Saturday, March 20, 2010

She Looks Good, She Looks Fine

Last weekend, we were coming out of The Palazzo in Las Vegas after seeing a brilliant performance of Jersey Boys. The night was cold, the lines for the valet were backed up, and right at the top of the escalators was one of the hottest night clubs on the Strip. I stood there with Kevin in my Buckle jeans, Anthropologie top, and Eddie Bauer sweater, which, after watching the women prance out of the hotel, I realized were so NOT what everybody was wearing for a night out on the Strip.

Judging from the outfits, I believe that the outfit de nuit was a bodyhugging, sleeveless, mini-dress with platform, gladiator sandals—the kind with four bondage-looking straps across the foot and a hideous ankle strap that make anybody wearing them if not proportioned like Kate Moss look as if they have cankles. The great thing about this dress was that it was, virtually, a uniform for the under thirty set. Just about every woman I saw was dressed similarly. (This is not a discussion of the fashion industry, so withhold judgment for a second.) Doesn't matter her shape, her size, the winter-pale of her thighs and arms, the fact that some could hardly walk in their gladiator platforms and clomped forward like a parody of Frankenstein. Here they came, down the escalator, hair pomaded into shape, lips glossy, and eyes bright — fancy flocks of women out for a night on the town.

In particular, I remember a group of women (girls really), in their early twenties, none of which, bar an Asian woman, had to be under 200 pounds. Never you mind. One had on a grey-and-pink large horizontally striped mini dress which clung around her really ample middle and didn't quite cover her dimpled thighs. Her friend, shaped like those bodies that look really skinny side-on and then when they turn front-on, the hips are a foot wider on each side than the knees, wore a black, leather mini-skirt with a white tank-top and a wide, silver-buckled belt. Her pointy high-heels reminded me of Ducky in Pretty in Pink. Together with about five other friends, they came down the escalator—owners of the night.

I couldn't help but smile at their excitement, at their struts, at the stumble one to took as she got off the escalator and then clung to her friend's arm, the two of them laughing at both the stumble and the realization that she was not going to be able to walk on her own in those shoes up and down the Vegas Strip.

As I watched them leave the hotel, shivering as the wind met them through the portico doors, I wanted to raise my right arm in the air, pump my fist, and bark that woof! that seems to mean "You go girls!" I marveled at their enthusiasm and their whole-bodied embrace of the mini-dress (or is it the other way around, the mini-dresses gallant embrace of their whole bodies?). I wondered if they looked in the mirror when they went out and actually thought, "Dang girl, I look good!" I hoped so. Because they were just so vibrant and so alive that they deserved to feel as if they were just as good as they hoped they were.

As I was sinking into this reverie about how great it was that there were women out there who didn't listen to what society told them about who got to dress fashionably, one of my friends turned to us, shaking his head at the feathered ladies and said, "What is the world coming to?" I looked at his facial expression. It was a mixture between amusement, disapproval and disbelief. I thought of a passage in a book I had just read, about an injured WW2 soldier in a hospital who received a magazine with the famous picture of Rita Heyworth kneeling on her bed. In his amazement, he shook his head and either he or the narrator commented, "What is the world coming to?"

I looked at this friend of mine, and thought about the contrast between our two reactions. Why had he looked at these women with a mixture of disdain and amusement? Yes, none of those women was conventionally beautiful. They were neither skinny nor pretty. They weren't even really physically attractive. There was maybe a nice nose, a set of collar bones, some bouncy hair between the five of them, but none all on one person. (They all had great smiles, though.) They were just women. Was it the bare flesh? (Which if it had been 125-pound bare flesh would not, I'm convinced, have evoked such a comment.) Was this flesh somehow unseemly or improper? If not, then why would a group of women dressed for a night out signify a threat to the stability of the world's order?

I sat in a Sunday School lesson about the law of chastity a few months ago. What could have been an insightful discussion about what it means to lust, what it means to cleave, what it means to go after in your heart, and why the verses contained language that was gender specific, such as "if a man looketh up on a woman . . ." ended up in a discussion of how we should cover up our little girls in one-piece bathing suits and skirts below the knees. How a principle of emotional and physical self-control and discipline which needs to be mastered by adult men and women to help create a strong union devolved into a list consisting of one-piece bathing suits, no sleeveless tops and stockings on Sundays for our female children, I don't know. Well, I do, but the discussion shouldn't have ended up there.

I do remember that the question that sparked the list was "How can we teach the law of chastity to our children?" I thought perhaps a really frank discussion of how men and women get turned on, and what works for women and what works for men. Maybe teaching your teenage boys that when you hold a girl's hand, it means far more to the girl than just holding hands. It means, for most girls, an emotional commitment. It means that she thinks the boy really likes her. It does NOT mean that she knows that you just want to hold her hand right now, and that if you feel like kissing her later, you might try to do that, and then when that gets boring, you'll go home to make yourself a turkey sandwich and play NBA Live. I would tell my sons this, and then say, "So, when you reach out, my boy, reach out gently, and honestly." If my boys know how girls work, then they can operate within appropriate boundaries without making promises they don't intend to keep.

I would tell my girl that her body is hers and hers only. That it is a beautiful, strong machine. It can do whatever she pleases it to do. It can hit home runs; it can shoot three-pointers and go up strong for rebounds; it can stride out across red rocks to the top of the canyon rim; it can make love and bear children. It can double-back handspring, and pirouette. It can do all these things without having to have breasts and buttocks a certain size, and it can do it virtuously in tank top and sports bra.

It can go, if it wants, out on the town in a pink-and-gray striped mini-dress hugging thighs that would be great behind home plate because they can generate enough power to thrust up out of the squat and throw out the runner at second base. This body is hers, and it is beautiful without needing a man or a male society to approve it. That is what I would tell my girl about her body.

Then I would give her as many opportunities as possible to find out just what her body can do, no matter its size. Knowing that, she would begin to feel that she controls what her body does and how it is perceived. She would, hopefully, begin to sense that her body is far more than what it looks like, that it is valuable for what it can do, and that she and it are partners (not enemies) in her journey.

I would also tell her that if she wants to kiss a boy, then to go ahead and kiss him. But, to remember, that to her a kiss is more than a kiss, and to him (generally) a kiss is just a kiss. I would tell her that boys are visual, that boys get out of the starting blocks going 60 mph, that boys are pretty simple to keep happy. Knowing that, she is better able to make wise decisions about herself, her feelings and her body.

But, if you're not going to have those kinds of discussions about sexuality, which is the root of chastity, then I guess the best we can do is cover her up. She will probably feel, in some unarticulated place in her soul, that there is something wrong with her body, that it contains feelings and urges and sights that are untrustworthy, even dangerous, but that's what happens when you hang the preservation of our society's moral values on the length of a skirt.

Title: from Manfred Mann, "Do Wah Diddy Diddy."


  1. I love every bit of this post, especially how you describe the women with such joy and freedom in their bodies. It often amazes me how honesty seems to be the best policy - except for anything related to sex.

  2. As always, I so enjoy your thought provoking posts!

    I also think the Sunday school discussion would've been more appropriately aimed at our own self-control!!
    ...but, I do have to ask the obvious question: How do you think this jives with the Strength of Youth standards of modesty?

  3. In my mind, it's the same question that arises with R-rated movies.

    For me, at the core is "Teach them correct principles; then let them govern themselves."

    But, when you are dealing with an organization, it's troubling to see what governing themselves looks like. Because it will look like different things. We don't like to live in ambiguity. It's puzzling to us and our children. So we draw lines in the sand.

    These lines, which clothes the principles, become then the law. That's not what the lines are. They're just boundaries set up for people who don't want to go through the work of finding out for themselves what their own lines are.

    For example, the standard is "modesty." If you look up that definition, which I did in writing this post, and I'm thinking about it for another one, you'll see that it means to not draw undue attention to oneself. Because we confuse the line with the principle, I've seen so many nipples on young girls and women in long sleeve Shade shirts, meant to be worn as undershirts, singing in the choir, that it's sort of like a family joke. And yet, there could be a woman or a young girl in a sleeveless Easter dress in peppermint green that looks as demure as the Virgin Mary. And, in most congregations, the sleeveless dress would elicit stares of disapproval.

    I know that an organization has to set standards for its members, sort of like a code of conduct, that helps people know how to belong. I understand that. So, if you want to really belong by looking all the same, there's safety in following that code.

    Underlying it though there needs to be a principle-based teaching of modesty, of bodies, of sex that doesn't seem to be going on. We teach the lines without the underlying principle. In other words, being modest is not wearing short shorts. That's not being modest. That's just not wearing short shorts. Then our young women believe that we don't wear certain things because we can't. The church forbids it. They very rarely get to feel like I am choosing not to wear this piece of clothing because I want to choose not to wear it. It's always superimposed on them.

    The choice needs to come from within, from an understanding of their own worth. And really, it's just a shirt. When the shirt changes from just a shirt to an attempt to gain attention, which can be with any shirt whether it has sleeves or not, then that's where decisions have to be made by the person.

    In my opinion, the emphasis on appearance is Pharisaical. But that's just my opinion. As if we can judge the inner woman on the outer shell.

  4. I heard you read "Take, Eat" last year (which made me cry--partially because I was pregnant at the time and mostly because the essay was lovely). I'm so glad I found your blog. Thanks for writing this.

  5. When I was in high school (in the late '80's), our school had a dress code--skirts had to be less than 2 inches above the knees when kneeling.

    I got very tired of a certain girl in my class whining EVERY DAY about getting busted for dress code violations--even when her skirts were long enough (she just looked trashy)--so, as a social experiment, I put my extremely conservative "good girl" self into the shortest skirt I owned (which was a hand-me-down from a short cousin). I would estimate I had about 7 inches of above-the-knee leg showing, but I accessorized with a cream silk shirt, pearls & heels. Not only did I not get "busted", but the principal and school secretary both complimented me on how nice I looked.

    Now I am teaching my teenage daughter it is about the attitude and reasons behind the clothing, not JUST the rules. I am also making modest gowns for her and any of our YW who want them--that are more comfortable to wear (the current strapless fashion is as awkward for those who are "well endowed" as it is for those who are NOT!) and reflect the girls personality and interests. Much more fun!

  6. I just came across this blog and found it very interesting indeed.Thanks for sharing