Nuking the Modesty War, Part I: Control Yourself, Not Women

I saw this post on Facebook last week and I’ve been mulling over a rejoinder ever since. There is so much wrong with it that at first I thought it was too much to even bother with*. Plus, I’ve been over and over the modesty wheel. I’ve written snarky, insightful, and downright hilarious posts about the modesty war. There’s not much more I have to say about it.

Except, dammit, there is. I’m fecking done dancing around this issue and trying to point things out gently. Enough is enough.

Dear Christian Men of the Internet: STOP TRYING TO CONTROL WHAT WOMEN WEAR.

The “modesty” battles have become poisoned through and through. They started (perhaps) with something good: a genuine concern about increasingly revealing fashion trends of the 21st century. Perhaps, long before the days of the internet, the men involved in them even had a valid complaint. I mean, here were these men in the early 60′s who grew up with women wearing stuff like this:

and then all of the sudden one day the female half of the country got out of bed and put these on:

What the…so many knees…with the thighs and the calves and the…where do even put my eyes? Too many legs! Legs everywhere!

I can totally imagine these poor men, utterly bewildered, stammering out requests for pants. I can totally imagine the way they must have felt their honor and virtue being shamelessly attacked every time they left their house. I can totally imagine that must have been super, super hard.

But that was fifty years ago. These 20-year-old men walking around with the albatross of YOGA PANTS around their necks must have forgotten that the world of their early toddlerhood was dominated by this:

I’ll see your black cotton yoga pants and raise you SPANDEX AND NEON!

Classes full of women dressed exactly like this were held in glass-front, ground-floor buildings on busy streets. Ask your dad how much time he spent battling against the pervasive, lust-inciting influence of Jazzercise. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Oh, what’s that you say? None? None? But how could he possibly have kept himself from the daily, hourly temptation of lust if he didn’t do everything within his power to get those girls to cover up already, for the sake of his immortal soul?

The same way men have (and have not) for centuries: self-discipline.

But you don’t understand, I can hear you protest. Men in centuries past weren’t faced with such pervasive temptations everywhere they turn!

You’re right, they weren’t. And you’re right, I don’t understand. My husband can try to explain it until he’s blue in the face, but I still won’t really get the way men react to visual stimuli. That doesn’t mean I’m not sympathetic…I am. The thought of my husband being tempted several times a day by the skin-tight leggings of a co-ed who’s 10 years younger than me and 4 children more nubile makes me furious. Fast-forwarding a few years and imagining my son in my husband’s place breaks my heart. But I cannot change the world beyond our door.

They will be tempted. They will succumb. They will also overcome.

Trying to eliminate the threat of yoga pants one blog post at a time is a complete, utter, and ridiculous waste of my time. I can’t fight that battle for them, nor should I. My job is not to eliminate the threat. My job is to help them grow strong enough in virtue to face it on their own two feet.

It’s not a mark of virtue to admit to a woman that you can’t control your lust when she wears yoga pants. Asking her to change her attire because you either cannot or will not change your behavior does not signal strength of character. If my husband came home and confessed that he could no longer teach classes because all the girls in his classroom wore yoga pants, I’d tell him that he’d better close his eyes and think of England while giving the lecture, since our kids have this pesky need to eat.

If my son said to me what the men in the post said, this is how I would respond:

“If you can’t handle working out at the gym because all the girls wear yoga pants, stop working out at the gym. If you can’t handle the yoga pants on the barista at the coffee shop, buy a coffee maker and make your own. But at some point, you’re going to have to figure out how to handle it, because this is the world we live in. No matter how difficult or unfair it is, you still have to be virtuous. It may require heroic effort. Do it anyway.”

I’m not a glutton, that cookie and brownie sundae was just asking for it.

I know it sounds harsh. I have this crazy addiction to sugar. It’s impossible for me to resist. When I try to resist it, I can hear it in the pantry, see it on the shelves of the grocery store, imagine it in all its ice-cream-and-cookie-with-brownie-crumbles glory.

Sometimes I cry because I’m fat. The women of yesteryear, who had to work all day for their food, didn’t have Food, Inc refining sugar and carbs by the truckload to sell dirt cheap to housewives like me! It’s not fair. Sugar is just everywhere. And it tastes so good. My body is programmed to respond favorably to sweet things and to crave them. It’s literally a battle against my body to abstain!

Again, I hear you protest, that’s not the same thing!

You’re right, it’s not. Sugar isn’t a person with a soul. Sugar actually is evil, through and through. That makes it a lot different.

The girls in yoga pants that you can’t stop lusting after are people. They probably shouldn’t be wearing those pants, but you can’t force them to stop. I can just ban sugar from my house; you can’t ban women from your life. At some point, you will have to find some way to live at peace with women and our dubious clothing choices, or you will forever be a slave to lust. Women will truly become your enemy as you try with increasing desperation to control what we wear so you are not forced to grapple with controlling yourself. You will hate us in the end, but no more than you will hate yourself.

*Never fear, gentlemen, I’m not here to unfairly demonize you and give Jazzercise Girl a free pass. There really was too much to handle in a single post, so tomorrow I’ll be yelling at the women.


  • Harry

    Whenever I read a post by a concerned Christian man or concerned Christian woman about modesty it nearly always comes across as just so really, really frickin’ weird.
    I mean, I have non-Christian female friends that I can hand out with without much worry as a man. When I speak to them I’m not mentally categorizing what they’re wearing as modest or not. There’s still the issue of attraction but clothing doesn’t really enter into it. I just don’t notice it.
    But in the conservative Christian world there’s this almost cultish obsession with the way women dress, and this really strange way of talking about it – like it’s a crisis that desperately needs to be addressed. And I honestly don’t see it.
    All the sermons, the books, those weird websites selling ‘modest clothing’ – gah! Creeps me out.
    I swear, if I ever go on a blind date with a Catholic girl who turns up wearing long sleeves and a long dress, and who talks earnestly about purity of the eyes and not letting her brothers fall into sin I will just run.
    (apologies if anyone here does take modest clothing seriously. This is just how I see it)

  • RufusChoate

    The attraction of womanly charms is not like chocolate or sugar in any way. Women dress to consciously or unconsciously attract and seduce. Modesty and control of behavior begins with the object of attraction not the attracted. You’re right about the man being required to master his inclination. In the Catholic faith and tradition it is called the modesty of the eyes.

  • john smith

    The idea that either gender will ever stop using the other gender as the primary motivation for their dress style is silly. That’s not trying to “control” anybody.

    Boys dress to impress girls. Women dress to impress men. And vice-versa in both cases. “Impress” is not the same as “titillate.” Some people like titillating impressions, some prefer modest impressions.

    The Age of Internet Porn means that titillation is less impressive. Men will of course tolerate it. Many men openly enjoy and encourage it. But telling men that, no matter what, they must silently or happily accept it is ridiculous. My wife tells me what to wear and I’m grateful for it.

    Men are aroused by scantily-clad women. You have neither the ability nor the right to prevent that. Some men don’t like to feel sexually aroused during church service or in the course of normal daily business, even if it’s a very minor, flirtatious sort of arousal.

    It’s not going to change. And it’s no more “controlling” than women disliking being whistled at by strangers on the street.

  • Di Grace

    Women wearing burkas are lusted after by men. Women are kept hidden away and covered head to toe in some societies and men still manage to blame women for the lust in their own hearts. “Every man sins when he is drawn away by his own lust and enticed.”
    James 1:14

    • john smith

      Yep, guys who don’t want to see cleavage and camel-toe in the pews during church service or while they eat lunch at the deli are exactly the same as Islamic fundamentalists who lynch women for being raped.

      What an enlightened and helpful discussion this will all result in.

      Perhaps it’s possible that the woman dressing immodestly and the man who lusts after her are BOTH committing minor sins? *gasp*

      • QDefenestration

        There is a chasm between the arguments of “appropriate clothing should be worn to church” (which will, if it is not hypocritical, attack men for t-shirts and jeans just as vigorously as it does women for wearing revealing clothing) and the Modest is the Hottest group that acts like yoga pants are cursed objects with the ability to circumvent free will and force lust into men’s brains.

        • Brian Anthony

          but jeans are modest. i thought the discussion was modest clothing, not “dress-up” if a girl wears basically modest clothing, and a guy is in a hopodie and jeans becasue its cold. then both are absolutely appropriately modest.

          NOW if we turn the subject to “sunday best” I am going to bite my tongue becasue being all “dressy dressy” isa protestant idea not a Catholic one. legions of faithful catholics went to sunday mass in their work clothes, or their farming attire, or their habit. Catholics dont dress up, we dress humble

          • Tom Collins

            Jeans might be modest. Or they might not be. Are they expensive, sexy, or flashy? If so, then they wouldn’t qualify as the quiet clothing women are supposed to wear in Church.
            I’ll take this a bit further, and offer that jeans may not qualify as women’s clothing. Women are supposed to wear women’s clothes, and men are supposed to wear men’s clothes. Historically, men wear pants and women wear skirts.

          • Brian Anthony

            right thats why i mentioned guys wearing jeans…

            but honestly i don’t see girls jeans as immodest or inappropriate for church as long as they are simple and humble, like most male versions of jeans.

            i suppose i was envisioning plain clothing not monogrammed or jewel encrusted. for myself, to mass in summer I wear long pants (not necessarily “dress” or slacks) and a polo shirt with a plain almost unnoticeable black or brown belt and my normal everyday walking shoes. In colder weather i wear the same pants, shoes and belt with a polo shirt under my hooded sweatshirt. if it is snowing i wear a jacket instead of the hoodie.

            nothing i have described is “dressed up” becasue to me dressing up is ostentatious. God knows our soul’s condition, no amount of cleaning up on the outside will hide our sinfulness from him.

            ultimately the reason i say that Catholic worship shouldn’t be about dress is because we worship with our bodies people are sometimes pharisaic about the dress code but those same people forget to bow during the creed, or bow their head at the names of Jesus and Mary, or strike their breast thrice at the Confiteor. THESE are the external marks of Catholic piety and reverence not what we wear.

          • Tom Collins

            Christian women are supposed to dress modestly and quietly for church. Modestly meaning socially appropriate for the setting, quiet meaning not attracting undue attention to oneself. Attending church is a solemn event. The problem with something like yoga pants is that they are sexually loud, and attract attention.

          • Brian Anthony

            i agree with you on that point. i was moving more against the othr commentors confusion on my attitude toward dess up

          • QDefenestration

            1. This entire blog post series is an argument for reconceptualizing the modesty debate around something more like “appropriateness” than “revealingness.”

            2. Where on earth did you get that idea?

          • Brian Anthony

            legions of monks, nuns, Christ himself, the humble publican, dressing humble before God so as not to “widen our coat tails or lengthen our tassels” dressing up is uncomfortable in many cases with starched collars and restricting suit coats. simply everyday attire that allows one to come before the feet of Jesus and meditate on the Eucharistic miracle like the habit of monk or nun makes more sense for Catholic worship

          • QDefenestration

            1. Throwing in a gospel quote that is only vaguely related to the topic at hand while ignoring the actual context and point of that passage (in this case, hypocritical worship rather than some kind of general proclamation against formal clothing) is itself a prot move

            2. Identifying specific spiritualities within orders and/or vocations of the universal Church reveals a fundamental ignorance of the “catholic” nature of the church.

            3. Jesus didn’t wear a tie so we shouldn’t wear a tie? That’s kind of absurd. If anything in the gospel is relevant, it’s probably the widow’s offering. One wears formal, respectful clothing, to the best of their ability. So, since your idea of Catholic history seems to be limited to/ focused on peasant farmers (which is…odd) obviously the same standards wouldn’t apply as they would to 21st century middle class men and women.

            4. “God knows our soul’s condition, no amount of cleaning up on the outside will hide our sinfulness from him.” Another protestant attitude. Catholic devotion is based around concepts of sacramentality in which the outer image is most appropriately a sign of the grace within. Similarly, the miracle of the Eucharist is equally filled with grace whether celebrated on a desolate, dirty rock or in the Vatican.

            Yet we still build cathedrals.

            5. “ultimately the reason i say that Catholic worship shouldn’t be about dress is because we worship with our bodies people are sometimes pharisaic about the dress code but those same people forget to bow during the creed, or bow their head at the names of Jesus and Mary, or strike their breast thrice at the Confiteor. THESE are the external marks of Catholic piety and reverence not what we wear.”

            An ignorance of the lesser known acts and gestures in the mass is problematic. The fact that you personally know some people who dress up but are less educated than you doesn’t mean dressing formally= acting like a pharisee. Many would also argue that your focus on these actions in mass is itself a pharisaical attitude (not me; I agree that said ignorance is more problematic than informal dressing. Holding hands during the Our Father and then mirroring the priest’s Orans position is more distracting than jeans ever could be)

            6. You can’t separate manners from mass. Today we hold business casual a *minimum* standard for any number of situations that we would rank below mass.

            7. And finally, the idea that comfort is a requirement or aid for a prayerful attitude runs against Catholic tradition in the extreme; you forget that the clothing of the very same religious you mention was typically designed to be far more uncomfortable than any starched collar; find a single saint in history who, rather than making himself/herself less comfortable out of piety, made themselves more comfortable, or taught that one should become more comfortable. Francis abandoned his lavish clothing for a lifestyle of oftentimes extreme self-mortification. He sacrificed comfort rather than embracing it.

    • Brian Anthony

      wow…what john smith said…

  • Cam

    Women, out of charity, not obligation, consider how the clothes you wear might affect others. Men, stop looking at women lustfully. Seems pretty simple to me.

  • Melanie B

    “he’d better close his eyes and think of England while giving the lecture, since our kids have this pesky need to eat.”
    Calah, Best line I’ve read on the internet– probably anywhere– all week. I can’t believe everyone is overlooking it to actually debate the topic at hand.

    • GeekLady

      It is not unappreciated over here, but my Irish was up at the time.

  • jenny

    I remember being told , as a teenager, that girls do not wear pants @ church because we, girls, may tempt men into sin. At minus 20 degrees C, I felt my ovaries burning and my knees turned red because of the winter cold.
    I ended up at the gynecologist many, many times. The gynecologist told me to stay warm if I ever want to keep my ovaries and become a mother. I did not understand at that time why the priests and the doctors contradict each other.
    I felt guilty…..therefore, I kept going to church in the winter, wearing a skirt, till my ovaries got really bad. I did not have $$$ for medication. I suffered the pain for many years.

    • GeekLady

      Sweetie, you DO know that a woman’s ovaries are inside her abdomen and maintained at her core body temperature. Right?

    • Fiddlesticks

      or you could just wear tights ….

  • Fiddlesticks

    How can men complain about how we dress? They wear their underwear outside their pants, for flip’s sake!

  • TheodoreSeeber

    “Ask your dad how much time he spent battling against the pervasive, lust-inciting influence of Jazzercise. Go ahead. I’ll wait.”

    Hmm. Don’t know about my dad, but Jazzercise hit in the 5th grade in our little rural school, and was certainly a factor in the fact that I struggled with the church’s teachings on sexuality until my mid 20s.

    Someday I’m going to have to have a frank talk with my wife’s Mary Kay Consultant, who just happens to be a girl a bit younger than me that I went to school with, about her flexibility when she was a third grader. She could do the splits so far that 35 years later, I still remember her legs in a backwards V.

  • Bruno

    Whenever I see a woman i find unusually attractive, I say a prayer of thanks to God for the beauty that I see displayed. It is hard to lust after someone you have just asked God to bless.

    • Tom Collins

      Don’t you see God’s work in less sexually appealing women? Shouldn’t you be thanking God for the truly beautiful women of the world, like nuns?
      You shouldn’t be thanking God for physical beauty, because God told us that a beautiful woman without discretion is like a gold ring in a pig’s snout.

      • Bruno

        I didn’t say that I did not also do that. You should not put words in people’s mouths. I am just saying how i handle that one particular situation and was not writing a 500 page treatise on the theology of beauty.