A Modesty Proposal
Christian commitment seems to be catching on with young singles. And the acid test of that commitment is chastity. Are we willing to truly live the Gospel, including its sexual morality?
As people think more this way, they begin to think about the root causes of unchastity. One that comes to the fore is immodesty. The recovery of modesty is a key factor in the effort to return to a decent, biblical sexual ethic.
The issue of modest dress seems to rest mostly with women since they have more sexual values to conceal than men. Men, too, must be modest, although they have fewer sexual values about which to be modest. (T-shirts with the arms cut deep into the center of the shirt would be an example of immodest dress for men.)
Since women are more integrated than men, and see the whole person they are often unaware of how men are looking at them. Yet, at the same time, since the woman does not experience sensuality to the same degree as the man, she who should be more concerned about modesty does not feel the need for modesty. Pope John Paul II, in making this point in his book "Love and Responsibility," concludes that, "The evolution of modesty in woman requires some initial insight into the male psychology."
There are other problems in trying to talk about feminine modesty. First, one must be very careful in criticizing the way a woman dresses. Many men have learned this the hard way. Second, women generally dress to impress women, not men. Many women are not as sensitive to immodest dress (in women) as are men. And third, since men are the ones affected, it would seem appropriate that they be asked their thoughts about modest dress in women. Unfortunately, not all men have ever even given this a thought.
When I was a young bachelor, living on the beach in California, I believed in chastity, and tried hard to live it, but the idea of modest dress in women never crossed my mind. If I saw a woman dressed in a tight mini-skirt, or a minuscule bikini, my interior response was something like "Ooooeeh." (Alas, an all too typical male response.) I was perfectly ready to visually exploit her, even though I had no intention to exploit her physically. Only later, when I began to think about the root causes of lust, did I realize that this sort of dress was having a negative effect on me.
Few men take the time to reflect on just what is happening when they face a sexily dressed woman. One who has is Father David Knight. He wrote the following:
"In the measure that a particular style of dress is consciously and deliberately provocative — whether the deliberate intent is on the part of the designer, or the wearer, or of both—this way of dressing must be recognized as a mild form of reverse rape by which a person arouses unsolicited sexual desire on another person who may not want to be aroused. Whenever this happens to men (who are more subject to this kind of arousal than women) it always causes some anger, whether recognized or not. This may explain some of the hostility and aggressive behavior that men are guilty of toward women."
After reading Father Knight, I began to observe my own reactions. I noticed that I did feel uncomfortable when I saw a woman walk into a room provocatively dressed. I noticed, too, that when a woman was modestly dressed, I felt quite comfortable. I can't say I felt anger over immodestly dressed women, but I did feel a certain concern for the woman, whom I feared would perhaps be the object of exploitation by men.
So what are the elements of dress that cause reactions in men? The most common one I hear is short skirts. Several times I have heard from men, who were religious but in no way square, that they could not believe how short some of the dresses were on women coming in to Church for Mass. They saw such dress and devotion as somehow contradictory. I had to agree. Dresses or skirts more than a couple of inches above the knee do affect men sexually, at least in a mild way, but perhaps even more psychologically. Their opinion of the woman as a whole is affected more. Women wearing mid-calf dresses often look quite sharp, feminine and appealing to the man looking for a good, solid wife. Many men who have been burned before will shy away from a woman who wears short skirts.
Other things typically stir a certain sexual reaction in men: breasts partially clothed, tight dresses, "sexy hair." Sometimes women are truly surprised to hear the way men are reacting to them, while at the same time other women are deeply aware of all this.
What it comes down to for a woman is this: Do you want to be remembered for your legs, your chest, or your curves? Or do you want to be remembered for your warmth, your femininity, your personality, your decency, your goodness. If a woman accentuates her physical values, she will surely drown out her other, more personal, more significant and more lasting values.
Some women respond, "Well, what will become of me if I don't wear short skirts? Won't I become a hopelessly outdated old maid?" There are several flaws in this argument. First, the same women will wear longer skirts from time to time and look quite fashionable.
Second, a good Christian woman has so much going for her, that even if short skirts were a benefit (which they aren't), they would be of minimal importance. A woman living in the state of grace has a bit of an aura that far exceeds any fashion statement. As one person put it, "There is nothing more attractive than holiness." Christian women sometimes underestimate their inner beauty, perhaps because the fashion designers have such a strong influence, placing so much stress on the exterior.
Now some may argue, "Well, we've come a long way (baby). Styles are much more revealing today than 60 years ago. It used to be risque for a woman to show her legs at the beach. The things that are called immodest today may seem quite commonplace 30 years from now." True, but generally those who are committed to the Lord are not at the cutting edge of revealing styles. That sort of groundbreaking could be left to the pagans.
Others may argue, "Well, it's too hot out." Hot as it may be, there are modest clothes that allow you to be cool (those from India wear them). And, furthermore, which is more important, being comfortable or helping people avoid sin (and being treated better)?
When I see a woman modestly dressed, I think, 'There's a woman who doesn't play up to the media, to the designers or to any man. She's her own woman, or, better yet, she's God's woman."
There are plenty of modest, chic women, who dress sharply, but not sexily, women who are in control of their own styles, to the extent that they are decent. These women are also in control of their social lives, and get less pressure for sexual favors.
Let's face it, our world has virtually lost any sense of decency. Granted, it's time for men to step forward and take part in the moral renewal of our culture. But women have their part to play as well, not only for the sake of the men who are trying to do the right thing, but for their own sakes as well. Women have the most to gain from chastity, and modesty is a good way to begin.
Father Morrow is a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington, D. C.
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