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Women and the wardrobe

Horrific event touches off wide-ranging discussion

In late May, Elliot Rodger, an American college student, killed six and wounded 13 of his fellow classmates in Santa Barbara, California, before eventually turning his weapon on himself. It was later revealed that Rodger’s actions were meant as a “punishment” against all of the women who had rejected his sexual desires, as well as the men who had access to sex with women while he did not.

The events in Santa Barbara sparked an international discussion about the objectification of, and violence against, women. Women took to Twitter with the hashtag ‘#YesAllWomen’ to share their experiences of discrimination, harassment and ‘slut shaming,’ the idea that women who are dressed immodestly are “asking” for men to sexually exploit them.

#YesAllWomen was not a faith-based conversation, but nevertheless led to a discussion regarding the messages of society, sexuality, Christians and the Bible.

Biblical passages like 1 Timothy 2: 9-10 are often referenced as a guideline for how women should dress. However, Allison Murray, a doctoral candidate at Emmanuel College, University of Toronto, points out that conversations about modesty have shifted to focus on dress and how much skin is showing, rather than focusing on God. Women then get the message that they are not to tempt men with their bodies and they are responsible for men’s purity.

“Women who are dressing immodestly are looked down upon because their act is considered disrespectful to other people,” says Murray. “There is a sort of a rhetoric that men can’t control themselves and therefore women need to do everything to prevent making men act in lust which is a bit of ‘slut shaming.’”

Sharon Hodde-Miller, a Christian writer and doctoral student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School says that modest dress does have a role in Christian faith. If 1 Timothy 2: 9-10 is about worship then women’s modesty is about God—not men or lust.

Ultimately, the way a person dresses does make an impression and, as Hodde-Miller explains, Christian women should consider the way they dress as a proclamation of faith, rather than a statement about their bodies.

“Your dress—along with every other aspect of your life—should be a reflection of your heart,” explained Hodde-Miller. “If you want to express your devotion to Christ in every aspect of your life, then live and dress in a way that is not about your own preferences or glory, but about His.”

Hodde-Miller says that by shifting the conversation to emphasize a relationship with God, women are not seen as temptresses who must be tamed; rather they are seen (rightfully) as women of Christ.

So what does this mean for a Christian woman’s wardrobe?

Christian women can consider choosing clothing based on what respects the social contract between them and the public. Barbara Kay, a National Post columnist who often writes on gender issues, explains that a social contract includes the accepted rules and behaviours for a public space. For the same reasons a person isn’t disruptive on the street, they also won’t dress inappropriately. While the context of this social contract is cultural, there isn’t exactly a fashion column in the Bible. So Christian women have to use their common sense.

“I think we have to look at what makes us uncomfortable and we must look at why. As we move closer to nakedness, we get uncomfortable,” says Kay. “The way we conduct ourselves is important and the way we present ourselves is important.”

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About the author

Special to ChristianWeek

Caitlin McKay is a writer from Toronto. She covers a variety of topics including international development, politics and religion.