Olympic star Aly Raisman said she knew she would face controversy when she decided to appear in this year’s issue of the “Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition.” Defending her decision, Aly stated, “…I love my body… women do not have to be modest in order to be respected.”
In reading this, I wrestled with her statement. As St. John Paul II says in his Letter to Women, our worth and “Beauty—not merely physical, but above all spiritual—God bestowed from the very beginning on all and in a particular way on women.” We are remiss when we fail to recognize this in any circumstance! Yes, how true is it that women deserve to be respected and treated with dignity regardless of their appearance, decisions or viewpoints. All people do.
So, while much of Aly’s comment is utterly spot on, how is it that it also feels way off? While we deserve respect, we might not always get it. In fact, we might even do things that don’t ask for respect, but rather invite others to treat us disrespectfully.
At an 8th grade retreat I spoke at recently, one of the girls made a comment that absolutely nailed it. She said that modesty exists not just in our outfit choices but in how we carry ourselves. As she explained, two girls could be wearing the same modest outfit and one could still be clearly trying to get sexual attention, while another carries herself with grace and humility. While both are fully clothed, they aren’t both exemplifying the virtue of modesty. This mentality can be easily applied on the flip side when considering an athlete’s apparel. During the Olympics, we saw competitors wearing leotards, speedos, spandex and more as a non-sexualized component of their athleticism. Maybe this SI photo shoot doesn’t seem that different.
But it is different, and very much so.
Fact: The Swimsuit Edition isn’t an anatomy book, it’s a publication of women in provocative poses meant to be viewed by men. This magazine it not about respect, it’s about lust. To be frank, immodesty doesn’t exactly stimulate men to rise to an awe of women’s sanctity and “feminine genius.” Instead, brain scans have shown that when men see provocative pictures of women they relate the images with action words that are connected to function and use. The part of the man’s brain associated with objects is activated—thus objectification. Some men even experienced a complete shutdown of the portion of their brain that is used to analyze another person’s feelings, thoughts and intentions! When shown pictures of fully clothed women, however; the test subjects chose words that showed the woman had autonomy and was in control of her life and decisions—in other words, verbs that implied respect. They more easily viewed them as a person.
Furthermore, while we should all be treated with dignity, we must ask, do our actions themselves always deserve respect? I know mine don’t. I find myself falling into decisions that send me hauling it to the confessional. With this, I’d ask, when I mess up, please don’t respect my poor decisions. My best friends are the ones who love me enough to challenge me to do better.
St. John Bosco had a motto for the orphaned boys he raised: “Make it easy to be good and hard to be bad.” This didn’t guarantee their perfect behavior, but it sure increased their chances at sanctity. The irony of these feminist times is that the culture claims to want women to be respected, equal and strong, yet so often the world portrays women in a way that serves lust and use. While we deserve respect, it can be hard to come by. Our chances would probably be greater if we, “made it easy to be respected and hard to be objectified.” The battle for true feminine reverence is real, but the fight isn’t lost. How we approach it matters and can make every difference for both the men and women in our lives.
Katie Hartfiel is the author of Woman In Love, which coaches young women as they pray for their future spouse. Katie received her Theology degree from Franciscan University of Steubenville. She served as a youth minister for seven years in Houston, where she resides with her husband, Mark, and three daughters. For more on Katie, her books and her DIY purity retreat visit womaninlove.org.