In her post JTB reflects on, from a feminist perspective, how she is teaching her daughters to dress and how to model those injunctions herself. She mentions some learning she is having to unlearn in this regard, the temptations to wear clothing that is "attractive" or "sexy" but is uncomfortable. The issue in play here, from a feminist perspective, is the degree to which female notions of beauty and attractiveness are being driven by the "male gaze."
Can a feminist wear high heels?
I'm a feminist. And I'm also a Christian. And, following the lead of Sarah Bessey's new book Jesus Feminist, I'm a feminist precisely because I'm a Christian.
So that's the framework I'm trying to write from, a Christian feminist perspective, albeit in an error-prone and faltering way given that I'm a man.
The issue of female attractiveness, beauty and sexiness is a bit ticklish for Christian feminists. Which is why I'm interested in JTB's reflections about wearing heels.
Again, the problem is rooted in how female beauty is being defined by men, female bodies placed under and judged by the eyes of men. Because of this a woman's sense of self worth, in our culture, is obtained by appearing or looking in ways that men find acceptable. And because the male gaze is often lustful this creates an additional pressure for female appearance to become increasingly sexualized, all across the age spectrum. Overall, then, the demand for women to look "sexy" becomes a form of patriarchal oppression. And it's an insidious form of oppression because young girls and women internalize these male-driven standards of beauty and judge themselves, often harshly.
So when I'm speaking of "high heels" I'm gesturing toward that whole phenomenon, women wearing things (like shoes) and suffering (because the shoes are uncomfortable, but that's a small thing in the face of all the psychic suffering) into order to satisfy the judgments and appetites of men.
Now, statistically speaking the male arousal system has a visual bias. More on that in a minute. For now we simply note that male sexual arousal tends toward the opticical. Consequently, there is this tension. The male gaze is oppressive, yet women--even Christian feminist women--want to appear sexy and attractive to the men they love. Thus JTB ends her post by saying this:
My anniversary comes up in a few days and you can bet I'll be rocking some #feministheels and showing my daughter that Mama can be fancy as well as sensible, sexy as well as grubby, fun as well as hardworking. And that when it comes to Dressing Well, it's about feeling good in your body, and accomplishing what you set out to accomplish--be that dazzling your students with a philosophy lecture or dazzling your spouse at an anniversary dinner.Now, if you're a feminist you might not agree with her conclusion. It might be argued that female notions of beauty should be completely extracted from the male gaze. Male notions of attractiveness should never contaminate or influence how a woman wants to dress.
That's one side of the equation. But that's a hard line to take if you want to be sexually desired by your spouse.
And yet, we don't want to go too far in this direction. Because on the other end of the spectrum is the benevolent sexism you see in many conservative Christian circles: since males have visual "needs" a Christian wife should try to "satisfy" those "needs." Being sexy is, thus, being godly. The job of a good, Christian wife is to look, at all times, sexually "captivating." All this is just a baptized version of the oppressive male gaze.
So a Christian feminist is trying to thread the needle between these two poles. JTB's post, as I read it, is one personal story about how to thread that needle, for herself in her own marriage and as a mother raising girls.
And all that brings me to the reflections I had reading JTB's post.
What struck me in JTB's post is how she grounded her decision to look sexy in some locations of her life--to wear heels for her anniversary dinner--in an incarnational theology. Before her conclusion she writes:
But most often, I wear heels for a couple hours at a time in a context where there's more sitting than walking, and when the point is to be extravagantly, flagrantly fabulous. Maybe even (gasp!) sexy…which for me, like a lot of women brought up in the kind of purity/modesty culture of American conservative Christianity, is a reclamation of our bodies and their goodness.Rocking some high heels and looking sexy for your husband as "a reclamation of our bodies and their goodness." That's the theological bit that got me thinking.
It got me thinking about the male gaze, particularly from an evolutionary standpoint.
Why is the male arousal system visually biased?
And to be clear, this is a statistical trend that exists between the genders. Not something that holds for all men and women. Still, we wonder why the trend exists.
Some evolutionary psychologists have argued that the answer to the question is rooted in a biological asymmetry between the genders in their respective investments in producing offspring. Biologically speaking, pregnancy and having a child is high stakes for women. She is, and we need to think of the hunting/gathering contexts where most of human brain evolution occurred, quite literally putting her life on the line whenever she has sex. By contrast, sex is low stakes for males. Males risk little, biologically, from casual sexual encounters. If anything, from a Darwinian perspective, males benefit from casual sexual encounters (more sex = more offspring).
The upshot, so the argument goes, is that males and females developed very different sexual psychologies to maximize their reproductive success given these asymmetries. Females, given the biological burdens they are carrying, would attempt to identify and select a "high investment mate." A partner who would invest--materially, relationally and emotionally--in her and her offspring. Thus females attend to emotional and behavioral cues that signal love/investment and fidelity.
Now, what this creates is a demand that women place upon men. In evolutionary theory this is called "sexual selection" (as opposed to "natural selection"). Sexual selection is driven by mate selection, often female mate selection. The traits the female selects become selected for. Sexual selection is what explains the extravagant colors and forms--from the color of a male cardinal to the peacock's tail--that seem maladaptive in light of natural selection. (For example, bright coloration, while very sexy, makes you more visible to predators.)
In short, there is a female gaze in sexual selection. The things that women are looking for, the things they find attractive and sexy.
But if the female gaze is seeking high investment--that is, if the female gaze is inherently an adaptive preference for monogamy--then the male will have to forgo all other extra-marital sexual opportunities, opportunities that, strictly form a Darwinian perspective, would have promoted his reproductive success. So if a male makes this sacrifice, if he submits to the female gaze and settles down with her, does he have any reciprocal demands?
According to evolutionary theory he does. The male's counter-demand is reproductive potential. If he is to pass on extra-martial opportunistic sex to create additional offspring then his demand is that he have as many children as possible with the woman he settles down with in marriage.
What does that have to do with the male gaze? Well, so the theory goes, the only way to judge fertility in hunting/gathering cultures was the eyeball test--visual cues of health, youthfulness and vigor. Consequently, females developed a sexual psychology that attended to behavioral/emotional cues and males developed a sexual psychology that attended to visual cues.
And that, according to some theories in evolutionary psychology, is the origin of the visual bias in male sexual arousal.
Now, maybe none of this theory is true. But if it is (at least partly) then I'd like to make some points about Jesus feminists wearing high heels.
First, if the evolutionary scenarios described above are true then the male and female gazes are intertwined. They grew up together, pushed each other, shaped each other. These gazes have been tangled up over a long evolutionary history.
And this explains, I think, why it's hard to wholly extract a woman's feelings of attractiveness from the gaze of the man she loves. The conflation of female conceptions of beauty with the visual sexual psychology of males is not rooted in patriarchy but in a long evolutionary past. The genders have been gazing at each other for millions of years, gazes that have, quite literally, shaped and selected the minds and bodies of both genders. So it's very, very hard to extract and sever conceptions of "attractiveness" from the gaze of the other gender. Attractiveness and the gaze of the other gender, historically speaking, are inextricably and biologically linked.
Now, let me rush to say this. This evolutionary frame is not given as a justification for the patriarchal oppression of the male gaze. Nor should it be taken as a normative description for anyone outside the heterosexual experience. We're talking about evolutionary history, not your personal history. This isn't about your sexual psychology or the bodies you find attractive. Nor should the adaptive account be taken as an argument for gender absolutes as, again, what we are trying to account for here is a statistical trend between the genders. And most important, even if there is a visual bias in male sexual arousal everything I said at the start of the post about the exploitation of women under the male gaze still holds.
But what I'd like to tentatively suggest is this. The visual bias in male sexual arousal isn't inherently patriarchal. It's just an adaptive feature of the brain. A feature adaptively intertwined with the female gaze. I'm tentatively suggesting that the gazes, being adaptive features of the brain, are morally neutral, adaptations that are similar to why we find sugar sweet.
The problem, I'm suggesting, comes when the visual bias is conflated with power. That's where the oppression comes in, when the male gaze is conflated with power and women are asked to submit to the male gaze. Simplistically,
Visual Bias in Sexual Arousal + Power = OppressionThis is the mix that makes for the patriarchal oppression of women and the benevolent sexism in Christian circles.
And if this is so, then I'd like to return to JTB's incarnational reflections about being sexy.
We generally think of incarnational theology as being about embodiment. And when we think of embodiment we tend to focus on individual bodies. But those bodies--and their sexual psychologies--didn't drop out of the sky. Those bodies were products of other bodies, both male and females bodies. And those bodies from still other bodies. In short, and here's my theological proposal, should not an incarnational view of sex take into consideration the long evolutionary history of our bodies? Theological discussions about embodiment, it seems to me, need to wrestle with our adaptive past and how that past has shaped our bodies and minds.
Incarnational theology has to be evolutionary theology if it wants to fully respect our biology and bodies.
If so, an incarnational approach to being "sexy" will recognize and enjoy the evolutionary and biological aspects influencing both the male and female gaze. Males and females have been gazing at each other and finding each other sexy for millions of years. And there is a creational goodness in how these erotic feelings spontaneously emerge within us. How you catch my eye. How that gesture melts my heart. And, being humans, we've reveled in all the ways we can creatively and artistically enhance those feelings. From love songs to diamond rings to, well, to high heels. We become chefs to enhance the pleasures of taste. We do the similar things to enhance the pleasures of sexual attraction and arousal.
But like anything, when conflated with power (and in our time and place this power is mainly being exerted through media and market forces, the buying and selling of the female body) this creational goodness becomes oppressive and exploitative. For most of human history that has been the story with the male gaze. But I think the problem is with the power, and not the gaze.
As a heterosexual man--the product of a long, long evolutionary history--I don't know how to look at Jana and not find her sexy. And I love how she, joyously, creatively, and artistically, surprises my gaze. I love the way Jana dresses. Does her hair. The whole thing.
And yet, if I start to demand that Jana dresses a certain way. If I start to privilege my gaze--if anyone, in any sort of romantic context, heterosexual or otherwise, starts to privilege their gaze--we begin in that instance to conflate our gaze with power. When we begin to lord over our partners to indulge our visual appetites we are back to oppression.
Which means that the gaze--of both genders--needs to be cruciform. The gaze is never primary for Christian feminists. Never the demand: You must meet my needs! More, and perhaps most Christian of all, we are willing to sacrifice the gaze in the face of age, injury, deformity or debility.
You know, scratch that. Let's throw some Eastern Orthodox theology at this. The object of love isn't the sacrifice of the gaze but the divinization of the gaze. No doubt, mortification may be a part of this process. But the goal isn't to repress and sacrifice the biological and erotic aspects of love but to have our bodies taken up and transformed by the love of God.
The gaze is, simply, a creational, incarnational given. One of many bodily goods that both genders enjoy, from the taste of good coffee to the pleasure of a symphony. The male and female gaze is embodied pleasure. Which can be used, as all pleasures, for good or ill.
Which brings us back to the question, can a Jesus feminist wear high heels?
My personal opinion?
I think where there is mutualism and cruciform love, yes, for the joy and play of it, yes.
Rock those heels.