Thursday, April 3, 2014

Modesty in Tights: A Dancer's Perspective on Modesty Culture

This essay was originally posted on my husband's old blog.  I'm reposting it here because one of my friends asked for it and my husband has since deleted the blog where it was located.  So for what it's worth (slightly updated, and with pictures for visual aids) . . .

Modesty in Tights: A Dancer's Perspective on Modesty Culture

audition shot (high school); photo by Julie Waites

The issue of modesty has recently filled the blogosphere (well, the religious part of it anyway), especially as part of the rising movement against what we now call “modesty culture” and “rape culture.”  Up till now I’ve mostly stayed out of the debate – for some reason, participation in stuff that’s popular is repellent to me – but my husband pointed out that I have a relatively unique perspective on the issue, and as such, I may be able to contribute something fresh to the bowl.

You see, I’m a dancer.

More specifically, I’m classically trained in ballet with a general background in modern dance as well (largely Graham and Graham-based techniques, but not exclusively so).  I have a BFA in dance with an emphasis in ballet performance from an NASD-accredited university; I currently teach ballet, and I am a member of a contemporary dance company.  Oh, and my alma mater is a strongly Christian college, complete with a dance ministry ensemble and a missions-based mime squad; the studio where I teach is competition based (jazz, clogging, and contemporary); and I’m occasionally invited to dance in church and church-related events.  So I’ve got a foot in just about every corner of the dance world.  My professional wardrobe consists of leotards and tights (and more recently, sports bras and bike shorts).
senior action shot (college)

As for my Christian pedigree, I grew up in a traditionally conservative, fundamentalist home.  My family’s church is CMA (theologically similar to Baptist but believing in all the gifts of the Holy Spirit and emphasizing missions).  I was in AWANA from the time I was three until the program fizzled out in my late teens, and I even went to AWANA camp five summers in a row.  I attended a Baptist-based Christian school for 11 years, followed by the aforementioned Christian college that is loosely tied to the Presbyterian Church of America.  Needless to say, I’m familiar with “modesty culture.”

Neither my church nor my parents were particularly vocal about modesty.  They didn’t have to be, because my school had a very specific dress code.  In fact, my mom often expressed frustration with the restrictive rules about skirt and shorts length (because you couldn’t find any long enough in stores at the time).  I didn’t think much about the moral implications of a dress code until I was in junior high.  That’s when both AWANA camp counselors and teachers at my school started talking to us girls about the importance of modesty.  I was taught, in no uncertain terms, that if I wore a fitted shirt, every guy who saw me would lust after me.  Men are wired visually, we were told.  That’s the way God made them.  If you show off your body, they’re going to look at you the wrong way.  It’s our job as Christian women to protect our brothers.

But then I went to ballet, where I wore outfits far more revealing than anything one would wear to school.  Black leotard, pink tights – that’s it.  No bra, no underwear.  And the guys in my classes, most of whom were in fact straight, didn’t seem to notice a thing – not even in partnering class, which involved a lot of touching and a lot of sweat.  Not one guy I danced with ever made a suggestive comment to me or did anything inappropriate.  We were there to work on our technique, and that’s what we did (don’t get me wrong, we had fun in class too – there was just never anything sexual about it).  Maybe that’s really where the stereotype that all male dancers are gay came from – because dancers have been wearing leotards for decades, and as far as I know, no one has ever been raped for it.
Excerpt from La Bayadère Act 3 (college)
A Christian message board I once frequented had a discussion about modesty (this was before modesty discussions were cool).  I stated, as I had been taught to believe, that girls had a responsibility to dress in a way that didn’t tempt men, etc.  I also said I thought men had a responsibility not to look at girls that way, no matter how they were dressed.  Boy, did that last part get a lot of feedback!  I was told that I didn’t emphasize the woman’s obligation strongly enough, that my putting so much of the responsibility on men was unreasonable (maybe even morally irresponsible).  I was confused, because I’d always seen the issue as 50/50 – I do my part, you do yours.  But there on that message board, I was given the strong impression that I was mostly, if not solely, responsible for how men looked at me.  Later on in the discussion, a few guys pointed out that dressing modestly was no guarantee against lust.  One of my friends said that a woman could be wearing a burlap sack, and men could still mentally undress her if they wanted to.  I was shocked – and increasingly frustrated – to discover that my dressing modestly apparently didn’t even do any good.  If a guy wanted to lust after me, he just would.  So not only was I responsible for my beloved Christian brothers’ sin, there was also nothing I could do to prevent it.

And again, I went to dance class, where by all appearances (let’s just say the male dress code in ballet is also revealing), the guys could look at me, stand next to me, even pick me up by the waist or grab me around the thigh, and not have a sexual reaction.  The guys I danced with in college were Christians, but the ones I danced with before that were not.  And yet it seemed they were better men than the Christians who apparently couldn’t help seeing my body as a sexual object, no matter what I did with it.  That, or men really can develop the self-discipline to turn off the part of their brains that thinks about sex all the time – they’re just not trained to do so (not in Christian circles anyway), because they’ve been taught that it’s the woman’s job to make sure they don’t lust – they’re told they can’t help it.

"Why Not?" choreographed by Laura Morton (college)

Jesus had a few words to say on the issue of lust.  A lot of people coming from the “modest culture” perspective quote, “If a man looks at a woman lustfully, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” and pointing to the word “with,” argue that the woman is consciously participating in the man’s mental adultery, and that therefore dressing immodestly is deliberately inviting extramarital sex.  They don’t usually continue on to Jesus’ next words, which are also about lust: “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.  Jesus didn’t say, “If a woman causes you to sin,” or “If your right eye and a woman cause you to sin,” or even “If your right eye causes you to sin, it’s really the woman’s fault so blame her.”  He essentially said, to use the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship, “DON’T LOOK.”  Just because you’re tempted to do or think or say something, doesn’t mean you have to do it.  Every person is ultimately responsible for their own actions.  Adam blamed Eve for his sin, and we all know how well that worked for him.

I’m not saying women should walk around in leotards all the time, or that it doesn’t matter how we dress.  I want to make the argument that unless you really are purposely trying to sell your body (literally or metaphorically), modesty isn’t an issue of morality, but of propriety.

Clothing exists mostly because humans are not perfectly adapted to certain climates.  We put on however many layers are necessary to keep warm, or keep protected from the sun, or what have you.  Therefore, cultures develop a sense of propriety in dress based largely on the climate in which they live, and secondarily on other factors such as the economy, formal versus casual occasions, practicality, status, and so forth.  The problem is when we ascribe objective moral value to those customs, or when we elevate any one culture’s paradigm above the others as morally superior (which do we choose?), or when we pick one culture’s standards of propriety and try to make it universal (what about the people who lived before that standard was set up?).  Conservative Christian culture tends to elevate the social customs of upper-middle class America in the 1950s, but that’s just one culture’s short-lived aesthetic.  Poodle skirts would have been scandalous to pre-Depression Westerners, and the only reason women stopped wearing pantyhose was because the material was rationed during World War 2.  Ballet dancers developed the uniform of leotard and tights out of a necessity to see the muscles of the body, especially of the hips and legs, in order to perfect their technique.  The tutu was invented as a short dress that showed off that technique on stage.  Among students it has the additional implication of high status because usually only the most advanced students perform in them.

"Why Not?" choreographed by Laura Morton (college)

The Bible does occasionally talk about modesty, but never in the context of lust or causing men to stumble.  On the contrary, the apostles’ directions against certain hairstyles and accessories indicate that what they were really telling women was not to be ostentatious – that is, not to flaunt their wealth.  It’s not that braided hair or gold jewelry is inherently immoral, or that by extension anything fancy is bad; it’s just that in that culture, those things were considered too flashy, meretricious even (like wearing an opera dress to church or real jewels to a barbecue).  Propriety, or what is socially acceptable in a given situation, is the key factor.  It’s okay to wear a bathing suit at the beach; it’s not okay to wear one at work.  You can wear sweatpants to the grocery store (although What Not to Wear may ambush you for doing so), but in dance class you had better wear tights.  It’s not that any of these articles of clothing is inherently bad, it’s just that society has deemed them appropriate in certain settings and inappropriate in others.  In another twenty or fifty years, what is appropriate or inappropriate may be completely different from what it is now as our world changes.  Whatever the culture looks like, propriety means staying within the acceptable parameters for that specific culture and situation.

Finally, I think the only reason modesty is such a big issue is because our culture is so hyper-sexualized.  Whether people advocate having as much casual sex as possible or strongly forbid it in any context outside marriage, people are just obsessed with sex.  I think we could take a lesson from the men I danced with and just stop making everything about that.  Like my friends who realized dance class was about far more than what we were wearing, let’s focus on what we’re supposed to be doing here and act accordingly.

senior picture (high school); photo by Julie Waites

1 comment:

  1. Spot on, Naomi! I love these pictures of you. . .brings back memories.