This article comes via a brother from another mother. The working title was: “Ladies: Please Put on Some Pants!” and was written in a moment of frustration after seeing the umpteenth girl in the gym with her butt exposed. She had to adjust her shorts with every single movement she made, like so many other women I’ve seen in the gym before. But this girl was different.
This girl had braces.
She looked like she was 14. And I watched the boys and grown men around her all glimpsing subtly (or not so subtly) at her body parts, as if she were a slab of meat on a buffet line. I felt this mixture of anger and sadness—anger at the “men” around me, but also sadness for her situation.
It’s not that she was showing too much of her body, but she was ultimately showing too little of herself.
Women are created for beauty, created to radiate beauty to an increasingly violent and bleak world that desperately needs it. But beauty can be wielded dangerously. Beauty can be used as a weapon to manipulate or means to overpower, but we also know that beauty can leave us breathless, can call out the best within fragile men, and can leave us all aching for the Divine. Women are seemingly gifted with a beauty that must simultaneously be both guarded and cultivated, a fine line that is, in so many ways, a cross.
Men have it easy when it comes to dress: put on some pants, find a shirt that kinda fits, and comb your mustache (comb twice for good measure). But for a woman to actually dress in a way that protects her beauty can be quite…annoying. I’ve watched Jackie frequently agonize over the most suitable clothing for an event or grow frustrated with the difficulty of finding swimwear that doesn’t either look like a string or a potato sack. Yet I know that she is always mindful of guarding her gift of beauty and, as her husband, I know that the only thing I have to worry about Jackie flaunting in public are her New Zealand/Scottish/Wisconsin/Russian/Korean accents.
(The Scottish is the most attractive. It’s like William Wallace meets Shrek).
We’ve heard the arguments for dressing modestly before, but we seem to be living in an era where wholesome feminine role models are few and far between. The actresses and musicians young girls look to for guidance seem to shed their perceived morals (and their clothing) as soon as they’re free from the bubble of the Disney Channel. And in this pornified culture, boys are more than happy to watch the girls around them strip down to as little clothing as possible. It almost seems like there is an on-going competition—especially at the beach, during Halloween, or any Friday night on the town—for women to dress as closely to a prostitute as one possibly can (and even then, prostitutes seem to have more clothing on).
It’s not empowering. It’s actually rather demeaning. You’re reducing yourself to your breasts, butt, etc. And as a man trying to respect women, it doesn’t help. It doesn’t scream “respect me as a woman” when all your body parts are on display. While trying to see you as a whole person—a beautiful woman with a stunning soul, mind, heart, personality—a man of God attempts not to reduce you to your body in these moments where little dress is worn, but unfortunately that’s what seems to be most valued. It’s not that these clothes/swimsuits leave nothing to the imagination, but that they intentionally stir the imagination. And in the brains of men—who are more visually wired as it is—we simply complete the picture. It would be better if you were actually naked because then we men would be forced to see you as you are, instead of simply calling attention to your sexual values alone.
Now, there seems to be a void of reasonable discussion when it comes to the “modesty” conversation, with some parties swinging wildly from extremes of a Puritanistic worldview (that women should only wear sackcloth and neutralize their femininity) and those who think that I’m suggesting that all women who wear so little are practically asking for rape.
Stop it. Stop it now. I am affirming neither of these views. Virtue lies in the middle of the extremes, and we are called to bear virtuous responsibility for our brothers and sisters. To settle for any less is to deny our call to greatness.
Women should not be forced to wear potato sacks because of the inability of men to respect their femininity. I am as equally adamant about men training themselves in the school of virtues to become integrated enough to where respect for a woman will be shown regardless of her dress (that will have to be for another blog post).
But a wildly licensed “I can wear whatever I want and who are you to tell me otherwise” attitude is equally reprehensible. I cannot wear a Neo-Nazi shirt into a Shabbat service and claim no responsibility for the anger and upset of my Jewish colleagues. A woman cannot dress like a prostitute and deny all responsibility of the effect (psychological, bodily, or spiritual) she may have on her male friends. Indeed, St. Paul wrote that we are responsible for the sins of one another: “Then let us no longer judge one another, but rather resolve never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; still, it is unclean for someone who thinks it unclean. If your brother is being hurt by what you eat, your conduct is no longer in accord with love. Do not because of your food destroy him for whom Christ died.” (Romans 14: 13-15)
Real beauty, rather than the superficial fix, is much more intoxicating. Real beauty, as Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky famously wrote, “will save the world.”
Pope Benedict XVI, drew upon Dostoevsky’s insight in his letter “Meeting with Artists”:
Too often, though, the beauty that is thrust upon us is illusory and deceitful, superficial and blinding, leaving the onlooker dazed; instead of bringing him out of himself and opening him up to horizons of true freedom as it draws him aloft, it imprisons him within himself and further enslaves him, depriving him of hope and joy….
Authentic beauty, however, unlocks the yearning of the human heart, the profound desire to know, to love, to go towards the Other, to reach for the Beyond. If we acknowledge that beauty touches us intimately, that it wounds us, that it opens our eyes, then we rediscover the joy of seeing, of being able to grasp the profound meaning of our existence.
Beauty is a force to be reckoned with, whether in nature, in song, or in a person, and a woman who understands the proper value of her beauty knows the great treasure she has received. She is not an object to be on display to incite the lust of men, but she is truly a light that can bring life and elevate those around her. Dostoevsky again wrote of the dualistic power of beauty in The Brothers Karamazov: “The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.”
Ladies: you set the bar. If you’re aiming for Heaven as your final destination, God will provide you with a struggling saint on this earth to escort you there. If you’re setting the bar for the fleeting or shallow, well… Robin Thicke probably has a song for you.
I’m not here to write about the nitty-gritty details of what to wear/not to wear at the gym or on a date…I leave those details to those more knowledgeable…like my wife, who actually knows the differences between heels and stilettos (they equally all take up space in my limited section of our closet).
I’m here to tell you that you are worth it. You’re worth more than a lustful look, an inappropriate advance, or even a one-night stand.
Yes, modesty in dress is often uncomfortable, annoying, and may be “hottest” only in reference to body temperature. But valuing your beauty rightly—and your body as the treasure as it is—will bring both you and others closer to authentic happiness and closer to God than you ever thought possible.
Your beauty is a gift, a responsibility, and a cross. It can save the world.
Carry it well.