Jenell Paris had a great post this week about propriety, dress and accountability. In her marvelously playful style, Jenell describes the following incident which she learned of second-hand:
Fifty people have come together for worship, from around the country, from different Christian traditions, though the organization is presumably evangelical. Marie leads worship. She is a Liberated West Coast Feminist Environmental Democratic Hemp-Wearing Christian. She is in front of the group, arms raised, eyes closed, praising Jesus. She wears a light white t-shirt with no bra. Her bobbling breasts and nipples were reportedly more interesting than Jesus. Debby took her aside and said that she needed to wear a bra with this group, especially when leading worship. Marie said, "I'm liberated, and Jesus loves me the way I am. I love my body, and I won't allow you to bind my breasts!" She left the event, and reportedly the organization, furious.
What do you think? Was Marie's dress inappropriate? Was Debby's confrontation inappropriate? Should the people have been able to worship even in the bold presence of Marie's boobs?
A fine discussion ensued in the comments section, and as of this morning, Jenell has posted a follow-up with her own thoughts on the matter.
My own interest is less in defining appropriateness and more in male responses to what they interpret as provocative or arousing dress. A commenter named Javier wrote:
I don't know any heterosexual man whose head doesn't turn when they see nipples.
They are like kryptonite to men.
A man could be having a conversation with Billy Graham, the Pope, and the Dalai Lama about celibacy and some nipples followed by a woman walk by and the man will forget all that was being discussed. No telling what the 3 other guys would do...
And Phil said:
Breasts in church. Well, I'm both male and weak, and if I get distracted by them, I get distracted by them, but that would be something I would want to clearly mark under the category of "my own damn problem." Men need to have the kindness to assume that women who dress in seemingly "provocative" ways are not doing so to provoke and are not inviting stares, objectification or admonishment.
I like how Phil handles that. Honestly, I'm very troubled by the common acceptance of the "narrative of male weakness." When we repeat the canard that men "can't help looking" and that "we're hardwired to lust", we reject responsibility for our eyes and our thoughts and place it on to our sisters. We take, as Phil rightly seems to imply, something that is fundamentally "our" problem and make it "their" issue. As I've written before, this myth of male weakness is misogynist and misandrist simultaneously (a neat trick). It assumes that men are simply incapable of self-control and focus in the face of sexual arousal, and it assumes that because of that weakness, women have to do the work of making public places "safe" for their brothers.
I am not for a minute suggesting that women ought not to consider the impact of their clothing choices on others. After all, we are creatures who live in community. All of our decisions, public and private, influence and affect those around us. Christians in particular need to be mindful of that, but really, it's something of which all of us ought to be aware.
Am I holding men to a very high standard here? In some ways, yes. I am not unsympathetic to the tremendous power of sexual attraction. (I'm also aware that we make a mistake when we assume that men are the only ones who respond with arousal to visual stimulation!) But I know from my own experience and the experience of men I admire that it is quite possible to remain focused and mindful even in the presence of what might be considered am attractive, provocatively dressed woman. Some of this is just basic common sense. Sometimes, guys, we just have to make the conscious decision to focus on a woman's eyes, and only her eyes. Most of us are "weak" in this area because we've never really believed we could develop the strength necessary to resist. Honestly, if a fellow who had never lifted weights before walked into a gym and looked at a man doing bench-presses and said at once "Oh, I could never do that, I'm weak", what would we say? We'd say "You may be weak now, but start working out and before you know it, you'll be stronger than you ever imagined." Just as we can develop our muscles, we can develop the strength to see women as fully human even when they are sexually alluring.
The subtext of a lot of the discussion about feminine modesty and male weakness is that a woman cannot expect to be both sexy and taken seriously at the same time. Her body -- what sets her apart as a woman -- is thus an obstacle to being seen as a fully human person. She's told there's a (false) dichotomy in place: a woman is either "looked at" or "heard", but she bloody well can't be both at once, because you see, men are too weak to see breasts and hear words simultaneously! AAAAARGH! As a man I am infuriated by that all-too-common reasoning. It assumes that my biology will always trump my faith, my will, and the grace of God. I know through my own life experience, I know in my bones, that men can transform the ways in which they see women. An initial awareness of that which is provocative is natural, but lust and distraction are conscious choices.
Let me put this in explicitly religious terms. (Non-believers might want to skip this paragraph.) Years ago, a very wise man made an interesting suggestion to me. When faced with the kind of visual distraction that Jenell recounts, I should consider the possibility that I am being tested. Something wants me not to focus on the words I am hearing. It may well be, my old friend said, that Satan himself very much wants me not to see this woman as a real person. Above all, he doesn't want me to hear what she has to say. My job, in the face of that kind of provocation, is not to blame a woman for distracting me, but to understand that it is all the more important that I focus and concentrate on her as a child of God and on what she is trying to share with me. I was taught, in moments like that, to pray the following prayer: "Lord, show me your daughter as you see her, not as I see her." Let me offer you, out of my own experience, the assurance that that prayer will be answered! I am not being willfully ignorant of the power of human sexuality, I am giving testimony to the far greater power of God to transform the way in which we use our eyes.
Jenell's final question was: Should the people have been able to worship even in the bold presence of Marie's boobs?
Yes! A thousand times, yes! Churches -- like schools -- cannot always be "safe" places where we are immune from temptation and distraction. (I do believe we should be protected from overt harassment and assault, of course!) Indeed, almost certainly unwittingly, Marie was offering the people an opportunity to challenge themselves. She was offering them an opportunity to confess their weakness to God. She was inviting them to see past the obvious distraction and to feel the presence of the Spirit. Indeed, I suspect that those who were forced to concentrate on her words and her message rather than her body might have found themselves closer to Christ as a result.