DRESS CODE(S), CONFLICTING PURITIES, AND REALLY TIGHT PANTS

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Student journalist Natalie Rowthorn, in a recent op-ed to the Indiana Daily Student titled “The era of the legging must end,” expresses strong opinions about one particularly controversial article of clothing that goes by many names: yoga pants, tights, or leggings. Leggings, as Rowthorn identifies them, are too convenient due to their ease of outfit planning and all around comfortable fit. In a description of her typical morning dress routines, she writes, employing a flurry of dashes, that

I rummage through my drawers and yank out the first semi-clean shirt I can find and grab my favorite pair of black leggings off the floor next to my over-worn flip-flops. Boots if it’s fall. 

Rowthorn’s complicity as a frequent wearer of leggings segues into abrupt critique:

This is the outfit of disaster, people. Or, should I say, ladies. Maybe I’m being a little dramatic but it seems that the young women of America love wearing their leggings a little too much.

But what is the source of Rowthorn’s criticism? Why–given leggings’ convenience and practicality–does she oppose them? Rowthorn’s sartorial critique stems from a recent study abroad trip in which the student was exposed to high French culture and fashion. Leggings, Rowthorn discovered, are not a universal phenomenon:

This is an American problem. While spending this summer abroad in the south of France, I did not spot a single French man, woman, or canine sporting a pair of leggings–not a single being (besides my fellow Americans, of course). . . .  I made this shocking realization. I was the slobby one. While sporting a pair of leggings, I made my way around, slowly realizing that not only was I a foreigner, I was an outcast, a fashion abomination. 

French style assulted Rowthorn in all of her slobbiness as she meandered around fashion current Parisian streets. Back in the hotel room, thoroughly embarrassed, Rowthorn rights her ways and swaps inappropriate and super-casual leggings for something more fashion worthy: a floral print sundress. The style convert now finishes her tirade against American and particularly college sartorial sense:

I’ll say it bluntly. America, we look like slobs. Sure, we’re practically dressed for class [when donning leggings]. But when we finally graduate college and enter the real world, one without red solo cups and tailgates, we must also relinquish our leggings.

She balances out her critique with a final disclaimer, however, in which she redeems the use of leggings in limited circumstances and contexts:

I’m not saying all college women should trash their leggings and never wear them ever again. I’m just saying we should re-evaluate the occasions for which they are appropriate. Save leggings for that dreadful 8 a.m. discussion class on Fridays, not dinner with the parents. 

Let’s put Rowthorn’s op-ed to the side, momentarily, to consider another critique of the leggings phenomenon. Evangelical writer Phylicia Duran, who blogs at Phylicia Delta: Approaching God’s Grace in Red High Heels and writes on issues of fashion, faith, and modesty, sees her work as helping to instruct Christian women. In one post, titled “That Day I Wore Yoga Pants,” Duran denounces the pants. Like Rowthorn, Duran describes the appeal of the article of clothing’s sheer functionality or practicality as she prepared to head to they gym:

Hurriedly I raked through my second dresser drawer in the dim light of the unlit closet, scrambling for pants of some kind. Finding some, I grabbed a work out shirt, jammed feet into tennis shoes and breathlessly answered the door for Mr. M. . . . The pants I had found in my harried search were work out capris — otherwise known as yoga pants.

Personally, Duran makes clear, she likes yoga pants:

I like them because not only are they comfortable — as all yoga pants are — but I look trendy. . . . I like that look, regardless of the consequences. 

But there are consequences. 

At this point my anthropologist ears perk up. Why are there consequences? What exactly is wrong with wearing the pants? What’s her rationale? The issue, for Duran, is modesty. Denouncing yoga pants has to do with sartorial choice as it does for Rowthorn, but in Duran’s rationale modesty trumps fashion preference. In the latter’s mind, wearing yoga pants is immodest:

The issue isn’t yoga pants at all, but the principle of the matter. The pants are skin tight. You can see every curve of my lower body. Not only is it attractive to Mr. M [her husband], but from several other informal interviews, comments, and input from other men, it’s a recurring blind spot with Christian women everywhere. It’s about how hot I look, or how I want to dress, regardless of what anybody thinks. 

Wearing yoga pants contradicts the advice given to her by her husband and other Christian men. Yoga pants, and other revealing/immodest/form-fitting/short-hemline/tight types of clothing generate lust in men. And lust, she writes, corresponds directly to the ways women dress and present their (em)bodied selves. The level of men’s lust toward women’s bodies, in fact,

is directly related to how much of our bodies is available to lust after. The less we advertise, the less opportunity we give them to covet our bodies.

Avoidance of sin does cut both ways, though, in Duran’s conception. Men are responsible for not sexually objectifying women’s bodies, yes, but only partially so:

It is not just his job not to look: it is our responsibility to provide nothing provocative to look at. We 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. 

Mr. M himself even contributes a quote to the post:

Yoga pants make it difficult to work out [at the gym or fitness center] when the girls are right there and the pants are so tight, it’s basically like the woman is naked.

Duran and Mr. M are very clear on the matter: Honoring God requires that women abstain from wearing yoga pants. Yoga pants are immodest and lead to men’s sexual sin. They are, as she writes later in the post, a particularly powerful “visual stimulant.”

Rowthorn and Duran, then, reach an identical conclusion: Women ought to stop wearing yoga pants. The means by which the writers go about reaching that conclusion, though are different. Rowthorn’s method is largely a sartorial one. For her what is at stake is the fashion identity of American women. Duran’s method, to the contrary, is a religious or moral one. What is at stake is the purity, modesty, and physical-spiritual health of Christian women and men. Two strategies, one outcome. Two rationales, one pronouncement. Leggings as slobby fashion choices; yoga pants as immodest and revealing articles of clothing. Both writers, though, work to mark yoga pants as dangerous and taboo.

As always, when I’m analyzing the creation and maintenance of social taboos, social anthropologist Mary Douglas informs my thinking. In her seminal work, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concept of Pollution and Taboo, Douglas advances the argument that all cultural groups, operating within some sort of social system, engage in processes of separation, tidying, purification, cleansing, and demarcating–all for the purpose of unifying group experience and reinforcing social schema or patterns. Certain things, however, arise in social settings that pose a threat to the ordered system; these new problems threaten the order of the system and must then be policed and managed by social authorities. Such contagions Douglas categorizes as polluting, dirty, anomalous, discordant, ambiguous, and untidy. These things that don’t fit within established social schema must either be (i) accommodated into said system, that is, explained, categorized, and accounted for, or (ii) rejected as polluting and dirty.

The yoga pants controversy, I’d argue, exemplifies Douglas’s second point. Yoga pants are ambiguous in terms of wardrobe, right? (What exactly are they? Work-out pants? Athletic apparel? Lower-body layers under dresses and skirts?) The voices above, while they only partially appropriate the clothing (Rowthorn: leggings fine for early a.m. classes; Duran: yoga pants not inherently evil, just not to be worn in public situations under which one might be subjected to male gaze), work more adamantly to dismiss the clothing altogether. Yoga pants, then, are dangerous. Wearing them threatens either (i) style/fashion/sartorial taste (i.e., leggings as a “fashion abomination”) or (ii) religious/modesty/purity standards. Either way, they’re denounced and rejected.

Not all of my questions as a social and cultural theorist are immediately cleared up, however. We witness two seemingly differentiated pollution strategies being employed, but for what appears to be a shared purpose or outcome. But how related are the two tactics? According to Douglas, the presence of dirt signals the existence of system. In our case two methods pertain, but do both relate back to a singular normative system? And what are the implications of a society (or loosely-aligned sub-societies) that monitor and police the bodies of one (gendered) segment of its population but not others?

Image credit: Hegemony77 (Creative Commons)

On Nietzsche, Prosperity Gospel, and Suffering

Iconoclast philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (N), in his On the Genealogy of Morals, has it out for religion and religious. As the treatise progresses, he develops several critical concepts that bear the weight of his overall critique. In referring to Judaism and Christianity, in general, and what he calls the “priestly caste,” in particular, he proposes the concept of the priest. To this idea he ascribes a body of descriptions that are reiterated throughout the Genealogy. Priests, N says, reinforce what calls the opposites of “pure” and “impure.” But to be pure, he argues, means simply (and historically) to wash oneself, avoid certain foods said to bring about disease, avoid sleeping with prostitutes and coming into contact with blood. Famously, N classifies priests in terms of dietary prohibitions and prescriptions, sexual abstinence, and flight into the wilderness. Priests are anti-sensual. For them, “everything simply becomes more dangerous.” Everything is a possible contagion; everything is prohibited.

Another element endemic to religious (Judeo-Christian) sensibilities, in N’s mind, is what he calls slave mentality and its resulting ressentiment: Essentially, this is all a turning-inward, a conniving self-introspection, self-denial, and suppression of animal instinct. Through the themes of priestly class, slave mentality, and ressentiment, all of these processes ultimately make the human weak and artificialized. The human rolls in his guilt—in his bad conscience—while he disavows the world and its pleasures. The ascetic priest, like the self-depreciating slave, internalizes one’s own drives and instincts. All of these issues, N argues, are part and parcel to religious sensibilities, and in particular, Jewish and Christian ones.

N published Genealogy in the late nineteenth century (1887), however, and global Christianity has continued to evolve and morph over more than a century and a quarter. Does N’s critique still hold? I study North American evangelicals, and among those evangelicals, am interested in one controversial form of thought and praxis: The Prosperity Gospel. Proponents of this economic- and theological-system are minor celebrities who run veritable media empires whose religio-discursive networks span the globe. One might spot these celebrities in the eclectically filled time-slots of programming owned by the Trinity Broadcasting Network and other Christian televising programs.

I’m at the early end of my research on televangelism, so I certainly run the risk of essentializing the issues and providing an oversimplistic reading of televangelistic ideologies. But for now, I can say with some certainty that Prosperity authorities invert N’s thesis, that is, they undermine his critique of Christianity-qua-asceticism, Christianity as ressentiment, and Christianity as embodied slave-mentality. Prosperity theologies are material theologies; they are theologies of the here-and-now. Prosperity Gospels underscore economic wealth and apotheosize the possession of material goods; they are quasi-hedonistic gospels that problematize Western Christianity’s widespread adoption of mind-body dualism by reinstating a theological justification of bodily enjoyment and pleasure.

Critics of the Prosperity Gospel, both in the news media and in Protestant theological circles, offer the following quote by itinerant evangelist and healer, Benny Hinn, as an example of excess, an instance of theological aberrancy:

I’m sick and tired about hearing about streets of gold [in heaven]. I don’t need gold in heaven. I got to have it now.

In the minds of the theologically “orthodox” (the term is a matter of perspective) such a statement is construed as bold, vulgar, un-biblical. But not the iconoclastic philosopher who died the opening year of the 1900s—not Friedrich Nietzsche, with his compromised digestion system and brilliant, sometime illegibly existential rants scrawled across the pages of his journals—N approves of Hinn’s gospel. The iconoclast condones such theological iconoclasm. For more on this comparison, see these new essays.

My question, for the curious reader, is: How do Hinn and company fit with N’s terminologies, especially concerning the beasts of prey and the empirically meek, but actually insidious, lambs? Concerning wealth, Hinn is given, and given, and given. (Or, does he take? Is there a difference?) Hinn rejects the ascetic ideal. He is, in Nietzschean parlance, active, moving, attaining. Might there be an aggressiveness to Hinn’s activity? Might there be a will to power?

“Man, the bravest animal and the one most accustomed to suffering,” writes N, “does not negate suffering in itself: he wants it, he even seeks it out.” Thus, I extrapolate: (i) Humans seek out suffering, but do so only if they can (ii) provide meaning for that suffering. (iii) The ascetic ideal offers that meaning. (iv) Prosperity Gospelers reject the ascetic ideal and (v) claim a way out of suffering to material and spiritual well-being. (vi) Suffering, for N, in some sort of (C. S.) Lewisian, “Pain is God’s megaphone” sort of way, is one sure part of human existence in the world of nature.

But it remains to be seen: If (or when?) prosperity fails in everyday life—if (when) promises of wealth and harvest fail to materialize for adherents who have bills to pay now—how will the proponents compensate, and will the masses accept and submit? Will prosperity authorities offer simple, critical explanations (i.e., you are not sowing enough; you have not faith enough)? Will they compromise, slightly, by validating suffering in limited ways (God will use pain to make you a better person), all the while continuing to uphold seed-harvest teachings? What is the future of the Prosperity Gospel in a post-capitalist, globalizing world?

Americana, Conservatism, and the Objectification of Women’s Bodies

I’ve been wrestling with an unsettling theory lately. My research this semester—on evangelical soft patriarchy, gender discourse and negotiation of roles, and the history of familism in conservative America—began my theory. Recent publicity for the soon to come Miss Representation premier pushed it further along. I’ll come out with it (in a long, run-on sentence, of course): I’m convinced that the objectification of women’s bodies (as hyper-sexualized, over-sensual objects of male desire) employed ultimately for marketing, advertising, and consumption-driven purposes via diverse forms of media are the result of a conservative familism gone awry. Traditional Protestant-evangelical discourse plays a role in reducing the woman to the domestic sphere. In the divine order of things, the argument goes, women belong in the home. Gender essentialists point to physiological evidences of men and women’s differences, concluding that God designed male and female bodies for different tasks. Consider briefly Stu Weber’s essentialist (evangelical) prescription:

What do you see, after all, when you look at the vehicle of a man’s physical body? What was it made for? Check it out. In contrast, what does a woman’s body tell you that a woman was made for? Every twenty-eight days or so her body tells her she was made for giving life and sustenance. Her breasts remind her that she was made for giving life and nurturing life. What does a man’s body tell you? Not a thing! Why? Because the purpose for a man is out on the horizon. A man was made to be a provisionary, a wagon scout, out there in front, looking ahead. The purpose isn’t inside [the home or kitchen, God forbid!]. . . . We must find that purpose outside of ourselves.

In stating woman’s physiological purpose as the giving of sustenance Weber not-so-subtly connotes that a woman’s body is meant for reproduction; she’s to make other bodies. She must submit her body to the body of her husband, and in doing so bodies will grow and pass through her, to be raised and nurtured in the domestic sphere. To varying degrees, women are stripped of intellectual purpose, subjective volition, and self-autonomy. She is to submit, and receive, and give forth, and be a good sport of it while she sets herself to these tasks.

Contemporary media, then, is the logical evolution of patriarchal objectification of the woman, minus the Victorian propriety. The objectification of women’s bodies is simply patriarchal familism applied at the secular level.   In its hyper-sexualization of the female body, secular society upholds essentialist patriarchal ideals: women cannot think, theorize, write, speak publically, or be public leaders of men. Add to this formula the secular exaltation of sex-qua-recreation (i.e., sex not intended for procreation), and: Voila! The objectified American woman. Her substance is hardly mind, and mostly body. (And it’s sure nice-looking.) This body is meant to penetrate, and use, and exploit. In fact, it’s our favorite national commodity. So I’ll restate my prior contention: the objectification of the female body is an evolved, altogether secularized conservative familism. It’s a bastardized form of Christian patriarchy.

[Citation note: The above quote comes from Stu Webber’s 1993 book, Tender Warrior: God’s Intention for a Man (Portland, OR: Multnomah), 212. I originally discovered the quote via John P. Bartkowski’s 2001 study, Remaking the Godly Marriage: Gender Negotiation in Evangelical Families (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press).]