I finished reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles a few days ago. At one point, Tess and antagonist and rapist Alec D’Urberville are conversing; it’s his decision to renew their relationship, against her desire, and as persistent and devious as Alec is, his desire overrules hers. But during their series of conversations, his words begin to take on a familiar form: the vocabulary and structure of the discussion on modesty in the Christian subculture. It’s not just the formal church teachings, but it’s also in the applications and misapplications between the genders, where much of the emotional damage happens.
“Don’t look at me like that!” he said abruptly. (. . .)
And there was revived in her the wretched sentiment which had often come to her before, that in inhabiting the fleshly tabernacle with which nature had endowed her she was somehow doing wrong.”
Cover it up. If there was one thing I gained from all the lectures and books on modesty I absorbed as a teen, it was this: the female body is dangerous and shameful. Cover it up.
“No, no! Don’t beg my pardon. But since you wear a veil to hide your good looks, why don’t you keep it down?” (. . .) It may seem harsh of me to dictate like this,” he went on;
—I’ll interrupt and point out that it’s harsh and inappropriate—
“but it is better that I should not look too often on you. It might be dangerous.” (. . .) “Well, women’s faces have had too much power over me already for me not to fear them!”
Interesting. The male, who has the physical power, legal rights, and socially dominant position, claims to have a lack of power. He uses the female’s body to rhetorically place power in her hands, so that he might take that nominal power away from her and use it for himself. In this case, he uses this power to keep her under his control.
At my Christian college, we had a fairly strict dress code. Even so, there were men who put anonymous notes in certain females’ mailboxes:
Please, the notes read, don’t wear that sweater that you wore yesterday. It caused me problems.
I never received a note like this, but I was told about these notes by a male friend. It struck me as creepy. Who were these men? Friends, classmates, married students, professors? What kind of problems did these dress-code-acceptable but lust-inducing pieces of attire cause? A fleeting sexual thought? Something else?
Now, it strikes me as both creepy and controlling. The men asserted anonymously—a power play—that they had undisclosed “problems” —indicating a lack of power, even when they have the power to control their own actions. Why? Because of a clothing item on a particular woman’s body.
Then they tried take that power—her choice to wear the item—back with the spiritual argument. Your clothing caused me problems. Translated: It’s dangerous and powerful, so I must stop you from wearing it, even if I must resort to stalker-ish methods.
“Tess—I couldn’t help it!” (. . .) I assure you I had not been thinking of you at all till I saw you that Sunday; now I cannot get rid of your image, try how I may! It is hard that a good woman should do harm to a bad man; yet so it is.”
“O Alec d’Urberville! What does this mean? What have I done!”
“Done?” he said, with a soulless sneer in the word. “Nothing intentionally. But you have been the means—the innocent means—of my backsliding (…) Tess, my girl, I was on the way to, at least, social salvation till I saw you again!” he said freakishly shaking her, as if she were a child. “And why then have you tempted me? I was firm as a man could be till I saw those eyes and that mouth again—surely there never was such a maddening mouth since Eve’s!” His voice sank, and a hot archness shot from his own black eyes. “You temptress, Tess; you dear damned witch of Babylon—I could not resist you as soon as I met you again!”
Notice his lack of self-control and lack of taking responsibility for his own actions. I can’t help it, he repeats, you’re so attractive that I can’t help lusting after you! And following you. And talking to you, even after you’ve made it clear that you don’t want anything to do with me! I can’t help it! (Why am I thinking of a certain ex-boyfriend of mine? Oh, yeah. He just couldn’t help pursuing me. I was that pretty. All his previous flirtations with my friends? Oh, they were a way to get closer to me.)
“Of course you have done nothing except retain your pretty face and shapely figure. I saw it on the rick before you saw me—that tight pinafore-thing sets it off, and that wing-bonnet—you field-girls should never wear those bonnets if you wish to keep out of danger.”
These lines in particular were familiar. Dress modestly. Men are visual, so if you wear (fill in the blank with a clothing item), you’re causing them to stumble. And a good Christian girl never wants to make a man stumble! And it doesn’t matter whether it’s a tight pinafore-thing or a tight t-shirt, the effect is the same. You are to blame for being in danger. If he’s lusting, you have played a part of his slide into sin.
Then there’s the attribution of motives. What’s your motivation? If you dress that way (whatever way is offensive to the looker), are you trying to get attention from men? It’s a heart issue!
Well . . . maybe. Some people—men and women—do dress to receive attention from others.
But the Tess passage shows that it’s not always self-aggrandizing motivations. She’s working as a field laborer, doing demanding physical labor, when Alec makes this declaration. Her attire is not only appropriate for the setting, but necessary and practical. Plus, Tess is actively trying not to call attention to her appearance; she’s taken to wearing a veil to cover her beautiful face.
I ran across a blog post today that told a story of a mom on a beach field trip with a group of thirteen-year-olds and other mothers. The woman chose to wear a bikini.
The blogger, in discussing her attire, focused on her motivation: she was trying to get attention from the other women. Not sexual attention, but affirmation about her attractiveness. Then the blogger went further. Now, obviously she doesn’t love the Lord, so . . . and went on.
He just went from attributing motives to judging her spiritual condition based on her choice of a bathing suit. The motivation aspect, I understand; been there, done that myself. But a statement about whether or not she loves God? The bikini was inappropriate in that social setting—a school field trip—but I don’t see how that reveals the state of her heart.
(Incidentally, I’ve been guilty of both these.)
“You have been the cause of my backsliding.”
Alec blames Tess for his reversal of his previous reversal: reprobate turned lay preacher turned reprobate. On the basis of what? Her looks. Her clothing.
I’ve heard the “stumbling block” idea used in this discussion in church circles. You shouldn’t cause others to stumble into sin, so therefore you shouldn’t do thus-and-such.
I understand. There are areas where people are weak, and we shouldn’t use our freedom to further weaken them. But those who are weak shouldn’t use their weakness as an excuse to sin, nor should they exploit their weakness to gain power and control over others. And unfortunately, that happens far too often.
I realize that there are good reasons for dressing modestly: showing that you respect yourself, and that others should respect you as well. But even good motives can go awry, and even well-intentioned words can cause harm.
It’s interesting that Alec resorts to well-worn arguments about appearance and clothing in order to control Tess. It’s even more interesting and disturbing to hear variations on those lines used by Christians. Their motives may not be the same, but the effect of the words may be uncomfortably similar.