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Modesty. A Sign of Respect for Men and Women.

November 6, AD 2012 27 Comments

So there I was at the train station minding my own business when a young lady walked past wearing a pair of tights. At least I think they were tights. It might have been black body paint for all I know, as it looked like she was wearing nothing at all below the waist. I have since been informed by a reliable source that tights are very much in fashion, which would explain why so many women seem to be getting around in them.

Now I am all for fashion, (after all it was in the name of fashion that I sold my maroon microfiber suit on eBay), but I question the appropriateness of an item of clothing that only serves to draw attention to the body and not the person. Regardless of why she was wearing the tights, as that young lady walked down the platform the message she sent was ‘don’t worry about who I am, just have a look at my body’. And that is exactly what an array of men did as they watched her move down the platform. I am certainly not stating that all men’s fashion is worthy of the human person either, but there is no question that women’s clothing that has the most tendency to be provocative.

Many women do not even seem to realise the extent to which their clothing is sending certain messages. A lot of this comes down to the way men and women are wired. For the most part men are visual creatures and they receive through the eyes. Women however are fed through imagery and story. Men understand what it is to notice a woman and immediately be drawn to her physical make up, but women do not instinctively respond in that way to men (even if trashy romance novels paint a different picture). This is the reason that in the traditional formation of young girls the teaching of modesty was an essential element. Because women do not have the same tendency to visually objectify a man’s body they do not naturally understand the need to dress in a way that introduces them first of all, and not their body.

Some years ago there was a terrible gang rape case in Australia by some Islamic young men. One of the local imams came out and instead of condemning the men, accused Australian women of inviting rape because of the way they dressed. His comments were highly offensive and inappropriate. Days of public commentary deriding the cleric asserted the right of women to dress as they pleased and the responsibility of men to control themselves. And the commentary was correct. No matter how a woman dresses or acts; it is never an invitation for a man to be sexually violent towards her. In his famed Sermon on the Mount, Jesus of Nazareth went a step further and called his hearers to a purity of heart saying that the man who even lusts after a woman has already committed adultery with her in his heart. The point is a real man is one at all times, in thought and in action.

Even though this imam was completely out of place, the essence of his comment was that the way a woman dresses has an impact on men and to ignore that is to be foolishly unaware of the reality. We all know deep down how we should act but we also sense the very human struggle to act as we should. If I am inviting a friend who struggles with alcohol to my house for dinner, I am not going to offer him a beer as he walks through the door and an array of fine wines with the meal. To do that would be cruel to him and it would not be showing genuine sensitively for his particular struggle. I would be well within my rights to have the alcohol flowing throughout the meal but I certainly could not be called a true friend. We do not become better people simply doing what feels good; we become better people by being increasingly more aware of those around us.

I am sure the young lady walking down that train platform was a lovely woman. But by wearing clothes that detract from her personality and focus men on her body alone, she risks drawing only the attention of those who are interested in her body instead of allowing them to encounter the person within.

About the Author:

Bernard Toutounji is an Australian Catholic writer and speaker. He writes a fortnightly column called Foolish Wisdom ( which examines afresh issues within news, culture or faith. One of Bernard’s favourite quotes comes from Edith Stein who said “All those who seek truth seek God whether this is clear to them or not”. Bernard is married to Jane and they have two daughters.

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  • Dear Bernard,

    Temptation has always been with us and always will be. If you feel tempted, don’t blame the temptress. Instead, praise God that you’ve been tempted, yet you’ve resisted.

    To follow your argument to its logical conclusion makes a strong case for the hijab. Congratulations. And praise God.

    Yours in Christ,


  • I don’t think you really read my article very closely. It is not to do with temptation as much as it is about respecting each other. I would not in any way advocate the complete covering up of people, that is more a sign of rejecting the body. Virtus in medio stat – In the centre lies virtue.

  • I’ve read your article again, this time very carefully, to see if I’ve indeed misread it or have drawn the wrong conclusions.

    To me your message is loud and clear. Based on your salient point (that women should be more careful with the messages they’re sending) and especially your examples (rape, alcohol, “men will be men,” etc.) puts the “blame” for the supposed “wrong messaging” clearly on the sender. You not only completely absolve the recipient of the message, you’ve presented a number of ready-made excuses.

    If you want to write a truly balanced article that emphasizes the connection between choice of dress and respect, maybe you should also talk about the responsibility of those receiving the signals, not just the ones supposedly sending them.

  • Amy

    I’m a women who agrees whole heartedly with your article. I have often wondered why women disrespect themselves and then complain why men disrespect them. If a women puts herself on display, why does she not expect men to look, whistle, comment, etc.? I struggle to raise my two very young daughters to understand this! Does a women dressing immodestly give a man the right to disrespect her? Absolutely not! But the women is disrespecting herself, men, and especially other women by objectifying herself. It makes it appear all women enjoy that kind of attention. At the same time, men and women both need to remember what parents have always taught their two year olds–two wrongs don’t make a right. By disrespecting the women simply because she is disrespectful will never rectify the situation.

  • My goodness, aren’t we all judgmental today! Full of interpretation about why a hypothetical woman, one we don’t know or have even seen, dresses the way she does. I believe you’re all neglecting the fact that “modest/immodest” are highly subjective, open to interpretation and very much dependent on context.

    You are absolutely correct, Amy. Can I make a suggestion? That we follow what Jesus taught us and not stand in judgment of others? To show tolerance, understanding and, most of all, love for others regardless of how they dress (of all things!!!).

  • buckyinky

    Hi Leo,

    How were you able to come to the conclusion that a suggestion was in order to “follow what Jesus taught us and not stand in judgment of others” without yourself making judgments? You appear to be inconsistent in a significant way.

    • Judgments = subjective value statements based on interpretive assumptions. These are what Amy and Bernard have written about the way a woman dresses, saying that by doing so she “doesn’t have respect for herself” and that she should expect to be objectified (in other words, “she’s asking for it”).

      Fact = my statement that Amy and Bernard are making subjective value statements based on interpretive assumptions (in other words, “judgments”).

      • buckyinky

        Wait, wasn’t your conclusion that they were being judgmental (“My goodness, aren’t we all judgmental today!”) rather subjective? That they were being judgmental is not a mere matter of fact, but based on interpretive assumptions. I did not, for one, interpret them as being judgmental, but as sharing reasonable opinions.

        You still appear to be selectively applying your criteria so as only to come down in your own favor.

  • Elizabeth

    Encouraging young women to dress modestly to avoid leading their brothers into temptation tends to leave girls feeling ashamed and dirty. I would much rather see modesty taught to both boys and girls as a virtue which protects the dignity of the human person. Too often, modesty is reduced to a “wear this, not that” lecture.

    • buckyinky

      Hi Elizabeth,

      Another perspective is that seeing what many girls and women choose to wear in our society makes me feel ashamed and dirty. When a boy or a man brings this up, usually right on his heels is someone telling him that the matter is simply his problem that he’s got to deal with (see Leo Salazar in this conversation, or pretty much any Catholic blog having a post dealing with women and dress). Or there is often an unfounded accusation about wanting simply to control women and see them oppressed by holding them to unfair and suffocating standards. The ever-ready accusation of oppressing women has its own soft tyranny to hold over the head of any man who dares to question societal orthodoxies.

      I think I understand your concern about leaving girls feeling ashamed and dirty when addressing the topic. This touches on relating to girls in an appropriate and effective way. But why is it a good thing for me to know that talking to girls about the effect their choice in dress has on boys might cause them feelings of shame and dirtiness, but a bad thing for girls to know that their choice in dress might cause feelings of shame and dirtiness in boys?

      • Elizabeth

        I know men carry a heavy burden and often hide their temptation to lust out of shame. I don’t think boys should be saddled with guilt because they are inclined to look at a girl who is dressed immodestly; I just think the way modesty is taught often does more damage than good. The vast majority of women are terribly conscious of every flaw their body carries. Like I said, I think modesty should be taught to both genders *primarily* as a virtue rather than as a specific dress code. You could teach the virtue by teaching young people to celebrate and respect their sexuality rather than shaming them. A young girl who has a healthy sense of respect for her body will naturally be inclined to dress appropriately I think.
        As with all sensitive subjects, education about modesty is the responsibility of the parents. Children will imitate what they see. A mother who carries herself with dignity and respects her husband and a father who cherishes his wife’s interior and exterior beauty are the best education a child could ever have.

      • buckyinky

        Thanks Elizabeth. I suspect we are quite in agreement about much of this, though I admit that I am mystified as to what being terribly conscious of every flaw in one’s body has to do with covering oneself in an appropriate and modest fashion. It would seem to me that if this was the case with most women, they would embrace very happily the concept of appropriate covering in dress, which would tend to cover perceived flaws and put them out of one’s mind as being publicly scrutinized. Instead I see quite the opposite. I would expect, for instance, that a woman would want to draw attention away from bulging midriffs, but instead I often see clothing worn that accentuates these. I just don’t get it.

        I agree that more instruction should be given emphasizing virtue as positive. At the same time, there is no getting around having to address specific dress codes at times. The place for delineating dress codes is not in an internet combox, granted, but then I can’t say I’ve really seen that happening. Mr. Toutounji isn’t doing that here, but only found it helpful to mention the dress of one particular woman by way of anecdote in supporting his argument. He couldn’t establish, much less enforce, a dress code from his keypad even if he wanted to.

        Thanks again for your response.

  • I am left aback with this discourse about modesty. Millions are homeless, hundreds of thousands starving for a lack of food, disabled shuttered into institutions, child sexual abuse is rampant without abuser remorse, churches laden with gold, lace and money…and people are troubled by modesty. Priority are quite askew…leave human biological imperatives to themselves. Care for those who need care and forget about how people dress.

    • I am left taken aback about your discourse about priorities. You who openly condemn those concerned about “lesser issues” consider it a wise use of your time and resources to concern yourself with this! Care for those who need care and forget about how people concern themselves about modesty.

  • Bruno

    I been thinking about it.

    While I know it is my business not to lust, some women just make it harder. Some do it knowingly, unaware that being desired is not being loved, but they should know it’s like walking around with a plate of sirloin steaks around hungry beggars.

    Sure, hijab is extreme. But mind you, in other times Christians cherished the veil too.

    • P. McCoy

      Why don’t you move to Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia if you like women dressed up as mummies. Even there and under the clothing restrictions men cannot control themselves. If you have such a lack of self control as it comes to women are you a RAPIST in waiting maybe it should be a law to circumscribed YOUR freedom, not how a woman chooses to dress.

  • Marie

    A lot of women I know dress “hot” because they want to look “hot.” They know full well why they are dressing this way and it is a shame. I am not judging, I am merely repeating what I’ve heard said.

    Men are inclined to visual stimulation. I assume most women know this. A woman can dress modestly without wearing a sack over her body. Clothes can be tailored and nicely fitting without looking sexy. Think of the difference between Donna Reed and Pamela Anderson — two very attractive women who come across in two very different ways. I’m not saying we should dress like the fifties and Donna Reed, but I can’t think of someone in pop culture right now who exhibits the dignity of dress of which I’m thinking.

    Would you show up at a friends AA meeting with a can of beer? No. Recovering alcoholics must fight temptation day in and day out, but why make it harder? Why tempt men with clothing that is barely more than lingerie.

    We all have a responsibility — men and women alike. Men should do their best and fight the temptation to linger on the visions and accompanying thoughts, women should theirr best and not walk around with their boobs half out and an inch of fabric between your backside and thigh.

    Where has common sense gone??

    • Ink and Quill

      Agreed wholeheartedly. I have a rule of thumb I use, being a college student: if someone compliments my outfit (like my skirt or my socks, two of my often-distinctive pieces), I must have dressed nicely! If someone compliments my figure, however (like my legs or something; it has happened, college boys don’t always have a filter), I’m doing something wrong somewhere and should probably add an inch to my skirt or wear thicker tights or taller socks. I dress to call attention to and to flatter myself and my personality, not to my body or figure.


  • wife

    My husband has been propositioned at the gym. He has been blesses with a beautiful body. I wouldn’t dream of asking him to stop wearing his work out gear. Perverts are perverts. He tells me that he *never* takes the second look at women, even if he is tempted to. He calls it a “sweet and fragrant offering to God and to our love.” I’m the luckiest woman on earth.

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  • io

    This guy wants to talk about what attracts women? Clearly he has no idea, or he would realize that a man who fusses and whines about tights what girls are wearing these days and ain’t it shocking is about as a sexually attractive to a woman as his own grandmother.

    No wonder Catholics aren’t getting married. I’d rather stay chaste forever.

  • io

    Oh, and if you really wanted to see this woman as a person and not as a pair of tights, why didn’t you smile and say hello, reminding yourself internally that she’s someone’s daughter, sister and possibly wife or mother, instead of seething inwardly and writing an article about how much you objectfied her?

  • P. McCoy

    You support a TALIBAN culture ; a slippery slope from so called repression of women to dress as they please to one where women would be removed from colleges and the workplace. YOU. want women to be disposable breeders or disposable breeders to be locked up at home. When the young people learn the hidden goals of fanatics Protestant and Catholic the more they will cease to side with you as they do now. True, many will go along just as Islam has converts but the majority of Americans won’t buy it once you’re exposed as the opponents to American liberty.

  • Tronmartin

    I disagree with the statement that women do not respond to a man’s physical appearance. They most certainly do. Their reaction may be less bolder than a man’s reaction but they can not turn their hormones off. There are hidden camera videos of women checking out men’s bulges in their groin area and taking long looks. I can not tell you how many times, since I was old enough to understand, girls and women have made comments on a man’s physical appearance. “Oh, he’s hot”, “He’s got a cute butt.” “He’s gorgeous..” “Wow, what a bod…” This is also why the male stripper industry makes millions of dollars a year off women who “….do not instinctively respond the way men do…” Are you kidding. Women get away with doing a lot more to a man’s body during strip shows than men ever did when women strip. Women have always been this way. It’s just that there have always been strong restrictions on men’s and women’s behavior by the church, which was more powerful in the early days of our country. Those restrictions are gone now and men and women can be themselves.

  • Sarah Birchmore

    Dear Bernard,

    You and most of the ignorant in our society are part of the problem because you are not looking at, or studying and analysing the right person in this situation. Look to the rapist, look at his actions and walk each case through. Firstly ask yourself this. Why would a man want to have sex with a woman against her will, for most healthy men this would be a turn-off. A rapist does not care, in-fact it is exactly this that arouses him. It is the situation that arouses him not the woman. The woman may or may not be the type of woman that he would like to have sex with, to have as a partner either long or short term but it is not this that is arousing him, it is having sex in a way that asserts himself over her. It gives him an ego trip, power. The power comes from having sex with the woman he wants regardless of her wishes, besides torturing, humiliating her or killing her, you can not get more powerful than this in an initmate /sexual way.