There are so many serious things to talk about today. A million and one grave topics require our attention. The world is burning up and we don’t know where it will end. Innocent people are dying because of American politics, again. But somehow, on Catholic Twitter, we were all talking about modesty.
A lady who was not actually a Catholic but some brand of sedevacantist created a meme to teach modesty, with results that were both sad and comical.
I tend to be something of a Trojan horse in modesty discussions. I do think that what you wear is one of the ways in which you present who you are to the world, and that’s not unimportant. Personally I usually wear ankle-length hippie skirts and I like to cover my hair at Mass. Fussy people see the way I dress and speak to me as if I’m an ally, until I open my mouth. But I don’t think I can dictate to other people exactly what body parts they should cover and when. To be modest is a function of humility which is a function of honesty; to be modest is to let yourself decrease so that others might increase in any way that’s appropriate in a given situation. Performative, attention-seeking modesty is the opposite of modest, and shaming people for not wearing what you think they ought to is worse.
This lady had created a meme that I thought was supposed to be a parody, until I spoke with the creator myself and realized she was dead serious. The caption declared that the meme was a demonstration of where the male gaze is drawn when he looks at a woman wearing trousers and “a low-cut top.” It portrayed a line drawing of a nondescript faceless woman with big hair, in form-fitting jeans and an ordinary v-neck; the woman’s body was surrounded by and covered with arrows indicating her breasts and crotch. Having short sleeves, according to the arrows in the diagram, drew a man’s eye to her breasts. Having collarbones bare above an ordinary v-neck drew a man’s eye to her breasts. Having legs whose shape was discernible inside denim sheaths drew a man’s eye to her crotch. Having bare arms with the hands in her pockets drew his eye to her crotch. The woman in the diagram was a pair of breasts and a crotch engulfed in arrows helpfully pointing them out to anyone who might have looked elsewhere.
It was like the direct inverse of a Baroque painting of Saint Sebastian. Instead of a naked man with an expressive face, shot through with arrows for his sanctity; this meme portrayed a clothed woman with no face at all, shot through with arrows for her supposed immodesty.
A good many jokes were made about this image. We asked why a modest person would create an image designed to make people look at crotches in the first place. Photos were posted of attractive men in kilts, with arrows superimposed to indicate the crotch. We all had a good time. But in the middle of all this silliness, one gentleman made a joke that was actually rather profound.
“Maybe if she had a face we’d have more options for where to look?” he said.
Maybe if she had a face.
I’ve been thinking about that all day.
Imagine what it would be like if women had faces.
Maybe if women had faces, we would be human beings.
And if we were human beings, we wouldn’t have to go to such lengths to draw attention away from our breasts and crotches. We could just cover them with ordinary clothing that we liked, that we could afford, and that kept our bodies free to move as we had to, and that would be enough. We could go about our day concerned with more important things than making people look away. Maybe if we were persons with personalities instead of mannequins on display for the sake of a shaming, dehumanizing demonstration, we could think about something else.
Maybe if women had faces, we wouldn’t constantly be blamed for other people’s sin. And we are constantly blamed for other people’s sin, of course. Because we accidentally let our knees or cleavage show, and somebody saw us. Because we had breasts or bottoms that were larger than average, and didn’t carefully sheath them in an extra layer of loose clothing. Because we needed to nurse the baby and didn’t hide in a bathroom stall to do it. Because we wanted to exercise. Because we wouldn’t gratify our husbands whenever they were horny, so they “had no choice” but to turn to porn or have an affair. Because we wouldn’t marry the man in the first place, so he “had no choice” but to harass or get violent. Because we got raped and it must be our fault somehow. Because boys will be boys but we’re not boys and that always makes it our fault.
If women had faces, we would have eyes. And if we had eyes, we could gaze on one another as icons and treat each other accordingly, instead of scolding and shaming one another for the clothing we wear. And any man who leered at us would find himself confronted by a human face.
We could be truly virtuous– not just demonstrating a shallow, immodest, performative modesty but real sanctity. We could be heroic.
I’m not saying that women shouldn’t think about how they dress. But the sad fact is, no matter what a woman wears– if she’s in a turtleneck and long skirt or a harmless v-neck tee or totally naked, it doesn’t really make a difference if you’re determined to act as if she doesn’t have a face. If your own heart is full of arrows all pointing at breasts and crotch, or bottoms or legs or any other favorite body part, you will go on looking there. You will go on believing that women are a jumble of arrows, unless you choose to treat them as if they have faces.
Imagine if we all lived our lives, believing that women had faces.
(image via Pixabay)
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