Every so often, something catches the news hype cycle that has to do with modesty, and predictably, there is a segment of the population who accuse those being concerned with modesty as being prudish/puritanical and/or sexist. This latest event (namely, the 2020 Super Bowl half-time show) has added to that the unbearably irrational charge of racism, simply because the two women who were the stars performing are of hispanic heritage. While the charges of racism can easily be dismissed as simply part of the current sociopolitical background noise, the recurring themes of prudishness and sexism deserve a little more analysis, particularly since I’ve observed even well-meaning Christians succumbing to worldly thinking in this area.
Modesty in General
St. Thomas Aquinas, unsurprisingly, deals with modesty and also modesty specifically in regards to outward apparel (and also modesty considering words or deeds). Also, unsurprisingly, his angle is not the stereotypical angle we might hear from our friends or even our pastors today. As he always does, he goes rather to the heart of the matter, illuminating the inner principles at work and their connectedness.
He teaches us that modesty is contrasted to temperance, in that modesty deals with things that are not so difficult, while temperance deals with those that are more difficult (namely, those involving the passions, that is, our fleshly desires–those that pertain to our bodily sense “appetites,” as he calls them). It is an interesting distinction, because when we speak of the things that we normally might think of as related to modesty, we think of things like our dress, our behavior, and our speech. And indeed, none of these are directly related to our passions and as such ought to be more easily managed, barring unusually strong habits or other external forces. To put it simply, it just isn’t that hard for us to dress, speak, and act modestly, on average.
“Modesty” shares a common root with “moderation,” and that’s no accident. The practice of virtue is often the practice of moderation. It is bringing our thoughts and actions under the control of our God-given reason, and thinking and behaving in ways that do not go to extremes, because in the extremes are where we typically end up causing harm to ourselves, others, and/or our relationship with God. Moderation inescapably involves the use of our reason, and as such, it can also be thought of as reasonableness, that is, acting within reason (or as is commonly said, “right reason,” to distinguish it from error).
And so we see that modesty, properly understood, can never be reactionary. It can never mean going too far to the extremes. Therefore, accusations of that extremity (prudishness/puritanism) fall entirely flat when speaking of modesty. Similarly, sexism cannot apply, because sexism involves an immoderate regard for one or the other sex.
Modesty Between the Sexes
Now, one reason that some women (if not most these days) chafe at the notion of modesty is that they feel its requirements are unfairly applied to them. This feeling is not without warrant because as regards dress and bodily movement, it is typically women who are accused of falling outside the bounds of what is acceptable. And surely there are in fact men who think that modesty does not at all apply to them.
But we ought to examine this feeling to see if it is, in fact, immoderate and unreasonable for women to need to be more conscientious when it comes to modesty in these areas. Is it simply a crusty patriarchal system of control, or is there something inherent in human nature?
Anyone who has ever watched nature documentaries has seen a stereotypical sexual dynamic play out over and over again across virtually every species of animal. One sex is endowed with more ostentatious physical attributes that are used as a means of attracting a mate of the opposite sex, and often there are courtship rituals where one sex is primarily the actor in attracting mates. It is also clear that the other sex is instinctively “wired” to respond to these displays (and mating is the typical outcome). It’s not always the female, but the dynamic exists as a norm in animal nature. And this same dynamic can readily be observed in humans, both historically and currently, in pretty much every human culture around the world.
It is, for us humans, the female sex who is almost universally perceived to be endowed with a greater physical beauty. Even heterosexual women often admit to appreciating the beauty of the female form; the same is rarely granted by men of men. And it is the female sex which primarily leverages that beauty to entice potential mates. Only the willfully ignorant or those insisting on focusing on exceptions can deny that women care more about their physical beauty and knowingly use it to attract and influence men.
We also know (it isn’t really worth delving into why here) that men are typically more motivated by visual sexual stimuli. We men are, as a rule, biologically wired to respond to the beauty of the female form in a sexual manner. We are also, typically, more easily sexually excitable. We do not have cycles and hormonal variances that influence when we are “ready” to mate–we are always ready, and in our hyper-sexualized culture, we have been conditioned to be more sensitive to even relatively innocuous stimuli.
None of this, I must note by way of preempting a common objection to this line of thought, justifies men giving into this nature and abusing women in any way, least of all through unwanted sexual advances, harassment, or, much less, rape. Noting that, however, we would be foolish to deny the realities of our natures and the pre-cognitive and counter-cognitive influences that our sexual appetites have on us and our consequent likelihood, or lack thereof, of acting in accord with right reason. This is similar to the implicit acknowledgment of human nature that advocates of distributing condoms engage in, when they say, “kids are gonna do it anyways.” In short, it doesn’t imply an approval of the behavior or, even, excusing it, but it simply acknowledges that sexual drive often overrides rational behavior, and no amount of protesting is gonna change that. (I feel I must note that by drawing this analogy, I do not in fact approve of distributing condoms. 😉 )
So, given that women are by nature more endowed and inclined to use their physical beauty to entice men, and given that men are by nature more inclined to respond to such enticements, it follows reasonably (remember, reasonableness is a key aspect of modesty) that women by nature bear a greater burden when it comes to exercising modesty in dress and bodily movement. Again, none of this acquits a man of guilt for acting improperly in response to whatever stimuli a woman provides. This is, quite simply, a matter of considering the nature of humans and acting reasonably as a consequence.
Therefore, it does not seem unreasonable or unjust that women should be more conscious and wary with regards to their dress and bodily movement and to have to make more, shall we say, concessions with regards to what they might like to wear, in light of modesty.
Of course, it’s worth noting that modesty is not by any means only the concern of women. Women (some more than others–as they report, I can only trust those reports) are not immune to visual sexual stimuli. And so men, particularly those endowed with physical attractiveness, ought to also be governed by modesty in their dress and bodily movements as well.
While I’ve mostly addressed visual sexual stimuli, modesty with regards to our sexuality also encompasses our speech, our touches, and even our thoughts. It should be a given that speech can easily be immodest, and here I think there is less distinction between men and women. So-named dirty talk. Dirty singing (as we heard on display in the half-time show and hear in nearly all pop music). It should be obvious that these are immodest and that both men and women equally ought to be mindful of modesty in this area–regardless of their cultural backgrounds.
Sexual thoughts should be governed in light of right reason, as well–we ought not to willfully indulge in entertaining sexual thoughts that are not an expression of authentic love between a man and a woman within marriage. And in this area I dare say that men must be on average more conscious and wary of our susceptibility, particularly in view of our culture’s complete disregard for chastity in virtually every medium. For men, the counterbalance to the increased regard for modesty in dress and bodily movement that women must endure is our increased regard for modesty in our own thoughts.
This is true at least in regards to the initial desire we might feel and acting modestly to, for example, avert our eyes and refuse to indulge by directing our minds to another matter, before we allow the temptation to take hold in our minds. In doing so, we exercise a similar consideration not only for our own soul but also for the respect due the woman as a human person made in the image of God, rather than as an object for our sexual indulgence. Even if–and perhaps especially if–a woman is dressed or behaving immodestly, our part of modesty in that situation is to reject the temptation immediately before lust is further aroused in us. In this way, we act with proper respect towards that person, and we train ourselves to act in that way towards women in general, thereby forming a habit of modesty.
The above are mainly considerations of modesty as regards sexuality; however, modesty extends to non-sexual areas, as well. Modesty, as noted above, applies to reasonably moderating our thoughts and acts that are not naturally too difficult for us. It applies to how we dress in relation to our station in life and the event for which we are dressing. It applies to how we walk and talk, with due consideration of where we are and with whom. It is related to humility and honesty and being duly considerate of the expectations of others, for example, not wearing a clown outfit to a solemn occasion, or not dressing to show off our wealth in contrast to others, or not being so slovenly in our appearance that it vexes others. The requirements of modesty in these areas tend not to be different between the sexes, but they are nonetheless important.
Beyond Modesty as Moderation
Thus far, we have considered modesty as a natural virtue, that is, an exercise to live in accord with right reason considering our human nature. As Christians, we are called to not only live virtuously inasmuch as we are able, but to be perfect, as Christ is perfect. We are called beyond simply not sinning and living virtuously to living fully in accord with God’s will and loving God simply and completely, and loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.
Given this, we cannot limit ourselves to selfishly considering what is most desirable for us, as individuals. We cannot simply do what pleases us. We cannot be guided solely by the idea that everything is permissible that is not unlawful. We cannot be preoccupied about what we find “empowering” or “liberating.”
True liberty comes in conformance to God’s will, because in that conformity we think and act as we were originally created to think and act–without the bondage of sin or our fallen nature. True empowerment is giving ourselves up completely to Divine Providence, of actually experiencing that God’s grace is sufficient for us, that his power (which is infinitely greater than our own) is perfected in our weakness. Only in God and through God can we become “all that we can be.” Only in God and through God can we find lasting happiness. Only in God and through God do we find peace and contentment with who we are and how God created us to be, silencing all those diabolical voices that whisper to us doubts about our worth and value.
When we take the Divine perspective, we see clearly that the desire to assert and “flaunt” our personal goodness (be that physical attractiveness, intelligence, wealth, eloquence, or any talent or mastery of skill) is at the very least an imperfection and more likely a sin, that is, of pride. We see that when we compound that prideful desire with disregard for how our behavior affects others, particularly those who are weaker or would somehow be injured by our action, our imperfection and sin multiplies.
Taking the Divine perspective, we also see how much God loves us with all the odd peculiarities of our own being. We see how little it matters if we are beautiful, sexy, talented, or skillful. We plainly see that every little good that we do have comes from him anyway, and so our goodness is not something to be proud of but rather to be thankful for. And in our weaknesses and our lacks, we find that these are even a greater blessing than what few natural goods we have–because they are opportunities for grace, they are opportunities for us to glory in God’s strength and goodness rather than our own.
Yes, it is “natural” to want to have our gifts, talents, abilities, and achievements recognized, but that is our self love speaking to us, as St. Francis de Sales might say. At times this may be a minor, venial sin; it may be simply a failure in perfection, but since we are all called to be perfect, we should not so lightly excuse ourselves for our failures to be perfect. Neither should we be so vain as to think we ought never to fail or even to fail repeatedly, and so be tempted to give into either self-reliance or despair.
We are called beyond modesty. We are called to charity. Charity selflessly seeks the good of the other. For women, this may mean sacrificing wearing something that makes them feel sexy, out of concern for the good of men who might be weak and led to lust. I do not say this as a means for anyone to force another to dress modestly (as in making laws that women wear full-body clothing). I say this as one encouraging women to individually, freely–with the help of grace–to be so considerate. In doing so, they practice true charity, and so not only do they help men (who are, in this way for sure, the weaker sex) but they also advance in their own path towards Christian perfection.
For men, this surely means going out of our way to treat women with such respect that it becomes easier for them to be modest. If they feel more valued and appreciated regardless of their dress and looks, they will feel less tempted to dress immodestly. Our path involves being vigilant against the ease with which we can slip into objectifying women, and learning to cultivate and communicate appreciation beyond physical attributes. It involves rejecting our culture of immodesty and not passively acquiescing to it (much less succumbing to it). It involves risking looking foolish by correcting our fellow men when they treat women immodestly or indulge in a woman’s immodesty, whether or not a woman is around. It also involves daily working in our own lives to root out immodesty, daily seeking God and making Him a priority, and helping other men to do so. Not blithely being beholden to our sexual drive is not “normal” or popular in our culture, and so we need to encourage each other to remember and practice the way of Christian perfection in this area.
The world’s way of thinking here is a clash of worldly wisdom with Godly wisdom. It sets up a constant clash of wills and of will to power and domination. Who can force whom to behave thus and so? What group has historically oppressed or caused injustice towards another and so must now be made to pay? How best can I practice self-liberation, personal pleasure and empowerment? These are not the thoughts and perspectives of the Christian who wishes to advance in holiness and perfection.
Our way is in direct conflict with the world’s way. We ask, rather, how can I love God the more? How can I more perfectly love my neighbor? When sacrifice is understood to be an expression of love, then we see more clearly the meaning of the Cross. When we “take up our cross to follow Christ,” we see that we are taking on the burden of love. But if we rely on the grace of God in Christ, we learn that His yoke is easy, and His burden is light. When we let go of our stranglehold on self-love and self-concern, we begin to realize just how much more wonderful and liberating and empowering God’s way is, for us and for all.