Friday, June 7, 2013

Modesty and chocolate cake

I am tired of hearing about modesty.  I'm also tired of debating about modesty.  Honestly, I'm sick to death of modesty.

So the obvious solution is to blog about it, right?

I just felt that it would save me some time if I wrote down, once and for all, what my opinion IS about modesty, so that I don't have to repeat over and over again that no, I don't think we should run around naked, and no, I don't think a burqa would be a good idea.

Modesty is such a loaded topic, and there are extremes of opinion on all sides.  My position is informed by my Catholic faith, but at the same time it appears to be a minority position among Catholics that I know.

What is modesty?  A modest house is one that is pretty small and not fancy.  A modest man is one who doesn't brag.  A modest woman, for whatever reason, is usually defined as a woman who wears plenty of clothing.  And that's what I'm talking about in this post.  Modesty in clothing, which is disproportionately applied to women's clothing.

Here's the argument I am constantly confronted with, which I can't abide:

"Men are very visual creatures.  When they see women who are showing (X body part), they are tempted to lust and objectify her.  And when you walk around wearing (Y outfit), it's like you were following them with a big chocolate cake.  If someone followed you around with a big chocolate cake, sure, you could avoid eating it, but odds are you would give in and eat the cake.  So to be kind to your brothers in Christ, you should wear (Z outfit) instead."

This brings my brain to a screeching halt, and then it goes skittering off the tracks and my head explodes.  Metaphorically.  I get very angry when I see this, because the translation is this:

"Men are such animals they will mentally undress you if they see even a smidge of skin.  Sure, they are adults and can avoid raping you, but odds are, they're going to rape you.  Rather than have them control themselves, you should go a million miles out of your way to avoid ever tempting them with that delicious chocolate cake you call 'your' body."

Yeah, I know that's not what was said.  But it sure sounds like that to me.

I have an issue with pretty much every single premise of this.  First, "men are visual."  Statistically, this is true.  More men are aroused by visual stimuli than women.  But some men aren't very "visual" at all.  And some women are extremely visual.  There is such a thing as porn produced for women.  And then there are all the shirtless Ryan Gosling photos that clutter up my Facebook feed.  We don't call it inappropriate, because when women are visual, it couldn't possibly be objectifying or sexual.

Second, that is our responsibility to keep men from sinning.  We never have the responsibility to stop someone else from sinning.  We have the responsibility not to willfully tempt them to sin.  That's not at all the same thing.  Here's what the Catechism says:

"2284 Scandal is an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil. The person who gives scandal becomes his neighbor's tempter. He damages virtue and integrity; he may even draw his brother into spiritual death. Scandal is a grave offense if by deed or omission another is deliberately led into a grave offense."

In short: scandal is something deliberate.  Offering an alcoholic a drink and telling him he'll never be cool if he doesn't drink it is a sin.  Drinking at a party where there's an alcoholic there, just because you would like a drink, is not a sin.

Now you can go the extra mile out of charity.  Our family reunions always used to be dry because we did have an alcoholic family member and did not want to tempt him.  But it is the extra mile when we do this.  Nice, not required.

To translate this back to modesty, deliberately hiking up your skirt to catch a man's attention (whether to get him to sleep with you or to get him to do some favor for you) is wrong.  But happening to bend over to pick something up, and having your shirt hike up in back, cannot possibly be a sin because you didn't do it on purpose.

Of course someone could respond, "But couldn't you just not bend over?"

Well, yes.  You could.  But if you want to make this a requirement for everyone, then you have to ask the question, "How far out of your way can men expect women to go in order to make their life of virtue easier?"

How difficult is it for a man to look the other way?  To hear the way some people talk, it's practically impossible, but I'll give men more respect than that.  It's an effort, but not Herculean.  They can do it.

And how difficult is it for women to be modest?  It depends, I guess, on how modest you want me to be.  But basically, if you tell me to "just be modest,"  what you are asking is this: "Conform to a completely arbitrary and shifting standard, which everyone you ask will define differently.  Conform to it every moment of your life, not only when you get dressed in the morning, but whenever you move around.  At all times, think of what men may be tempted to think about you.  When you are a teenager and struggling to accept your changing body, make sure you think of it as an evil thing or at least as a chocolate cake, something that exists to be looked at and must be concealed at all costs or it will send people to hell.  Accept being embarrassed and shamed by authority figures who tell you to stop wearing or doing what you are, on the grounds that someone has been or could be aroused by it.  Accept that your body is, at all times, being objectified by men.  Parts of your body that you've always thought of as completely functional, like legs or shoulders, you must now consider to be sexual because men think of them as sexual.  Acknowledge that your body does not belong to you, but to everyone who sees it, because everyone now has the right to comment on it and make decisions about it."

Too much?  All I can say is, this is the impression I get from all the modesty stuff I read.  At first it doesn't seem so bad, but then there are those who always have to urge you to go further. If you don't believe me, try reading Dressing With Dignity.  According to that book, only elbow-length sleeves and ankle-length dresses are acceptable.

But there are explanations for modesty that don't have to do with protecting men from being lustful.  John Paul II, for instance, talked a lot about objectification.  People are not to be treated like objects.  That means using another person for personal gratification, or separating out their body from their soul and focusing only on their body.

This resonates with me, because I know exactly what objectification feels like.  I am incredibly sensitive to it, in fact.  The moment that someone looks at my body instead of my face, I feel ... used.  Abused, almost.  It's the same way with touching.  If you are close to me emotionally, if you are part of my family or a close friend, I love to be touched.  Hugs, shoulder pats, snuggles.  But I stiffen up like a board when strangers presume on that.  It's my body and I feel I should have some say in who touches or looks at it.  Because of this, I am very modest.  I chose before marriage never to undress in front of anyone at all, doctors included.  I gave birth in nightgowns and I refused vaginal exams because I hate to be treated like a piece of meat.  And what I choose to wear is usually pretty frumpy, because the thought of someone lusting after me is utterly horrifying.

But on the other hand, what can I do?  I have to go out in public sometimes, and people are going to look at me.  I can't control what part of me they focus on, and I can't help it if they imagine more than I'm showing.  And when I read things like this rather creepy survey of young men about women's clothes and behavior, I want to never leave the house again.  These young men mostly are rather reasonable, but there's always the five or ten percent who believe it's immodest if a girl wears overalls, or lies down on a couch, or stretches, or wears earrings.  They admit to imagining her clothes coming off.  They explain that it doesn't matter if the woman is their sister or mother, they're going to lust after her anyway.

Ick, ick, ick, ick, ick.  I would wear a full robe and veil, but apparently even that doesn't help.  Men are going to treat me as an object no matter what I do.

What makes me, personally, comfortable is to look as androgynous as possible.  I guess I'm hoping that men won't notice I'm female and perhaps will just treat me as a person.  I know it doesn't always work -- even on the internet there are men who discount what I say because I am female.  But in my day-to-day life, it's easier for me to deal with my social anxiety in jeans and a t-shirt.

But can I make this a rule for anyone else?  Definitely not.  In fact, not everyone can look like a man from the neck down the way I can.  And of course someone is going to demand I wear a skirt instead so I can be pretty enough to look at, like this creep: "Do this for us, the minority of chaste men who merit the gift of enjoying your beauty in such a way as to be grateful to your creator without temptation. Make it so it is good for men to look upon you, rather than requiring us to look away (which is a tragedy)."

Newsflash: My body exists for me.  It is me.  It does not exist for anyone else to look at.  It does not exist for my husband to look at.  When my husband and family members look at me or touch me, they are doing so as part of a relationship with the whole of me.  My body is the way I interact with the world.  It's not a museum piece or a chocolate cake or anything else besides a person.

If I could make a rule for everyone else, which I am loth to do, it would be this: Wear what everyone else is wearing.  Don't be the person in the room showing the most skin, because that will draw a lot of attention, and quite possibly not a kind you like.  But if you are wearing roughly what other people wear, no one is likely to pay a whole lot of attention.  Your average man in the world today has seen so many naked women, in real life and online and in movies, that he will not be that impressed with your short skirt.  Your average homeschooled boy of fifteen will be shocked and scandalized that you exist at all.  There's no helping it, so just try to be appropriate for the environment you're in.

Don't believe me?  Here's Karol Wojtyla, later Pope John Paul II:

Immodesty is present only when nakedness plays a negative role with regard to the value of the person, when its aim is to arouse concupiscence, as a result of which the person is put in the position of an object for enjoyment… There are certain objective situations in which even total nudity of the body is not immodest, since the proper function of nakedness in this context is not to provoke a reaction to the person as an object for enjoyment, and in just the same way the functions of particular forms of attire may vary. Thus, the body may be partially bared for physical labor, for bathing, or for a medical examination. If then, we wish to pass a moral judgment on particular forms of dress we have to start from the particular functions which they serve. When a person uses such a form of dress in accordance with its objective function we cannot claim to see anything immodest in it, even if it involves partial nudity. Whereas the use of such a costume outside its proper context is immodest, and is inevitably felt to be so. For example, there is nothing immodest about the use of a bathing costume at a bathing place, but to wear it in the street or while out for a walk is contrary to the dictates of modesty.”

The post where I found this quote is also very much worth reading.

But really, what attracts men is hardly the standard.  First, being attracted to someone is not a sin, which is something I wish more young, religious guys knew.  Staring at them, objectifying them, deliberately imagining them naked ... those are all sinful.  And these are all free-will decisions which men can avoid.  But to be attracted, interested, even aroused, are things that happen subconsciously without your consent.  They aren't sins.

And second, what you wear is about you, not about anyone else.  When you drive a nice car, do people put you down for tempting others to envy it or steal it?  When you bake cookies and post the pictures on Facebook, do people ask you to remove them because you are making it hard for them to keep up with their diets?  When you are annoying, do people ask you to stop because you are inciting them to wrath?  (Well, maybe.)  But overall, this is the only situation where we are considered to be morally obliged to consider the possibility that someone may sin before we act.  In every other situation, the standard is not to deliberately tempt them to sin.

This is how I see it: it's wrong to objectify people, to use their bodies as objects while ignoring their personhood.  It's wrong to do it to someone else, no matter what they are wearing.  And it's also wrong to do it to yourself. 

Hiking up your skirt in the hopes of getting someone to give you a ride (do people do this anymore? I sure hope not), flashing the bouncer to get into the club, wearing a low-cut top while teaching middle-school boys in the hopes of dazing them into behaving --- all of these are separating your body from your personhood and using it as a tool to manipulate other people.  You're recognizing your body as a something that has power over the opposite sex, but you're taking unfair advantage of that power.  I think that's wrong.

But wearing what most people normally wear, because you like to be pretty?  I just don't think that's wrong.  Of course you have to consider the circumstances.  You might wear less at a secular event, where everyone is in short dresses, than you do at a dance for homeschoolers.  Hopefully you are aware that sheltered kids are easy to shock, and you wouldn't want to do that because you're a nice person.  On the other hand, if someone is scandalized by the most common styles of bathing suits, you can't protect them just by never swimming, because other people are still going to be wearing bathing suits at the beach.  In this case, maybe the one who struggles with lust should avoid beaches.  Better to cast out your right eye than to sin, right?  And no one has the right to demand that other people make their struggles with sin easy for them.

But overall, I'll reiterate what I've said before: keep your eyes on your own work. If it's not your body, you don't get to say what it gets to wear.

Here are things I never want to see or hear again -- false arguments about modesty that are harmful to all of us:

*"Men are more visual, so it doesn't matter what men wear, only what women wear."  FALSE.  Anyone has the potential to objectify someone else (and I would argue passing around shirtless pictures of actors is just that).  And anyway, isn't it unfair to expect women to bear the entire burden of men's struggles with chastity?  Look, if you are a man and think it's a woman's job to dress with a mind to your disordered passions, meet us halfway.  Wear shirts.  Always.  We always have to, and at least it would show that you are sincere and not just trying to control women.  (This parody is meant for laughs, but it has a real point.)

*Any comparison of women to cookies or cakes or any other object.  Objectification isn't just done when we lust after people.  It's whenever we treat people like they aren't people.  Women have been objectified since the dawn of time.  It's time to stop doing it.

*Telling teenage girls that all men are helpless lumps of lust and desire.  For one thing, that's disrespectful of men, who often have worked hard to raise themselves above this level.  And on the other, it makes girls afraid of men and positive that everyone is staring at them.  It is impossible to describe the level of self-consciousness that teenage girls have.  Don't make it worse.  If you have to tell your daughter, "Don't wear that, because I said so," I still think that's better than the "men are ravening lions" thing.

*Modesty talks that consist of describing which body parts men are fantasizing about, discussed in mixed company or on the internet.  Not only could it be an occasion of sin for the boys, but how do you think the girls feel, having our bodies publicly dissected like that?  That's objectification too.

*Double standards for girls with certain body types.

*Guilt about men going to hell and how it will all be YOUR fault; guilt about how Our Lady always wore robes and do you think you're better than her?  Surely we can persuade with better than guilt.

Lately there's been a bit of pushback against the modesty ideal, and I think it's refreshing, though it's sad to read some of the stories of women who have been hurt by an incorrect view of modesty.  One good article is Elizabeth Esther's post here.  Then there's this series: The Story of Me and Modesty, Modesty as she is taught, and Modesty: My Solution.

What is your standard?


Enbrethiliel said...


Some time ago, The Last Psychiatrist had a post which suggested that men are not naturally more visual than women, but that exposure to pornography trains them to be so. It added that now that pornography for women is also becoming more visual, we can expect the gap to close pretty soon. Those shirtless Ryan Gosling memes seem to be a sign of that.

The CatholiCity link read like a parody. The funniest part? After going on and on and on about what women should wear, there was literally ONE word about what men should wear! ROFLMAO!

But jackets? Suit jackets? Sed contra: two women in my office like to say that a suit on a man affects a woman the way lingerie on a woman affects a man. So by the same logic the CatholiCity author uses, men actually shouldn't wear jackets.

Heck, using the covers of Romance novels alone, I bet I could come up with a list of what men shouldn't wear, out of charity for their sisters in Christ. And all the entries would be ridiculous. More to the point, obliging a man to follow that list would make his ability to lead an ordinary life pretty difficult. Which is the point the anti-pants people don't seem to get.

Sheila said...

I had a long, long, long debate with some guys about whether they have the right to go shirtless. "What about exercise?" they asked.

"May I exercise in a sports bra?"

"No, but that's different."

"Why is it different? Men aren't as attractive as women."

"I'm thinking that's because you are a straight man that you think that. Women are attracted to shirtless men."

"But then you should look away if it bothers you."


Sadly, some of the anti-pants people DO get it. And if you explain that you can't do everything a skirt that you can in pants, after arguing for awhile and trying to prove that you can too, they will finally cave in and say, "Well, if you can't do it in a skirt, you shouldn't do it at all because it's not ladylike."

You know what's not ladylike? Pretty much everything we peasant women have to do. If I had a nanny to do my job for me, I could probably wear a skirt all the time. But then they would gripe at me for not being a full-time homemaker and we're back to square one.

You can't argue with The Crazy.

The Sojourner said...

This is funny because I had two shirt choices for the next two days, and my thought process went like this:

"Can't wear the v-neck shirt to the homeschool graduation (my brother-in-law) because somebody will get the vapors. But can wear it to my OB appointment, where nobody will care about a little cleavage, especially as I won't be wearing underwear part of the time."

(I don't even HAVE cleavage, but v-neck shirts are probably evil anyway, because somebody will imagine what it would look like if I *was* more well-endowed.)

I'm still figuring out my own personal standard. When I have children old enough to pick their own clothes, I'll probably emphasize "appropriate" over "modest", though. Like the quote said, you can wear your swim trunks to the pool, but presenting yourself shoeless and shirtless to Mass is not appropriate. On the other hand, wearing a long skirt while driving a tractor is not appropriate, because GORY DEATH. I don't care what Ma Ingalls did.

Also, I'm pretty sure I'm married to my husband because he was wearing a suit the first time I met him. Scrawny, geeky 17-year-olds are something else in a good suit jacket. :)

Sheila said...

You have an OB appointment?! Clearly I am behind on my blog reading! :D

I'm still figuring out my own standard as well. I could probably wear a v-neck down to my navel without "showing any cleavage," but is that really the standard? How much chest is appropriate? And worse, how much shape are people allowed to see through my clothes? Because for most women, it really is impossible to conceal all of that, short of dressing in a tent. Now I personally *could* conceal that I'm female, but just because I can, do I have to? How female am I allowed to look before people are going to stare?

This is way more complicated than it should have to be.

The Sojourner said...

I usually end up wearing baggy shirts, because I'm very long-waisted and don't like having them ride up. (It never occurred to me that it was immodest; I just don't like it.) When I DO wear mediums instead of larges, my mother gives me the side-eye, though. I should point out that I can still grab a fistful of fabric across my chest in a medium, but I haven't yet. (And now I'm on the brink of a whole new world of finding clothes that fit, so. :))

Salixbabylonica said...

Sheila, we really do read the same blogs! I recognize that cake analogy - just read it somewhere, but can't remember where. Did you read Bad Catholic's latest article on modesty?

I've always found that the whole definition of "dress what other people are wearing" or "dress according to what your culture thinks is appropriate" didn't sit right with me, but hadn't found a way to articulate why. But this quote from Marc pretty much sums it up: "In a bored, pornographic culture, we need — more than ever — a definition of modesty that is not based on the gaze of the other, because the other is more than likely a little head-screwed about what is arousing and what is not." I think it's a really important point that modesty can't be judged based on other people's reactions to us, because that's not something we can control.

Since our culture is so screwed up, it's like a malformed conscience. Normally, it's quite true to say that we should follow our consciences, but if you have a malformed conscience, then no, you can't trust it. In a healthy culture, we'd be able to use the cultural expectations as a guide for our own behavior, but in our current diseased culture, we can't.

Basically, that's why I think that I should be able to breastfeed anywhere and in any way that I'm comfortable, even though our culture says that is inappropriate because many men find it arousing. Tough luck, culture, you shouldn't find the act of feeding a child arousing and if you do, you're in the same category as a foot fetishist to me. Unreasonable arousal is just not something I think I'm *obligated* to take pains to prevent (thought of course I can if I want to), even if the majority of people are messed up.

For me, the best guide to whether or not I'm being modest is to look at my interior disposition - if I feel comfortable and happy with what I'm wearing, and if I'm not acting out of self-loathing or out of an insecure need to get attention, I think I'm safe.

Ironically, I think this is one of the few areas where my horrible self image is actually making it easier on me than on you, who are pretty confident about your looks. Fundamentally, I think I'm so ugly that no one could possibly be attracted to me, so I don't tend to worry very much about showing my shape. Instead, I tend to dress to minimize ugliness, since feeling like I look decent makes me happier. That usually means picking clothes carefully to look more feminine (and make it look like I actually have a figure!)

Sheila said...

I think you're completely right, that the standard comes from within oneself rather than from others.

Funny that I didn't think of breastfeeding in relation to this. Because obviously I am not hung up on following a (flawed) "cultural standard" here.

It's really hard to come up with any standard at all, though. What if MY conscience is malformed? What if everybody's is?

Hence my "eyes on your own paper" rule. I police MY clothing. Not anyone else's.

Next struggle: not envying people with awesome style like you. :D You always look amazing and I admit to feeling a bit drab next to you sometimes. But that's just something for me to work on, and to decide if it's worth it to me to dress up more, or to stop caring quite so much that other people are prettier than me.

cephas said...

I will first say I agree with everything (of what I read (tl; sq [skimmed quick])), but the part where you drew the conclusion from the Catechism quote that scandal is something deliberate. It mentions attitude or behavior, deed or omission. Except for attitude, all of these admit of unintentionality. And as to 'grave offense', even that need not be deliberate. 'Grave offense' is one part of 'mortal sin', but without the deliberate part.

Sheila said...

And yet the Catechism actually uses the word "deliberately." That was my main clue that it was talking about deliberate actions. I really don't think I'm reading too deeply into it when I get that impression.

cephas said...

Ah. I didn't look farther than your quote from it. I guess I should have dug further.

Enbrethiliel said...


Ah, scandal! My middle name. ;-)

I do try to be aware of other people's scruples and quirks, and to modify my actions and speech accordingly. But if despite my best efforts, scandal happens, then scandal happens. What can one do?

My favourite incident involves a discussion of cursing on a Catholic blog. I shared a perfectly relevant story which I couldn't tell without writing "f***ing" (exactly in that way, quotation marks, asterisks and all), and someone wrote: "It's really wrong to see '+JMJ+' and 'f***ing' in the same comment." (ROFL!) Now, that was a minor thing, and I don't think I turned anyone away from the Church (although I may have lost a potential friend--the story of my life!), but it illustrates how jarring even the most innocuous comments can be.

More recently, I watched as another person's comment was totally twisted and blown out of proportion. A woman said that she thought a guy whose name had been cleared of rape was "probably guilty anyway" because he fit a certain predator profile; and a man remarked that that was as prejudiced as saying that a a guy whose name had been cleared of mugging was "probably guilty anyway" because he fit a certain racial profile. And if you have no idea which of the two comments was the "scandalous" one, that's the best part! =P You see, BOTH of them were! =D The man was offended by the blatant show of prejudice on the woman's part, while the woman was so upset at the man's reaction to her comment that she accused him of upholding "rape culture" by siding with the accused party!

Now, I happen to know the man pretty well--or as well as one can know a person after reading his blog for years--and there is NO WAY that he would ever condone rape or "rape culture." I had also read a bit of the woman's blog before the incident and had known that she is extra passionate about denouncing men accused of rape because she believes it is the only way to get real victims to come forward. So the man's initial reply to her--and its implication that he thought she was overreacting--made her extra defensive and extra likely to see him as an enemy of all rape victims.

Now, all of that could have been avoided if the man had known all that in advance about the woman--and if the woman herself had known the man better. But who has time to do all that research before leaving comments? We are told to go the extra mile and to turn the other cheek, but that's because these are reasonable actions. Are we still obligated to go to unreasonable lengths?

In short, when it comes to scandal and appropriate clothing, I try my hardest to do the right thing. But if some people will insist on being offended or turned on (Sigh!, then I have to write it off as their problem and not mine.

Sheila said...

See, I think your comments show that there's a difference between being scandalized and being offended. You can be offended at something inoffensive, simply because you misunderstand, or you can be offended because the person legitimately was trying to offend you ... and a whole scale of gradations in between. But all you do is make people angry. You don't make them sin.

"Scandal" is what actually encourages sin. A blogger I read recently told of how she had said something that sounded tolerant of premarital sex, and the (non-religious) listeners were all shocked because "we thought Catholics were opposed to that!" And that could give scandal. Or when you shack up with your boyfriend, leaving your best gal pal to think she is the ooooonly one left who isn't sleeping around. Maybe you aren't, but if everyone thinks you are, you could be making their life of virtue more difficult and lonely than it has to be.

But we aren't asked to go to unreasonable lengths. we just do our best and leave people's consciences up to them.

Enbrethiliel said...


What complicated things a lot was that the woman in my second story claimed she wasn't upset and angry only on her own behalf, but because she was sure that rape victims reading the man's comments would never come forward and that potential rapists would feel encouraged. She honestly believed he was enabling the sins of others.

Now, I would be heartbroken if anything I said made an innocent victim feel that she could not confide in me--and devastated if anything I did caused someone to rape another person. But I simply cannot foresee the effects my words and actions are going to have beyond a certain point. I don't think anyone can. And my problem with the woman's arguments in that combox was that she was virtually claiming to be able to tell the future.

But now this is an extension of my discussion with her rather than a real contribution to my discussion with you. =P Forgive me, Sheila! The threads of my online encounters get tangled up so easily . . .

Belfry Bat said...

There is also the important distinction between "giving scandal" and "taking scandal". Scandal given is usually a deliberate act with scandal taken as its intended object, and there may be other species; scandal taken is usually a malicious construction of innocuous words or actions in others.

I do think it is possible to give scandal by an act which is otherwise innocent, but because of circumstances can only appear as poor example or some such — and this would become genuine scandal, should the agent neglect to supply by word what is wanting in appearances ... some bad theatre, I think, might fall in this category.

Sheila said...

You make some very good points, E. Especially this: " I simply cannot foresee the effects my words and actions are going to have beyond a certain point." That's kind of what I'm saying here.

And BB, it's true. People can, and do, take scandal when no scandal was given. The Pharisees took scandal at Jesus because he didn't wash his hands.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...