Pants in the Pew: The One-Sided Labor of Modesty

KJ* was an emerging stylist and fashion consultant. We attended the same nondenominational church, sang alto on the worship team together, and frequently used the “green room” to swap information about the best places to thrift and makeup tips to get through multiple services without sweating it all off. (Listen… the ‘singing 2-3 services’ struggle gets real). On one particular morning, I remember her bursting into the green room, pulling me to the side, and crying, “I am LIVID! I was essentially told by the worship team leader that I needed to go home and change into something more modest”. (She was wearing a black top with black pants. KJ and I had both gone through drastic weight changes that year and were striving to dress for our ‘new bodies’ in ways that were comfortable, practical, and fierce). For about 30 minutes, we talked over what she’d planned to do. “I am always so careful to dress for the occasion… and to say that I’m dressed inappropriately because my shirt is tighter than you think it should be is incredibly annoying!” (I will admit that I muttered under my breath, ‘And incredibly sexist’). In an earlier Pants in the Pew / Pulpit post, I talked about my mother’s choice to use her body and style politics as a site of resistance: resistance to being regarded as inferior and in need of more feminization (Weitz, 2011). In KJ’s story, there was yet another struggle: a struggle to resist her body being sexualized and objectified in a sacred space. The script on what women should and should not wear in sacred spaces is not necessarily a new one. In my lived experience, there is one such “script” that has been used to instruct women on what to wear, particularly in sacred spaces:

1 Timothy 2:9-10 Likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works

Often times, those who are using this text to hold sway over the clothing choices of women in sacred spaces do not offer any context, sociocultural & historical background – a picture of the climate in those times – to explain their use of the text today. Let me be clear: I have heard, seen, and deeply appreciate the theologians who choose to add nuance to texts such as this (i.e. understanding the damages of heteropatriarchy, preaching / teaching with sensitivity to the fact that these damages are real and impact women on a very systemic and individual levels, balancing it with sociohistorical context). Yet, I also acknowledge that on the whole, we have a long way to go, and asking congregants & church leadership to complicate theology with sociopolitical understandings or critical gender theories… does not always go over too well. So, in the past weeks alone, the script has been under continuous revision. I have seen a revision as entertainers advise women to dress a certain way to obtain a certain man (the counter-post on this by Anna Gibson is absolutely everything)! I can recount the times I’ve sat through retreats or workshops on dating, and hearing a wide array of content on how to dress for and / or keep dressing for a man as a partner in my life (interestingly enough, we did not cover issues of consent, emotionally healthy practices versus emotionally abusive /coercive practices, etc).

The script has been revised in the fair share of cautious admonishments for women to maintain their modesty as the summer months are coming up (argument: more heat = less clothes = ‘modesty compromised’). I can say that each year, around the summer time, the “What Not to Wear (for Women in Sacred Spaces)” revisions roll over and over in my screen, in church services, and in conversation. I cannot help but wonder: What is this obsession that we have with what women are wearing?!  

What many do not understand is that no conversation is without a framework. Think of it as a portrait or a painting. While we focus on the pictures of what women should and should not wear… we might be missing the frame of what we are implying: that women’s bodies are (foremost) sites of dangerous and enticing sexuality…distracting… and in need of guardianship & rules. Dr. Rose Weitz (2001) asserts in her study that “For millennia, women’s subordinate position has been justified by an ideology that labeled their bodies and brains as inferior (Weitz 1998) and has been reinforced by a unique set of disciplinary practices aimed at creating a submissive and “feminine” body…” p. 668. *emphasis mine

So, what might those disciplinary practices look like in sacred spaces? In so many of my memories, they have looked like KJ’s story: being ostracized and asked to ‘sit down’ because of clothing choices. In one such sacred space, I was told that women were not allowed to wear heels in the pulpit because “It was distracting to the men”. This meant that when they were in that space, they had to wear flats or go with bare feet. In another, women were instructed to always wear scarves over their laps, regardless of length, so that they “would not distract the imagination of the men”. You might also remember the public shaming of Christian entertainer, Erica Campbell of Mary Mary, for choosing a dress that hugged her curves.

From the time that I was 13, I began negotiating my style politics due to the natural changes that were occurring in my body. Sundays were often the most difficult days because I did not know what would be deemed as ‘modest’ or ‘immodest’. At one point, it was immodest to wear heavy makeup or earrings. At another point, it was immodest to wear a certain length of skirt. As time went on, it took longer and longer to simply get dressed to worship:  a V neck or no V neck because… boobs? A tulle skirt or no tulle skirt because… curves? If I decided wrong, the disciplinary practices of ‘being sat down’, covered up, or publicly shamed (in churchyterms they’d say ‘admonished’ and / or rebuked’) loomed over my head.

These disciplinary practices, in sacred spaces, don’t always look like disciplinary practices because they might also be hidden and enforced under a) the guise of rigid definitions of what Biblical womanhood is (i.e. all Biblical women wear / look like ____) and / or b) the concept of wisdom (i.e. Yes, you can wear whatever you want… but is it WISE if you know you will gain unwarranted attention). Instead of thinking critically about the question, ‘What makes it possible and / or ‘the norm’ for women to have to dress a certain way to be acknowledged as inherently worthy and multidimensional’there seemed to be more of an overall preference for conversation on which styles, cuts, and fabrics are most distracting (insert subtext: for those who identify as men in sacred spaces). Writer, Jessica Valenti explains it like this:  “This “distraction” standard for a dress code (for women) sets up a model in which the default student (person / congregant) we are concerned about – the student (person / congregant) whose learning we want to ensure is protected – is male”. The labor of modesty is very often a one-sided labor.

In an earlier post, I explained that my mother’s decision to wear pants in the pulpit, inevitably sent a message of resistance. Why? Because for so long the bodies of women have been sites of resistance of and / or conformity to patriarchal norms (Weitz, 2001). KJ decided to go home and change that day. I wanted her to stay and sing worship exactly the way that she came. But I also know that navigating style politics in sacred spaces can be incredibly murky and sometimes. Yet, I always wished that there was more that I could do for KJ. I wished I knew what to say, in the moment, for the women who told me they had to sing praise and worship with bare feet because their pastor said heels were too sexual.

I thought about all of the younger women I know who stress over what to wear each time they go to worship. It is then that I remember the two-fold mission behind this site and my writing: 1) to lovingly & creatively challenge secular and sacred systems toward greater levels of inclusion… and that INCLUDES making space for women’s voices, women’s stories, women’s leadership AND women’s style politics in sacred spaces.

Want to hear more on the subject? READ PT. I here.

Image Credit: DeathtoStockphoto.com, Retreat Collection Resources WEITZ, R. (10/2001). “WOMEN AND THEIR HAIR: Seeking Power through Resistance and Accommodation”. Gender & society (0891-2432), 15 (5), p. 667 – 686. Creative Commons License Pants in the Pew: The One Sided Labor of Modesty by Jade T. Perry is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

 P.S. Not even 24 hours after writing this post, WordPress’ Daily Post prompt asked writers to:… “ tell (them) how appearance impacts how you feel about yourself”. Ha! Serendipity 🙂