When I was in a high school youth group, we heard many a talk on modesty: what it is, why it matters, etc. Creatively, we separated by gender and a spokesperson from one group spoke to the other group. A young man testified that he was affected by a woman’s immodesty, and apologized for the way he treated women, his attention reinforcing her reasons for immodest dressing.
When I served with the National Evangelization Team (NET), for the first time I heard the concept that modesty is dressing appropriately to one’s sex. It was not focused solely on women or solely on coverage. After NET, I became very zealous over this modesty crusade. I encountered Christian men who were frustrated by the immodesty of women surrounding them. I encountered men who blamed women for making them weak.
I began to question what modesty really is, what it means, how it ought to be applied, and what its goals are. In this post and future posts I’ll share the fruit of my reflection.
Modesty: man asks, woman responds
What happens when a Christian man asks a woman to dress more modestly? She may (A) feel honored that he seeks to respect her or (B) feel offended that he could see her as an object.
In common use, modesty refers to a style of dressing that adequately covers one’s body, in order to give due reverence to one’s body and protect the virtue of the opposite sex by not providing a temptation that could be avoided. Conversations considering this type of modesty usually focus on the role of the woman, claiming men are more visually tempted to lust.
Modesty does relate to sexuality, as we read in Pope St. John Paul II’s massive work, The Theology of the Body. When the first man and woman lost their original innocence through shame, we learn that the man looked at the woman and felt a reaction outside his will. He felt ashamed because it could not be controlled, and wanted to hide it. The woman was looked at by the man and felt his look at her body, distracted from her personhood, so she felt shame and wanted to hide her body. After the conversation with God, in Genesis, we read God made a covering for them in the Garden of Eden. The Bible does not say how much of their bodies were covered.
That women should dress modesty is important for men. For too many men, the female body is, erroneously, first sexual, and then a person. Some men see a woman dressed immodestly and find it difficult not to view her naked. Men striving to look at her with purity experience the temptation to lust. Widespread pornography can drive a man’s imagination. He, possibly, would have struggled less if he had not been exposed to pornographic images.
All of this may seem absurd and enraging to women. She is angry that he thinks of her as an object. Her objection to dressing modestly is her way of saying, “I am a person no matter what I wear. He should consider me a person no matter what.” She is right to feel that way; no man should view her as an object.
The man and woman end up talking past each other. He is working to overcome a sinful habit of objectifying the woman by looking at her as an object. Men are often oriented towards non-emotional, solution-oriented problem solving. The problem is sin. The solution: remove the temptation. He has perhaps removed pornographic images from his life, but because of the heroin-like nature of the pornography, the images do not go away. Immodest dress acts as a trigger, hinting at particular images he has seen in the past. So, non-emotionally, solution-oriented, he asks her to cover up.
Or it may be more distant than that. He may be merely an organizer of an event and requests a particular dress code for the sake of decorum. He calls it “distracting.”
In both cases, his request may seem to the woman as blaming her for man’s weakness. This view pits men against women, rather than viewing the relationship as one of complementary teamwork, where women and men can help each other in unique ways.
Or the woman may say, “I don’t dress for men, I dress the way I want to because I want to, not because I care about what men think.” Too often, women are viewed only in relation to men, rather than her own person. This again, makes her an object, and he the subject. Christian men may attempt to plea with women, “if you want to be beautiful to us…” but what she desires when she dresses is to be beautiful to herself, to be an attractive person, likeable and appealing to anyone she meets. Her conception of beauty comes into play. To define her motivation to dress as having to do only with thinking of what men think of her limits her personhood.
Anger and defensiveness ensue. The conversation goes no where.
This is one instance in the conversation on modesty. I’ll be addressing other viewpoints in future posts, but please feel free to comment!