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:
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
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
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?