Review: A Return to Modesty
I recently finished reading Wendy Shalit's A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue. It was interesting.
A lot of things jumped out immediately. For starters, the book is almost twenty years old and it definitely feels dates at points. She references pop culture quite a lot and everything surrounding date rape, gang rape, hazing, cat-calling, etc. reveals the book's age.
Another point of interest is that Shalit is Jewish. Though I don't know where she is religiously now, at the time she wrote the book, she was not Orthodox, sort of. She is definitely enamored with many things stemming from Orthodox Judaism, but she never centers herself within it. As a Christian, this makes her voice really interesting since it's hard to map her ideas over one-to-one with a lot of what is said within conservative Christianity.
Lastly, she is overly confident that what she says are obvious to womankind. Her book takes that tone of "all-people-secretly-know-this-and-when-it's-brought-into-the-light-they-will-rejoicingly-forsake-their-ways" that I find so irritating. Most people think they are acting consistently, logically, and morally, so I find any argument unconvincing that assumes people are simply blind.
Yet, at the end of the day, I have to give it to Shalit. She wrote a book about modesty that is actually philosophically engaging. How many women exist that can claim that? I disagreed with her on quite a lot, but I would recommend anyone interested in thinking about the topic of modesty to read this book. Unlike just about any conversation I've heard on the topic, Shalit does not stoop to the level of bikinis and yoga pants. Instead, she asks America to engage the topic as one with philosophical depth.
Unlike so many of the Evangelical debates that get stuck in the corner of male lust and whether or not women have a role to play in taking responsibility for such lust, Shalit addresses modesty as it actually should be addressed - as a sexual virtue. Her intended audience is not mother's trying to protect teenage boys from themselves or men who don't know how to keep their eyes off their friends' wives; rather, Shalit is writing to the completely secular female college grad who has spent her adult life sleeping around. If my memory serves me right, Shalit doesn't address clothing hardly at all. What she does address is the cultural, ethical, and philosophical milieu in which we live that tells young women they have nothing to protect sexually.
The core of Shalit's argument is that modesty is essentially about privacy. Modesty is about maintaining the right to keep to one's self what one chooses. Connected to this is the natural right to make a big deal out of our sexual selves, and our sexual activity. In Shalit's mind, the the loss of modesty in Western society started with the reduction of the gravity of sex. She argues that women naturally treat sex as a big deal and modesty is our natural desire to protect what we believe to be important. Anything that trivializes or reduces the importance of sex, anything that tells women it is "no big deal" is a direct attack on a woman's right to protect her sexual self.
Shalit meticulously argues that this is what is under attack in our society today. From classroom sex ed that forces young boys and girls to discuss their development and activity publicly to the common idea that women struggle with "hang ups" sexually if they do not respond in kind to men, Shalit argues that women today have been stripped of their natural tendency to modesty. By telling young teens to be casual and open about their sexual world, particularly by telling young women not to care so much about romantic notions concerning sex, our society is harming women's natural tendencies to protect themselves.
Shalit gets a lot wrong, especially in her historical analysis and her romanticization of gender relations in the past, but the Evangelical world would greatly benefit from thinking about modesty along Shalit's lines of thought. In the end, her analysis is right. Modesty is ultimately not about preventing men from committing certain sexual sins. Modesty is about much more fundamental issues. However it is culturally defined, modesty is about the basic right and need of a woman to keep her sexual self as her own, bequeathing the right to share in it only to the beloved of her choosing.
Despite all of the talk and hoopla about a woman's body belonging to herself, Shalit demonstrates that the Western world is increasingly and steadily redefining its sexual ethic to establish women's bodies as public entities. In the Evangelical world, all of our arguments about bikinis and yoga pants echo such changes. What we need is not detailed arguments about particular items of clothing, but rather a reexamination of some of the most basic principles. The question is not whether we as women are protecting our brothers, but rather whether we as women are keeping what we want to ourselves?
Ok. Let's establish one very important thing first. I do not approve of the see-through dress trend. Please hear this loud and clear before I make my next statement.
I completely appreciate the above photos of Jennifer Lawrence. And I'm so so thankful to her for wearing this dress.
Because the actress is showing that she actually has a woman's body rather than the tiny, hardened, adolescent ones we've had been shown for decades.
This is not denying that Lawrence is one incredibly beautiful and attractive woman. I don't look at her and think, "Oh yeah, I could be JLaw's twin in beauty and sex appeal." God obviously gave her things he didn't give me. BUT I can look at her and see someone that looks human, someone whose tummy pooch, round thighs, and butt cleavage are all recognizable. They may be the best looking tummy, thighs, and butt I've seen, but they are still there and that dramatically changes the way I think about myself.
Lawrence publicly refuses to diet or work out to attain a certain body type and she frequently talks about the need for more real women's figures in Hollywood. I can't think of anyone better than her to promote this message. She is healthy and balanced in a completely gorgeous way!
To be completely candid, looking at these pictures almost wants to make me cry as relief washes over me. I could be completely healthy and trim and would still never be able to relate to the images of beauty surrounding me. I just wouldn't. But when I look at Lawrence, I see a reality that isn't completely foreign to me - a reality that celebrates the truly beautiful without attacking God's creation, a reality that cares about the body without altering it.
Most importantly, appreciating Lawrence's beauty might actually help me believe those near to me when they tell me I look beautiful. When my husband compliments me, maybe my first reaction will be less "thanks-but-I-need-to-loose-10lbs" and more "Why thank you for thinking I'm beautiful!" I'll still try to eat only 5 pieces of chocolate instead of 10 and will try to convince myself to go for a run. But because in my mind there is an image of a woman who has a gorgeous figure and a bit of flab along with the thousands of other images of women whose thighs are infinitely smaller than mine and whose busts are infinitely larger, I can feel a little more freedom.
Women cannot healthily admire beauty if our ideals aren't grounded in reality. While I won't be putting on any see-through dresses any time in the near future (or EVER!), I will take a moment to enjoy what a beautiful woman's body actually looks like and appreciate the young woman who has enough spunk to wear a see-through dress for all of us to see what reality really is.
The Whimsey of Olive and Jane
Right now, old things are in. They have been for a while. When I was a teenager, the vintage market was just starting up, but now it is in full force. With the more recent additions of etsy and pinterest, the market has almost become commonplace. As time pushes us forward, the Western world expresses a collective look back through our most common language - commerce.
But recently, we have moved beyond the market of the old to something even more exciting and interesting - craftsmanship. The nostalgia that started with combing thrift stores and raiding grandmothers' closets has now morphed into the desire to actually produce the past into our present. So much contact with the remainders of yesterday has renewed our understanding that skills must be specialized and that often owning one well crafted labor of creative love surpasses two half-forgotten and slapped-together copies. And ta-da! new handmade objects now hold the same nostalgic joy in them as their vintage counterparts because the process of handmade craftsmanship itself rings of past decades.
At the center of all this commercial celebration of the past, both old and new, is the desire and need for whimsey. A touch of whimsey causes us to play by embracing something different. Whimsey looks to possess something outside of ordinary life, whether from the reaches of imagination, from across the ocean, from the starry future, or from the dusty past. When we have found it and brought it into our world, we laugh and the moment lightens to give us joy for our present. Through the use of the unusual or the different, whimsey gives us strength to enjoy the all-consuming present.
And now, my shameless plug. One of the best examples of whimsical craftsmanship I have seen is a new millinery start up co-owned by my dear friend, Amy Rambo. As long as I have known her, Amy lives and breathes a love for whimsey and it exudes throughout Olive and Jane. Who doesn't want to wear a hat if not simply for the joy of the word fascinator? Take a peek at the Olive and Jane lookbooks and indulge your fanciful self. Let your imagination run wild with what once used to be and then let a bit of it creep into day to day dreams.
The Bling Without the Sting
A few weekends ago, my brother married his longtime sweetheart and our close family friend. These two are some of the most beautiful people I know, inside and out, and they put a lot of careful thought into the details of their wedding. Aesthetically, they have an eye for beauty, and spiritually, they have a heart for justice.
This was particularly evident in their choice of engagement ring. I interviewed my new sister-in-law recently and thought you would be interested in hearing her answers concerning the issues surrounding diamonds. And make sure you check out the Marlene Harris website...
1) Dish about the ring! What do you like about it?
"Exquisite" is the word I think of when I think of my engagement ring. It is a new ring designed in an antique style. The thing I like the most about this ring is that I have never seen another quite like it and there is a lot of beautiful detail work. I also like the effect of having many small diamonds surrounding the larger diamond; making it extra sparkly.
2) Did you choose it or did your fiance choose it?
My husband (then fiancé) chose the ring with the help of two very tasteful sisters who both knew me well.
3) Where was the ring bought? And why?
The ring was purchased from Marlene Harris who is a small business jeweler in Blawnox, PA (right outside of Pittsburgh). I believe Daniel chose to go there because a number of our friends had bought their engagement and wedding bands from Marlene and he had heard good things about her collection.
4) Are you happy with the ring?
I am happy with the ring. I do not know if I would have picked it because I had something much more simple in mind but I am very happy with it.
5) Why did you want a conflict free diamond?
A conflict free diamond was very important to me because, particularly in Africa, diamond sales have been known to support slavery, violence, and in general the exploitation of communities and peoples. I knew that this ring is likely the most expensive item that I will own and I did not want the money to support the suffering of individuals. I also did not want to feel guilty about something that so beautifully symbolizes the covenant that Daniel and I were to make to one another and to God.
6) How important was it to you to have a conflict free diamond?
I felt very strongly that I wanted a conflict free diamond. Daniel and I had a conversation about it so I was confidant that he would keep my concerns in mind. I definitely would have been disappointed if he had not gotten a conflict free diamond.
7) When did you first think about wanting a conflict free diamond? What caused you to consider it?
My family has a good friend from Sierra Leone and I remember him talking about how his country had very valuable resources, particularly in diamonds, and yet his people were living in severe poverty and devastation because of exploitation and oppressions that had taken place in that land. I believe that was the first time I was made aware of the issues surrounding the diamond industry.
8) Can you explain the issue of conflict free diamonds to us?
A conflict diamond is a diamond that has been illegally smuggled and sold on the open market. The proceeds of these sales have been known to financially support violence, slavery and manslaughter. In Sierra Leone the diamond industry supported a brutal civil war that devastated the country and destroyed the lives of many. The rebel forces that had control of many of the diamond mines would smuggle the gems to dealers who would then place them on the open market. The money from these sales went to support the rebels in their merciless campaigns. These forces were known to use amputation as a weapon against villagers and would also enslave their captives forcing them to dig, at gunpoint, in search for gems. Although the civil war is now over, the effects and devastation remain. In a 2007 National Geographic documentary called Diamonds of War: Africa's Blood Diamonds, it was estimated that 60% of Sierra Leone’s diamonds are sold illegally and placed onto the open market. In addition to supporting potentially dangerous organizations and groups, the profits from these diamonds are not shared with the people of Sierra Leone because there is no way to tax the profit sales or registration of the stone. This is just one example of the devastation that conflict diamonds can have on a country and its people. Other African countries have also experienced the effects of this illegal market. Here is a link to a page that has more information on this topic.
9) What advice do you have for couples thinking about buying a diamond?
Do your research. This may be one of the biggest purchases that you make, so just think about it and make sure you are on the same page.
10) What thoughts do you have for someone who does not have a conflict free diamond and starts to feel concerned about the issue? How should they feel about their ring?
Well if you really want to find out what the origin of your diamond is then talk to your jeweler. No matter its origin, the diamond that your husband/fiancé gave you has meaning because it symbolizes his commitment to you. That alone makes it special and the chances that your diamond was illegally sold onto the market is still relatively low.