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Too often we frame modesty as someone else’s responsibility.

Last September, a mom used her blog to write an open letter to the female friends of her teenage sons. She told the young women that their family had been discussing the pictures these teens posted on Facebook. She pointed out that many of the shots featured girls in skimpy clothing, PJs, or bathing suits, often posing seductively. The family had come to a decision: any girl who posted a photo like that would be “blocked.”

Here’s how she put it:

And so, in our house, there are no second chances with pics like that, ladies. We have a zero tolerance policy. . . . If you post a sexy “selfie” (we all know the kind), or an inappropriate YouTube video—even once—it’s curtains. I know that sounds so old-school, but we are hoping to raise men with a strong moral compass, and men of integrity don’t linger over pictures of scantily clad high-school girls.

The comments section on this mom’s blog blew up. There were many who agreed, yes, but there were many more who pointed out that this mom had chosen to illustrate her post with photos of her sons—in their bathing suits. The comments included this one:

I appreciate the thoughts in this post (and do agree!) but I find it a bit funny & thought-provoking that you decided to illustrate this post with pictures of your boys in their swimsuits. They are good-looking young guys, and of course that is perfectly normal and acceptable for them to be in their swim trunks, but couldn’t a young teenage girl looking at that with friends be led to talk about them looking “hot” or whatever if they were popping up in their Instagram account?

Other comments were more direct:

I view this essay as very damaging. You have taught your sons to blame others for their own behaviors and thoughts, and you have added to the myriad of voices already placing shame and blame on young women.”

So what’s a mom to do? In this case, the author agreed with the comments, swapped the original photos with shots of her well-clothed family, and eventually closed the comments section.

Assumptions About Modesty

But this leads to a much larger discussion on the topic of modesty. One could pull apart this mom’s line that “we are hoping to raise men with a strong moral compass, and men of integrity don’t linger over pictures of scantily clad high-school girls,” and point out that her real work is not to tell the daughters of other parents to get their acts together but to rear her sons so that when they are presented with visual temptations (actual or online), they have the ability to discipline themselves—which, I am sure, she knows and does.

To put it far too simply, the assumptions around modesty seem to be that men can’t control themselves so it’s up to women to do it for them, and that women need to be told to do this because they can’t figure it out for themselves.

Too often we frame modesty as someone else’s responsibility: those people shouldn’t dress like that. Those people shouldn’t produce that commercial. Those people should post different pictures.

But such language isn’t helpful. As the commenter mentioned earlier reminds us, that places the blame for our own behaviors and thoughts on others. The truth is, we can’t control what other people wear, post, or air. And honestly, control isn’t really the right term for this discussion.

The Discipline of Modesty

When friends of mine were newlyweds, they took a winter trip to a warm place. In the pool at their hotel, a woman was swimming nearby who was wearing a smaller top than was, well, fitting. The husband’s eyes kept going back to the woman. His wife noticed.

When they got back to their room, she told him how much that had hurt her—he literally had eyes for someone else. Her husband didn’t defend himself; he didn’t dismiss her concerns. Instead, he changed. He disciplined himself so that he never intentionally looks at a woman below the neck (so much so that it can take him a while to realize that a friend or coworker is pregnant).

The discipline of modesty takes place within community. The wife in this story did not approach the woman whom she did not know and suggest she get a one-piece suit. She went to her husband. She did not go around and ask every woman, every advertiser, every filmmaker, Facebook poster, or TV producer to create only modest images for her husband’s sake. She went to the one who loved her and asked him to love her by disciplining his eyes. And because he loved her, he did.

Another important move toward modesty within community is to express your concern to a friend, spouse, or child about what that person may be wearing. When I raised the topic of modesty on my own Facebook page, one of my students told this story:

A male friend of mine actually donated many of his jeans and bought new ones after a group of us were talking about modesty and several of the women said that his jeans were so tight as to be distracting. He’d bought them when they weren’t, but had gained muscle in his legs since the purchase. He heard, considered, and then acted. When he said he’d done so later, some of the girls thanked him.

Modesty is a communal discipline. It is also an expression of love in the agapic, self-giving sense: I will lay down my life for you. I will lay down my desire to look at other women. I will lay down my desire to wear these jeans. I will lay down my desire to flaunt my physicality. I will love you with my modesty.

Modesty depends, ultimately, on each of us; on the messages we choose to send out and on the messages we choose to allow in. The question is not “How do I avoid these images?” or “What clothing can I get away with?”but “How do I love?”:

  • When I am dressing for school, how do I love the 15-year-olds who will sit next to me in geometry class?
  • When I am surfing the Internet, how do I love my spouse—or child or friend or future spouse?
  • When I see someone dressed in a particularly immodest way, how do I lay down my life for that person?
  • How do I dress so that I express love for the strangers at the mall?

We practice modesty because we love. We love those who may not yet have the discipline of their eyes. We love our brothers and sisters who want to engage with us fully and without distraction. We love those whom we may eventually marry or to whom we are married by communicating that certain things are only for our beloved. And we love ourselves, not seeking acceptance in a display of six-pack abs or firm thighs but in the love of God for us. To discipline our eyes and our lives and our attire for the sake of another is modesty. And it is love.

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