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When Feminism Looks Like Fundamentalism

Nina Burleigh, meet Bill Gothard

Grown-up women don’t like being told what shoes they should or shouldn’t wear by political pundits.

Thus, when Nina Burleigh wrote an article in Newsweek on the Trump women’s problematic footwear choices, it caused quite a furor among conservative women.

Holly Scheer and Inez Feltscher reacted in The Federalist, calling Burleigh’s piece “petty”, and daring her to try taking away their stilettos (I cannot imagine that this would end well). EdgeOfTheSandbox expressed similar sentiments, but with a much more fleshed-out critique of Burleigh’s “slut shaming” here in the magazine.

I have to admit that my first thought upon reading Burleigh’s piece was, “Get a life,” but my second thought was: “Gosh, this is eerily reminiscent of some of Bill Gothard’s literature on modesty.”( I wrote briefly about my own exposure to Bill Gothard’s fundamentalist organization, the Institute of Basic Life Principles [IBLP] in my review of Rebecca Lemke’s book on the purity culture, The Scarlet Virgins: When Sex Replaces Salvation.)

If Burleigh had stuck to criticizing high-heeled pumps on sheerly podiatric grounds, there wouldn’t be much to talk about — high heels, especially cheaply constructed ones, do pose a risk of long-term damage. As a full-grown adult capable of weighing risk for myself, I choose to wear them occasionally anyway. Case closed. Or at least, it should be. But when the article started attacking high heels as being, simply put, too sexy, that’s where I started to raise an eyebrow.

Burleigh seemed oblivious to the irony when she pulled out the beyond-tired trope of calling the political right “ideologues who are crafting our tax-free ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ future” (as an aside, I’m counting down the seconds til we stop relating everything to ‘Handmaid’s Tale’), casting the Trump women as both victims and enablers of their patriarchal aims, a la Atwood’s Serena Joy. But let’s take a look at how closely her censure of the Trump women’s clothing choices lines up with certain aspects of the fundamentalism that actually inspired Atwood’s Gilead.

An overly-censurious concern with women’s dress has always been a defining feature of Bill Gothard’s program and other fundamentalist organizations like it. The worksheet below, asking the (female) student to identify the “eye traps” in 6 different women’s outfits, is a characteristic example of IBLP’s modesty fixation. The assignment aims to help women understand how their dress will be perceived by a man, and how they can avoid “causing their brothers to stumble” by making the proper adjustments.

Don’t feel bad, I couldn’t identify the eye traps either.

If you’re having trouble seeing a problem (and actually no, the raised heels in figures 3 and 6 escaped even Gothard’s eagle eye), here’s a clue: according to Gothard, it wasn’t just exposed skin that “trapped eyes”, but even something like the v-shape of a collar or knotted necklace which might “draw the eye down”, or patterned tights that draw attention to a woman’s legs. Anything that hinted at the existence of characteristically female anatomy was basically an invitation for men to look at you lustfully.

Michelle (last name not published), a former IBLP student, shared her experience of growing up the Gothard way on the website

Skirts had to be below my knees, shirts must have high necklines so as not to show that I had breasts. Nothing could be worn that “hugged” my body or showed the shape of my body . . . Accessories like earrings and nail polish were restricted or banned . . .
. . . I felt responsible for 1/2 the population of earth to not look at me and think “sexy.” I’m one of those women who can’t hide the fact that I’m a female, [emph. mine] but I tried.

Most of us would find Gothard’s “eye trap” worksheet baffling and laughably extreme (as well as seriously creepy), but Burleigh’s criticism of the high heel is not very far down-stream from it.

She quotes from British psychologist Paul Morris:

In terms of the human example, we tend to find the defining characteristics of the opposite sex attractive . . . High heels function in a similar way. Males respond to the characteristic way a woman walks, i.e., the movement of the female pelvis: High heels just exaggerate the femaleness of the walk. So to deconstruct why Trump women wear high heels: They are just buying into traditional binary views of male and female.

And from American anthropologist Helen Fisher:

High heels thrust out the buttocks and arch the back into a natural mammalian courting — actually, copulatory — pose called ‘lordosis.’ Rats do it, sheep do it…lions do it, dogs do it. It is a naturally sexy posture that men immediately see as sexual readiness. [Heels] are a ‘come-hither’ signal.
. . . When women wear high heels at work, they send sexual signals that should be avoided if they want to be taken seriously.

In both examples, the bottom line is: ladies, if you wear things that draw attention to your female characteristics, it’s going to cause men to think about you in a sexual context. While the basic premise is obvious and pretty hard to argue with, the application in both cases is extreme. What the general public sees as being sexually exciting varies depending on cultural context. In our cultural context, neither v-shaped collars nor high heels can reasonably be interpreted as being overtly sexual, to the point of being inappropriate or unprofessional.

In other words: we’re not talking about cleavage-baring necklines or booty-shorts: we’re talking about shoes. Which is more creepy, seeing an “eye trap” in a long necklace, or a “copulatory posture” in the way that a high-heeled pump forces you to stand up straight? For me, it’s a tough call.

Patterned tights, long necklaces, and high heels all seem like rather oblique ways to signal “sexual readiness”, but in both fundamentalism/purity culture and in Burleigh’s conception of feminism, not even the subtlest expressions of distinctively female beauty can be seen outside the context of sex.

If you’re going to throw out high heels because they call too much attention to the female form, would you not also have to throw out fitted dresses, tops, etc? Or perhaps we should adopt characteristically male ways of dressing in order to avoid undue attention to our regrettable female attributes? Where do you draw the line? Can a woman not make any effort to look nice as a woman without being accused of issuing a blanket sexual invitation?

Clearly, Burleigh and Gothard are coming to the issue of female dress with different motivations: while fundamentalism is primarily concerned with preserving sexuality for marriage, Burleigh’s model of feminism seems to have the more ambitious goal of thwarting the male gaze (and with it, male heterosexuality) altogether.

These two extreme viewpoints start out from different stations, but they end up at the same destination: an obsessive need to cloak the distinctiveness of the female body.

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