Sunday, August 26, 2012

Women's Wear: What Should Be Revealed—and What Shouldn't

Our culture has some double-think going on when it comes to what we wear. We have an incredible increase in raciness with a simultaneous denial that it’s of any significance. Anyone who questions it is labeled a prude. But if it’s really so insignificant, why do so many ads take full advantage of it?

Surrounded by immodesty, often we recognize it only when it’s extreme. I've heard that the definition of a slob is “anyone messier than yourself”. It would seem that we define immodesty in a similar way: it's what those people wear, on the screen, on billboards, or in magazines. But think about it: what used to be the hallmarks of a prostitute only 30 years ago is the fashion of today.

So, although as Christians we know our culture’s morals are shrinking steadily, we have to be aware that our culture still influences us. And if we merely avoid what society considers to be immodest, we will not be modest enough. We must “not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of [our] mind[s]” (Rom 12:2).

Moreover, men's minds work differently than women's in this area, so women need some enlightening. In addition to what I mentioned here last week, there's also the matter of what psychologists call “visual closure”. This is the mind's ability, when presented with a partial picture of something, to fill in the gap.

Something similar can happen to a man when he's given too much information about a woman's figure. For instance, when a woman sees another woman wearing a low-cut, strapless dress, she'll just see what's in front of her: the face, the bare shoulders and arms, and the dress. But a man's mind, on the other hand, might automatically leap to what the rest of the bare torso probably looks like.

So between our cultural astigmatism and this imagination dissimilarity, many of us need a little help in recognizing immodesty. Here are some factors to keep in mind.

Three Factors of Immodesty

The skin factor is what we usually think of when it comes to “immodesty.” But it’s made light of now because standards have changed so much in the past century. While in our culture the sight of a mere ankle is no longer titillating, a lot of visible skin is still suggestive. Too much information yields too much imagination.

But immodesty isn't merely a matter of showing too much skin. In fact, other factors can be more alluring. Some women look more immodest in a pair of snug pants than in a bathing suit. Why? Well, pants can accentuate the shape while hiding imperfections. Which brings us to the next factor...

The shape factor is the kind of immodesty most commonly overlooked by Christian women today. I suspect this is due to the fact that the male imagination can be lightning-fast in this department, whereas the female imagination in this area is usually slow or even requires a push.

Low-cut tops and mini-skirts aren’t the only triggers: for countless men, form-fitting pants and tops are also triggers. And “form-fitting” doesn’t just mean “tight”. We need to expand our notion of what is "revealing" to include what reveals one’s shape.

Anything that emphasizes the lower half of a womanly curve (in front or back) is probably too shape-revealing. Unfortunately, nowadays, this includes a large proportion of pants and tops.

Clingy, silky materials are also suggestive even without being close-fitting. (Hence their use in lingerie.)

The accessibility factor is also frequently overlooked. It’s what makes a mini-skirt immodest when shorts the same length would be fine. “Accessible” clothing requires only a minor cause to reveal key areas of the body. We can't be naive about how music videos, racy movies, and pornography have exacerbated the unfavorable tendencies of the post-Eden male imagination.

Even items that only appear to be accessible—such as “skooters”—are problematic. Many a man won’t realize they include shorts. He sees what appears to be a mini-skirt, and the accessibility factor kicks in.

Now if you've gone shopping anytime in the last ten years, you may be feeling some dismay about the possibility of finding any clothes without one of these factors, especially for the younger generation. I know! I have five daughters—and the only who's easy to buy clothes for is the five-month-old.

But don't despair or conclude it's impossible. Next week, I'll discuss the practicalities of dressing modestly.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Mutually Clueless

I was in my 30s before I learned that the image I had of myself as a decent dresser (i.e., modest) was naïvely mistaken. I didn’t understand why even ordinary attire could evoke lecherous looks or darting glances. It’s not as simplistic as what I used to think: that certain men were lustful creeps, and others were mature. Rather, the vast majority of men—whether they manifest it outwardly or not—are affected by the same phenomenon. The fact is the sight of a female form has a much greater effect on a man than most women would guess. A woman wearing typical jeans and a T-shirt can be more tantalizing than she realizes.
     Human beings all have “buttons”. Certain buttons are standard (just about everyone has them); others are not. Some buttons are more sensitive or powerful on some individuals than they are on others. But we all have them. That’s what makes us different from the angels.
    Angels are persons—they have a mind and a will—but, being pure spirit, have no body. So they are not subject as we are to the pressures coming from appetites, or chemical imbalances, or hormones, or fatigue, illness, pain, etc.
     Animals have bodies as we do, but neither free will nor rational mind. They have stronger instincts, which guide their actions (though experiences and training can also influence them).
     We are, in the words of John Paul II, “embodied spirits”. Like the angels, we have a rational mind and free will; we have immortal souls; however, like the animals, we also have bodies. And that means we also have instincts and feelings and a whole host of other things impacting our desires and attitudes. The difference is that—unlike a robot or an animal—we have a free will. So we can choose not to obey an instinct or feeling. (Not that that means it’s easy to do so.)
     The key point here is that men and women have some buttons that differ. That is, either men have some buttons that women don’t and vice-versa, or at least if both sexes have the same buttons, then certain buttons are protected by a glass cover and thus are much less accessible on one gender than on the other.
    That certainly is the case when it comes to immodesty: seeing someone of the opposite sex dressed immodestly has a much bigger impact on men than on women. That’s why whenever the voluptuous girl-rabbit comes along, Bugs Bunny’s eyes bulge out and he stumbles around as though he’s under a spell.
    It’s as though the difference here is God’s way of continuing our species: He gave the husbands a very sensitive visual-stimulus button. Before the fall, I imagine, only the sight of one’s wife would set it off, but since original sin threw our body-mind-soul equilibrium out of whack, just about any woman can activate it. That’s why humans started wearing clothes in the first place.
     It’s like a  trigger. Humans have certain physiological triggers: "mouth-watering" foods really do trigger the production of saliva. The mere smell of bacon triggers a release of digestive enzymes. And the power of chocolate over most women is proverbial. Likewise, seeing the female form is a trigger stimulating a chemical reaction in a man’s brain.*
     And this particular trigger is usually pretty powerful. It’s like a high-energy young dog: even when he’s asleep, if you rattle his leash, he’ll leap up and race to the door, ready to go.
     It’s such a strong and quick stimulant that the sight of an immodestly dressed woman may even involuntarily conjure up in a man’s mind an image of how she looks unclothed. If he’s seen pornography (and most men have),
that will only intensify the reaction.
     In fact, often he can avoid this only by immediately looking away and thinking hard about something else. This takes a great deal of self-control, and really, grace. Without grace, why would he even want to do that? Only with a sufficiently close relationship to God and a well-formed conscience would he even bother. But even then, especially in a culture full of arousing images, he needs a lot of prayer and grace to do so.
     (How difficult daily life must be for many virtuous men, when sometimes every fifth or sixth person they see obliges them to exercise this self-control. For a woman, it would be like being on a diet with every sixth person she passes wafting a tray of chocolate truffles under her nose.)
     All this will come as quite an eye-opener to many women. Most are unaware of this trigger
—or at least how potent it isbecause we rarely experience it ourselves. Moreover, it isn’t socially acceptable for a man to show his reaction, so it’s often not apparent what’s going on in his mind. Thus, many women are fairly clueless about what they’re doing. A great many who consider themselves "good girls" are actually tempting men to sin, while being quite unaware of it.
     Meanwhile, many men don't realize just how clueless women are. In fact, some men think women have the same trigger. Such men conclude that an immodestly dressed woman wants to be ogled at. After all, there are other women who purposely dress immodestly to attract attention, fully aware of the effect. Other men do realize that many women are naïve about this but don't realize how naïve. 

      So ladies, when you open the closet in the morning, make sure you don't pick an outfit that's of the leash-rattling variety. As to what clothes fit that description, we'll have to save that for another post. 

     *Dr. Judith Reisman has written and testified before state and federal committees on the “psychopharmacology” of viewing pornography, which releases a number of chemicals in the brain. In an email to me, she wrote: “Anything that applies to images on a page applies to images walking down the street” (Mar. 14, 2005). See “The Psychopharmacology of Pictorial Pornography Restructuring Brain, Mind, and Memory” available at her website:
      †Unfortunately, with the prevalence of internet porn nowadays, it’s a problem even among Christians: according to Family Safe Media, 53% of survey respondents at an event nearly ten years ago for Promise-Keepers (Christian men dedicated to marital fidelity) admitted looking at Internet porn in the previous week.

Monday, August 13, 2012

A Priceless Pearl

          to my mother

Your love is a pearl in my life.

Creamy as a pearl is your love,
cream-like in color and character. 
A love both lush and live-giving.
Though mother's milk could not continue,
the cream of your love never curtailed:
rather it gushed a rich river
nourishing my soul.

Hard like a pearl,
durable as rock,
your love could not be crushed 
by contrariness or calamity.
Rather its roundness
allowed it to roll through the troubles
that rumble and roar in every life.

Precious the pearl of your love,
how precious to me;
without which I would not have lived,
sustaining me through sorrow,
enriching my soul,
and grandest of all:
engraining the image, and
mirroring in miniature,
that I might perceive
the Pearl of Great Price.

Not merely a pearl-like love,
but a maker of pearls.
For mothers are pearlmakers;
the Maker of All made them that way.
To take what to any other 
is just another
grain of sand
from an endless expanse of sands
and encompass it with affection, 
surround it with devotion,
transforming its annoyances,
coating them, rolling them
over and over in love,
and shaping that sand-speck
into a precious pearl.

And you yourself are a pearl.
When the time comes
for the shell of your life
to be cracked open,
The Great Pearl-Seeker
will dive into your heart 
and pluck out your soul.
He will hold it to the light
and admire its milky whiteness
and whisper, "Ah, priceless!"

And I must agree,
oh dearest:
my mother, of pearl.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Dreaming of the Day

Every once in a while, I have the same bad dream. 
     I find myself waiting in the wings as the curtain is about to rise on a play in which I'm to perform—only I don't know any of my lines. I think, "I'll just have to improvise"; then I realize I don't know the plot nor even the name of the play!
     I have another recurring dream with a similar theme: I'm back in school, and it's finals week. I'm sitting in a classroom, waiting to take the final for a course I forgot I had. Somehow the whole semester went by, and I only attended the first day. I guess I blew off the class so often I forgot I was even signed up for it. I have no notes, no study guide; I haven't read any material—I don't even know what the class is about.
     I've heard from others that they have similar dreams (for my musician husband, it's a concert, rather than a play, that he's to perform). Such dreams may arise from a fear of forgetting some duty in our hectic lives. But I wonder if they might be gentle reminders from above of that Big Day that awaits each one of us, when we'll meet Him face to face. A day that perhaps we're forgetting to prepare for.
      It's so easy to forget. Not only do we generally shy away from thinking of our own death, but we even have a hard time believing that it's really going to happen. Yes, yes, we know intellectually that we could go any day, but many of us don't act accordingly.
     Off the top of my head, I can think of several people I knew personally who died unexpectedly. There were the schoolmates in junior high and high school who were killed in car accidents. There was a neighbor in his forties, a runner who appeared to be in great shape—only one day he didn't come home from his run. He'd had massive heart attack. I knew two people—one a new friend in her 20s, the other an old family friend in her 70s—who died twenty years apart but in very similar circumstances: each was happy and excited, then, almost in mid-sentence, suddenly succumbed to a brain aneurism.
      Even when we know people who've died suddenly, the reality of one's own death can be so hard to grasp.
      When we still have unfulfilled hopes and dreams, we hold on to this life. But even if every day is a dreary drudgery, we still see life stretching out to the horizon. With either perspective, how hard it is to live for the next life; how hard it is pass up little comforts; how hard to delay gratification that long.
      St. Thomas Aquinas points out how stupid that is: “They must be esteemed to have lost their sense, who either pursuing abundance, or fearing lack of temporal goods, lose those which are eternal.” 
     What makes the saints extraordinary is their ability to perceive, believe, and live out spiritual truth, not to be taken in by the illusion of permanence. St. Clare of Assisi reminds us: “Our labor here is brief, but the reward is eternal. Do not be disturbed by the clamor of the world, which passes like a shadow. Do not let the false delights of a deceptive world deceive you.”
      St. Paul frequently urges us not to let our minds get fogged up by the day-to-day trivialities that are always clamoring for our attention. “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col 3:2). Instead, we should prepare ourselves: “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable” (1 Cor 9:24).
      Fr. Martin Connor, a wonderful speaker and retreat master, once told us that each year he sets himself a “death-day”. He picks a day some 6 to 9 months off and thinks of it as if the doctor told him that's how long he has to live. It helps him keep his priorities straight.
      How does one prepare for that day? What spiritual and relational and temporal matters need to be addressed? If you knew you had only a week, what would you make sure to do?
      St. Dominic Savio was only a youth when he died, but he had already figured this out. When he and a couple companions playing soccer were asked by St. John Bosco what they would do if they learned that they would die the next day, his answer was unique. One boy said he'd run to confession, another that he would spend time before the Blessed Sacrament. Dominic replied that he would keep on playing soccer.
      He wasn't callous—he was prepared. He had already attended to his spiritual duties, and earthly duties, so he was free to enjoy a little recreation (another—though lesserduty).
     Dominic didn't see any need to stop playing soccer, as he believed it to be God's will for him to play soccer right thenand he had dedicated himself to doing God's will at all times.
      Perhaps that is the secret to being prepared.