On Men and Modesty

February 13, 2014

I was in my sophomore year at my Alma Mater, a small Christian liberal arts college. I filled my plastic cafeteria plate with food and scanned the tables for familiar faces. I decided to join the table of a female friend of mine who was sitting with two other girls I hadn’t met. Now being the only guy sitting with three girls can be a very positive thing, but I happened upon this group of girls as they were having a certain sort of “girl conversation.” As this conversation continued, I experienced the peculiar feeling that it was as though I weren’t there. Perhaps as a guy I didn’t qualify for full inclusion in that girl conversation, and it had to continue as though I hadn’t joined the table. How conscious or unconscious of my presence those girls were I don’t know, but that experience afforded me an opportunity to hear those girls in an honest moment. And what I heard shattered old perception, birthed new conviction, and has left me changed to this day.

My friend proceeded to talk about a reality I had never considered before. Though when I say “talk,” I might really say “rant.” Her voice was high, her words were quick, and her gestures were animated, all part of that wonderful outpouring we humans make when sincerely frustrated with some aspect of the world. I can’t quote most of what she said, but she was voicing her frustration with an unspoken reality of the Christian culture we lived in: girls lived under a communal expectation to dress modestly, guys didn’t. Having grown up in a Christian environment I immediately understood and agreed with what my friend was saying. I had already encountered more lectures, books, discussions, and policies on feminine modesty in my lifetime than I could count. All echoed the same refrain: “girls, dress modestly.” I was no girl, but I could tell you without difficulty how, according to that cultural rubric, girls should (or shouldn’t) dress. So widespread was this modesty message that I felt that no girl, living within a Christian environment for any considerable duration, could miss it (something I started doubting after seeing some outfits worn by campus girls). Underlying this message of modesty was a particular principle of attraction: guys, the consensus agreed, are greatly driven by visual attraction and find that it acts as a ready conduit for the less pure forms of desire. Girls, not so. And so, girls needed to dress modestly in a loving attentiveness to that particularly masculine weakness. Any reciprocal attentiveness from guys was considered unnecessary or simply not considered at all. After all, nature hadn’t laid on the shoulders of girls any such burden of difficulty. At least, I never stopped to question the matter…

…until that moment when I was sitting with that group of girls, listening to my friend’s frustrated rant, watching her animated expression, as she lamented, “People act like girls aren’t visual! Girls are very visual!” With that sentence I realized the fallacy I had lived by. I thought that since girls aren’t driven visually to the extent guys are that that mode of attraction with its opportunity for lust was for them negligible. Oh, Justin, you sweet, oblivious child. My friend proceeded to tell a story.

One day she was sitting in her dorm room studying when she decided to open the blinds of her window to let more sunlight into the room. As she opened the blinds she discovered that the hot, late summer day had brought to her window not just sunlight but many shirtless college guys playing football on the lawn outside her window.

“Oh, no,” she thought. She walked out of her room and down the hall to seek the aid of her Residential Assistant (a student leader with authority over the dormitory floor).

“Licia, there are a bunch of shirtless guys playing football outside my window. Can’t you do something about that?”

The RA replied with a sympathetic, rhetorical question. “They look pretty good, huh?”

With the conclusion of my friend’s story my perspective forever changed. I had heard plenty of stories from guys lamenting instances when the more alluring outfits donned by girls hit them where they were weak. But now I understood that women too are susceptible to the same weakness. And so my perspective expanded into the form of the thought that then ran through my head: “Ah, so men too should be attentive to modesty.”

I didn’t say anything in that conversation at the cafeteria table. In truth, I’ve virtually never voiced that conviction in the years since it quietly ran through my head. But it has certainly stuck with me, subtly influencing both my outfits and my behavior to the end of considering others before self. I suppose I would have gone on with life, and this essay never would have been written, if something hadn’t returned this topic to my mind. This week I attended a church small group. During the conversation one young woman came to mention modesty. Among her positive remarks about modesty was one that caught my ear. It was to the effect of, “modesty is something more for us women than you men.” Here was a woman, saying in passing, that modesty is essentially a feminine responsibility of which men have no considerable part. Well, I disagree. Women may hold the foremost opportunity for practicing modesty, and their modesty (or lack thereof) may be most readily perceived. But to hold that men have no opportunity for practicing modesty is contrary to nature and truth. To hold that men have no responsibility to practice modesty is contrary to love. For love does not seek its own but wants what’s best for others.

What does it look like for men to practice modesty? It may be as simple as wearing a shirt while running or playing football (no excuses, a white quickdry shirt keeps you cooler than going shirtless anyway). It may mean not showing off the muscles that have been the goal of so many hard workouts (a muscular build can mean as much to some men as a slender build can mean to some women). Every instance where consideration toward others, instead of self-service or self-aggrandizement, directs how a man dresses or behaves is an instance of modesty. And every instance of modesty is an instance of love. And to love is the Great Commandment by which we are called to live. So, men too should practice modesty.