From Modesty to Maxim

Are Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry the unintended consequence of evangelicalism’s modesty mandate?

Back in September, a blog post titled “FYI (if you’re a teenage girl)” by Kimberly Hall, Director of Women’s Ministry at All Saints PCA in Austin, Texas, went viral. The post is written as an open letter to the female Facebook friends of her teenage sons. Hall scolds the young ladies for posting, as she puts it, “a bunch of selfies in your skimpy pj’s.”

Hall and her husband are trying to raise “men with a strong moral compass,” and so, she tells the girls, they’ve been blocked from the boys’ Facebook feeds for posting the pictures. “There are no second chances with pics like that, ladies,” she writes.

For a few days, the post lit up evangelical networks on Facebook and Twitter, and to date it has received over 1,200 comments. Many commenters applaud Hall, but a good number of them take issue with her putting all the onus and blame on the girls while portraying her sons as innocent bystanders who could easily be made to sin by looking at the pictures. Others saw Hall’s post as shaming girls for their bodies and offered an admonition of their own: instead of attacking the girls, Hall should teach her sons to respect women.

A number of commenters also took issue with the apparent double standard that Hall applies by littering the post with pictures of her topless teenage sons striking bodybuilding poses on a beach. Hall has since removed the photos, explaining that she initially wrote the post for her “normal audience, which is usually very small” and she agreed that the photos showed “a lack of discernment, considering the topic.”

But this practice of putting all the responsibility for sexual purity on women, and the double standard it often evokes, is a quite common feature of contemporary evangelicalism. Deanna Ogle, a writer and editor at The Good Men Project, told me about a makeshift fashion show that her youth group held during a girls-only purity series. “They had one of the seniors put on an outfit they bought,” she remembers. “It was a white top and a skirt with pretty pink flowers on it. It looked great on her; it fit her well.” But that was not the takeaway the youth group leaders intended.

The practice of putting all the responsibility for sexual purity on women, and the double standard it often evokes, is a quite common feature of contemporary evangelicalism.

“The leaders then explained that this outfit was immodest because it showed off her curves too much,” Ogle explains. They worried that “her stomach might show if she raised her arms all the way up, and you might see some of her back if she bent over completely.”

The solution that the church’s leaders offered was the same outfit, but one size larger. It looked awful, Ogle says, but this was the more modest choice. And, she concludes, “This was absolutely all in the name of making sure that we didn’t cause our brethren to stumble.”

“Basically every Christian woman has a horror story like this,” says Alisa Harris, author of Raised Right: How I Untangled My Faith From My Politics. And among these women, it turns out, are some of popular music’s biggest stars.

To name a few: Katy Perry released a Christian album under her given name Katy Hudson; Jessica Simpson was almost as famous for her so-called purity vow as for her candy pop songs; Miley Cyrus used to credit her Christian faith for helping her avoid the pitfalls of stardom.

These are young women who grew up hearing that they need to keep their feminine wiles in check, lest they make a man lust, and they’re women whose rebellion against that modesty message has become a major part of their careers as pop stars.

Jessica Simpson’s father, Joe Simpson, has made some awkward comments regarding his daughter’s body, particularly in light of the family’s Christian faith and Jessica’s chosen career as a pop star. He once told GQ, “Jessica never tries to be sexy. She just is sexy. If you put her in a T-shirt or you put her in a bustier, she’s sexy in both. She’s got double D’s! You can’t cover those suckers up!” Joe Simpson also famously gave Jessica a “purity ring” — a pledge to maintain her virginity until marriage — when she was 12.

For her part, Simpson has acknowledged that her body was a stumbling block, not to guys, but to a career as a Christian musician. “They said it could cause guys to lust,” she told The Orlando Sentinel. “I didn’t understand why they were passing judgment on me, especially since I walked in in overalls, nothing revealing.” 110413-F-ZJ145-112

But even after she left a career as a Christian artist behind in favor of mainstream success, the judgment didn’t stop. After she performed in skimpy outfits in her video for “These Boots Were Made For Walking,” the Nancy Sinatra cover from the Dukes of Hazard soundtrack, a Christian group accused her of “looking like a stripper.” Simpson’s reply: “It didn’t really surprise me because I grew up with a lot of that backlash. . . . That’s why I didn’t end up going into the Christian music industry.”

But, of course, in the world of pop music, Simpson is old news. Today’s most famous former Christian singer is Katy Perry, daughter of charismatic Christian pastors, who recently told Rolling Stone, “God is very much still a part of my life.” She exploded onto the mainstream scene in 2008, with her single “I Kissed a Girl.”

Perry grew up with the conflict many young evangelical women know all too well — she was proud of her body as it developed, while being taught that it was a stumbling block to her Christian brothers.

I reached out several times to Perry’s management team in an effort to request an interview with her, but received no reply. But I did have the opportunity to speak with Madeline Jacks, a junior high friend of Hudson-now-Perry, who confirmed that in the environment in which Perry was raised, modesty was paramount.

“There was a huge emphasis on modesty at Santa Barbara Christian School,” Jacks recalls of the school she and Perry attended. But there was also a double standard. “For example, girlfriend #1 who didn’t have boobs enough to warrant a training bra yet could get away with the low-cut shirt: no second glances by the principal. [But] certain girls at that age would naturally ‘look sexier’ than others, even without consciously trying.”

Perry was one of these girls. In a recent GQ cover story, Perry tells a story of praying to God to give her big breasts. God answered her prayers, she says, at age 11.

Jacks told me that even at that young age, Katy Perry showed signs of rebelling against the modesty culture. “Katy was a rebel without much cause at first. She has a naturally bold and booming personality to begin with, but then you tack on the whole ‘don’t you dare call me a pastor’s kid’ thing, and she really starts to blow the roof off the image.”

It may be that what begins as an embrace of one’s sexuality after a lifetime of feeling ashamed gets co-opted into a marketing strategy.

Many of the women I spoke to expressed a similar desire to rebel against the constrictive modesty regiment of their youth, albeit in more subtle ways perhaps than Jessica Simpson or Katy Perry, including Madeline Jacks. “While I’m not a pop star who rebelled into displaying my scantily-clad chest onto GQ covers, I’ve experienced my own backlash in a variety of ways. I’ve increasingly (from late high school on) felt the urge to buck the guilt and embrace the God-given sensuality women have.”

“I definitely wanted to express my sexuality,” agrees Deanna Ogle. “I didn’t want to feel like I was going to be smote on the spot if my bra strap slipped out from my tank top.”

Heidi Busch, another Christian woman who told me that her youth group had a mandatory modesty dress code for young women, experienced a bout of rebellion while attending a Christian college. “Definitely the last part of high school and most of college, I enjoyed wearing more scandalous clothing, especially when back home for vacations and spending time with the youth group crowd,” she told me.

“Any flaunting of my sexuality was mostly used as a ‘F— you, all your rules were a waste of time because my life is great and I’m still a good person even as I wear this little tube top . . . and hey, I look pretty damn good too,’” she says. Now a decade out of college and the evangelical subculture, she concludes, “I like to think I’m mostly over that now.”

It’s easy to read into Jessica Simpson’s or Katy Perry’s sexy stardom this narrative of breaking out from a repressive over-emphasis on modesty, but perhaps that’s only a part of the story.

For another explanation of why these former Christian pop stars go from modesty to Maxim, it’s worth considering the recent open letter from Sinead O’Connor to Miley Cyrus. Cyrus once told Fox News that her Christian faith keeps her grounded, “especially because I’m a Christ follower for sure.”

But that was in 2008, when Cyrus was most famous for playing the wholesome and sweet Hannah Montana on the Disney Channel. In 2013, Cyrus’ career took a decidedly different turn. Her now-infamous MTV Video Music Awards performance brought “twerking” to the mainstream, and the video for her single “Wrecking Ball” finds her naked and simulating sex astride a swinging wrecking ball.

The video also features a not-so-subtle nod to Sinead O’Connor’s video for “Nothing Compares 2 U.” And this is what prompted O’Connor to write the open letter in which she told Cyrus that she had allowed herself “to be pimped, whether its the music business or yourself doing the pimping.”

The letter continues, “The music business doesn’t give a shit about you, or any of us. They will prostitute you for all you are worth, and cleverly make you think its what YOU wanted.”

Maybe O’Connor’s right. Maybe Jessica Simpson and Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus, all these raised-in-church pop stars, only think (or act as if they think) they’re rebelling against their conservative upbringing when in reality they’re being used by the music industry and tricked into thinking it’s what they want. Prism_cover

It may be that what begins as an embrace of one’s sexuality after a lifetime of feeling ashamed gets co-opted into a marketing strategy — one ultimately as repressive as the mores of a conservative religious childhood. If there’s any evidence of this, perhaps it can be found in the way that these women eventually begin to reclaim their image after the aggressive marketing that initially earned them the spotlight.

Katy Perry, for one, has tamped down the sex show of late — her February GQ cover shoot excepted. Perry’s latest album, “Prism,” features a tasteful cover photo of Perry in a flower-filled field wearing cross earrings, a stark contrast to that of “Teenage Dream,” on which she’s pictured lying naked in a cloud that barely covers her private parts. In a review of “Prism,” the A.V. Club referred to the record as inspirational and spiritual. And, in a promotional video for the record, Perry burns the blue wig that she wore as part of her sexy “Teenage Dream” persona, telling the audience at an album release party, “I wanted to make a clear metaphor — we are going into a new era.”

Maybe Perry is rebelling against her rebellion. But it’s a safe bet that the next formerly Christian singer is just waiting in the wings ready to bare it all, whether as a rebellion against the religion of her youth or simply because, as the old adage goes, sex sells.

  • suzannah | the smitten word

    much of this is thoughtful and interesting, but there still isn’t much room in your narrative for a woman to exhibit sexual agency: if she’s modest, she’s repressed, but if she’s “too sexy,” she must be being “prostituted”. there is definitely something to be said for coming-of-age and learning to inhabit one’s own body and sexuality in healthy ways, but public expressions of female sexuality, like male sexuality, aren’t inherently driven by something external and will frequent indicate bodily and personal autonomy.

    • noshamemov

      i agree with Suzannah. this post seems to indirectly impose the virgin/whore dichotomy while appearing to critique it. i especially take issue with the mention of twerking, a dance that black women have been doing for decades and was actually appropriated by Miley, as an example of her rebellion.
      am i right in assuming that the author believes that the public display of sexuality is problematic, and is in need of an explanation as to its existence? or have i misinterpreted this post?

  • WmarkW

    Half of Amercan Christianity would disappear tomorrow if it wasn’t for sexy teen girls.

  • Carstonio

    I agree with Suzanna and Noshamemov. Fitzgerald is endorsing the mentality behind slut-shaming while ostensibly condemning it. His attitude toward the female performers is paternalistic, like a mother who says a daughter will agree with her someday. By asserting that public displays of female sexuality are caused by con artists exploiting young women, and treating the displays as inherently problematic, he implicitly endorses the horrid view that the displays lure men into sin.