Modesty only works when it isn’t distorted.

They need a sign that warns about the butts.

If one thing stands out about a trip I took to South Beach back in May, it’s this:

I have never seen so much butt on a beach.

Our first day there, I stepped off the boardwalk behind the hotel and onto the sand,  far too close for comfort to a woman who – while holding her toddler’s hand – rubbed sunblock onto a part of her body that is normally covered by clothes.

I go with my gut when I say “modest is hottest” isn’t Miami’s motto. (Oh how I wish it was.)

But even for we who are proponents of modesty, embracing it as it stands now could backfire on us. This is because modesty has been distorted.

Awhile ago, a study was conducted at Princeton, as paraphrased like this by Jason Evert:

The test subjects were placed in a brain scanner and for a fraction of a second were shown photographs of women in bikinis, as well as men and women dressed modestly. 

When the young men viewed the scantily clad women, the part of their brain associated with tool use lit up.

According to the study, men are likely to objectify women when women are scantily clad. To accommodate for that likelihood, the purpose of modesty has morphed into this: “Girls have to cover up so boys don’t objectify them.”

Which implies that the woman is responsible for the man’s actions, that the onus is on her to create conditions in which he won’t objectify her.

Which relieves a man of responsibility for his actions and requires of him exactly zero discipline.

Which implies men are weak. As if men can’t not objectify scantily clad women. As if human nature means men will objectify them.

But men don’t objectify women because they’re wired to do it. They objectify women because they’re humans who live in a culture that tells them to do it. And what is learned can be unlearned.

If we decide, however, that “it’s a woman’s job” to create conditions in which a man won’t objectify her (and therefore that “it’s her fault” when he does), men who learned it don’t have to unlearn it. And men who don’t unlearn it – even the ones who save sex for marriage – become husbands who will objectify their wives, because their wives inevitably will be scantily clad sometimes.

This is not to say I want the world to be one where women can be scantily clad under any circumstance. This is to say that if our solution for “men objectify scantily clad women” is “women stop dressing scantily,” we send the following message: A man’s objectification of a woman isn’t the problem. Her body is.

The damage done by an idea like that goes deep for both women and men.

And real modesty doesn’t do any damage.

Bodies aren’t bad. Bodies are good. We know this because we are physically attracted to each other. The attraction is designed to “orient” us toward the other. It produces a sensual reaction. A sensual reaction is a good thing, too.

But a sensual reaction is superficial when compared to other important elements of a relationship (like friendship). When fostered before the other important elements, a sensual reaction can distract a person from ever discovering whether the other important elements even exist.

The problem is “when only sensuality is stirred, we experience the body of the other person as a potential object of enjoyment. We reduce the person to their physical qualities – their good looks, their body – and view the person primarily in terms of the pleasure we can experience from those qualities,” wrote Edward Sri in Men, Women, and the Mystery of Love.

But, wrote Sri, we live “in a highly sexualized culture … (where) we are constantly bombarded by sexual images exploiting our sensuality, getting us to focus on the bodies of members of the opposite sex.”

Which is why real modesty is so important.

Modesty, when not distorted, doesn’t say girls have to cover up so boys don’t objectify them. It isn’t a burden on women and doesn’t imply men are weak. It requires us to pursue and be pursued for virtuous reasons. It enables us to be drawn to somebody for who he or she is (which is conducive to love), not for what his or her body does to us (which impedes love).

And in a culture mostly all right with superficial relationships and way-too-bare bodies on (and off) the beach, modesty provides a refreshing “arena in which something much more than a sensual reaction might take place.” (Sri)

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Yeeesssss, thank you. I used to hear this all the time from men in college; good, Mass-attending men insisted that purity was SO HARD and if women would just dress more modestly… I want to respect that purity can be very difficult for men, but, honestly, the more men insist that purity is basically impossible (especially when their standards of modesty are absurd), the more creeped out I get.

    And while I don’t think men should be totally banned from the “is this modest?” discussion, I wish they would understand that women can’t get dressed without someone being critical of what they’re wearing, and I wish they would take that into consideration when making their comments.

  • I totally enjoyed this post! It’s so true. Men are given a “get out of jail free” card when it comes to women’s modesty. While I don’t think we should be all boobs-and-butts-out everywhere, I think that men need to realize that there are things required of them in a spiritual and physical arena when it comes to how they view women. Excellent post!


    • Thanks so much, Brooke. And EXACTLY! Totally agree.

    • Terry W

      Wait…you expect us men to responsible for our own behavior?

    • LOL. Yesssss!

  • What I find truly disturbing is that we live in a highly sexualized culture that has almost no respect for life. So the culture wants us to be sexual beings, but doesn’t want the natural effects of sex to exist. If that’s not diabolical, I don’t know what is.

  • I think there are several contributing factors to our society’s decline in modesty. For one thing, the very definition of modesty has changed. Even though the Bible doesn’t get very specific, there are verses that give us a good idea of what it is and what it is not. Discernment and Godly advice do the rest. 1 Timothy 2:9 states: “In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobrity, not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls or costly array.” And 1 Peter 3:3-4 states: “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.” Instead of turning to God’s word, young girls today turn to Victoria’s Secret, Madonna and Lady Gaga. Super size it please. Sex really has become just as important as food – The world can’t live without it. It’s one of the new gods of the 21st century. Also, I don’t think it’s possible to define the Christian virtue of modesty outside the virtue of chastity. How many young girls have moms and dads who waited until marriage to have sex? If they didn’t wait, they don’t have the integrity to give advice on the subject. That’s one of the little known consequences of premarital sex. These parents have forfeited their rights to be role models for their children. This is a vicious cycle because pride and ego gets in the way and they don’t ask for Godly advice. Their definition of beauty doesn’t get any further than gold, money, fast cars and bare butts. Christrians have allowed the media to define what is modest and decent. And unfortunately, porn has become an acceptable part of marketing strategy. Modesty has also been disorted because Christian men and women of virtue have been taken out of the equation. The very definition of modesty depends on their standards of decency. Self control has been replaced by “oh Lord, don’t let me get caught.” It would surprise most people to know that the real character of a man can be measured by what he does in his spare time. But most churches today look to women to set the moral standards, which is in opposition to what the Bible teaches. For example, the abstinence campaigns many churches sponsor target girls only. Boys are never invited. Their moto is “boys will be boys.” I’ve seen hundreds of advertisements for “father and daughter” purity balls, but not a single event for father and son. I think that’s telling. What message does that send to boys? I’m sure you’ve seen the pictures of the little girls dancing with their fathers, all dressed up in their finest glitz and costly array. Most of them don’t look to modest to me. It seems that the idea of viewing their daughters as objects of desire can’t start early enough. I think the onus is on both men and women to create conditions where neither is objectified. A girl doesn’t cover up because she is dirty, but because she is beautiful and realizes how much she is worth. She does it because she respects men and, of course, doesn’t want to tantalize those who see her only as an object of desire. Likewise, a Christian guy doesn’t doesn’t have to advertise by wearing his pants down to his knees. And he really doesn’t need the tattoos, six packs, Harleys or tickets to every NFL football game either. I think we’re wired for attraction on much more than the physical level. It also includes intellectual, spiritual and emotional components. Much more needs to be written about these aspects of compatability.

    • Great points in this, John! And re: the purity balls, PREACH. Couldn’t agree more.

  • Anonymous

    A man expects modesty for his sister & mother but not kept it for others sis & moms. No body believes in Law of Karma. What you sow You have to cut. There is a natural attraction boys have for the girls. But it should have been in a controlled & cultured way. In one of our religious book it is said” Par beti ko beti jane , Par istri ko Maat bakhaney” Means others daughter should be regarded as own daughter & other wives should be termed as own mother. But these wording seems for some other world.
    In one of greater epic Ramayan” When Rama’s wife Sita was kidnapped by Ravana. The Rama ‘s younger brother told he cant help to find the Sita as he never saw her face. He always kept his eyes towards the feet of Sita.
    On searching the forest they found the feet jewellary (anklets) & Laxmana quickly identified those.
    These things if we talk today with so called young generation they termed us old guy.
    The people try to take up their social status & in this process ignores & allows to release the basic respect for the women. I think If we call our self as civilized then should respect the modesty of women which is never been respected in past, never during capturing other nations, enjoying the regime & whoever has the power has never given a single thought before ruining it.