I don’t understand the deal with modesty. If a guy has a bad imagination, that should be his issue and not mine. Why should I have to dress a certain way for his sake?

Women deserve respect regardless of what they choose to wear. If a man can’t look at a woman in a respectful way, then the problem is not her body. The problem is his mind and his heart. It is profoundly wrong to shame women for the abuse that they sometimes suffer, saying, “By the way you were dressed, you were asking for it!” This is shifting the blame from where it should be placed: upon the man who failed to treat her with dignity.

As you know, there are countless men who fail to treat women with respect. If you are fed up with the way guys often treat women and wonder what can be done to restore a sense of respect, modesty is the solution. The problem is this: Many men today do not know how to relate to women. Part of the remedy for this ailment lies in the hands of women. Wendy Shalit said, “Ultimately, it seems that only men can teach other men how to behave around women, but those men have to be inspired by women in the first place; inspired enough to think the women are worth being courteous to.”[1]

How will this happen? Well, many young women are aware that they have the power to seduce a man, but few girls are aware that their femininity also has the power to educate a guy. The way a girl dresses (not to mention the way she talks, dances, and so forth) has an extraordinary ability to help shape a man into a gentleman or into a beast.

I have read tens of thousands of pages of theology, counseling, and information about relationships and human sexuality, but I never learned how to treat a woman until I dated one who dressed modestly. It was captivating, and I realized for the first time that immodest dress gets in the way of seeing a woman for who she is. Immodest outfits might attract a man to a girl’s body, but they distract him from seeing her as a person. As one man said, “If you want a man to respect you, and perhaps eventually fall in love with you, then you must show him that you respect yourself and that you recognize your dignity before God.” [2]

A woman who dresses modestly inspires a guy in a way that I am not ashamed to admit I cannot explain. I suppose it is safe to say that it conveys your worth to us. When a woman dresses modestly, I can take her seriously as a woman because she doesn’t look like she’s begging for attention. She knows that she’s worth discovering. Such humility is radiant. Unfortunately, many women are so preoccupied with turning men’s heads that they overlook their power to turn our hearts.

Sometimes femininity is confused with weakness, but nothing could be further from the truth. A woman who is truly feminine is well aware that she could dress like a collection of body parts and receive countless stares from guys. But she has the strength to leave room for mystery. Instead of dressing in a way that invites guys to lust, the way she dresses says, “I’m worth waiting for.” She trusts God’s timing, and she knows that she does not need to make boys gawk in order to catch the attention of the man God has planned for her.

In his letter on the dignity of women, Pope John Paul II quoted a document from Vatican II, saying: “The hour is coming, in fact has come, when the vocation of women is being acknowledged in its fullness, the hour in which women acquire in the world an influence, an effect and a power never hitherto achieved. That is why, at this moment when the human race is undergoing so deep a transformation, women imbued with a spirit of the Gospel can do so much to aid humanity in not falling.”[3]

So what is modesty? It is not about looking as ugly as possible. It is about taking the natural beauty of womanhood and adorning it in a way that reflects one’s true identity. When a girl knows that she is a daughter of the King of heaven, she does not allow her outfits, conversations, and mannerisms to distract from this. She is aware that her body is sacred because it is a temple of the Holy Spirit. This brings about a certain humility of the body, since humility is the proper attitude toward greatness. In this case it is the greatness of being made in the image and likeness of God.

This is not an “I am woman, hear me roar!” bit, but a serene sense of not needing to grope for attention. Sure, guys will gawk at a woman who dresses provocatively, but in your heart do you long to be gawked at or to be loved? You want real love. When a girl dresses immodestly, she often does not realize that she robs herself of the intimacy for which she yearns.

When a girl wears outfits that could not be any tighter without cutting off her circulation, guys will think she is trying to tell them, “Hey, boys, the greatest thing about me is my body!” They will stare and will probably agree. But if her body is the greatest thing about her, it must be all downhill from there. If that is the best she has to offer, why should they get to know her heart, her dreams, her personality, and her family? They want to get to know her body.

Dressing immodestly also harms a girl’s chances of being loved. The type of guys who will be drawn to her will not be the type of guys who will treat her as a daughter of God. No matter how a woman dresses, she sends out an unspoken invitation for men to treat her the way she looks. For example, consider a magazine I recently saw at an airport newsstand. On the cover was a woman wearing a short skirt that could be mistaken for a wide belt. Her airtight top was scarcely the size of an unfolded napkin, and in big bold letters across the cover was “Suzie [or whatever her name was—I don’t remember] wants men to respect her!” I wished her the best of luck and walked on to my gate, after covering up the magazine with a few issues of Oprah. (I consider this a corporal work of mercy—clothing the naked.)

Although a girl deserves respect no matter what she wears, a guy can tell how much a woman respects herself by how she is dressed. If she does not respect herself, the odds are that guys will follow her lead. In the heart of a woman, there is no desire to be a sex object. Is there a desire to receive attention, affection, and love? Certainly. But is there a desire to be reduced to an object? No girl wants to go there, but many do for the sake of receiving emotional gratification.

When a girl puts on a belly-button-showing, spaghetti strap shirt, she is not thinking about how she hopes to lead men to sin. She’s probably thinking, “That’s a cute top, and it will look perfect with my shoes.” But beneath this simple desire to be attractive is a deeper desire to be accepted. If a girl understands how visual guys are when it comes to sexuality, she may look at the outfit as a means to receive attention. She may see the scantily clad mannequin and think, “That outfit turns heads. If I wear it, guys will look at me. Maybe I’ll even meet a nice one.” But her logic will not pay off.

Assume that a girl dresses provocatively and she comes across a genuinely good man. The man is no better off because of her outfit. Men are more visually stimulated than women, and immodesty can easily trigger lustful thoughts. When men harbor these impure ideas, lust separates us from Christ, the source of unconditional love. Does a woman really want to separate men from the source of the unconditional love she seeks? If not, then why not opt for the more modest outfit? There is nothing wrong with wearing things that make you look cute, but seductive and sexy outfits should not be part of a Christian woman’s wardrobe.

If your heart is saying, “Is this too short?” or “Does this look too tight?” listen to that voice. It has already answered your question. Listen to this voice for your sake and for ours. For your sake, realize that as a moat surrounds a castle, modesty protects the treasure of chastity. For our sake, remember when Cain killed Abel back in Genesis? When God asked Cain where his brother was, Cain replied, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” In the same way, it is all too easy for guys and girls alike to shrug off the responsibility we have to help one another maintain purity. Adopt the attitude of Saint Paul, and live in a way that does not cause your brothers to stumble (Rom. 14:21).

Some girls spend more energy trying to make guys notice them (even if they have no interest in the guys) than they spend trying to focus young men’s attention on God. As a woman of God, use your beauty to inspire men to virtue. Again, there is no problem with looking cute. Problems arise, however, when clothing (or the lack thereof) is worn in a way that is immodest, or when a person falls into vanity and excessive concern about looking perfect. Your body is precious in the sight of God, and you do not need to look like an airbrushed Cosmo model to deserve love.

[1]. Wendy Shalit, A Return to Modesty (New York: Touchstone, 1999), 157.
[2]. Mike Mathews, “Sexy Fashions? What Do Men Think?” (newspaper supplement), 4:2001:10.
[3]. Pope John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem 1.

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