The Challenge of Authentic Modesty–5 Things to Do. 1 Thing to Avoid.

Patheos blogger Jennifer Fitz invited me to respond to her comments about my analysis of the so-called “Princeton modesty study.”   My original post is here (and is rather cheekily titled, “Women in Bikinis May More Easily Avoid Potentially Abusive Partners, Study Says?).    Jennifer’s response is here.  Go read.

All caught up?  There’s a good fellow.

I want to start by saying that I agree pretty much with everything Jennifer wrote.  I agree that modesty is not just in internal disposition but an outward action.    I agree that what I wear and how I carry myself does, in fact, say a great deal about who I am inside. I also agree that it DOES in fact matter what a person wears (just not for the reasons many people think).  I also agree, of course,  that actions have consequences that I can be responsible for.

Where Do We Disagree?

So why do we seem to disagree?  It appears to me that I need to clarify the definition of “internal control fallacy.”  An internal control fallacy is the false belief that my actions actually cause another person’s emotional reactions.  (For more information on the internal control fallacy, see the last part of #7 here).  The internal control fallacy is a well-established concept in psychology and there is a great deal of research that all but proves that this belief leads to unhealthy emotional states and unhealthy relationships.  In my original post, I argued that the notion,  “if a woman dresses immodestly she can cause a man to commit the sin of lust” is an example of the internal control fallacy that leads to both an unhealthy internal disposition and an unhealthy attitude toward others.

Jennifer appears to think I am suggesting that a person should not expect his actions to have consequences.  She writes.

An employer can reasonably say, “Sir, your dress is immodest, and unbecoming of a man of your profession.  If you’d like to continue working here, you’ll have to change.”

A man can reasonably tell his son, “My beloved child, that outfit you’ve chosen is associated with pimps and crack dealers.  Is that the message you’d like to send with your clothing?”

A girl can reasonably tell her suitor, “You look like a creep.  Like the kind of guy who just wants to hop in the sack at the first opportunity.  That may not be the message you’re trying to send, but you’re sending it.”

I actually agree that these are all reasonable possible outcomes of someone dressing immodestly.  I would even say that they are appropriate responses to someone dressing immodestly.  BUT all of these are very different from saying, for instance, that a woman dressing in a certain way must necessarily cause a man to lust.  Or, for that matter that one person’s actions automatically cause another person to feel any specific emotion.

Let me explain.

Where Do Feelings Come From?

Most people think that feelings are created as an emotional response to an external stimulus.  That is, something happens, and then it makes me feel something.  Stimulus——-> Emotional Response.

But that’s not how feelings work.

For anyone to experience an emotion, there does have to be a stimulus, but that stimulus passes through an interpretation.  The stimulus, combined with the interpretation, yields an emotional response.     Stimulus + Interpretation ——-> Emotional Response.


An Illustration of How Feelings Work:  Going to the Mall.

Let’s take a silly example before we return to the modesty discussion.  Imagine you go to the mall.  You see your friend, you wave at him but he doesn’t wave back.  That is the stimulus.  Now, how do you feel about it?

At this point, we can’t know how you’ll feel.  First, we have to know your interpretation of that event before we can say how you’d feel.   For example:  If you said to yourself, “Oh.  I guess he didn’t see me.”  Then you’d feel nonchalant and you’d probably forget about it.  But what if you think to yourself, “What a jerk!  He totally blew me off!”   You’d probably feel indignant.  Or if you told yourself, “Gosh, I wonder what I did to offend him?  I must have really ticked him off somehow!”  you’d probably feel guilty and anxious.  Or, if you thought, “He must really be stressed out and lost in his head to not notice me.  I wonder what’s wrong with him, poor guy.”  You’d feel compassionate and concerned.

So we have at least 4 possible emotional reactions (and I bet we could think of more if we tried) to the stimulus of my friend not waving at me.

Where Do Interpretations Come From?

None of this answers the question, “Where do these interpretations come from?”    They are largely not conscious.  Rather, they come from past experience and/or training & practice.  For example: If I was treated as a pariah in grade school, I’ll probably assume my friend was blowing me off.  If I was, in general, popular in grade school, I’ll probably view the experience nonchalantly.  If I was raised by a mom who, when she got stressed out, shut herself in her room, I’ll probably assume there’s something wrong with him.  Or if my alcoholic dad told me that his rages were caused by my playing in the house too loudly, I’ll probably assume I caused him to ignore me because of something I did.

The other possible answer for where these interpretations come from is “training and practice.”  For example:  If I was a pariah in grade school and naturally tend to assume that people are prone to ignore me, I could decide that  I’m not in grade school any more and work hard to consistently remind myself that my default reaction doesn’t apply anymore, and that, in fact, most people who seem to ignore me really just didn’t see me.  If I remind myself of this new interpretation consistently enough and root it in actual life experiences that back this new interpretation up (which makes this different than mere “positive thinking”  I have to be able to prove the new thought is true by rooting it in real life examples) then I will prime my brain to have a new automatic reference point (these new life experiences) by which to interpret the particular stimulus.

In every instance though, the mere fact that my friend didn’t wave at me didn’t cause anything.  It merely reminded me of similar experiences in my past, memories which primed my brain to interpret things in a certain, idiosyncratic manner.    Because we all tend to narcissistically assume that our interpretations are the only legitimate ones that any reasonable person could make, we tend to assume that everyone will react the same way we do.  But that isn’t true at all.  Because a person’s actual emotional response depends more upon the interpretations they make of an event based upon their unique catalog of life experiences, you simply can’t know absolutely how someone is going to respond.

It is true that we all make assumptions about how other people might respond to us, and since we have a tendency to associate with people who think more like us than not, often, those assumptions are more or less correct–until they’re not.  And then we get outraged and say things like, “How could anybody think THAT? I have no idea where you got that from!”  Well, of course you don’t, because you don’t have the same catalog of life experiences, the same reference points of interpretation that the other does.  We assume we know what others will think based on our own experiences, and sometimes those assumptions are true enough, but if you stop to ask the other people in your life what they actually think you’d be surprised how differently they view the world.  The truth is, what you believe other people think says a whole lot more about your own life experiences and interpretations than it does about anyone else’s.  Incidentally, this notion is what we shrink-types call. “projection.”

Back to Modesty

OK, so now that we’ve established that any one stimulus could generate any number of emotional responses based upon a person’s life experiences and/or training, let’s come back to the modesty discussion.   It is simply not true to say that anything a woman wears MUST create THIS SPECIFIC RESPONSE (i.e., lust) in a man.  That is just one possible response out of hundreds.  If a man was taught by his life experience and training that women were meat, then if he saw a woman dressed in a revealing fashion, he probably would lust. (i.e., allow her beauty to be an invitation to use her as an object as opposed to see her as a person).  AND, if a man was raised to believe that the body was shameful and that women who dressed in a revealing way were sluts and whores, he would probably feel disgust and indignation, possibly even rage.

But a man who was raised in a home where his parents taught him to think this way about women, would respond in a manner that indicated his respect for the woman.  Depending on whether the woman in question was dressed more or less appropriately for the context she was in, he might be moved to either praise God for her beauty or try to serve her in some way as a sign of his respect (hold the door, get her a drink, give her an honest compliment).  If she was dressed inappropriately for the context she was in he might be moved to pity and a loving concern for her well-being (offer his jacket, take her aside to see what was the matter).  In either case though, for this well-trained man, the woman’s beauty becomes an invitation to love her and work for her good, not to see her as an object of desire or disgust.  This, by the way,  is exactly what Pope John Paul II wrote in Love and Responsibility about how we should train ourselves and our children to think when we are confronted with the beauty of the opposite sex.   And before you say that this is too pie-in-the-sky idealistic, I personally know many men who were raised this way and who do view women in this manner.  I admit we are in the minority, but we exist, and it is unfair to assume that all men are dogs or pigs just because some or many weren’t raised properly.  It is even more inappropriate to fail to try to be men or raise men who can think this way because “it just isn’t possible.”  The fact that some men are this way proves that it is possible.

Assuming and Challenging Others to Be Their Best

More to the point, Christians have a responsibility in charity to assume the best about others and challenge each other to be their best.  God knows that pleasure can be abused but he still gives us pleasures, not in some nasty attempt to trap us in sin, but as an ongoing invitation to see life as his gift to us.  In the same way, our beauty certainly can be a temptation to sin, but it could also be an invitation to rejoice in how fearfully and wonderfully God has made us (c.f., Ps 139:14)!  We have an obligation to extend the invitation to rejoice in God that is contained within beauty, not hide that invitation out of fear that someone might abuse it (c.f., Matt 25:14-30).

So, am I saying that a woman, or man for that matter, should dress any damn way they want without regard for anyone around them?  Should we all parade around naked defying the world to look upon us with purity of mind and heart?  Of course not.  We are all fallen.  Even though we can’t cause feelings in another person, we know that acting in a certain manner tends to create a certain set of emotional choices for most people, given what is expected in a particular context. Modesty requires that we dress in a manner that we deem appropriate for the context we are in and in a way that is not intended to make it unduly difficult for any reasonable person to see anything other than our physical appearance.  But that leaves a lot to prudential judgment and much more than most people who are concerned with modesty are willing to admit.

Teaching Authentic Modesty in 5 Steps

Training our young people to be modest should not be based upon some fallacious guessing game about how other people might or might not see them or an impossible concern about what they might or might not “cause” in someone else.   To my mind,  this kind of thinking is an offense against both charity and beauty.  It is an offense against charity because it assumes the worst about people and does not challenge them to be better than they are.  It is an offense against beauty because it causes us to be fearful of beauty instead of embracing and rejoicing in beauty and seeing it as a sign of the joy we will experience when we look at God’s own face.

Rather than adopting a punitive, Jansenistic worldview rooted in shame, a profanation of the sacredness of the body, and a fear of pleasure, training our children to be modest–authentically modest–should be based on….

1.   teaching them to have a deep and sincere prayer life

2.  teaching them how to have a personal relationship with Christ that gives them a felt sense of their own worth and the worth of others

3.  helping them cultivate an ability to rejoice in  beauty wherever it may be found

4.  conveying an ethos that encourages them to always try to work for the good of others

5.  educating them in a general sense of how most people dress in various contexts (church, the beach, the mall, etc.).

Focus on these extraordinarily important lessons and modesty will largely take care of itself.  Immodesty is merely a symptom that one of these things is missing, and you can’t fix an absence of either a personal relationship with Jesus Christ or self-donative moral ethos by putting on a sweater.

For more information on raising sexually whole and holy kids, check out Beyond the Birds and the Bees (2nd ed. rev.)

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