Can everybody please stop masturbating for five seconds so we can talk about modesty, but also talk about me? I was raised in the Roman Catholic tradition, and modesty was intertwined within every aspect of our teachings and culture. Our hems had to be a certain length, no makeup was allowed, and most of what I heard about sex as a child/tween was that boys want sex, they will do anything to get it, and you have to keep them from having sex with you, because they will try at all costs.
Of course it was never mentioned that girls will also want sex, so when the time comes and you do start feeling arousal and attraction, not only have you and boys both been taught that you’re responsible for keeping them out of your plaid skirts, you’re also responsible for keeping yourself out of their pants. (And if you’re gay, your sexuality was never ever brought up, but trust me, it’s still your fault and you are very very bad if you ever have an orgasm. Catholic guilt is always in abundance, enough to go around!) It’s confusing, indeed, to have the very idea of your own sexuality or arousal treated as non-existent or an illusion.
The message was loud and clear: ‘Boys and men are very sexual creatures and think about and want sex constantly. Women and girls don’t want sex. It’s something they do to appease men and it’s not something that women and girls think about or want.’ It can create a sense of guilt or shame when you do start feeling arousal, because ‘isn’t that just for boys?’ My own attraction and attractiveness were never to be discussed or acknowledged. And with that comes the burden, as an adult, of unpacking all of that dogma and conditioning and getting to a point of understanding that my own sexual arousal and desire are real, normal, and OK.
Further, it is OK for me to like the way I look and to be comfortable with that, and to not have to apologize for feeling pretty. And it can be difficult, as a girl or a woman, to feel beautiful. And if we can’t get to a point where we can feel beautiful, even feeling comfortable or accepting of ourselves can be a challenge. We are daily inundated with messages telling us how to perfect or enhance our beauty, how to change our bodies, how to adjust our clothes, how to attract a mate, and the focus, always, is on our bodies and the way we look. For many women, these messages are even more harmful, as the beauty standard constantly put forth is typically whiteness first and foremost, a white supremacist advertising utopia. It is a form of cultural violence to perpetuate the lie that a woman’s worth is seated in her attractiveness, and that what can be considered attractive is limited to such a narrow construct.
I’m not a big fan of modesty programs or modesty rhetoric because it typically boils down to all the magical and myriad things that girls and women can do to stop boys and men from sinning/thinking or saying ‘impure’ things/masturbating/lusting/sexing/having wet dreams. I’m not down with that shit because I’ve never been a fan of blaming women for the actions of men or giving men a loophole through which they can escape responsibility for their actions. And after years and years of being told that I have to keep men from having sex with me, I’ve gotten to a point where I can step back and remove myself enough to see that what I was told as I was being raised was just my church and community enforcing rape culture through it’s children. In making women the arbiters of sexuality, while forcing us to deny our own sexuality, the onus of responsibility was always upon girls and women to avoid sex of any and all kinds, or you would be at fault. That’s rape culture, and I’m fucking sick and tired of it.
So when I first saw this piece, titled “FYI (if you’re a teenage girl), popping up in my newsfeed, I almost skipped it. It’s a super-shitty blog post by what I’m sure is a well-intentioned mother just looking out for her boys at the expense of their female peers. Totally normal Tuesday, amirite or amirite?
In this quaint little piece on how to effectively shame girls and make them feel uncomfortable with their bodies and burgeoning sexuality framed as spiritual guidance, this mother of three boys and one girl sets out a list of guidelines and rules for what young girls can and cannot post on social media and still be included in the lives or newsfeed of her sons. The first thing that this mom-of-the-year takes issue with is that a girl in her sons’ newsfeed was posing in her pajamas in her bedroom and maybe with no bra on.
For one, it appears that you are not wearing a bra. I get it – you’re in your room, so you’re heading to bed, right? But then I can’t help but notice the red carpet pose, the extra-arched back, and the sultry pout. What’s up? None of these positions is one I naturally assume before sleep, this I know.
What the fuck is this woman on about? Why is she examining this teenagers chest enough to know whether or not she’s wearing a bra? Keep in mind that she was looking through these photos with her entire family, her husband, her three sons and her daughter. So she comes to this ‘scandalous’ picture where perhaps the outline of a breast can be viewed and she takes note of it in an ‘awkward family conversation.’ If the girl that posted the photo had not thought of it as being sexy, and then her friends’ mom writes a blog post all about how sexy she’s being and distracting her sons with her no-bra wearing self, that probably would make this girl feel ashamed and embarrassed if she ever found out. Arched back, hand on hip/waist and a duckface are de rigeur right now. They’re so the norm that they’re often not even considered sexy, it’s just how a lot of people stand in pictures. What that mom has effectively taught her sons, and so unfortunately, her daughter, is that the female breast is an object only of lust, it should be hidden and covered because it causes arousal and is, therefore, shameful.
She goes on to say
Those posts don’t reflect who you are! We think you are lovely and interesting, and usually very smart. But, we had to cringe and wonder what you were trying to do? Who are you trying to reach? What are you trying to say? And now – big bummer – we have to block your posts. Because, the reason we have these (sometimes awkward) family conversations around the table is that we care about our sons, just as we know your parents care about you.
So because the shape of this girls breast is visible through her shirt, she is now blocked from the sons’ newsfeed so as not to tempt the boys anymore. Also notice that the mom also says ‘usually very smart,’ implying that the girls intelligence is lessened or decreased by posing in a way that blogger Mrs. Hall finds unsavory. The lesson here, for her sons and her daughter, is that value IS tied to appearance, and if you are sexy or being viewed sexually, you are less intelligent. And as for ‘who are you trying to reach?’, it’s pretty presumptuous of Mrs. Hall to assume that the picture posted was to make anybody other than the girl that posted it feel good. Maybe she liked her jammies, or the way her hair looked, who knows? Maybe she was just feeling pretty that day and posted a picture, and Mrs. Hall had to turn it into a shameful act. But to jump to the conclusion that the picture is out there for the desires of others is demeaning and takes away this girl’s agency.
The idea that photos must be posted for the benefit of others and not to make the poster feel good or because the poster just feels like it is silly — but not a surprising notion coming from a woman who thinks that girls are responsible for the things boys think and do. If you think that, it probably makes a lot of sense to assume that girls are always acting for the approval of boys. If you don’t think that, it sounds … well … like somebody needs to get a clue.
Notice that in all of this discussion about what girls can and cannot wear or how they can and cannot pose and how they will be blocked from her sons newsfeed, there is no discussion of what she teachers her sons about how to deal with and manage their own feelings of sexual arousal, or how to treat women respectfully and behave responsibly. Her entire post is focused on shaming girls for their bodies and blaming girls for her sons sexual arousal. So what could have been a great teaching opportunity for the family about boundaries and respect turned into a session about the shame tied to the female body and erasing the female body from view if it is deemed too arousing.
But the self-righteousness doesn’t end there. She goes on to further shame this girl by saying, “I know your family would not be thrilled at the thought of my teenage boys seeing you only in your towel. Did you know that once a male sees you in a state of undress, he can’t ever un-see it? You don’t want the Hall boys to only think of you in this sexual way, do you?”
Look, lady, I know it’s easy as pie to blame any lust or desire your sons feel on the actions and existence of girls in their peer group. It’s easy breezy! You don’t even have to teach them to view women as people and not objects because you’re telling them that once they view a woman sexually, they can never stop viewing them sexually. Mrs. Hall, YOU are the problem and YOU are the one with the warped perspective on sexuality and personal responsibility.
When you reduce women down to sexual objects and insist that once your child views them that way that they can never view them any other way, you are perpetuating rape culture and taking away the personhood of the young girl that YOU are sexualizing. You are also teaching your daughter that if somebody is ever sexually attracted to her, they will only ever be sexually attracted to her and never see her as more than a sex object.
I used to get messages like that too, and let me tell you something, it’s a total mindfuck to grow up and start dating after being told your entire life that all boys want sex and only sex and will do anything to get it, and once they think of you sexually that’s all they’re going to think of you as. It’s false, it’s untrue, and it is damaging. You are doing harm.
And really, if the image of this girl being ‘sexy’ is so firmly implanted in your sons brain that he can never unsee her that way, what is the purpose of blocking her from the newsfeed anyway? The indelible image of her lascivious flesh is already etched in his mind, and never again a person to him will she be (according to you), so why bother? And how little must you think of your sons, and of men in general, to assume that once a boy or man feels desire for a girl or woman, that’s all he can ever see her as? Don’t you have more faith in your boys? Shouldn’t you give them more credit? Please, for one moment, if you can’t stop and think about the horrible messages you are sending your son, consider the messages you are sending your daughter. And then just stop.
And the icing on the hypocrisy cake? These are the actual photos of her sons that she posts in her blog post that is all about how teenage girls need to cover their bodies so her sons don’t feel lust and so that her sons can still respect these girls. This is real. I am not making this shit up:
So while it’s very, very, veeerrrryyyyyy important for teen girls to not just stay covered up, but also wear a bra under their clothes so that her sons cannot even see the defined outline of their breasts, she will post pictures of her sons in their bathing suits, posing and flexing their muscles. Because, after all, she is perpetuating rape culture, and furthering the myth that the female body is only a sexual thing and that the male body is exempt from this burden, this desirability.
Mrs. Hall, some girls and boys in your sons peer groups are looking at those pictures and feeling arousal. And I think it might be time to consider why it is that you find it so much more important for girls to cover themselves up to not tempt your boys and why you do not, in equal measure, cover up your boys to not tempt other girls and boys. It’s a double standard.
And then question why it is that instead of attacking a patriarchal system that tells us that men want sex, women tempt men, but must also keep sex from them, and that a woman’s worth is in her appearance, you chose to rail against teenage girls instead of against the system that created this paradigm. Evaluate why it was more important to you to create a sense of shame surrounding the very normal occurrence that is the female body rather than talk to your sons and daughter about respect and personal responsibility.
Don’t get mad at the girls that are operating within our fucked up culture. Get mad at our fucked up culture for providing girls so little room to explore and grow, their every action analyzed, dismantled and criticized. Get mad at a culture that tells boys that they are not responsible for their actions, that girls are responsible for the actions of boys. And then, after you get mad, change the conversation in your home from what girls can do to keep from tempting boys, to what boys can do to see and treat girls and women as equals, as peers, as friends, as people. Be part of that change.