by Sierra @No Longer Quivering
This just in from the Department of Unintended Irony: Michelle Duggar makes a public statement about modesty, just to be sure you know how modest they are – too modest for the beach – in case you were straining your neck looking for their modest stairstep children in the crowd while you immodestly sunned your heathen midriff. After all, they’re so modest, they wouldn’t want you thinking and worrying about them too much!
Okay, guys, I’m turning off my snark filter. Really. It’s starting to overheat.
Before I go any further, you may be interested in checking out Libby Anne’s post Carefully Scripted Lives: My concerns about the Duggars. I am going to talk a bit below about isolation and doctrines of modesty and purity, two things that Libby Anne explains alongside the other less savory bits of the Duggars’ lifestyle. If you’re not familiar with the Christian patriarchy movement, that post should put the rest of my post in context for you.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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Back to Michelle Duggar’s words.
This kind of article infuriates me. It does. I start chugging smoke out of my nostrils and seeing the world with an extra shiny pink tint, like a greasy undercooked steak. Is it because the idea of broadcasting your modesty to the world via a platform given to you by your televangelism (oh, excuse me, “reality show”) is stunningly hypocritical? Is it because of the obvious doublespeak pouring out of Michelle Duggar’s mouth when she claims that she doesn’t judge anyone else for their immodesty, but that God says exposed thighs mean nakedness and shame? Is it because the very act of setting yourself apart – and calling attention to your religious motives for doing so – is an inherently judgmental act? Yes, all of the above. But there’s one more thing.
The Duggars are denying their children their only opportunity to see real bodies.
Michelle Duggar is worried about inciting lust in others, and about her sons lusting after other women on the beach. What she doesn’t seem to realize is that the beach and public pool are some of the world’s least sexy environments.
You know who goes to the beach? Everyone. From babies to octogenarians. People in all states of health, age, physical fitness, ability or disability, pregnancy, hairy or shiny, small or large, attractive or unattractive. That’s why I love it. What you see at the beach is real humanity, not the glossy, smoothed out images that scream “SEX!” from billboards. Real people. Michelle should be more worried about her young children staring rudely at people’s scars, cellulite, psoriasis and stretch marks than getting turned on at the beach.
By keeping her sons out of the pool and off the beach, away from real women in bathing suits, what Michelle’s doing is setting them up for even more lust, followed by disappointment with and judgment of their wives.
As much as the Duggars will conspicuously turn away from magazines at the grocery store check-out aisle, they simply can’t shield their sons from picking up the falsified images of women on billboards, on flyers in the mail, on buses in cities, in storefronts, on the walls of malls they drive past – in short, everywhere. Jim Bob and Michelle may think that they’ve created an environment that’s totally sheltered from such influences, but I bet you could already get one of their toddlers to draw you a picture of a woman in a bikini if there was nobody around to stop him. Short of locking their kids on the ranch with a high-voltage fence, Hunger Games style, the Duggar parents can’t prevent their kids from seeing sexualized images of photoshopped naked women.
What they can do is make sure those are the only images of women their boys see until their wedding nights. They might be told that women don’t really look like that, but how should they know? They aren’t even allowed to see their sisters or mother in real swimsuits. How can you take a falsified image of female beauty and replace it with a healthy one when you aren’t allowed to see real people? How do you learn to appreciate real women’s bodies despite (or, heaven forfend, because of) their deviations from the standard? I would not want to be a bride facing her husband for the first time and knowing that he’s never seen a woman with “imperfections.”
By keeping her daughters out of the pool and off the beach, away from real women in bathing suits, what Michelle’s doing to her daughters is setting them up for a life of shame and self-hatred.
What goes for the boys also goes for the girls. How are they supposed to combat those same photoshopped, sexualized images and value their own bodies under those circumstances? They are fighting the body image battle alone. They are surrounded by touched-up photos of seamless, lumpless, hairless divas and their only counterexample is the bathroom mirror. Contrary to what most parents who teach the modesty doctrine want to believe, modesty does not erase competition or comparison. It just removes your frame of reference. Even now, after I’ve worked through most of my body image issues and no longer torment myself by withdrawing from food, going to the pool is an incredible release of pressure to me. I get there, sit around with normal people, notice the features that look like mine, and feel good. Like I’m normal. Just another human girl.
Women who don’t see other women end up imagining that they really all look flawless under their clothes. Because, let’s face it, clothes are deceptive. Even if they aren’t trying to be sexy, clothes create a mystery. How would a Duggar girl know if one of her sisters has asymmetrical breasts? How would a Duggar girl know that her underarm hair is normal? It’s not like they’re free to sit around and talk about their bodies like that. They’re almost as isolated from one another’s bodies as they are from the bodies on the beach. When the mind can’t replace that blank space with a real human body, it imagines the closest thing it can find: that fake image.
Growing up in “modest dress” was a profoundly lonely and insecure experience for me. I felt like a freak of nature when I saw women on billboards, magazines, and TV shows. I thought my muscles – my very source of power! – were ugly. I shaved the hair off my arms thinking it was too masculine. Eventually, I starved myself, too. Even skinny, I couldn’t figure out why I still had certain bulges that wouldn’t conform to the Standard Female Body. The only real women I saw were decked out in their most flattering outfits – even if they were skimpy, they managed to conceal any idiosyncrasies. I was literally convinced that I was the only girl in the world with stretch marks on her thighs and visible triceps (I didn’t even know what triceps were called!).
So let’s put two and two together now. Suppose a Modest Christian Girl marries a Modest Christian Boy. She brings all that insecurity into the marriage. He brings all his unfair expectations of her body. What could possibly go wrong?
The Dugggars aren’t just practicing one of their weird religious rituals. They’re actively isolating their children and implicitly training them to feel both superior and hopelessly insecure. They’re raising entitled boys with unrealistic expectations of their wives, and girls convinced that their bodies are flawed. Do I think the whole family is going to develop eating disorders or have horrible wedding nights? No, of course not. Do I think isolation hurts kids? Absolutely.
Perhaps the worst outcome of all is that both sexes of children are learning that people who expose their bodies at the beach do not deserve respect. Because Michelle and Jim Bob are fixated on keeping their children sheltered from raw humanity, the kids are receiving the message that imperfect bodies must be hidden (although fake, “perfect” bodies are everywhere to see). They are also learning that superiority that Michelle denies. Isolation does this almost by default. If you feel lonely and ostracized, you make up reasons why that makes you better than the crowd. And as a Duggar child, you don’t have to reach far to get hold of “sin” as the tool for defining the people you’re set apart from.
Boys are learning that women who go to the beach and wear swimsuits are trying to attract male lust, are “easy,” are immoral and unworthy of respect. They learn that men at the beach are there to gawk at women, are depraved and weak and unworthy of respect.
Girls are learning that women who go to the beach and wear swimsuits are trying to attract male lust, are insecure, weak and unworthy of respect. They learn that men at the beach are there to gawk at them, that they are just waiting to be “defrauded” and are bound for hell. Again, unworthy of respect.
The common thread is that both of them are judging others (yes, usually women) on their presence at the beach and choice of clothes. Real substantive measurements there, huh?
The beach and the pool are learning opportunities.
It’s good for children to experience a place where their bodies don’t attract particular attention, where they can learn to relate to others without always thinking about sex. Where they can see all kinds of bodies at all stages of life and feel less ashamed of themselves for being human. Where boys can learn to interact with girls as people, respectfully. Where girls can experience not having their bodies gawked or whistled at.
The pool is my favorite place to be. I’ve never been sexually harassed there. Even though there are lots of people around, it’s just me, my body, the water and the sun. The other people around me, relaxing contentedly, just add to the feeling of peace and happiness. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to feeling like part of a community of simple shared humanity. We’re people, we like to be warm and splash around a little. That’s all we need to know.
See also this great post on why body image matters.
Sierra is a PhD student living in the Midwest. She was raised in a “Message of the Hour” congregation that followed the ministry of William Branham. She left the Message in 2006 and is the author of the blog The Phoenix and the Olive Branch.