Summer skirts and lingering glances

The bout of warm weather which has so suddenly graced us with its presence brings to the fore a topic I’ve been mulling over for a little while.

How do we navigate the tetchy waters of modesty in what we, and what other people wear?

The other day someone at work walked in from enjoying the glorious rays at lunch and commented on what she had observed. A girl was laid on the grass in her bra. A guy sat on a bench nearby furtively got his camera out and took a photo of said girl.

The story was recounted with evident and justified shock which I and the other person party to this conversation shared.

But I pondered this a little further. The deliberate act of taking a photo makes this seem particularly egregious, but then I walk through the park and notice the low cut tops and the summer skirts. I see the girls in their bikinis working on their tan. And I wonder, as I try to restrain my gaze from lingering, how best to handle this particular visual challenge that comes with the beating sun.

And related to this, I am wrestling with whose responsibility it is. Is it the guy’s for the glances that they steal and the lust that it may represent? Or the girls for dressing inappropriately and acting the temptress?

The hyperbole in that last line was to deflect some of the inevitable rage it would produce.

Here’s my thinking on this, firstly, I am absolutely responsible for what I look at, why I look and the thoughts that it generates. And while I’m on the topic, men who use what a woman is wearing or the way they are acting as an excuse or as permission to act are completely abdicating their own responsibility. In the most extreme cases men who consider a woman to be asking for it if they are dressed in a certain way are wrong in the most definite and vilest sense.

But, I don’t think that absolves women of responsibility either. This is where it gets tricky. While guys are responsible for their response, I think women need to be aware of the impact of what they are wearing (or not wearing) on guys who are around them.

Modesty doesn’t need to be viewed as a dirty word, as a sort of Victorian notion of propriety which is now outdated. Perhaps we should view it as how we interact in a way that best serves everyone involved. It might also help to think about how we consider modesty in other arenas.

If someone is modest about their skills in a particular area, they are not denying that they have these skills, instead it’s just they are not going out of their way to flaunt them. Modesty in dress is not about denying or neutralising beauty, it is about placing it in its proper context and realising that exhibitions of beauty can be misused in the same way any other ability, talent or attribute can.

In practice what does this mean? For guys in the park when it’s hot accept that it’s tough. There are attractive girls not wearing very much. How we respond around people we know will depend on who it is and the nature of a our relationship. If you’re a girl and with a guy you know likes you and this isn’t how you feel, spare a thought for him.

Let me try and answer one challenge to all this: the beach problem. It goes something like this: girls wear bikinis on the beach so what’s wrong with sunbathing in a bra in the park?

I think it’s got to do with patterns of association and an understanding of normal behaviour. When you’re on the beach people are wearing less clothes so it is normal, when you see someone in a bikini in the park it comes across as more exceptional, it is not what you would expect and I think in some neuro-psychological way that I wouldn’t understand this makes it more exciting.

Take this a step further, bikinis are designed to be worn on their own, whereas bras are (usually) worn under something else. Therefore, in some very real way, a girl wearing a bra in a park is more likely to draw attention, and for guys, be a source of temptation where a girl in a bikini on the beach might not.

Is this fair? Maybe not, but in each and every situation there will be many different factors at play so that what is worn in one context is reasonable, but in another might be unhelpful and even unkind. I’m not making any recommendations about what girls should wear or where guys should avoid in the scorching sun, that would be dangerous territory. And I’ve ventured far enough already.

What advice would you give to guys struggling with skimpy skirts in the summer sun? And would you tell a girl to cover up if you found what she was wearing unhelpful?

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12 thoughts on “Summer skirts and lingering glances

  1. The conversation surrounding modesty takes an interesting turn when we place it within social and cultural frameworks. Being modest in France, where I was born and raised, is not the same as being modest in suburban Kansas City. In fact, being modest in Missouri is not the same as being modest in Kansas. I have come to wonder if modesty is in large part a social construct that fluctuates in meaning and boundaries. The line between modest and immodest is so unstable and subjective. It was considered immodest for a woman to not wear a veil during Mass. It is considered immodest for a woman to show her knees in some parts of the world. Is the attempt to create a universal discourse on modesty, in regards to clothing, ethnocentric? Is the definition of modesty static or does it evolve with culture and trends? And if the definition does adapt itself to different environments and generations, who gets to decide whether or not it is legitimate and biblical? Should I allow my Christian culture to define the boundaries of modesty for me, or has God already established one non-temporal moral structure for us to follow?

    • I agree that modesty is different in different contexts, and that depends on large scale things like culture and small scale such as the people you are with.

      What makes this interesting is that cultural boundaries are far more blurred than they were in the past so people travel between cultures and bring with them what they consider modesty to be.

      I don’t think there is and universal biblical or moral framework but I think there is a need for sensitivity. And this is where the weaker brethren idea comes into play. Thanks for your comment!

  2. Frankly men need to man up and take responsibility for their actions. Blaming it on skimpy outfits is just whining/passing the buck. I could complain about how easy it is to get food in the western world, but the reason I am fat is entirely due to my consumption and is entirely my responsibility. So it is the same with the things I see and what I dwell on.
    Discipline is a dirty word these days and people seem to assume that doing the right thing is easy, but more often than not it isn’t- and it can take practice and effort to get it right.

  3. Hi Danny, i’ll add to my earlier comedy comment with a little less humour and hopefully some more sense.

    Your thoughts fairly and reasonably consider both sides. On the one hand, it is the guy’s responsibility to be disciplined, on the other hand, there is a social drift which makes it more & more acceptable for people to attire themselves how they want in public. I don’t think it’s right to pin the ‘blame’ entirely on the male half of the population when the accepted norm makes it more & more difficult to keep ones eyes to yourself. Would you pin it on an alcoholic who necked a bottle of whiskey if you left them alone with it? Not entirely.

    In order for the problem to happen you need both the opportunity & inclination, as it takes two to tango. The former arises because society & culture now says it can and doesn’t do too much about it. The latter happens because men are mostly men. Take either of them away and you wouldn’t have an issue.

    How do you solve the former, and would I say something? I don’t know, and probably not… at least, not if they were a stranger to me. Sometimes you need to earn the right to be heard. For the latter, I agree with Gareth that some discipline is required, and it’s something that can be worked on as I recall doing so before I was married. After finding a wife, then you can go and look at her instead. Not a problem, assuming you are applying a Christian moral code, and accordingly your desire to ogle others most likely wanes… certainly I find I am less bothered by it now. YMMV and possibly does!

    • Hi Joe,

      I am somewhat surprised by your use of the word “blame”, and your analogy between lust and a tempted alcoholic. If I understand your comment correctly, you state that sin can be justified if the person is tempted by some external factor, in this case an alcoholic alone with the whiskey. A man may not be 100% responsible for his lust, because some women dress in a way that opens the door for it and are supported by society at large.

      My question is just how far can this logic take us before we claim that rapists are not 100% responsible for their actions, because women put themselves in “compromising situations”, or because “men will be men”? Would you pin it on a convicted rapist who accidently found himself alone with a woman (opportunity) and attacked her because of his inherent aggressive behavior (inclination)?

      I realize that bringing rape into the discussion can seem extreme and unnecessary, but many of the discourses on modesty within the Church are comparable to the discourse of rape culture. Please be certain that I am not saying you believe rape is justifiable. This is not meant to be accusatory, nor do I want to put words in your mouth. I mean to point out that these discourses center around blame and responsibility, not caring for the victim, which should always be our first priority.

      Answering the question “who is at fault?” does not make it easier for individuals not to lust, nor does it minimize the shame and embarrassment of women who are publicly criticized for their outfits. Does it matter who is at fault? I would argue that the essential question to ask ourselves is what we can personally do to minimize lust without directing blame.

  4. Thank you for your brave honesty here. You are a real inspiration Danny.

    I spent a lot of last week toying with a status update/tweet along the lines of: I finding all these short shorts are causing me to have inappropriate thoughts…like the thought of shout at strangers “Ladies, put you labia AWAY, your putting me off my breakfast.”

    Or something.

    I’ve really been noticing it this week and thinking about what to do that’s constructive, because part of me thinks people can wear what they like and part of me very much believes, which you talk about, that each side needs to take responsibility for their actions – the looking and the dressing.

    I think there are a few things though that result in this ‘lingering look’ situation, that need tackling as an intrinsic part of this problem.

    I *think* the key issue is that we live in a society that constantly (and I mean constantly) objectifies women. During an average day I constantly bombarded with photos of airbrushed women, with a variation on a theme of “I’m sexually available to you” look on their faces, without many clothes on and it’s also great because these women don’t talk back, they don’t talk at all. They are fantasy ciphers. You get the idea. We live in a society that privileges the visual providing fertile soil for objectification to grow, grow, grow. The backdrop of that means that a gaze that may be just a gaze, quickly is flooded and layered over with expectations, hopes, excitement engendered by the constantly objectifying images. She’s no longer just a woman lying on the grass. Does that make any kind of sense? I think Christians need to be actively vocal in our opposition to this constant objectifying of women, and also of objectifying men.

    In this visually privileging, objectifying climate, many women think they are so unattractive it doesn’t matter what they personally wear, because they are just dirt, so no-one is looking at them anyway. This obviously isn’t everyone’s but some people dress to get attention because they haven’t worked out how valuable they are yet and the furthest thing from their mind is how their struggle with self-esteem may be leading someone else to sin.

    So, I guess it’s good for us all to talk and be honest about those things.

    The other main thing is that if more Christians were having sex this wouldn’t be such an issue. Have more sex people!! For me, this is in the context of marriage. And as we know this isn’t always possible and can be particularly acute difficultly for those recently separated or divorced. I think we have a bit of a crisis in relationships in churches, there are various commitment issues etc floating around and that is so damaging, not least in this area. I cannot listen to older male Christians whinging about struggling with being attracted to women 15 years their junior any more. Ok, I’m choosing an extreme example here. But I think in some cases some people (ie. I’m really not talking about everyone here and this is complex territory) aren’t in relationships because they are in their own way and we need to be open to hear from God about how we might be unconsciously sabotaging our relationships or are unable to get in to one (as a point of information, I’m single).

    These two issues: objectification and generational wobbliness around commitment frame this issue of inappropriate gazes and what follows, they exacerbate it, increase it, perpetuate it. The looking issue is one manifestation of these two broader issues.

    And, we all probably need a bit more of God’s input. Then the ladies may be able to put on a few more clothes and value themselves, and the men may be able to exercise more self control and value themselves. Well and vice versa. There were a lot of men with their tops of in Tesco today. And although there are gender differences, it’d be offensive to think this issue didn’t cut both ways.

    Keep talking about this, it’s important. Thank you so much for sharing. I have no idea is this over-long comment is in anyways helpful, but I so wanted to respond as I have been really turning this over in my mind this week. You’re great.

    • Thanks Sara, some very interesting and helpful points. You’re right about the constant objectifying of women, and the impact that has.

      I’m also curious about your point about sabotaging our own ability to enter relationships. I think I get your point and I’m inclined to agree but any further thought would be welcome. I think there’ll be a follow up post coming soon.

  5. Apologies for my grammatical error!!! I meant “You’re putting me of my breakfast” not “your” *mimes shooting gun at head*

  6. Danny I really enjoy reading your blog. I think that you are very brave talking about real issues that most people wouldn’t bring up in conversation.
    Your posts are thought provoking and often remind me of the call to be holy- something that sounds almost laughable in our culture! but Peter 1:16 clearly says “Be holy for I am holy”.

    I think as christians we should be setting the example, being a light. We should stand out as ‘holy people’.

    On the other hand we should not really expect others, (non christians) to conform to God’s ideals. If they don’t understand God’s intentions for us or accept what he has done for us then why would any of these ‘morals’ matter to them.

    We need to lead by example, show others a different way of life through love and compassion. Insulting people or telling them that they are a temptress is not going to be helpful. We need to be responsible for our own actions, be self disciplined and ask for grace.

    I think that we should also be careful in judging (christians as well as non christians). Although I think it is sometimes appropriate to call others out and help each other in accountability (always out of love not anger etc..). But first we must look at our own hearts, we need to be careful that our hearts our in the right place before we concern ourselves with others. Phillipians 2:12 “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed–not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence–continue to work out YOUR OWN salvation with fear and trembling..”

    Mathew 7 also reminds us; “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

    3 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

    Wow I think I may have gotten a little off track here. I think the point that I was trying to make at the end is that it is easy to get side tracked by what others are doing or not doing but firstly we are responsible for our own actions, thoughts, accountability and holiness.

    I hope this makes sense…

  7. It’s a tight rope you walk, and you did a particularly good job of it.

    I’m not sure that I’ve ever experienced the difference between a girl in a bra in a park (or sports bra running/biking) and those in bikinis on the beach. Both seem to attract the same kind of attention.

    I think that your hypothesis about context isn’t too far off, though, because I think difference from the norm plays a part. I mean, most sin (like what lust is) has an escalating effect. One can grow numb to stimuli by frequent exposure (no pun intended!), so if the culture is used to a certain level of exposure, then one might need other stimuli to get a reaction.

    This is why bikinis get smaller and ads raunchier in order to get the same effect. And also why some men who are addicted to porn have trouble in relationships with a normal woman– their wife.

    There are consequences (as you’ve shared elsewhere) as well as incentives.

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