I was sixteen years old when I learned that I needed to hide myself in order to protect men. I was at church camp and had been abruptly confronted during lunch time and instructed to change my clothes immediately. The whole dining hall had stopped and stared as a middle-aged female grabbed my arm and told me a “young man” had complained that my appearance was “distracting him from God” during worship. I was following the dress code to a T, and I asked her angrily what I should wear. She suggested covering up in a sweatshirt. This made sense, it was the middle of summer and around ninety degrees.
I learned later that day, during a required cabin meeting for the girls, that men are easily tempted by a woman’s body. That our outward appearance alone can lead a man away from God and into sin. The older woman instructed us that it was our duty as women to clothe ourselves in a way that does not distract a man. She herself shared with us that she works hard on keeping her arms toned, and as much as she might like to “show them off”, she knew God would not approve and would want her to cover them up. She didn’t want to be responsible for the sinning her arms could incite.
The underlying message from our “lesson” that day wasn’t hard to decipher: according to this line of logic, men are weak and incapable of controlling themselves. Women should make themselves small, quiet, plain. It is my responsibility to hide myself, hide any piece of me that may be threatening, beautiful, or sexual. Because these things are bad things. Sexy woman = bad woman. And in a culture that is known for sexualizing women, teens, girls of all ages, that means a whole lot of bad women. How do men stand a chance? One thing I don’t think will help: men growing up being taught they are weak and not taking accountability for their actions.
I’ve thought of that day many times since then. Sometimes I look at my husband and think, what kind of man would I have ended up with if I believed what I was told that day? Would I have chosen a man I felt I needed to endlessly “protect” from seductive women and sinful thoughts? Would I have spent nights desperately praying, fearing he wouldn’t be able to control himself if a beautiful woman was thrown in his path? Talk about exhausting. On the occasions I do encounter a man who clearly sees me as only a sexual being, I wonder if he was taught these same things as he grew up.
When I listen to women judge other women for the way they look I wonder if they were taught to fear and distrust women who may be beautiful, or sexy, or who dress “provocatively.” I wonder if they are angry at these women because they are afraid they will tempt the “weak” men in their lives, or if they may feel frustration that a woman feels proud “showing off” her toned arms, because they are being “good” and keeping theirs covered. Are they buying into the idea that sexy woman = bad woman?
Ultimately, I made the decision years ago that I didn’t buy into what was being taught that summer day at church camp. For me, at a gut level, it is not something that feels right. I know too many good men who are perfectly capable of “controlling themselves” and too many good women who don’t follow the church “dress code.” I believe men and women are both human and it does us no good to vilify or fear either sex. For me, living life trying to find a balance between what I was taught at church camp and the way our culture so obviously sexualizes women is a work in progress. But I do know that believing men and women are more than these outdated stereotypes has served me well thus far.