Friday, 29 June 2012 15:08

Body Shame: Not my virtue

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And ye shall be free from slavery; and as a sign that ye be really free, ye shall be naked in your rites; and ye shall dance, sing, feast, make music and love, all in Her praise. For Hers is the ecstasy of the spirit, and Hers also is joy on earth; for Her law is love unto all beings. - Doreen Valiente, The Charge of the Goddess

A wise person does what is required and appropriate in any given situation. When meeting clients, I dress in a way so as to focus their attention on the business at hand rather than my cleavage.  When having a romantic dinner with my lover, I show skin because I know it turns him on.  And then there is a very practical side to it all: I live in Memphis, TN and right now it's the brunt of summertime with 100-plus degree heat and air so thick you need gills to breathe, so I say screw wearing any more than I have to.  But make no mistake: I don't consider modesty a virtue any more than I consider wearing a sharp suit to meet a business client a virtue.  There is nothing holy, sacred, or divine about covering my body; in my moral paradigm, it's simply something that needs to be done when the situation requires it.

Our over-culture is obsessed with it.  Just look at creepy sites like the one discussed in this article, "The Ugly Side of Modesty," which tell little girls to cover up because Grandpa might see their panties.   There's this underlying presumption of pedophilia everywhere and it's kind of disgusting. And of course, the best way to teach a girl that she's a sex object is to treat her like a sex object. "You've got to cover that up so that men think impure thoughts about you."  The irony of these modesty teachings is that they teach girls to be sex objects - tightly controlled, covered up ones who are only allowed to express their sexuality through the confines of their religious doctrine - but sex objects all the same.

Modesty sometimes comes hand in hand with body shame, and that's the very core of my problem with the whole concept. Shame teaches that we need to protect parts of our bodies from prying eyes, that we need to be careful not to turn anyone on inadvertantly (or advertantly!).  It tells us that we aren't allowed to breastfeed in public, that we need to feed our babies in filthy, germ-filled, shit-scented public restrooms because of shame.  My gods don't tell me that I need to be covered to be respectful.  They don't imply that somehow being covered is akin to holiness?  The flesh I was formed in is holy enough for them.


The Greeks were certainly not shameful with their statues.  They exalted the human form, in all of its holiness, the earthly element of our existence.  The Greeks did believe in pride - the Olympics (which were all done in the nude), the arts, the sciences, the medicine - all done with a sense of pride, which is evident in the lasting and profound quality of the work.  That kind of greatness could not be achieved by being timid. 

It is for shame that John Ashcroft had to cover the breasts of Lady Justice.  In this secular nation, a select few get to decide that the human body is indecent and that it can't be shown in art?  Conservative Christians have been pushing for decades against indecent art. Janet Jackson terrified the entire United States of America with a fucking nipple!  Are you kidding me?  That's one of the first things a baby should see, yet it's indecent?  Are we a nation of 8-year-olds or something? (Please don't answer that.)  Talk to some people from Europe. They think the USA is hopelessly backwards and barbaric in this regard, and I wholly agree with them.

The obsession with shame goes to some horrible ends.  Slut shaming is common practice in our culture.  "If she weren't dressed like that, she wouldn't have been raped." It makes people feel as if they have to do something specific because everyone else around them is too much of an animal to control themselves.  If you see too much cleavage or leg, you might turn into a savage animal and not be able to help yourself, Your Honor - and in some parts of this country, you'll even get off scot-free with such an excuse.

So, who told our society that we have to be shamed? How did we get this idea in our heads that shame is somehow an exalted state of being?  I don't see animals being ashamed of their bodies; they are quite comfortable in their own skin. As a follower of an earth-based religion that celebrates the flesh and bone as well as the spirit, I see no need to cover myself; my body is sacred, my body is holy, my body is natural.  My gods are the earth, the stars, the moon, the sun, the planets, and the whole of the universe.  Why would my body need to be covered from them?  The sun and the stars don't veil themselves.  We are all beings of the cosmos, sharing the same experience.

My religion teaches me that I was evolved from an ancient primal source, in accordance with what we have learned through archaeological, biological, geological and cosmological research.  My flesh is the shape of my earthly self, evolved through with the life force that began at the first big bang.  My flesh, my hair, my bones, my eyes are all made from the atoms born in the original stars at the beginning of time.  We are the holy children of Space-Time-Chaos, and there is no part of us that is not of the gods.

I practice skyclad whenever I possibly can. I enjoy clothing optional pagan events.  There is nothing quite like the feeling of moonlight and whispered winds against the skin on a dewy spring night. The skin is the largest sense organ we have and is capable of taking in so much more information by being bare against the environment.  Dancing skyclad in the woods is a holy experience.  Lothlorien, in southern Indiana, sometimes has clothing optional weekends, and a gorgeous forest and creek to play in. Magic is a very sensory experience for me and I love to be able to feel it as closely as possible.

Do what is right for the situation.  When modesty is appropriate and most effective for you in the situation, do it.  When it's not, don't. And for the love of the gods, let's not confuse modesty with body shame. You wear what makes you happy, for whatever reason makes you happy. Be appropriate, be effective, but please don't be hung up about it. Expect better of those around you.  The point is to make your own decisions, not let others do it for you.

People who cannot handle their own thoughts expect you to accomodate them.  They expect you to cover up, to wear impractical or unwanted things because they can't behave like decent human beings and treat you like one in return.  And ultimately, when you let someone dictate to you how you must dress to accomodate them, you've given them reign to tell you all sorts of other ways you should live your life, too.  It comes down to, in many cases, not accepting yourself for who you are because you've allowed so many others to define you.

Nice girls don't do that. Real men are like this.

Are you going to live your life for them, or for yourself?  Who demands that you wear what you do? Is it you?  Or is it someone else?

Instead, we should look to an understanding of self respect and a realization that how we dress ourselves affects how others perceive us. Make no mistake, dressing like a sex object will get you looked at sexually - but there's nothing wrong with that!  If you're going clubbing, then please, wear the skimpiest stuff you've got, if that's what you feel best in.  If you're meeting a client, wear something smart and sharp that says, "I'm the best woman for the job."  If you've got a hot date, wear those pants that show off your ass.  Men, too, please! I always wear practical shoes - I hate high heels - but do whatever suits you. Know that what you project is what people receive, for better or worse. What message are you telling people with your clothing and grooming?  And is that what is best for you? I never will accept the sexuality-is-shameful mindset in choosing my dress, though, because it never is shameful.

I find it appalling that modesty seems to be so strongly associated with women, a feminine virtue that good girls do. Are men also required to be modest?  Given a quick glance around modern society, you wouldn't think so. Men aren't encouraged to be modest but women are. Just take a look at mainstream advertising for examples of that. It's very telling when considering the ongoing fight for women to be treated as equals.  Men are assertive, women are bitchy. Men are studs, women are sluts. It is no wonder the system that has systematically kept women as second-class citizens is so bent on shame. Do you own yourself, or does someone else?

I suspect that some people who came to Paganism never fully left their old religion behind.  Though they may have changed the names of their gods, and maybe even their genders, the moral and social upbringing and all of the hang-ups that came with it were never addressed. Our over-culture has an ugly, unhealthy focus on shame because so many of us are imprinted with the original sin of Adam and Eve, and we've felt the need to cover ourselves in shame ever since.  It started in childhood and for many, carried on to adulthood as a reflexive behavior, an inherent understanding that modesty is holy that stems from a culture that worships a god-out-there who is seperate and far away from the earth.  Are we carrying baggage? Or is this a virtue that we have examined, personally, and determined that it is right for us, regardless of what the over-culture may think?

Sexuality, the body and its sacredness are part of my religion.  Beltane is a holy day which is sometimes celebrated with sexual rites.  The exaltation of the flesh is a holy act.  There is no shame in the body, in its full glory.  I realize that it may make some people uncomfortable, but the hang-ups of others are not my concern.  If the world is not ready to accept my Craft, this one aspect of Paganism that it is, then I shall go on without their approval, but I can not dilute my holy rites and sacred ways to satisfy those who can't accept them. 

I am not going to change my path because people on the outside, who do not revere my gods, who do not share my rites, require it.  It's wholly offensive to ask anyone to do so. 

"Your sacred rites and practices are not as important as getting public approval for whatever is left of your religion once we strip out all the things that might upset some outsider." 

There is so much body shame in our society.  It is so profitable to so many to keep us in a state of hating our bodies.  Madison Avenue feeds off of keeping the masses in a constant state of self-loathing.  Monotheistic religions have used body shame successfully for millenia to keep the flock in line.  I simply won't have it in my religion.  My religion is liberating and empowering to all, men and women.  When it becomes anything less than that, then I will drop it like I drop anything that is no longer useful to me. Reject those messages. Love ourselves, respect ourselves, and do what's right for you.