Illustrated By Madelyn Somers.
UPDATE: This week, Christian blogger Veronica Partridge's post on why she has decided against wearing yoga pants and leggings in public went viral. She subsequently gave interviews to People and Good Morning America defending her stance on "lust-inspiring" garments. In the following republished feature, R29 goes deep into the Christian subculture that spawned the anti-yoga pants movement.
Every year, the evangelical Christian blogging world — of which I am a part — seems to pick a new article of female clothing to ban. Two years ago, the target was bikinis. This year, it was yoga pants. The attention turned towards yoga pants didn't come out of nowhere: Sales of jeans fell 6% in the past year in favor of more comfortable and versatile athletic wear. Yoga pants are a definite trend, and that brings them under the gaze of the Modesty Police.
In evangelical, conservative subcultures within the Christian church in America, women’s modesty is a central issue. There are several different justifications given for this, depending on whom you ask; typically, it boils down to the idea that an immodest woman is an object of temptation for the men around her and could unknowingly lead them astray. Modesty means you are not a stumbling block. The idea is that you, as a woman, must cover up so that your brothers in Christ don’t lust after your form and therefore sin.
I didn’t wear a V-neck T-shirt until I was 24 years old. I bought the tee because I liked the color, not realizing it was actually a V-neck. But, I didn’t have anything else to wear that day — so I shrugged and put the shirt on. Looking in the mirror, I was taken aback: I looked good. The V hit just below my collarbone and allowed me to breathe without feeling choked. It also flattered me, emphasizing all the lines in my figure. But, it didn't have the scandalous, skin-baring effect I had feared.
Until that moment, my evangelical, conservative upbringing had been dictating what I could and could not wear. Anything deemed immodest, anything that could cause lust in a Christian brother (blood relative or otherwise) was to be avoided. But, with one V-neck T-shirt, I realized that most of what I’d learned about modesty was wrong. That shirt may have been "immodest" by my Christian standards, but no one came running after me in lust. I began to see that modesty rules were a barrier to understanding myself; I had neglected to learn about my own body because I had been so afraid of what might flatter it. So many things had been “banned” in my life — tank tops, spaghetti straps, V-necks, low-rise jeans, and, yes, yoga pants.
Illustrated By Madelyn Somers.
The strangest, to me, was the ban on yoga pants. After all, a good pair can cover you up from waist to ankles — many with loose, comfortable fabrics. In seeking answers to this questionable anti-trend among Christians, I spoke to a couple bloggers on opposite sides of the issue. One was Phylicia Delta, who wrote a controversial post last year about why she has chosen not to wear yoga pants outside the house anymore. In that post, she wrote that: “[Women] cannot blame men for what we instigate, and it is time for women of God to start acknowledging our responsibility in this matter, taking up our cross, and honoring God with our dress.”
Christians who promote modesty often argue that “immodesty” reveals a lack of respect for your partner and for yourself. They frequently point to the use of modesty in other religions (it's viewed as a method of respecting God throughout Islam and Judaism) as evidence for a worldwide understanding of the concept. Delta told me in an interview that wearing yoga pants meant “disrespecting myself and disrespecting the women around me with husbands, boyfriends and sons I could potentially distract. And, I was disrespecting my boyfriend, who had asked me to reconsider why I was wearing skin-tight pants in public.”
According to proponents of modesty, by dressing in clothes that reveal a feminine form, women place focus upon their bodies and not upon their intellect. The emphasis is on women in particular because men are supposedly more visual and prone to lustful thoughts. Immodesty, conservative Christians argue, encourages objectification and sexualization of women, and so asking women to cover up is asking them to respect themselves and their Christian brothers.
However, a writer identifying herself as L.P., head of a website called No Shame Movement, argues that insisting upon modesty is also a way of objectifying women. “The church is still heavily invested in policing and controlling women by making them believe they will be considered ‘respectable’ if only they follow XYZ rules,” LP told me. “If they don’t, they are responsible for whatever happens to them.” It’s a basic form of victim-blaming; if a woman is dressing immodestly, she is displaying a lack of respect and so should not expect respect or understanding when she is assaulted or raped.
Illustrated By Madelyn Somers.
But, why yoga pants? Before writing this piece, I went out and bought myself a pair at Target. I’d never worn this type of pants before, but the second I put them on, I understood why they’re so popular. They’re stretchy, they’re comfy, and they breathe. The ones I bought, though, are also tight.
So, is that it? The fitted hips and rear that help these pants stay up? Is this what all the fuss is about? L.P. thinks so: “I’m still scratching my head over yoga pants. The argument seems to be based on the fact that they tend to be snug in the hips. But, I’m not seeing the same fixation on skinny jeans.” Yoga pants, it seems, leave nothing to the imagination, despite technically providing full coverage.
L.P. points out that the Christian church’s anti-tightness edict is problematic for curvier women; the body-hugging bits of yoga pants tend to be more obvious on women who actually have a butt. Beyond just yoga pants, women who have larger breasts or hips or bottoms tend to be in a no-win situation when it comes to imposed modesty. A type of clothing that may look “modest” on a size-six woman is going to look “immodest” on a size 14. If we hold to this rule, what are we telling these women? That their bodies themselves are the problem?
In doing research for my forthcoming book, Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Christian Purity, I interviewed several women about their perspectives on modesty and their experience with it in the evangelical church. One woman, whom I’ll call Ruth, told me that as a larger-than-average woman, she both struggled with the concept of modesty and thought it didn’t apply to her. She felt both an obligation to dress modestly and a fear that she would never be found attractive. When Ruth got married, she assumed her husband would be tempted to cheat — with thinner, more immodestly dressed women. She told me, “According to what I’d been taught, he was constantly and irresistibly drawn to them and had to fight to love me instead.” And yet, Ruth could not dress immodestly for her husband, because her body might tempt other men as well. She found herself between a rock and a hard place.
Illustrated By Madelyn Somers.
Another woman, identified as Kay, told me that she and her sister used to style their uniforms in the same way while attending their conservative, Christian school. Yet Kay’s sister, who was bigger than Kay, was always getting pulled aside and reprimanded about modesty — while Kay would skate by in the exact same outfit, just in a smaller size. Kay described it: “She would be told not to dress so 'slutty,' and that she couldn’t wear such distracting clothing to school.” What was perceived as immodest on a curvier woman was considered just fine on a smaller woman.
According to Delta, this changing standard of modesty — thinner women getting away with more immodest clothing based on body size — doesn’t particularly matter. For her, every Christian woman has an obligation to dress modestly. "We simply have to look at life through a lens of humility," she says. "Our clothes are just a reflection of who we are… We have so much to offer the world, and our bodies are vessels to pour good into our communities.”
L.P. has a different perspective. “I’ve said this countless times before: A subway rat dressed up in a top hat and a tuxedo is still a subway rat. Body policing dressed up as empowerment and free[dom] is still body policing.”
In many ways, I can understand the urge to dress in a way that reflects one’s beliefs about the world, and to be modest in that way. But, tying respectability and self-worth into one’s clothing choices is a dangerous road to travel; it gives cause to judge women based solely on whether or not their skirts are too short or their necklines are at the right height. Internalizing such judgment, especially that of men towards women, seems to pin our own body image upon what others think of us. This judgment says we are responsible for the feelings — and even the actions — of men who find us sexually attractive. In that battle, nobody wins.
Dianna Anderson is the author of Damaged Goods: New Perspectives On Christian Purity, forthcoming in February 2015. She lives in Sioux Falls, SD, with her cats, and never wants to take off her yoga pants.