Let’s discuss modesty culture.
The week just began and yet, Erykah Badu has already managed to set the #innanets alight with think pieces and Google AdSense clickbaits discussing her April 1th Twitter rant about how she feels girls should wear longer skirts so that boys aren’t distracted. Ah yes, the hearts of many Badu fans were broken the other night as they realized that while she makes some good music, there’s still a hotep [define: hotep] deep inside of her.
In a series of tweets, Badu elaborates that young women should wear longer skirts because it’s the order of nature for a heterosexual male to be attracted to and distracted by a girl of childbearing age. She waxes poetic about how attraction is natural and that, essentially, women should protect themselves and consider men by dressing more modestly. In an effort to soothe the sting of her previous comments, Badu goes on to acknowledge that young men ought to be held responsible for their actions, that everyone is responsible for protecting young women, and that young women ought not be preyed on.
Okay, but girl. Girlllaaaahhh.
In all your damn near slut-shaming and victim blaming, what wasn’t acknowledged is that rape is neither coerced nor prevented by what women are wearing. As a matter of research, provocative clothing is not a significant risk factor for rape. Furthermore, this puts the responsibility of male sexuality on women rather than…well, men. It’s saying that women are not only responsible for knowing, understanding, and protecting their sexuality but that their mere existence as a sexual being provokes the lack of self-control for men. The commentary, regardless of its intent, reinforces the idea that behavior of the victim causes rape rather than rapists being the cause of rape.
But while the rest of the internet continues to grab it’s collective pitchforks and toss their “Baduizm” albums into the embers of Souls Lost to Hoteppery, I’m uncomfortably reminded of a place where these attitudes are persistent, evasive, and acquiesced to: the church.
The Church, both Black and white, is rife with messages and tenets of modest dress codes for women—and only for women. The matriarch of Conservative Christian America’s first family, The Duggars, goes so far as to say “We felt like we needed to be covered from our neck to below our knees mainly because God talks about the thigh being uncovered, and how that’s nakedness and shame,” a grossly literalist approach to Isaiah 47. In my experience in the Black church, modesty was preached as what “good girls” do and what a young woman must be if she wants a husband. I was taught that immodest women were the cause of the fall of many upstanding men. I’ve had deacons stare down my shirt to catch a lecherous glimpse of my cleavage but, let the church tell it, I’m at fault for tempting these otherwise righteous men.
In our churches, women are responsible not only for controlling their own sexuality but the sexuality of the men around them.
Like Badu’s perspective, the church continues to hold women as objects rather than give viable alternatives to the sexual objectification of women.
Women’s bodies continue to be regarded as a dangerous thing of beauty. For the church, a woman’s body (and as a result, her sexual being) is both a temptation/distraction for weak men and a reward for just, faithful men. Modesty is preached as a benchmark for spiritual maturity in women so it becomes a matter rooted in shame. So Christian women are practicing modesty in hiding their bodies because they want to be seen as good women, spiritually mature Christians, and to avoid the public shame heaped upon them by their church family when they step out of line. On top of being modest to avoid being raped since society has (falsely) taught this as a prevention tactic. Yet, we wonder why women have so many complexes and neuroses about their sexual selves!
In short, no one is holding men responsible for controlling themselves and their behavior. Unfortunately Badu’s comments are neither new nor uncommon but, they are a marker for how far we yet still have to go with respect to our view of women’s bodies.