one another despite our innate differences. At one point, Simon spoke passionately of our need to be a church which seeks to stamp out 'racism, sexism, ageism, classicism and elitism'.

Plenty of people clapped at this point. Personally I'm so glad to be part of a church which stands for these values to the extent that they're preached from the front on a Sunday. Promoting equality, diversity and unity should be such a priority for churches because it really does make for healthy congregations. In the past I've written about my past struggles to reconcile my personality and views with the church and the fact that I know I can be myself with my qualities and talents being recognised as equally important is such a motivation to get more involved in church life.

And that's just another example of why I really like my church.

Relationship advice from Cheers magazine

Friday, 16 July 2010

This morning I was alerted to the existence of Cheers magazine, which is apparently a free publication distributed in Barking. As far as free publications go, this one's fairly special and I challenge every print and production journalist, designer and writer reading this to take a look at the latest online edition without feeling slightly nauseous.

Remember when you were at primary school and got made to put together some sort of 'magazine' for a project, using only an aging Acorn A3000 and as much clip art as you could fit on a page? It's like that. One feature is actually entitled "Summer is here! Yay!". Amazingly they claim to distribute up to 48,000 copies.

The discussion about Cheers started because one woman who had it delivered to her was horrified to read its feature on 'What Men Really Want From Women' (you can click here for a much bigger version - complete with outraged reader's scrawl). As well as tips about being a housewife and how to communicate with their husbands, women of Barking have been treated to such wisdom as:

"Bin the track bottoms and try feminine clothes like knee-length skirts and slingbacks. Above all behave well," and more charmingly:

"Make sure he gets you regularly. Lack of intimacy at home is the major cause of infidelity."

Because you know it's always your fault if your man cheats, right? I think we all agree that a healthy sexual relationship is a good thing for most couples, but I'm not sure that 'make sure he gets you regularly' is the healthiest way to phrase it.

Incensed, the woman emailed the editor to tell him exactly what she thought of his 1950s-style marriage tips. He promptly replied - and here I quote the entire email and highlight some choice morsels:
"Sorry you feel that way. However, we stick by our article. Our focus is building back our community, which sadly has been destroyed by weird ideas from within and outside government.

The home is the basis of society, and it's broken in lots of our communities.

We will also be doing an article on men's responsiblities to which you may choose to contribute.

Also, the article is titled "What men want in women". As you are not a man, I do not think you are in a position to know what men want or determine what they should want.

Also, our article is geared to helping many women who have marital issues caused by ignoring to do basic things.

I will touch on a couple:
Whether you like it or not some women hold back on intimacy, thinking it is a hold on the man or a reward. Quite often, it drives them to other women and the divorce court. What you fail to realise is that for a man to be with you at all, he saw something in you. So, why on earth should he play? It's not because he does not love you, it's because sex and love are NOT linked in men, unlike women.

Some do not think cooking is important. Well, to most men, food is more important than anything else. Many men go into stone walls without any obvious reason. Deep down, it's because he's hungry. "I'm going home. My wife is cooking" is the only thing that makes most men leave the pub. Not "I'm going home, my wife needs me." Tough but true.

Thank you

Dapo Sijuwola
Cheers Magazine"
Way to go with the misogyny there, Mr Sijuwola. I'm sure your male readers are also enjoying being stereotyped as cavemen who can't connect sex with love and think about little more than food all day. If this is how his relationship plays out, I feel sorry for him.

A quick bit of investigative work by other people who were just as horrified by the magazine's content threw up links to a bizarre publishing company called Paul Books, interestingly listed on one directory as a 'religious organisation'. And someone else quickly found out that Dapo Sijuwola stood in this year's general election as a candidate for The Restoration Party, a party which calls for 'a return to the values that made Britain great'. Apparently rampant misogyny is one of these values.

Now Cheers magazine is so ridiculous (and, well, awful) that you'd think it's a spoof. But people have definitely had it posted through their doors. Have you? I'm intrigued. If you like, you can email to let Mr Sijuwola know how you feel about this sort of 'advice' being distributed to the general public in the format of a 'community magazine'.

Rock bottom for the Daily Express

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Maybe you thought the Daily Express couldn't get any worse. You were wrong. An acquaintance just pointed out via Twitter that no-one usually notices just how bad it is because it's so beneath contempt these days that it tends to get ignored. Let's be honest, it doesn't really contain any proper news, does it? It's just a sad, bigoted waste of paper. Today's front page, however, goes so far beyond what is unacceptable that it's hard to forget about.

In the accompanying article, Supereme Court judge Lord Rodger is quoted as saying:

“Just as male hetero­sexuals are free to enjoy themselves playing rugby, drinking beer and talking about girls with their mates, so male homosexuals are to be free to enjoy themselves going to Kylie concerts, drinking exotically-coloured cocktails and talking about boys with their straight female mates.”

It's like the Express is parodying itself in the most unpleasant way possible and you have to wonder how much lower it can go.

Further reading at No Sleep 'Til Brooklands: They're letting gays in now, you know! Whatever next? and Enemies of Reason: It's worth bothering to get angry at Express scum.

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