You Are What You Wear

Modesty means dressing to show off the person, not just the parts.
1999-10-08

As I've said before, my life runs in themes.

The latest theme started when I bought Wendy Shalit's (excellent) book A Return to Modesty. Then, last week, a phone call came from a reporter writing a story about modesty. Made me think that it's probably about time I addressed the topic myself. It's important, after all. And, aside from this recent, isolated spate of attention, the virtue of modesty really doesn't get much press these days.

And so, I consulted my best social barometer -- The Young and the Restless. And I observed there the same phenomenon I've observed in the rest of society. While the idea of saving sex for marriage seems to be slowly catching on, there is no parallel trend encouraging a return to modesty in dress. On Y&R, several couples have decided to abstain from sex until their wedding night, and much ado is made about that decision. But those young brides who so convincingly sang the virtues of premarital abstinence are the same women who constantly parade around in plunging necklines and teeny-weeny bikinis, showing off their saline-enhanced bodies to anyone and everyone in sight.

I've decided that the issue of modesty cuts to the heart of the difference between abstinence and chastity. Abstinence is simply abstaining from sexual intercourse -- in order to prevent sexually transmitted diseases, or pregnancy, or emotional heartbreak, or whatever. Technically, then, it really doesn't matter what one wears (or doesn't wear) while one is not having sex. A woman can dress in as risqué a manner as she likes, as long as she doesn't actually take off what little she is wearing and jump into bed with someone.

Chastity, on the other hand, is more than simply abstaining from sex for one reason or another. Chastity is comprehensive. It's an attitude of respect for the power, the beauty and the dignity of human sexuality, and it's a lifestyle that puts that respect into action. Chastity doesn't just say "I'm not having sex." Chastity says, "Sex is beautiful, sacred and private, and every aspect of my life will respect that."

Honestly, most women don't fully understand the importance of modesty. And they particularly don't understand (as I didn't for years) why so much of the onus for dressing modestly is placed on them. "Why is it always about us?" I'd ask. "After all, I'm not complaining about what guys are wearing. Why is what women wear suddenly such a big deal."

But then I got older, and I started talking to men about what it's like to be a man. And about what it's like to be an 18 year old man. And suddenly it all made sense. It's not about the systematic oppression of women or the patriarchal society or anything like that. It's simple biology. Men and women are wired differently. Men are much more visually oriented than women are. They are much more sexually affected by what they see. Of course women don't understand. We don't have the same visually sexual reaction to the male body. That's why Playgirl magazine never really took off. The whole situation reminds me of a line from Seinfeld, when Elaine says, "The female form is a thing of beauty, it's a work of art. The male body is more functional -- you know, like a jeep."

So, at any rate, I learned a lot talking to these guys. They told me what it's like to be a guy who's really committed to living chastity and respecting the gift of sexuality. They want to see a woman for who she is, to see her as a complete human person created in the image and likeness of God and loved by Him for her own sake. But, if she's dressed in a way that exposes or accentuated certain body parts, those "parts" scream out for attention. "Hey, look at me!" they say. "I'm a part. I'm a fun part! Hello! Down here!" It's an enormous distraction, to say the least.

Now this motivated me to dress modestly. After all, women, how would you rather have men look at you? Would you rather they say, "Gee, I'd like to get to know her better" or "I'd like to have a piece of that"?

Modesty is about being seen for who we are. It's about showing off ourselves, not our parts. It's about demanding the respect due to an image and likeness of God, and not allowing ourselves to be viewed as objects, mere means to someone else's satisfaction.

So what exactly does that entail? How do we achieve this modesty? What are we supposed to wear? Does modesty mean we have to look dumpy or unattractive?

Too many questions for one column. I'll pick it up again next time.

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