Wednesday, 13 September 2017

The Bare Naked Truth about Modesty

I’m hardly the first person to write about this, but it seemed like a good idea to write anyway, because most people assume that anyone who talks or cares about modesty also buys into a bunch of lies or half-truths which can be harmful, degrading and counter-productive. ‘Modesty culture’ was big in certain parts of the Christian world in the US, and some of that (good and bad) has come to India too. Because there is so much extremism, the other temptation is to just throw the concept of modesty out the window, and just say ‘Each to his own’ and ‘You go, girl!’ to everyone, and assume that the way we dress or behave is irrelevant to our faith.

So what is the truth? What is an exaggeration or a lie? What is modest really about?

Modesty is not just about the length of your skirt or the depth of your neckline. ‘Modesty protects the intimate center of the person. It means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden…It guides how one looks at others and behaves towards them in conformity with the dignity of persons and their solidarity.’ CCC 2522 It is so much more than a list of rules about one should or should not wear. It is a freedom from needing to flaunt oneself, sell oneself, or treat anyone else as if they are a commodity or a thing to be used either. It means being unassuming, humble, and free from pretension. Both men and women are called to modesty in behaviour and clothing. It is connected with both purity (of intention and gaze)and humility.

Lack of modesty in dress does NOT imply a girl was ‘asking for it’ when she is attacked or treated badly. This is one of the ugliest and most harmful attitudes when it comes to modesty. It sees men as animals unable to control themselves, their eyes, or their thoughts, and women merely as objects of lust. No matter what a woman is wearing, a man can and should be able to control himself. Men have raped women in burqas, nuns, old women, young children. Girls wearing salwar kameezes have been groped and ‘eve-teased’. Again and again, every time an attack on a woman happens, people will search for some way to victim-blame, instead of focussing on the actual culprit.

Modesty or lack of it is NOT an excuse to judge people. We all do it. It’s that look that passes between two women when they see someone inappropriately dressed. Last year I was volunteering at a church that was also a tourist attraction, and saw many young and old women came in wearing clothes that barely covered their behinds. The first thought I would have was “Wow! WHAT was she thinking?” But then I would try to look beyond that. This particular human being had a body given to her by God, and as such was good! No matter what she was wearing, she had an intrinsic dignity, and was owed respect by me just because she was a child of God. Not to mention, even though her clothing seemed inappropriate, I had absolutely no way of judging or knowing her intention in dressing that way. ‘Maybe that’s just what everyone in her world wears. Maybe she is just testing her wings and trying to look attractive. Maybe she in insecure and is mistaking attention for love. Don’t you remember how YOU used to dress when you were an insecure teenager, Sue?” When people who care about modesty judge people dressed immodestly, they too are guilty of objectifying them.

Girls are NOT in charge of keeping guys pure. No one can force someone else to sin. Sure we can tempt them, make it harder for someone, offer them a drink when they’re trying to stay sober, etc., but they STILL have the power to say no. I have heard guys complain about being tempted by the oddest things. When a girl lies down, her shape is more defined, and it’s tempting. When a girl’s bra strap peeks out, it reminds a guy that she wears a bra, and that’s tempting. If a guy sees a girl wearing nightclothes (no matter how modest), it reminds him that.. I don’t know.. she goes to bed? And beds are where one has sex? Good grief. Women who breastfeed in public might flash a glimpse of breast, and that’s tempting. Really? Women are also human beings who feel uncomfortable, hot, are placed in awkward situations, are tired, and are not constantly using their bodies as a source of attraction or attention.

Men (and women) are capable of training themselves to control their thoughts, eyes and imaginations. Even if all Christians adhered to a standard of modesty that everyone agreed on, the rest of the world is STILL going to continue to wear what they want to wear. There are billboards with half naked models, there are wedding guests with tiny dresses, there are women at the beach in bikinis, there are shirtless men riding bikes in the Philippines (that threw me). Should we all gouge our eyes out? Probably not. Sometimes, we may need to avert them. But the real aim is to look at the opposite sex (and indeed all people) with the eyes of Christ. If we start to see human beings as PERSONS, not objects, as brothers and sisters with human dignity, and precious in the eyes of God, it changes our perspective totally. It may be a long process, but it’s possible. I know men who would treat a prostitute with same respect and dignity as an upstanding church member.

That said, women CAN try to make it a little easier, knowing the temptations of some of our brothers. I WOULDN’T offer a drink to someone who is struggling with addiction. I’d try to hide the snacks from someone who is fasting. I know they are committed to a particular course of action, and I want to help them with that. So just out of Christian charity, women can make an effort to dress in a way that would help men see them as a whole person, not just a collection of parts, or an object of lust. Men can try to do the same- don’t go shirtless when you’re swimming, that can be a struggle for many women (well, unless you have a pot belly. Then no one cares).

Not saying immodest dressing = pornography. But both reduce women to objects.

Modesty matters because the way we dress, and speak, and behave is a way we communicate with the world. We are not alone on an island of our own, but exist within a community. (When a girl is home alone, it is not immodest to wander around half-naked.) Even though we WOULD like to think that the way we dress concerns no one but ourselves, in some way our choices do send a message to society at large. Do we ALWAYS need worry about that? No, not always. People can read messages that are unreasonable and quite a leap (that girl was polite to me so she obviously wants me).

That said, the dress of each culture and setting usually has a meaning- a suit equals ‘This is a formal occasion and I acknowledge that’. Wearing jeans to a wedding could send the message that I don’t care about the importance of the occasion. Wearing a skirt to a date might mean that I would like to take a little trouble to look attractive. (You should hear girls discussing the meaning of clothing before they go out to an unfamiliar social setting or date!) Some clothes shout ‘Hey, I’m sexy! Check me out!’ The question is really- what message DO we want to the world, and how does that line up with my values and faith? (That’s something for my next blog post.)

No universal list of modesty rules exists. Well, that’s not true, they may exist, but they shouldn’t. What is immodest in one culture, may be perfectly normal and un-tempting in another. Americans are shocked by women showing their midriffs with their sarees, and many Indians still consider a glimpse of the knee as practically a mini skirt. In some African tribes, bare breasts are the norm, and no one would give them a second glance, but for most of the rest of the world, women covering their breasts is the one unifying modesty standard. I once watched a video of a young Protestant girl giving a talk about modesty. Almost all the women watching the video were outraged, because she had this black and white interpretation of modesty with very specific rules. It’s easy to make rules, until someone else has rules that are even more restricting than your own list. Most Christian women who are all about modesty would most likely hesitate to adopt the burqa. THEN they may say “Welll, it’s all relative.”

Modesty does not mean covering as much skin as possible. Skin in itself is not some sinful and very private part of your body. The aim is not to hide as much of it as possible. Neither is the aim to make sure no one thinks you’re attractive, because if they think you’re attractive, that MAY lead to a lustful thought. God gave women beauty for a reason, not misuse, but to use. Just as we don’t think men should not work out, in case they use their strength to abuse women, we don’t think beauty should be hidden just because it has the ability to be misused. Someone once told me, “If we’re serious about modesty, we would always wear ankle-length skirts.”

That is a faulty view of modesty, and the human body. The temptation to gluttony shouldn’t stop you from enjoying good food. Women, feel free to dress attractively. (Modesty does not mean only skirts or dresses- there can be immodest skirts and modest pants. But that's a whole 'nother internet argument.) Beauty can transform the world.

In conclusion, if you are very concerned about modesty, check yo’ heart, and don’t allow judgment to creep in. If you haven’t been concerned about modesty at all in the past, re-examine why you dress or behave the way you do, and ask God to shine light into the areas you may not have wanted to think much about in the past.

Next: The Modern Catholic Girl’s Guide to Dressing

1 comment:

  1. I read a nice article once about how modesty is also about dressing in a way that is respectful to others. That means respecting other people's socio-economic group and lifestyle. And dressing in a way that would make them comfortable.