Hunting witches: the shaming of women’s bodies

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Following her earlier article, Pretty Hurts, Bianca Costa Sales examines the double standards, injustices and cultural oversights in society’s treatment of women.

Let’s start with some provocative questions: how many of you, female readers, feel comfortable talking about menstruation with the men in your life (including husbands, fathers, brothers, and friends)? And how many of you, male readers, would feel at ease if the women in your life began to mention their menstrual cycle in conversation as casually as they might mention the weather, developments in the coronavirus vaccines, or the latest releases on Netflix?

Non-British Isles readers might have missed it, but last month began with a controversy in the UK and Irish media surrounding the ban of Tampax’s new television advertisement in Ireland. The Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland made the decision to veto the commercial after receiving 84 complaints, which claimed it was “demeaning to women” and caused “general offence”, as reported by The Independent

The ad in question was, in fact, refreshingly honest in its approach to the most common difficulty faced by tampon users: how to insert without discomfort. 

It begins with a fictional talk-show host asking her presumably female audience, “how many of you ever feel your tampon?” After a show of hands, the host continues: “You shouldn’t! It might mean your tampon isn’t in far enough. You gotta get’em up there, girls!” 

What follows is a pair of hands simulating the correct depth a tampon must reach when being inserted. Surely this material could only be considered “demeaning” by those who would rather imagine women as picture-perfect plastic dolls rather than as living-breathing-menstruating human beings?

It strikes me as ludicrous that 84 people took the time to make formal complaints about an informative tampon advertisement in the middle of a global pandemic. (Or it may well be that some of us have become bored out of our minds during quarantine!) 

Yet, the Tampax ad ban can serve us as a litmus test for our cultural climate surrounding talk about women’s bodies, and the pervasive shaming that comes along with it most of the time. 

My guess is that most women reading this will be more disappointed than surprised at the fact that this happened. How many of us grew up fearing that, if our period were to sneak up on us in the middle of a school day, we would be laughed at mercilessly for any stains found on our uniform? 

From personal experience, having been to high school both in Rio de Janeiro and London, I remember thinking that the secret agent kind of subtlety required to excuse yourself from class and go to the bathroom while discreetly carrying a sanitary pad must have been a universal practice. It was like every girl just knew about this unspoken behaviour code.

A 2019 Guardian article surveyed nearly 3500 women and girls about their experience of menstruation and menopause. It discovered that “negative attitudes dominated the results, across the age groups from menarche to post-menopause, but what also came through clearly was a lack of knowledge” around these topics. 

The age-old menstruation taboo hurts everyone, as the article argues:

“we are all human beings and we all came from the same place – a uterus – so to demean and despise the process that gives us life arguably diminishes everyone”.

Beautifully echoing the Christian belief in the fundamental dignity of every human person, the feminist writer goes on to say that boys and men are hurt by this too. The intergenerational cycle of shaming damages their relationships with their “mothers, sisters, partners, friends and colleagues” by not letting them “see the full humanity of their loved ones”.

Beyond the harmful psychological effects of these attitudes (particularly on young women, who are more susceptible to negative talks about their bodies), they can also indirectly spread misinformation. If an advert addressing a perceived confusion among its consumers can be deemed offensive, its banning further contributes to precluding honest discussions about women’s reproductive health – which should be a normal part of most families’ daily lives. 

At the very least, it would be nice if fathers and daughters could discuss which period products need to be bought at the shop without a sense of mutual embarrassment!

But society’s schizophrenic attitude to the female form goes beyond sticky topics like menstruation and reproductive health. It has become normal over the centuries to scrutinize in a judgemental way how women dress. We may have become used to it, but it’s an unfair and uncharitable reality nonetheless.

Perhaps the saddest part is that this criticism is often levelled at women by other women. As one mainstream feminist critique affirms, instead of feeling a sense of sisterhood towards their fellows, many women feel the need to compete against each other, typically using demeaning judgments as a key weapon in their critical armoury. For what, exactly, they are competing is never entirely clear, or perhaps it doesn’t really matter. As the female singer Taylor Swift has written, “women like hunting witches too”. 

In a way that hardly happens to men, female wardrobe choices are instantly judged as if they were an infallible guide to women’s inner worth, to their sexual activity or lack thereof, or even, in certain cultures to whether they are “marriage material”.

In my earlier Pretty Hurts article, I discussed the obsessive search for bodily perfection in today’s world, particularly in Brazil – where “there is always someone […] to give you unsolicited advice and comment on your appearance”. 

While my own experience comes largely from a Christian context, and hence I will focus on this in this article, proffering unsolicited and disrespectful comments on women’s appearances is a reality which crosses geographical, cultural and religious boundaries from non-religious to Christian, Muslim, Sikh and no doubt other circles. 

And if it only stopped at comments… Tragically, hundreds, even thousands of women are murdered by their families each year in the name of family ‘honour’. But other more subtle forms of repression include draconian dress codes imposed upon women. The burqa is perhaps the most famous example, as if we were somehow responsible for the lust men might feel were our bodies more exposed. Although, since the burqa ban enforced by some European countries, many Islamic women have rightfully demanded their religious freedom back, saying they choose to wear the burqa because it forces men to listen to their voices rather than stare at their bodies.

In essence, all of these have to do with women’s family members, friends or acquaintances deciding to become judge, jury and executioner of perceived breaches of moral codes in female behaviour and dress.  

Such treatment of women is often justified in terms of punishment for breaches of ‘modesty’ – a term which may sound quaintly anachronistic today, but which is worth examining.

Modesty, by definition, encompasses not only clothing but also feelings and actions. It’s a moral imperative equally incumbent on men and women. The problem lies in how modesty is disproportionally weaponized against women referring to their looks. To coin a popular saying which has an even more poignant meaning when applied to questions of faith: the devil is in the details, or rather, in the definitions.

An example of a particularly well formulated religious approach to modesty, impressive both for its clarity and its refinement, is found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (nn. 2521-2524), which beautifully puts the concept in context. It says that modesty “guides how one looks at others and behaves toward them in conformity with the dignity of persons and their solidarity”.

The Catechism, crucially, also notes that modesty may “vary from one culture to another”. This might mean, for instance, that a woman wearing objectively revealing clothes in one region – like an Indian woman wearing a sari which exposes the stomach and back, or a woman in a tropical country wearing a sleeveless shirt or a shorter skirt – can all be entirely modest. In summary, the section concludes, “teaching modesty to children and adolescents means awakening in them respect for the human person”.

As respectful and sensitive as the Catechism is, when it comes to applying these principles there is still a lot of restlessness, arrogance and finger-pointing going around – just ask any female church-goer. 

In certain traditional(ist) Christian circles, for example, it is not an exaggeration to state that women are on the receiving end of misguided criticism from conservative fellows sporting a holier-than-thou attitude far more often than their male counterparts.

Ultimately, a person’s level of skin exposure is a subjective and culturally relative judgment – made freely on a daily basis. Whether we subscribe to one of the many faiths which offer some form of dress code, or we are non-believers, we are all confronted with the question of how to make reasonable fashion choices which reflect the entirety of our beauty and personality.

While there is always an ethical dimension to every fashion statement or purchase, this dimension should also include charity in one’s judgment of others’ choices. When the religious fashion police sharpen their tongues they show little charity, choosing instead to jump to conclusions and snipe at women who wear clothes which do not fit in with their particular idea of ‘correctness’. But let’s remember that, morally speaking, sins against charity are worse than those against chastity.

In a personal blog post which has gone viral within Christian web-communities since 2010, Simcha Fisher, who writes for the National Catholic Register, exposed her irritation at uber-traditionalist groups who still criticize women for wearing trousers instead of skirts, claiming that trousers are immodest because they emphasise women’s curves.

In “Pants: A Manifesto”, Fisher defends trousers with humour and common sense. “Motherhood is a blue collar job”, she writes. “I don’t care what style of dress or skirt you’re wearing, there is no way to be modest while dealing efficiently with the routine emergencies that normal children engender.” 

Fisher explains that “skirts are not a sign of oppression and misery! I wish I could pull off the look, and to those of you who do wear skirts: I think you look nice. […] Some women like to wear pants, and some don’t. It’s not a moral issue”.

Deborah, a Mormon woman, has also expressed that she is “weary of witnessing, over and over, how we culturally misuse the term ‘modesty’ and reduce it to base rules governing the attire of (primarily) teenage girls”. In her 2013 post on “What A Pope Can Teach Us About Modesty”, she notices how little is actually achieved by abrasive interventions on the part of Christians inspired with misguided notions of cultural vigilantism, and how much more could be achieved by good examples of virtuous conduct.

Referencing Pope Francis’ very clear and real choices for a simple lifestyle as pontiff, Deborah believes that choices of clothing speak volumes in symbolic language, but actions are still louder.

“I’m not sure I’ve ever left a discussion about tank-tops and hemlines feeling edified — though modesty is supposed to be one of the gifts of the spirit”, Deborah wrote, “[b]ut the world has caught its breath at the modesty of Francis”. 

Marvelling that the Pope has “swapped the apostolic palace for a room at the Inn of Saint Martha, celebrates Mass each morning with rank-and-file Vatican employees, and is driven around in a Ford Focus”, the writer concludes that it is a person’s behaviour as a whole – not just their fashion statements – which truly embody the virtuous spirit. 

Through examples like these, she notes, “we are reminded that modesty is primarily about recognizing the dignity of the human spirit and acting accordingly”. 

The truth is that virtue (and vice) lie more often in the eye of the beholder than in the intentions of the women whose clothes are seemingly always up for public debate. For those who search for justification in the pages of scripture for their rigid norms on modesty, I would suggest a re-reading of the Gospel of Luke.

In Luke 7:44, after a sinful woman bathes Jesus’s feet in her tears and earns a Pharisee’s disapproving frown, Jesus asks him a simple question which strikes me as a profound example of the sheer tenderness of divine mercy: “do you see this woman?” 

While the Pharisee can only see the woman’s immorality, Jesus sees the person. He sees her gestures of love and repentance; he sees her willingness to be near him. He says that her many sins have been forgiven because she has shown much love. 

“Do you see this woman?” – Perhaps that should become the standard answer to anyone who takes it upon themselves to monitor women’s clothing choices according to their own idea of what modesty is supposed to look like at face (or bodily) value.




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