- Excerpts from Christian Courtship in an Oversexed World
A Modesty Proposal
A chastity program simply cannot work without the virtue of modesty of dress in both men and women. Although we don’t often think of it, men must be modest, too. Tiny bathing suits, skin-tight trousers, and T-shirts with the arms cut away deep into the center of the shirt would be examples of immodest dress for men, as well as something that flies in the face of true Christianity. However, as St. Teresa of Avila wrote in her autobiography, “. . . women are obliged to modesty more than men.” Thus, we will focus mostly on issues of women’s modesty.
Let me share a story with you. One evening, a member of our Catholic single women’s group was trying to decide what to wear to a wedding. She called her father and asked him what he thought. He said, “Well, you have nice legs, why not wear something short?”
So, she wore something short . . . and created quite a stir. It was not her happiest moment.
After that we began to discuss modesty and she started to wear more demure outfits. Later, she told me she had attended one party and got more attention in her modest clothing than others did in their revealing wear!
Since women are more integrated than men, and see the whole person, they are often unaware of how men are looking at them. Pope John Paul II pointed this out in Love and Responsibility:
Since sensuality, which is oriented towards “the body as an object of enjoyment” is in general stronger and more important in men, modesty and shame — the tendency to conceal sexual values specifically connected with the body — must be more pronounced in girls and women.
Yet, since the woman is not nearly as “physical” in her attraction as the man is, she often does not feel the need for modesty. John Paul concludes, then, that “The evolution of modesty in woman requires some initial insight into the male psychology.” Women often are aware that men are attracted to them physically, but they seldom have even the remotest idea of the intensity of that attraction. When a woman sees a good-looking man, she may think, “Nice.” When a man sees a good-looking woman, his response is much more powerful.
Many young men who believe in chastity, even those who try hard to live it, have never thought about modest dress in women. Some are perfectly willing to visually exploit a woman in a tight, short skirt, or a bikini, though not physically. Often as they begin to think about the root causes of lust, they start to recognize the negative effect this has on them. One man who has taken the time to reflect on just what is happening when men face a sexily dressed woman is Fr. David Knight. In The Good News About Sex, he writes:
I think we would have to be deliberately naive in this age of psychological sophistication to ignore the fact that certain visual stimuli are objectively and normally provocative to the sex drive of the ordinary male. We might close our eyes to this, but the merchants don’t. And the fortunes they make by putting their theories into practice prove they know what they are doing . . . Whether the women and girls of our culture know or do not know what is going on, they lose by it all the same. . . . 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 in 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. . . .
Furthermore, the Catechism teaches:
Modesty protects the intimate center of the person. It means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden. It is ordered to chastity to whose sensitivity it bears witness. It guides how one looks at others and behaves toward them in conformity with the dignity of persons and their solidarity.
Modesty protects the mystery of persons and their love. It encourages patience and moderation in loving relationships; it requires that the conditions for the definitive giving and commitment of man and woman to one another be fulfilled. Modesty is decency. It inspires one’s choice of clothing . . . (nn. 2521, 2522).
What’s Immodest These Days?
What are some the most prevalent elements of dress nowadays that cause reactions in men? The most common one is short skirts. Several times I have heard from devout men that they could not believe how short some of the dresses were on women coming into church for daily Mass or prayer. The men saw the women’s dress and their devotion as completely contradictory. I had to agree with the men. I am always amazed at the number of prayerful women who never make the religious connection about clothing, i.e., God cares about what we wear. Moreover, decent men care what women wear too.
Dresses or skirts cut way above the knee do affect men sexually, at least in a mild way, but perhaps even more psychologically. That is, their opinion of the woman as a whole is affected. Women wearing longer dresses or skirts often look fashionable, feminine and very appealing to the man who wants a virtuous wife.
Other things which typically stir a certain sexual reaction in men include bare navels, semi-exposed breasts, tight clothes, “sexy hair,” and revealing swimsuits. Sometimes women are truly surprised to hear the way men are reacting to them.
One women (who happened to be from California) responded to a talk I gave on modesty by saying, “Are you saying we shouldn’t wear bikinis at the beach?”
“Yeah, that’s what I’m saying.”
“That’s kind of extreme, isn’t it?”
“Very. Almost as extreme as the Gospel itself.”
Several months later I saw her at the beach in a one-piece bathing suit. Her conversion had begun! Four years later she entered a contemplative Carmelite Order. Now that’s extreme — in the best sense!
Women, do you want to be remembered for your legs? Your navel? Your chest? Your figure? Or, do you want to be remembered for your warmth, your femininity, your personality, your decency, your goodness, your holiness? If a woman over-accentuates her physical values, she will surely drown out her other, more personal, more significant, and more lasting values.
What’s a Girl to Do? (Why is it my problem?)
Occasionally a woman will say, “If men have a problem with what I wear, that’s their problem, not mine. They can just deal with it.” This is false for several reasons. First, it’s not Christian. Christianity is a community activity. St. Paul teaches us, “Carry one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). We are saved in community, not as individuals. Such an attitude hardly fulfills the teaching of Christ, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love, here, remember, means looking out for the good of the other. And second, it’s not just their problem in the long run. The woman who dresses immodestly brings problems on herself. Whenever someone says this, a few women get very offended. They say, “You’re into the old ‘It’s all women’s fault’ for male aggressiveness.” Not so. It’s not all women’s fault, but women have much to gain from dressing modestly.
Similarly, women who have met with bad behavior from men may react, “Look, you’re trying to make me feel responsible for what happened.” Not so. A woman bears some responsibility for the way men react, but that’s a far cry from saying men are justified in their bad behavior because of how women dress. They aren’t. But when women dress immodestly, they invite a point of view that women are objects to be used. That is a terrible lie that does all women a grave injustice.
Women who react negatively to a plea for modesty, claiming it only justifies the excessive responses of men, are missing the point. Everyone must face up to his or her own responsibility in transforming our culture into one of Christian decency. In fact, women who dress immodesty often complain that men are all “animals.” That’s because the wild ones come running while the decent men stay away. The woman who dresses immodestly is selling herself short, saying, in effect, that her best assets are her sexual ones. Unfortunately, when a man sees a sexy woman in the afternoon, he develops an attitude that stays with him into the evening, when he picks up his more modest date. So immodestly dressed women hurt not only themselves, but other women as well.
Second, a good Christian woman has so much going for her, that even if short skirts and other “in” fashions were a benefit — which they aren’t — they would be of minimal importance. A woman living in the state of grace has an aura which far exceeds any fashion statement. Christian women sometimes underestimate their inner beauty, perhaps because the fashion designers have such a strong influence and place so much stress on the exterior. As the Scriptures says, “. . . women should adorn themselves with proper clothing, with modesty, and sensibly, not with braiding and gold, or pearls or costly attire, but rather by good deeds, as befits women who profess reverence for God by good works” (Peter 2: 9, 10). In other words, it is by their holiness that women should be attractive, not by their fancy or immodest clothes and jewelry. There is, after all, nothing more attractive than holiness.
Third, women need to ask themselves, “Whom am I trying to please, God or the world?” St. James tells us “. . . whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4). Consider how the Blessed Mother would dress if she were a25-year-old single woman today. I would speculate, she would be an example of what St. Francis de Sales describes: “For my part, I would have devout people, whether men or women, always be the best dressed in a group but the least pompous and affected. As the proverb says, I would have them ‘adorned with grace, decency and dignity.’ ”
Some people argue that times have changed and styles are much more revealing today than sixty years ago. For instance, it used to be risqué for a woman to show her legs at the beach. They say that the fashions that are called immodest today may seem quite commonplace twenty or thirty years from now. That may be true, but generally those who are committed to the Lord are not at the cutting edge of revealing styles.
Others may argue, “Well, it’s too hot out in the summer.” Hot as it may be, there are modest clothes that allow you to be cool. Besides, which is more important, being comfortable or helping people avoid sin — and being treated better as well? Enduring a little heat now could save you lots of heat later on.
The Power of Modesty
A women who is modestly dressed is 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. She knows what she wants — decency — and she gets it. There are plenty of modest, chic women who dress fashionably, but not revealingly; women who are in control of their own styles and select decent outfits. These women are also in control of their social lives, and get less pressure for sexual favors than others.
Of course, girls should get the message about modest dress at home, but alas, not all do. Happy the girl with a modesty-conscious mother and father, who are willing to fight the battle for decency.
Why do women dress immodestly? There are, of course, many reasons. Some feel a certain titillation wearing something slinky or revealing; others are driven by fashion; some just want to attract men, and this is a way of doing it.
The fashion argument is weak, given today’s eclectic styles. And titillation is hardly a value for the thinking Christian woman. In fact, it’s something to be avoided if you wish to draw close to God. The use of immodesty to attract men is an interesting phenomenon. Dressing in a provocative way does give a woman a certain power over men, but it’s an expensive power. Like the power from taking drugs or getting drunk, it carries a price. A certain type of man will respond to immodest dress with great energy. But, what type of man is it, and what is his response? The man who delights in sexy women is usually looking for a sexual encounter, and hasn’t the slightest inclination toward marriage, at least with the sexy woman. His attitude is certainly not, “I bet she’s got a great personality!” or “I bet she’d make a great wife!” It’s more like, “I’ll bet she’s an easy mark.”
The Danger of Beauty
Although beauty is a good thing in itself, it too calls for modesty because the extremely attractive woman will receive so many invitations to do evil. The devil is relentless in attempting to recruit beautiful people to his cause.
When a man goes out with a gorgeous woman, he often gets mesmerized by her looks. Even if he thinks she’s not the one he wants to marry, he may well hang on for a while until he gets over her beauty. Then he breaks up. Sometimes he hangs on for years before he admits that this is going nowhere.
So how does an extremely attractive woman2 cope? By not becoming attached to the attention she receives, and reminding herself, “Beauty is a gift, but will I be saved?” so as to maintain a perspective on what is really important. She needs to let her Christianity prevail even if it means downplaying her attractiveness in social situations. I know this sounds like cultural heresy, but remember that God did not create feminine beauty so women could become vain and narcissistic. An emphasis on beauty tends to make a man crazy and the woman so desired that she may not develop a good personality or Christian humility, not to mention the other virtues. The attractive woman who tries to over-enhance her beauty is going to draw too much attention to herself. If she wants to attract a virtuous man, she should be restrained in her make-up, hair style, choice of jewelry and clothing styles. The goal for all women, regardless of their natural beauty, should be to look classy, not flashy.
The woman who has a soft, feminine beauty will find it far easier to find the right sort of Christian man than the one who tries to attract attention.
Remember that only interior beauty lasts forever. The following words from Scripture apply to all women:
Let not yours be the outward adorning with braiding of hair, decoration of gold, and wearing of fine clothing, but let it be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable jewel of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. (1 Peter 3: 3,4)
A bit of a cultural revolution is in order when it comes to women’s dress. Granted, it’s time for men to step up and take some sort of leadership role in the moral renewal of our culture but women have their part to play as well. Women have the most to gain from chastity, and modesty is a good way for them to begin.
Men Coping With Feminine Immodesty.
There are two issues for men dealing with the dress of women. The first has to do with his own coping in the face of immodesty. The second has to do with how to bring up the topic of modest clothing in general.
So what does a man do to avoid being influenced negatively by an immodestly dressed woman? Some say look down, or look away, but this can be difficult. A better choice might be to look at her eyes, and in doing so, remind himself that she is a person, a child of God, not an object, and then look away. You might also say a short prayer that she might change her way of dressing, and realize better her dignity, as one created in the image of God.
If a woman shows up in something provocative on a first date you need to discover if she’s a Catholic, or even a Christian. Then, you might discuss with her your ideas of courtship and bring up chastity, and modesty as part of that. Give her time to clue in. If she has no intention to get into the whole program of chastity and modesty, that’s the time to say goodbye.
What if you’ve been going out for a while, she’s a chastity-minded Christian, and she suddenly shows up in something provocative? You might say something like, “You look gorgeous in that outfit, but it’s making it hard for me to remain chaste when you’re dressed that way.” If she has any sense, she’ll get the message and change. If she doesn’t get it, you may have to come right out and say, “That outfit is too sexy for me. Can you please put on something a little less revealing?”
What if it’s a Catholic friend, someone you’re not dating, who shows up in a revealing outfit? Well, for the love of God, and her best interests, you could say, “Someone as pretty as you doesn’t need to dress like that. You have so much more to offer than sex appeal.”
If she is puzzled, you might continue, “Well, the way you’re dressed, guys will be hard-pressed to focus on your personality.” Prepare for a cold stare or even a slap in the face. Offer it to the Lord as a sacrifice for sins.
Is it worth the risk to speak up? Yes, if there is the slightest hope of improvement. Most Christian women are willing to change, even if their first reaction might be rather cool. Often it’s simply a matter of getting people to think about this subject which is so foreign to our world. Consider the souls that might be saved, or at least the lives that might be improved by an increased awareness of modesty.
Summing It Up
Women need to realize that men are far more physical than women. They should consider their dress in the light of Christianity, and allow Christ and his mother, Mary to be their norm, not the world of fashion. They should try to help men think chastely, by selecting clothing that is fashionable, but not trendy; classy but not flashy.
Perhaps not everyone in the world is ready to hear about modesty, but many Catholics and other Christians are. Modesty is a virtue best taught by example, particularly the example of other women. It is rooted in prudence and the wisdom of selecting appropriate attire for each time and place. And it is based in love and charity. We can convince others of the values if we’re patient and persevering. Once we convince them, they’ll convince the world by their joy.
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