On Monday I wrote about rape culture, what Christian culture teaches about modesty, and the ways that those two things overlap. On Wednesday I took apart the women-as-cake analogy to examine its implications. Now this is my third and (probably) final post in response to this piece about modesty, and I want to talk about the way fat bodies intersect with modesty rules, and the ramifications of abandoning a male-gaze-centric understanding of modesty.
Let’s try and put ourselves in a guy’s shoes. I think we can all agree that as girls, exercise is important to us. We want to stay healthy and are often working on getting fit. We work out and stay away from carbs or sweets. We use all of our willpower to not eat the chocolate cake on the counter! Now, let’s pretend that someone picked up that chocolate cake and followed us around all the time, 24/7. We can never get away from the chocolate, it’s always right there, tempting us and even smelling all ooey gooey and chocolate-y. Most of us, myself included, would find it easy to break down and eat the cake. And we would probably continue to break down and eat cake, because it would always be there. Our exercise goals would be long gone in no time.
This week I purchased my first bikini.
It’s this hot pink one with the halter straps and the bottom that can be worn three different ways. I ordered it online, so I haven’t tried it on yet. I hope it fits. I hope when I put it on and look at myself in the mirror I don’t lose my nerve.
When the author of the Cake Post writes, I think we can all agree that the majority of girls wear bikinis at any place involving water, I wonder if she has ever tried to shop for a plus-size bathing suit before. You can walk into Target and be confronted with a women’s clothing department packed with racks and racks of mix-and-match bikinis as far as the eye can see, but head back to the Women’s Plus ghetto and there’s one lonely rack of bathing suits — all one-piece, all black or tropical print, all with some sort of ruffle or skirt or something. Go ahead — try finding a size-24 bikini in a brick-and-mortar store.
Even at online plus-size retailers there are piles of one-piece and tankini styles for every belly-baring suit. This assumption that the majority of girls wear bikinis only applies to thin women, is the thing; for the curvy women, the chubby or plus-sized or fat, there is a different assumption: No one wants to see that.
When I say I hope I don’t lose my nerve, it’s not only because of feeling self-conscious, but also because there are real risks to being a fat woman in a bikini in public. Researching for this post I googled “fat woman in a bikini” and was rewarded with countless pages of photos of women snapped when they weren’t looking, paired with the same comments, over and over: No one wants to see that. Ew! She should not be wearing that! Where’s the eye bleach?
When a fat woman wears a bathing suit, she isn’t compared to a cake. She is still subject to the male gaze, of course, still judged by her attractiveness to men — only she is shamed for not being attractive enough. A fat woman is expected to cover up, not because men will feel lust towards her body, but because they will feel revulsion. (Of course, it’s not just men who say things like this about fat women; and I think there are a lot of reasons that people judge fat bodies as unfit for public visibility, among them institutionalized Othering and fear of our own mortality. But the male gaze, both from men and from women who have internalized it, certainly plays a major role.)
And so there’s little market for the plus-size bikini (although the rapid sales of GabiFresh’s Fatkini line indicate that the tide may be slowly turning). When the author of the Cake Post writes about the sacrifice she makes by choosing not to wear a bikini, I can’t help but hear the privilege that resonates in her voice. She believes that the girls and women she is writing to all share her experience of being thin (that’s what privilege means, after all – your own experience being so normative you can imagine it’s universal). She believes that every other young woman tries to “work out and stay away from carbs or sweets”, and is “working on getting fit” (she says this even as she insists that she is totally not insecure about her body, you guys). She calls it a sacrifice when she chooses a one-piece suit over a bikini, but what’s important here is that she has a choice. She has no concept of what it’s like when clothes in your size are hard to find, let alone clothes you can afford, let alone clothes you like. And no understanding of what it’s like to feel you’re not allowed to exist in public in anything less than full coverage, the risk of being told your body is disgusting and should not be seen.
It’s impossible for any woman to win the modesty game. You’re too sexy, or not sexy enough. Either way, your body is for being looked at and judged by men. What you want doesn’t matter.
The thing is, even if I do wear a one-piece suit, my body will still be immodest, inappropriately sexual. There isn’t a bathing suit that exists that will hide the curves of my body, the cleavage, the ass for days. There is no way to de-feminize me; the parts of my body that are read as female don’t disappear just because there’s a layer of fabric on them. It’s impossible to look at my body and not be aware of my shape, my womanhood. And yet, what Christian modesty culture teaches us is that when a woman’s body is too unruly to be hidden away, it’s a sin. All over the internet are stories of women who felt shame and self-loathing because of the curves their bodies developed in adolescence: Sierra who bound her breasts and starved herself to keep from developing, Becca whose pastor’s wife kept her from singing onstage at church because the shape of her body would be a distraction, Dani who internalized the lie that her sexual assault was caused by a body that was too much of a temptation for men to resist.
Switch from a bikini to a one-piece suit and someone else will tell you to add shorts and a t-shirt. There is no modest enough because there is still visibly female.
Is that what this amounts to? I look at the young woman in the one-piece suit in the Cake Post, and she’s pretty, of course, in the very white blonde young way that we read as “all-American,” but she’s also thin, small-chested, small-hipped. Cover her in fabric and, if you wanted to, you could see her as “woman” without thinking “sexual woman.” For women that are curvy, or fat, or Black or trans* or otherwise don’t fit this mold, the denial of our bodies and our genders is harder. Is this another instance, like John Piper saying he didn’t mind learning from a book written by a woman, as long as he didn’t have to see her there in front of him, with her “female personhood” “in his face” — are the modesty rules just another instance of Christians being unable to deal with the reality of women’s bodies?
So where do we go from here? That’s the question people have been asking me since I started writing this series. I agree that the way we emphasize modesty is a problem, they say, but we still have to be modest, and we still have to think about what effect we’re having on men. We can’t just go around naked all the time.
The opposite of modesty is not nudity, fyi.
I feel about this question the way I feel about the assumption that if we say that we’re allowed to eat what we want, we’ll just eat nothing but Twinkies all the time. This idea that the only thing keeping us from going off the deep end is a list of rules. That in a rule-vacuum, we’ll devolve into anarchy, naked and eating snack foods.
Can’t we, instead, trust people to make good choices for their bodies? Trust women to make good choices for their bodies? Instead of relying on the ever-shifting boundaries born from the fear of how our bodies are seen by men, can we allow a women to make her own decisions, guided by the Holy Spirit at work in her heart? Can we let men take responsibility for their own behaviors without shifting blame to the women around them, and let them work their way toward maturity with the help of the Holy Spirit?
Can we let go of the idea of dangerous women and weak-willed men once and for all, and trust Christ instead? If we can do that, we can let go of the modesty rules.
They’re only hurting us. We can do better.