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Modesty doesn’t need to be viewed as a dirty word, as a sort of Victorian notion of propriety which is now outdated.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?