In my high school days, half my life ago, I attended a few youth conferences organized by my church. As we participants were all concupiscent teens overrun with hormones and on short supply of self-mastery, the conference speakers talked to us a lot about the spiritual dangers of lust. They warned us, sternly, that fornication and masturbation were not, as the world had told us, normal and natural, but grave and potentially mortal sins. We were told that to engage in sexual activity outside of marriage or in any way not ordered toward procreation is to misuse our bodies—sacred temples of the Holy Spirit—and to violate God’s will and purpose. If we pleasured ourselves, we were endangering our souls. Lustful self-stimulation could be as hell-bent an act as cold-blooded murder.
These talks would sometimes be followed at some point by confession, where we could admit our guilt, acknowledge our weakness, ask for forgiveness, and seek the grace to return to chastity and purity in mind and body. In some fashion, the struggle with lust continued, for all of us, as neither the talks nor the confessions diminished our pheromones. We prayed for God’s mercy.
This theological culture is one of the contexts in which Christian advocacy of modest dress should be understood. If you believe, as many socially-conservative Christians do, that lustful thoughts can lead to eternal separation from God, and that this separation—hell—is the worst of all possible fates, then you’d want to obstruct or remove potential stimulants like bare skin. You’d also want to teach people to master their passions and appetites so that they’re capable of controlling their sexual thoughts and feelings. Of course, it’s much easier to set standards for appropriate dress than it is to instruct people in the virtue of self-control, and so the former often becomes a substitute for the latter. And, in practice, this results in a double standard: because boys will be boys, the onus falls on the ladies. Women need to be virtuous so men don’t sin.
Take this video called “Virtue Makes You Beautiful.” It’s been making the rounds in my social media circles. Set to the tune of One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful,” the music video features well-dressed, mostly young men, singing the praises of a virtuous woman who doesn’t wear short skirts or low cut shirts: “Baby you light up the world like no one else by the way you speak and respect yourself.” If that line wasn’t judgmental enough, the singing gentlemen leave no doubt about how little regard they have for most women: “Girls with integrity are hard to find these days. You gotta know. Oh. Oh. You are so beautiful.” No translation needed: if you don’t measure up to their standard of modesty, then you have no integrity and no self-respect. They’re not just expressing their discomfort with “immodest” dress; they’re morally judging the women whose attire and behavior make them uncomfortable, as if women’s integrity were inversely correlated to their display of bare skin.
The most revealing lines come next: “If only you saw what I can see, you’d understand why I need your modesty. Right now I’m talking to you, and you must believe. You gotta know. Oh. Oh. Virtue is so beautiful.” The song isn’t about the virtuous women; it’s about the men, their need for modesty, and their position over her. They’re talking to her, not with her. They don’t ask her to be modest; they demand it. She must believe. She must know. This is about power, not virtue. It’s about them setting themselves up as judges of her clothing choices and intentions.
Modesty is a virtue. It falls under the cardinal virtue of temperance. There are appropriate and inappropriate situations and circumstances for unveiling one’s body or soul. There are good and bad reasons for showing one’s flesh or speaking one’s mind. I’m not against modesty, but I am against the double standards and sweeping disparagement that often accompany its promotion. I am against making modesty into a form of social control. If the sight of skin causes me to lose control, then it’s my own virtue that should concern me.