World War Modesty

It began here:  the designer of a series of “modest” swimsuits gave a presentation on the cultural evolution of the swimsuit, asking if modest could make a comeback.  The Modesty debate emerged in Christendom again!  People are once more arguing over how much responsibility a Christian woman holds in keeping her brothers from “stumbling.”

It continued here, in a blog post by Rachel Held Evans, who I thought responded graciously and eloquently while pointing out some of the flaws in the standard Christian stance on “modesty.”  She writes, I remember feeling bad for the tall girls who were sent home from my Christian school because their shorts were millimeters too short. I remember the tear-stained faces of little girls turned away from swimming pools because their bathing suits had two pieces. And I remember trying desperately to cover up the shape of my breasts, which despite all my turtlenecks and layers and crossed arms insisted upon showing up early. When I caught a male classmate’s eye on them, a wave of guilt would rush over me—Oh no, he noticed me! I’ve made him stumble.  To this day, I have to deliberately avoid folding my arms in front of my chest because I made such a habit of it in my youth.

My primary  issue with the “modesty” stance is that it seems to assume that men are the only creatures capable of lust, that women are not equally sexual creatures.
If women must cover up their legs, cleavage, figure, etc., not out of their own personal sense of propriety but out of fear of “causing a brother to stumble,” how come the same charge is never leveled at men? (Answer: because it is assumed that women aren’t as sexual, that “good girls” don’t ever have “dirty” thoughts. Rubbish.)

And yet many men I know even in conservative Christian circles often have no compunction about standard swimwear, even when some male swimwear by definition shows more skin than a bikini could.

Imagine if the “modesty” debate was truly egalitarian! Christian men would be exhorted not to wear
–shorts that are shorter than fingertip length?
–bathing suits without a shirt over the top?
–form-fitting jeans or slacks?
–shirts that are too open in the front? (Looking at you, Tom Jones!)
–shirts that show too much bicep?


Perhaps men would even be encouraged to wear Scottish kilts, to show off the shape of their legs and butts less than slacks do.  (Don’t lie, ladies–for many of you, a well-shaped male butt is as appealing as a well-shaped female butt is to me, amiright?)

This is not to say that I’m trying to argue that men should wear burquas, either.
I’m saying instead that lust is always the problem of the luster, not the lustee, and that no sexy outfit worn by a member of the other sex can “make” you sin. I’m saying instead that both men and women should be free to choose clothing that they feel reflects who they are, without being afraid of their brothers or sisters in the church. I’m saying that there needs to be less body-shaming in the Church, that nobody should feel that they have to “frump up” or “cover up” to protect themselves.


Modesty proponents frequently talk as though men are literally incapable of controlling their sexual urges.  In the comments on Rachel Held Evan’s post, one commenter wrote regarding swimwear, “The only choice available to a godly man is to not look, and if he must look, to somehow not allow stimulation turn into lust.”  “Somehow,” as though it were a nigh-impossible task.

But the fact is, just as it is possible (and frequent!) for a woman to be visually aroused, it is also possible for men to control their tendency towards lust.  Yes, the stereotype says that men are visual creatures–show us an inch of skin and we’ve gone into hump-everything-in-sight mode.  But you know what?  Maybe that’s just an insulting stereotype.

I was trained as an artist in college, and took several figure drawing classes, most of which involved nude models of both sexes. I remember what a culture shock this was for me, raised in a conservative Christian bubble as I was: how would I keep from lusting after the female models? Surprisingly easily, actually. Once I remembered I was there as an artist, my vision changed, and I saw those human bodies in terms of light and shadow, shape and line. It took a little practice, especially for a hormone-riddled college student, but I learned that it IS possible to look even at a stark naked woman in a way other than sexually. The difference is in where one allows one’s mind to wander. “Take every thought captive,” right?

And beyond artists: what of doctors?  Male doctors often have to see their patients naked, even the attractive ones.  Male doctors often have to perform breast exams, some gynecologists are male, etc.  If men were really as uncontrollable as the stereotype says, how could a Christian be a doctor without sinning?

The answer is, of course, that lust is always an active thing, not passive–you can’t control your attraction, but you can control what you allow your mind to focus on.

And it is this control that Christians must exercise, rather than expecting everyone else to “cover up” for their benefit.


Also, I can’t help but point out… even if you convinced every Christian woman to “cover up” in a burquini to keep you from lusting, do you think the nonChristian women are going to do so as well?  I wouldn’t expect so.  So won’t you still have the same problem?  Doesn’t it make more sense for the bastion against lust to be your own mental control, rather than the reduction of external stimuli?

One day the cat got into the dairy and twenty of them were at work moving all the milk out; no one thought of moving the cat.”  –C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader


2 thoughts on “World War Modesty

  1. You are right that lust is not a uniquely male problem, and that it is unfair to blame women for the way men do or do not control their thoughts.

    However, it is also true that in the contemporary West, much of women’s fashion is overtly sexualized. This is a growing problem in men’s fashion as well, but it’s not nearly as large an issue.

    Think simply of formal dress: for a man, this means a tuxedo that covers everything but his head and hands. For a woman, a formal gown amplifies and reveals very intimate aspects of her body. The designers of these fashions are overtly saying that a man should present himself as a dignified sophisticate, while a woman should present herself as a sexual object.

    Male business attire again covers everything but the head and hands. Female business attire is less revealing than formal wear, but it frequently displays calves and shoulders and arms. It’s enough of a difference that professional women often complain of being cold in the office, because the air-conditioning is cranked up to accommodate be-suited men.

    You speak of revealing swimsuits for men- which are in fashion in Europe- but in the States it’s pretty common, and not unfashionable, for a man to wear baggy swim trunks that descend even below the knee, while it’s almost impossible for a woman to find a pleasing fashion of swimsuit that is *not* designed to present her as a sexual object.

    Men’s short-sleeved shirts usually have sleeves going nearly to the elbow and collars just below the Adam’s apple, while women’s rarely have sleeves at all, and have collars that typically plunge deep into cleavage territory. Even a woman’s long-sleeved shirt often displays as much arm as a man’s short-sleeved. For a man to display his midriff is so unfashionable that it’s amusing; for women’s fashions to display the midriff is par for the course. Men’s shorts are often below the knee; women’s shorts are usually high up on the thigh. Even long pants in women’s design often show part of the calf, while for a man to dress in the same way would be oafish. Over and over the same implication: women are sexual objects; men aren’t.

    This is what the *culture* shouts at us constantly. The man’s struggle, in such a world, is to fight these beliefs and instead insist that women are valuable for their entire character and personhood- something that the culture simply assumes to be true about men. The woman’s struggle, in the same world, is to recognize that a multi-billion-dollar industry and nigh-pervasive culture wants to present her to men as a primarily sexual object. She may be so inured to this worldview that she doesn’t even recognize the way fashion seeks to sexualize her. She might recognize the ways in which an item of clothing proclaims to the world, “stare at this nice-looking object!”

    If a woman allows the culture to present her to men as a sexual object, it is still the man’s responsibility to refuse to see her as such. But, for the sake of her own self-worth, self-image, and propriety, it does a woman well to fight hard to dress like a person, rather than like a sex object.

    Men ought also to dress like persons rather than like sex objects; however, men’s fashions make this fairly easy to do. For women, the fashion industry makes it a mighty hard struggle.

  2. Love your thoughts here. Especially good timing as I’ve come across a Catholic subculture that wears skirts and dresses–I suppose it could be categorized as a modesty subculture–but it definitely has given me pause to think, and it’s nice to have a male perspective.

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