The other day one of my friends posted a link on facebook, comparing the modesty debate (or at least certain portions of it) to an attempt to argue that a woman eating chocolate causes others to want chocolate, and thus indulge in gluttony. Here’s an excerpt:
What you may not understand is that it is just a part of the way that God designed us. When we see chocolate, we are provoked to gluttony. That may or may not be your intent, but the truth is that when we see our sisters in Christ with chocolate, we are just wired to respond to it. We want it. So I am asking, as a godly woman, that you refrain from tempting us by eating chocolate. Will you, as a humble and sincere sister in the Lord, make a commitment to give up the chocolate that is causing us to stumble?
Can I get an “amen”? No?
I suspect that some of you would respond, gently and with love, that the issue really is not about condemning those who eat chocolate, but perhaps more about dealing with my own self-control. Some might even go as far as to point out that simply liking chocolate and wanting to eat it is not necessarily gluttony unless I refuse to control myself. Others would remind me that as a Christian, filled with the Holy Spirit, I can resist the temptation. And a few might be slightly confused why I am only addressing my sisters in Christ and wonder about whether men should be held to the same standards. These are good points.
Yet I have read many appeals to Christian women on the issue of modesty and swimwear, particularly if you get into the debate on one-piece versus two-piece, that sound just like the condemnation against chocolate.
I think she hits on some good points that are often left out of the histrionic modesty debate. One of the ones that drives me the craziest is the assumption that if a man glimpses even a sliver of midriff, a flash of cleavage, or the slightest hint of thigh he’s going to be immediately thrown into the agony of uncontrolled lust and it will be all your fault. I’ve heard women go so far as to say that if a woman “causes a man to lust after her”, she will bear the sin of his lust on her soul instead of him bearing it.
Excuse me while I go and vomit. That is just the biggest load of bullshit I’ve ever heard, and I’m quite frankly sick of hearing it. I don’t get into the modesty debate much, mostly because that sentence I just typed is my general reaction and I know (truly, I know) that most women who fret and worry over modesty are genuinely trying to do what is right. I don’t want to trivialize the struggles of others to help their fellow brother in Christ out. But I’m also nine months pregnant, cranky as hell, and extremely tired of trying to find a shirt that covers every last bit of my enormous cans so that some other woman doesn’t give me the stinkeye if I happen to bend down and flash a little (or a lot) of boobiliciousness.
Because, guys, there’s the rub. It’s the rare, rare, super-rare occasion that I catch a man eyeing my accidental cleavage. But other women? Forget about it. They are like vultures, ready to pounce at the slightest sign of immodesty. Sometimes it’s verbal, sometimes it’s body language, sometimes it’s “if I could sentence you to 20 extra years in Purgatory with just the power of my angry stare, I would”. It seems to me that in this whole debate about modesty, the fact that the women’s voices are the loudest and the most frequently raised in condemnation of their sisters in Christ is something that should not be ignored.
I believe that modesty is an inner virtue, not an outer one. If you are, at heart, immodest, and your deepest desire is to draw attention to yourself, then no amount of covering up will cover that up. If, on the other hand, you truly do not desire the attention of others, I believe that comes through in your appearance.
At the University of Dallas, we had a professor who is a numerary. She’s also terrifying, in a Joan-of-Arc-charging-into-the-fray kind of way, and stunningly gorgeous. She’s brilliant, funny, loving, and one of the holiest women I’ve ever met. And when I think of womanly modesty, I think of her.
She’s got a great figure, and she’s not ashamed of it. The necks of her shirts are always appropriately high enough, her skirts are always knee-length or longer, and she rarely wears pants. But this quote:
could basically sum up her entire wardrobe. No fear of pencil skirts with her…but the skirts are never inappropriately tight. She’s a classy, classy lady, and she dresses like one. I cannot imagine why anyone would accuse her of being immodest, although I know for a fact that people have, particularly when she happens to choose a more form-fitting dress.
That makes me angry. This woman is modest inside and out. She respects herself enough to dress in a way that is aesthetically pleasing, both to herself and others, and she respects herself enough to do it with class and pudeur. She never dresses in an attention-seeking way — in fact, that couldn’t be further from the way she presents herself. And you know what? She is not prideful.
There is, in this whole modesty debate, a very overlooked aspect of it: pride. What else do you call it when a girl says, “if I wear a skirt that allows the slightest outline of my figure to show, every male I pass will be rendered incomprehensibly lustful?” Truly, that is pride, coupled with a profound disrespect for men. To quote the author of the article I linked to earlier, men “are not slavering beasts who are provoked to ungovernable lust by any glimpse of a woman’s shape or skin. They are capable of controlling themselves and turning away if necessary.”
My husband likes it when I flash a bit of skin. He likes it when we go out on dates and I wear skirts that are an inch or two above my knee. I oblige him, on the rare occasion that I’m not pregnant and have been running regularly and thus do not have thunderific thighs, because I’m not trying to attract the attention of every man we pass. Nor do I. Other men don’t look twice. Actually they don’t even look once, and that suits me just fine, because my husband looks often and with a naughty, secret grin on his face just for me. If I can make my husband smile just the way I want him to while still not attracting the attention of anyone else except the Modesty Police, why shouldn’t I?
I don’t dress immodestly or provocatively, but I’m also not about to wear turtlenecks in Florida in August when I’m nine months pregnant. And guess what? When you’re pregnant with your fourth kid, and you’re not exactly what anyone would mistake for “delicate” anyways, if you want to cover up all that cleavage the only option is a turtleneck. Because the knockers, they are a’knockin. I can’t even wear a scoop-neck shirt without showing cleavage when I bend over, and as anyone who’s ever shopped for maternity clothes knows, it’s very, very difficult to find shirts with necks that hit the collarbone. Some women would have me wear a cami under everything to prevent any cleavage from showing even if I’m bending over. To them I say: hell to the no. You guys, it’s 98 degrees and 90% humidity outside, and I am 5 feet tall and 4 feet around! (Yes, my husband measured me. Yes, I punched him.) Air conditioning does not go low enough to keep me from sweating! I’m not about to put on two layers on the off chance that someone might happen to glimpse a bit o’boob when I bend over to tie a toddler’s shoe. As far as I’m concerned, if a man is that turned on by the sight of a massively pregnant woman surrounded by three children flashing an inadvertent teat, he has other issues he needs to deal with. And while we’re on the subject of teats, in about a month I’ll be flashing a whole lot more than the occasional inadvertent glimpse while using them for, you know, the purpose they were made. So I might as well desensitize the neighborhood now.
All that is not to say that I just put on whatever strikes my fancy without thinking twice about it. There are a few tank tops and many dresses that I sadly retired when I hit about the fifth month and my pregnancy boobs came in, because they went from “boarderline” to “that would make Jessica Rabbit blush.” I try to choose my highest-necked dresses for Mass, I always wear a sweater in the church to cover my shoulders, and I make sure my skirts are knee-length or longer. I do take into account the occasion before choosing an outfit…for example, I chose my most modest dress for parent-teacher night, and my least modest dress for the night that we put the kids to bed early and I made dinner just for the Ogre and I. But I also don’t beat myself up if I come home from the store and notice that the shirt I put on before I left, which showed nary a hint of cleavage, had been pulled down and mangled by toddler hands until the back of the neck was riding up into my hairline and the front of the neck was plunging dangerously close to my bra-line. That’s the hazard of life with kids. No amount of layering and adjusting and fretting will ensure that I never, ever show the slightest hint of chest or thigh, and if the rest of the world can’t deal with that, it’s on them.
When it comes to modesty, I ask myself three questions: am I dressing this way to be provocative, and to attract the attention of someone other than my husband? The answer to that is invariably “no”. Then I go on to: if I am dressing this way to attract the attention of my husband, is it possible that I might inadvertently attract the attention of another man at the same time? The answer to this one is almost always “no”, and when I hesitate, I just ask the Ogre. Last, and absolutely least, I will sometimes ask myself, “will this offend another woman who is more sensitive to modesty than I am?” Depending on the occasion, the woman in question, and my fear of becoming the latest subject of town gossip, I will sometimes change if the answer is “yes”. But in my mind, that last question has nothing at all to do with modesty and more to do with cultural sensibilities and fear of gossip.
In the great modesty debate, the sad truth is that we women are our own worst enemies. Our idea of what is “modest” is usually much stricter and more extreme than what our men regard to be modest (that wretched CatholiCity article notwithstanding). And sometimes I fear that we use the “modesty” stick as a measure with which to judge another’s soul…dangerous territory. It’s a far greater sin to pridefully pass judgment on the state of another woman’s soul than it is to wear a low-cut shirt or a short skirt.