I’m not enthusiastic about the early Christian councils or related heresies, so I decided to write my recently-assigned Christian history essay on a text that is firmly within my wheelhouse: a tract where a Christian man tells women about the sinfulness of their bodies and clothing. Tertullian’s On the Apparel of Women, written during the late second or early third century, is unusual for its naked misogyny. He inherits the sexism of the classical world and adds to it. In his mind, all women are like Eve, all women are “the devil’s gateway,” and must atone for her sins. Colored cloth, jewelry, makeup, hair dye, fancy hairstyles, and women walking around in public spaces are all evil and provoke men to lust. Tertullian is more concerned with the kind of modesty that shuns luxury rather than the contemporary kind that abhors the showing of skin, but his insistence that women make their clothing plain and stay out of sight is intimately familiar.
Modesty was also a theme of Where We Must Stand (2018), a collection of blog posts from the first decade of Feminist Mormon Housewives. When Sara K. S. Hanks and I were trying to figure out which posts to include in the book, we struggled. There were just so many posts that described and critiqued modesty culture, the connection between modesty rhetoric and rape culture, and the sexualization of women’s bodies as normal. With a lifetime in a religious culture that prioritized men’s opinions and experiences, I could not easily make myself read On the Apparel of Women. I had read and heard many similar talks, intellectually rejecting and also absorbing these messages. By my early twenties, I had succeeded in hating myself and my body to the standard I thought was expected of me.
At the same time, it was confusing. Church leaders routinely trotted out comments about loving and valuing women. Even as a teenager, I wasn’t sure what they meant. I was supposed to trust my church leaders, but these professions of love and value seemed disconnected from church structure, decision-making, and resources. There was a strong suggestion that if I saw a problem with any of this, I did not understand in the right way or have sufficient faith.
All of this messaging would be reconciled in my young teenage body. After an assault, I understood that my worth had diminished. Deserving this harm, I stayed silent. I knew that I would be blamed and/or punished by parents and church leaders and it was better for me to focus my energy on avoiding my assailant. I am often surprised that my 14 year old self was able to execute such complicated situational arithmetic and see a larger and more complex reality through the thin veneer of nice talk. I am still grateful for her clarity and wisdom, though I mourn the years of disordered eating and conscious belief that that my teenage body did not deserve to take up space.
These days I understand that my body did not deserve assault or the messaging that heaped shame on my situation. I no longer experience an eating disorder and have made progress in learning to love the body that has carried me through life. I see that misogyny was baked into Christian thought at an early stage. It is not enough to pretend it doesn’t exist in the present, to see it only as an artifact of history. These sins must be excised, together with the other bigotries (homophobia, transphobia, ablism, racism) Christianity picked up in the early years of its development. It is difficult to trust institutions that embrace these bigotries as consistent with the inclusive message of Jesus or justify their continued embrace under the banners of “morality” and “tradition.”
Today I spend a lot of time excavating these old beliefs and feelings and laying them out in the intense desert sun. I am practiced at seeing patterns of harm through attractive messaging, honed through decades of lived experience and feminist study. This work is the spiritual work that occupies my present and lies ahead. I’m glad that I can bring this work to church and engage in it with others doing the same thing, though I understand that my congregation is unusual. After thorough examination, we throw away bad beliefs like the trash that they are—really old trash, apparently, recycled as useful wisdom that harms each generation anew.