I was recently biking along the Pacific in Manhattan Beach, a suburb of Los Angeles, while on a trip to play in a new baroque ensemble. Everyone already knows that California seashores aren’t going to showcase the best of humanity, let alone feminine modesty. But the thought that crystallized in my mind was not that immodesty “is a modern evil leading to the breakdown of healthy sexuality, blah, blah, blah” as so many writers have rightly—if tiringly—repeated.
Rather, the thought that congealed for me was how unfair immodesty is to both men and women. Not only is it unfair, it’s horribly unhelpful and wounding to both sexes. Here I have obvious modern immodesty in mind rather than fine distinctions between modesty and immodesty in tasteful dressing.
First of all, men’s brains respond more immediately to visual sexual stimuli. Notice of the female body is a rapid and automatic response for men in a way that it is not for women. The area of the brain scientists associate with sexual pursuit—the hypothalamus—is 2.5 times larger in men. Thus, when a woman showing lots of skin walks into a coffee shop, there is little or nothing initially volitional about the fact that a man’s eyes momentarily get caught on her, which belongs to his animal nature; it’s the second after where volition and the possibility of sin arises.
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Immodesty comes in many forms. It doesn’t take rocket science, however, to deduce that the “areas of interest” for men on a female body correspond to trends in immodesty. One study indicated that when men were shown images of nude women, breasts received the greatest number and longest duration of measurable first “fixations” or glances, followed by the midriff. Glances at the head had the shortest duration. The common advice given to men is to “focus on the woman as a person and look at her face.” But one can draw the conclusion from this study that the more a man can see of a woman’s (shall we say) “beauteous charms,” as one folk song puts it, the more challenging this advice is to follow.
This non-volitional attraction to the exposed female body can be quite frustrating, especially for men who don’t want to be looking at or strongly attracted to random women walking by. Here’s an analogy that might help ladies understand: the chemical high of hormones produced when a woman is kissed is not something a woman has control over. It happens. Now, imagine that every handsome guy who comes into a coffee shop and walks by you stops to give you a passionate kiss and then walks on. You would be outraged! But you might also, despite yourself, feel a surge of emotion resulting from the hormones released by the kiss.
That is a rough analogy for how the exposed female body affects a man. It can momentarily turn on the “go get her” feeling, even if he doesn’t want to. This reaction is a man’s natural biology, working as it should. However, the context matters.
Where the biology of this sort of attraction should normally kick in is in the marriage chamber. Women who walk around half dressed in public are creating an environment that is deeply unfair to men who are created by God to live faithful, monogamous marriages, and who want to keep sexual attraction in the bedroom and for their wife alone—not to have it sparked randomly on the street.
Second, immodesty hurts men and women by intensifying the search for “the perfect body.” With the shapes of more shapely women constantly visible, men can become more concerned about—or at least more aware of—the disparity between a wife or girlfriend and some “ideal” form. This promotes dissatisfaction with the beauty of their partner, whom they should have chosen for much deeper reasons than physical beauty alone. Even if the character and other qualities of his woman are supremely important for a man, constant sight of other, younger women will distract and cause comparisons he may not even want to think about.
For women, a similar aspect of comparison is just as hurtful, if not more so—comparing their own bodies with those of other women and consequently feeling insecure about their own body, beauty, and attractiveness. Some studies indicate that over 50 percent of girls feel “unhappy with their bodies” by the time they are 13; combining numbers across age groups leads some to claim that over 90 percent of women resort to dieting at some point in their life to address what they perceive as an “unideal body shape.” Huge amounts of this pressure toward the “ideal body” (which some say only five percent of American women possess) come from social media, advertising, and—my concern here—promiscuous immodesty.
Through the objectification and hyper-sexualization of which immodesty is one facet, women are left wounded, like Israel in the Old Testament: “No man brings thee redress or remedy, salve to heal thee thou hast none; thy old lovers think of thee no more, woo thee no more” (Jeremiah 30:13-14). Of course ladies want to be attractive; but it is deeply sad to think that many beautiful women experience decades of self-doubt because there is so much pressure toward an unrealistic and unattainable ideal.
Not only that, but in our objectifying culture, women who have every right to be confident in their physical beauty can find themselves insecure and fearful that they will be valued and exploited for that reason alone, rather than loved as persons, loved for reasons that will abide even as they grow old. As my dad comments in his book on marriage, women who have suffered objectification need modesty in order to recover their “feeling of human dignity.”
The rise of “body positive” movements or slogans like “byob”—”be your own beautiful”—while often problematic or insufficient, nonetheless are a refreshing reaction against the catwalks of the world’s fashion capitals. Recognizing that there is a range of beautiful bodies, and especially that the effects of motherhood are nothing to be ashamed of or fled from, is good. Again, constantly seeing bodies exposed will inevitably lead to comparison in men and women. Thus, the double wound is opened in a woman’s heart: “I’m not beautiful; and even if I am, I’ll be desired for the wrong reasons.”
“Closed and cured those wounds shall be; I myself will heal them, grant them peace and safety to their heart’s content” (Jeremiah 33:6). How many women want to hear this promise with regard to their beauty and self-image? Healing of self-esteem is complex; for a religiously devout person, God’s love of them as they are must play an undeniable role.
However, a loving, faithful, and affirming man might well be God’s instrument in healing this feminine wound of doubt. Here we see how a husband must affirm his wife’s beauty on multiple levels: by his fidelity; by enjoying her physical beauty; and by seriously cultivating an awareness and friendship with her based on the loveliness of her mental, spiritual, and moral characteristics.
Finally, even for those women who do fit some “ideal,” exposing themselves through immodest dress will make them more likely to be objectified by men. Thus, we have concentric vicious circles: immodesty causes comparison and dissatisfaction among women; insecurity among women leads to trying to gain masculine attention through immodesty; attention from men promotes objectification of women, as well as dissatisfaction with less-than-perfect bodies, which brings us back to the beginning.
What can we conclude? Immodesty is destructive for men and women. It will help neither sex find peace with themselves. It prevents men and women from finding stability and satisfaction in each other in a lasting marriage. Immodesty is destructive for men and women. It will help neither sex find peace with themselves. It prevents men and women from finding stability and satisfaction in each other in a lasting marriage. Tweet This
Even before the discussion of what is or isn’t modest, we have to recognize that the stakes in this conversation are higher than simply lust. Immodesty doesn’t just tempt men of weak moral character. It has automatic effects on a man’s chemistry; it leads to dissatisfaction and anxiety over physical beauty both in men and women; and it contributes to women feeling valued for what they look like rather than who they are.
Ultimately, modesty is about not sharing with certain people what shouldn’t be shared with them: namely, the intimacy of the body, even on a visual level. Because the exclusive sharing of personhood that the exposed body entails cannot occur except in marriage, the “inner chamber cannot be left open as a public playground” (as my dad puts it).
The author of Proverbs writes that he does not understand “the way of a man with a maiden” (30:18-19). While the relationship between men and women might indeed be hard to understand, it is nonetheless a great mercy and gift of God. Although disturbed by the fall, our sexual biology was made to support and be an integral part of this relation. When it comes to the disruption of our bodies and souls caused by the sexual revolution, understanding and addressing the unfair dynamic immodest dressing creates is crucial to restoring a balance in ourselves and others. We must pray and find ways to heal these wounds—for both men and women—because they go to the heart of what harmonious, fulfilling, and ultimately sanctifying love is about.