aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

On Modesty

A friend posted a link to an article about the new discussion of modesty in both religious and feminist circles these days. There are some voices calling for a renewal of modesty in dress, while others continue to say that it is wrong to make women responsible for men's reaction to them. It reminded me of something that happened several years ago at my last appointment.

We had brought a friend, Della, over from South Africa. Della was a native of Natal who was working in the UMC in Tanzania when I visited there in 2001. I met her on the steps of the Kigoma church and thought she was Tanzanian. I greeted her in Swahili, which caused her to break out laughing. I asked her later why, and she replied, "Because your pronunciation was so bad."

Anyway, we brought Della over the next year to participate in a missions conference in Indiana. While she was here, she attended a Cub Pack Meeting at my church. There she met Austin's mom. Austin's was a single mom, though she had a live-in boyfriend (not that big a deal these days). Ten-year-old Austin was her only child. Austin's mom was probably about thirty years old, but projected a younger image. She had numerous piercings. She wore a lot of jewelry, including a nose ring. Her hair was streaked blonde, her skin was tan as a beach bunny's (even in October), and she had several tattoos. She was wearing a crepe skirt, a low-cut, midriff-baring white blouse, and sandals so small she appeared barefoot. When Della saw her, she froze. In a tense whisper, she said to me, "Is she a prostitute?"

I had to explain that, No, she was a nice lady and a good mommy, and her appearance did not mean to convey in this society what it would in Della's. For make no mistake: in any other society of the world besides the Anglo-European, Austin's mom would be unmistakably advertising her participation in the sex trade. That wouldn't mean that she was necessarily trolling for business at her son's Cub Pack meeting, but she would be understood to be handing out the equivalent of business cards for later following-up.

So what I know about modesty is that it's not just about how you're dressed, but about the total message you mean to convey. And about how that message will be received, whether you intended it to be received that way, or by that person, at all.

Let us suppose that there is a fire in our neighborhood. We are outside in the night, observing the confusion. A naked (or nearly naked) woman runs up in obvious distress, having just escaped her burning house. What is your reaction? The obvious one, for most men, would be to take off their coat for her or find a blanket to cover her up and get her warm. Her nakedness is not a turn-on, because the total message she is conveying (by her dress, her affect, her situation) is not one of availability or invitation, but of distress. The urge to help is the natural response. In other circumstances, a woman crossing your lawn at night in lingerie might imply other things, but not here, not now. It's not about how much flesh one is showing. It's about the total communication.

Clothing matters, but it's not everything. The costume designer on the old Star Trek used to say that women's costumes had to be sturdy enough to stay put, no matter what movements the actresses in them made, but that they had to look like they might fall off at any moment in order to be interesting. So it's perfectly possible to cover everything "private," but still draw people's attention directly to the parts being covered. In that case, the total communication includes, "look at what I've got right here." Which is why nudists add clothing to look sexy; a whole roomful of bare flesh ceases to draw much attention after a while, and you have to dress things up in order to say, "look at me."

This doesn't mean that women are responsible for men's lust or that there is ever any excuse for sexual harrassment or whatever. But it does mean that we should talk about the total communication of self that includes dress, deportment, and discourse (appearance, action, conversation).

For instance, my wife and I have occasion to speak now and then to some of our female Venturers and youth group members about not presenting oneself as a victim. The hurt child whom nobody understands, who is emotionally needy, who presents oneself as more mature and available than she ought -- we've all met that girl. She is like a bird with a broken wing. Every predator within sight or sound of her is instantly aware of her position. And not just the molesters -- the "boyfriends" who just want a cheap score without complications are all tuned into her wavelength, too. She doesn't deserve the trouble that comes her way, but her dress, deportment, and discourse -- the total communication -- are all saying, "Use me."

The same thing happens with boys, though dress is less important. The victims of Jerry Sandusky or Michael Jackson had several things in common. Materially poor, emotionally starved, lacking strong adult male role models, they were easy game for the glamorous rich guy who suddenly starts paying attention to them. Because their total self-communication amounts to, "I'm an easy victim, and nobody will complain much afterwards."

Modesty, of course, is much more than learning not to be a victim, though with kids, it needs to start there. We tell people how to dress, how to act, how to talk before they realize what their behavior might bring on them. But modesty is really more about being comfortable in one's own skin. It's about being secure enough not to call attention to myself in inappropriate or distracting ways.

I can do a lot of things, but I don't like to list all my abilities when I first meet somebody. It looks like bragging. I prefer to surprise them later. Likewise, I don't wear every bangle I've earned in Scouting on my uniform. I don't try to top every tale being told around the fire. I don't constantly fiddle with my appearance. (I've had the same humongous moustache for over thirty years. If I shaved it now, people would wonder what sort of personal crisis I was going through.) Modesty is about presenting Me, rather than all my attributes. We should be able to make a connection based upon being pleasant and interested in the same things, without me selling you on Myself.

When I preside at a funeral, I wear a full suit and tie. It's a uniform of sorts. People recognize me as appropriately dressed for a pastor. They hear my words instead of focus on how I'm dressed. It's also why I usually wear a robe in church. The clothes may seem flashy, but since they don't vary much, you pay attention to my liturgical acts, not my personal style. One summer Sunday years ago, I was preaching in a coat and tie and one mom said she couldn't pay attention to what I was saying because she kept trying to figure out what was on my tie. Which was the last time I preached in my Spiderman tie. Fun ties are for when I'm wearing the robe over them; when I am preaching in a visible tie, it will inevitably be more subdued.

Schools that have strong dress codes or uniforms find that student achievement rises because the kids are dressed for work rather than for play. There is less distraction by the amount of effort the students are putting into standing out by how they're dressed. Modesty is about looking nice and not making eyes bug out when eyes are needed on something else. It means that I don't have to be The Most Important Thing in This Room. It takes self-confidence to wear a gaudy outfit; it takes more self-confidence to project yourself while dressing, acting, and speaking in a more restrained fashion.

The thing is, if you leave something for later, people will be more impressed by you. And they'll appreciate the difference for when you really turn it up. When I make a real effort at puttin' on the Ritz, it's because it matters. The people I dress up for matter. And the person I undress with matters most of all. The rest of you, well, if my clothes are mended, they fit well, I took a shower and I'm smiling, that should be enough.

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