On Protectors, Predators – and Prey

Maybe it was watching Miley Cyrus’s recent metamorphosis from American sweetheart into one more mostly naked walking docudrama. Or maybe it was the fact that blazing summer is now upon us, and with it the usual question of how much uncovering might be too much. Either way, it was immediately interesting when two pieces about girls and clothes independently found their ways to my inbox the other week.

One, “Grace in All Faiths,” is by journalist and blogger Ashley Samelson; and the other, “A Modest Proposal,” is by Mary Anne Moresco for the National Catholic RegisterBoth short essays concern a subject one doesn’t often hear of these days, in Catholic or other circles: modesty.

Samelson’s is an entertaining but also feeling account of a rite of passage that many young women today will never know – namely, the search for a real wedding dress. The Church itself, says the author (a Catholic convert), requires that brides agree in writing to wear a dress neither low-cut nor strappy; but no such desires influence the dressmaking industry. “Strapless and plunging are in,” she observes of the store-bought offerings, and “covering up on one’s wedding day is not.” In the end, this bride-to-be opted for a dress made from scratch – by an Afghani Muslim seamstress, ironically, who guessed that her customer was some kind of religious girl, because no others buck the current trend.

Samelson grasps something that the exhibitionists of the world do not (though voyeurs may): women who bare too much are ultimately sabotaging themselves: “When women draw attention to their bodies, they are asking to be defined by their bodies, and at some point, they will find themselves treated as if they were nothing more than a body.”

Of course there is such a thing as natural beauty, which like most other human gifts is distributed with seeming rank unfairness. It may even be – as W.B. Yeats put it in “For Anne Gregory” – that some women are simply so beautiful that “only God” could love them for themselves alone. With all due respect to Yeats, though, the distinction between having beauty and abusing beauty is one that anybody stepping out on the street today will recognize. Say what you want about the complaining feminists of yesteryear with their flannel shirts and carpenter pants; at least they were consistent. It’s a lot harder to take outrage about boorish men seriously when the complainants are outdoors in their underwear.

Mary Anne Moresco opens her thoughtful essay with a recent stroll through a public school. Upon asking the vice principal why so many girls were so very undressed, she was told that the school was “too large” to enforce a dress code. Of course the school “wasn’t ‘too large’ for a host of other activities,” Moresco objects. “It wasn’t ‘too large’ for football, for soccer, for homecoming dances, for assemblies and frivolities of all sorts. It wasn’t ‘too large’ to teach a young girl how to navigate an automobile on the town roads.” But too large to succeed in the task of helping to protect girls from themselves, let alone from those who would actively prey on them. On that only, the public school like most others was apparently too big to succeed.

Moresco, too, makes the point that flaunting themselves hurts girls first and foremost: “The more a girl is protected from being viewed as an object, the more likely she will be viewed as a mysterious gift from heaven with hopes, joys, sorrows, talents, thoughts, feelings, likes, dislikes, and a precious personality all her own.” She includes several helpful suggestions, among them prayer, heightened monitoring of television and computers in the home, and making sure that parents dress modestly themselves. But one group she invoked in calling for help especially caught my eye: fathers.

Every man, after all, must at one or another time choose between the two most obvious roles open to him:  predator or protector. It is no exaggeration to say that for many, that choice is the most consequential of their lives. And that is exactly why this question of modesty and immodesty concerns much more than a mere public handwringing about today’s girls. At some point during the past decades, judging by the sartorial results we see today, a tipping point was reached.  More men stopped seeing themselves as protectors – and started seeing themselves as potential predators instead.

After all, girls aren’t undressing the way they do now to please each other. They’re doing it at least in part because some of the men in their lives are rewarding it – and because other men in their lives aren’t telling them otherwise.

All of which is to say that the costume freefall noted twice this June may have deeper roots than we yet understand. Perhaps today’s delaying of marriage and children, and the shrinking of the family itself, are having adverse impacts of their own on individual incentives. Maybe the perpetual and prolonged adolescence of many men today – the increasing absence of wives and children to protect in the first place – is one more factor pushing some to opt for predator rather than protector mode. And maybe, in turn, the knowledge that there are fewer real protectors out there is making some girls frantic for attention from the one place where they know they can count on it, the predator pool.

That may not be the only explanation for how yesterday’s adorable Disney girl – or any other – ends up stripping for the cameras before she’s even eighteen. But if we’re serious about understanding just how the story unfolds, it may be a theory worth stopping to think about.

Mary Eberstadt

Mary Eberstadt

Mary Eberstadt is a Senior Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute. Some of her previous The Catholic Thing columns (and columns by others in which her work is discussed) can be found here. She is the author of several books including It’s Dangerous to Believe and How the West Really Lost God.

  • Lee Gilbert

    How’s that daughter coming along, sport?
    Here’s what today’s Catholic father has to say on this subject, as indicated by his deeds: Look, it’s really regrettable that pornography comes pouring into my home every day. Terrible really. But unfortunately that’s the price my family has to pay so that I can be one of the guys, and be up to speed on what’s happening in the sports world. Howbout them Cubbies (Red Sox, Yankees)? A chaste and modest daughter? Sure, it’s be great, but I don’t want her living a sheltered life.
    Now, if one of the qualifications for being a bishop were not the ability to talk sports as opposed to, say, martyrdom, perhaps someone might say to fathers from the pulpit with the requisite tone and volume: AS A FATHER YOU EXIST FOR NO OTHER REASON THAN TO GIVE YOUR CHILDREN A SHELTERED AND HOLY LIFE; YOU HAVE NO MORAL OBLIGATION TO EXPOSE THEM TO TEMPTATIONS TO MORTAL SIN; YOU ARE GOING TO ANSWER TO GOD FOR THE CHASTITY OF YOUR DAUGHTERS…SOON.

  • Ars Artium

    From supermarket magazine racks to advertisements for ovies to mall posters and displays, immodesty is on display – and it is profitable. It will not end until large numbers of (preferably young) people complain and, if necessary, boycott these places. The first principle of commerce is profit; the thing to be avoided is financial loss. If demand for immodesty and soft pornography lessens, the producers will take notice. If not, they will continue to exploit our cultural decline.

  • Lauri Friesen

    Whence fathers?
    Just as girls and women are pushed to bare more, boys and men are told that they are unnecessary to the emotional well-being of women and children. If we want our men to be protectors, then we should ask them. Instead, we tell them that they are incapable of developing beyond their hormonal responses to females, and we will one day be free of even needing their contribution to fertility. That’s at least as sad as all those half-naked women out there.

  • Giuseppe

    Dressing down
    It is not only the baring of skin and the general sleaze of the modern “wardrobe”, it is the display on T-shirts and other apparel of the crude and the vulgar, the wearing of American flag-type shirts (should be flown not worn), and the disgusting display of the unkempt which can no longer be avoided in the public square.

    Walk into any Wal-Mart, for example, there you will find the teeming masses in flip-flops with dirty feet, still in their pajamas or otherwise clad in attire that is totally unsuitable for a public setting. Couple this with their hygenic deficiencies, to put it in euphemistic terms, that present health hazards to those of unfortunate enough to avoid close proximity and risk exposure to all sorts of diseases.

    Now, go back and watch any movie before 1960, say, and see how properly adults and children dressed. Today, so-called “dress codes” are laughable except for those at some Catholic schools where uniforms are required, and the military, which nonetheless has become more lax in enforcing strict regulations governing appearance.

    In blunt terms, what we are becoming is a nation of lazy, fat, vulgar slobs, and, in keeping with the idea that such traits are now considered virtues by many, the descent into further decadence and depravity is a certainty.

  • msamericanpatriot

    Science has already made it possible for men not to be needed in the “breeding” process. You take an egg from one female and the bone marrow of another female that is made into sperm. Combine them in a test tube and then insert into one of the females. YUCK!!

    I am tired of the depravity that is rampant in America today. I was not raised catholic but I was raised Christian. I was raised to “finish” dressing and to NOT have the if you got them flaunt them attitude. This has made me bitter and angry because I can not seem to find a decent man. Didn’t the Bible tell women to dress modestly. The only religion that has modestly dressed women it seem like is the Muslim one yet American women seen the burka and burkini as oppressive. They even bash the garment in the movie Sex in the City 2.

    I am 40 years old. I can not find a decent man and I highly doubt I will. Even my own father taught me along with my mother to dress modestly. I was preyed on as a child because I developed early sexually because I am developmentally disabled and only recently diagnosed as autistic. The one time I wore something low cut I was MISERABLE in it. It was a Bridesmaid’s gown and I was the ONLY one of the bridesmaids that “filled” out a certain part of the gown. It was all I could do to keep my left hand from jerking the neck line north.

    I question Miley Cyrus’s parents. They are supposed to be Christian. No decent Christian parents would raise their daughter to be a Babylonian whore. Therefore Billy Ray and his wife are NO Christians at all. As I see it they have given into the sins of the flesh not unlike the homosexuals and other sexual deviants that are running rampant in America today.

  • Modesty exists — you just have to know where to look for it
    In the heart of Mother Church there exists groups who are trying their downright best to instill modesty among our young people. Groups such as Challenger Girls Club or FIAT Girls Club are for young ladies 5th grade through HS. They support the efforts of parents to ensure they respect the body as a Temple of Holy Spirit.

    Temptations in the world make living this modesty extremely difficult, but not impossible. For instance, a young lady who helps out my family in the afternoons was married a little over a year ago. What an excellent example of modesty and purity she was for my children — 4 girls and 2 boys. She went to a vintage dress shop and purchased a wedding dress circa 1950. It was simple, sweet, modest and she was a beautiful blushing bride. My daughters, 12 yrs and younger, all mentioned how LOVELY she looked — a much more complimentary term for a bride than what is typically said.

    So, we are not completely lost…there are many of us who are trying really hard through the help of the Holy Spirit to keep this sense of modesty alive in the next generation.

  • Trish

    Somewhere between frumpy and scandalous…
    Part of the problem with what girls and women wear has to do with the limited availability of modest clothing for sale. If I had any talent for sewing, I could try making my own, but it’s not always cheaper to do that, and I just don’t have the time. So I have to shop high and low for age-appropriate clothing that works well on my body but that is also modest. It’s like hunting the mythical white unicorn sometimes, i.e. an exercise in futility. There may be great modest stuff out there, but it’s aimed at women in a more mature age bracket, whereas I’m in my late 20s and need to dress my age. I could dress modestly by taking the tomboy route and looking frumpy, but dressing like a guy just draws a different variety of negative attention.

    What we could really use in our society are modesty-minded designers who seek to make the most of women’s beauty in a modest way while avoiding frumpiness, who work to find the balance between joining the world in baring our skin and the other extreme of frumpiness. Without that balance, Catholic women really won’t be able to reach worldly women through the example of our clothing. If you “leave no mystery” like everyone else does, you say the Gospel doesn’t matter, while on the other hand if you’re frumpy, you tacitly preach that modesty = ugly, and no one will attracted to modesty. Neither is good.

    So I think that if we had designers making more modest but beautiful and feminine clothing so that modest options were in greater supply, it would be easier for those of us who do seek to dress appropriately, and it would render easier our job of preaching by example. If I at times, through frustratation in the hunt for modest options, want to throw up my arms in despair, those who aren’t as dedicated to dressing modestly are going to have an even harder time with not giving up.

  • Yezhov

    One That Thomas Missed
    A modest beautiful woman is the 6th argument for the existence of God.

  • msamericanpatriot

    But my problem is I am 40 and men that look for modestly dress women do not seem to exist. Since I am not catholic I cant go into the convent when my parents die, and I do not want my extended family to care for me because they have their own families to care for. I am unable to work due to my autism. It will probably be some sort of assisted care facility for me. At least I can sleep at night knowing that those who dress provocatively will be rotting in hell for giving into the sins of the flesh while I will be getting rewards for staying the course.

  • Ellen

    Sleepless Nights
    To Ms. AmericanPatriot: What a horrible thing to say. We should not take comfort in the sins of others or rejoice over their future (and current) sufferings. We should learn something from the disciples who, contrary to the will of our Lord, slept in the garden. As Christians, we are called to stay awake and pray for our lost sisters and brothers, not smile in slumber at the thought of their punishment.

  • msamericanpatriot

    Sometimes that is all we have to take comfort in. You have to remember society doesnt see the disabled as worthy of anything except being treated as children when we are adults. Jesus did. I remember hearing somewhere you live by the Bible you die alone. It is even more hauntingly true for the disabled. So taking comfort in the sins of others is the only form of pleasure I get in life.

  • Graham Combs

    At mass last year, I looked over at another pew to see a young girl — 17 or 18 — sitting with her father and brother (or boyfriend). She was wearing shorts and a top that nearly qualified as a swimsuit. I thought to say something (via email to the parish) but have learned that monsignor misses little and I believe something was said. Also, at may age, it did not feel comfortable making the complaint. I would also direct parents to your local Barnes & Noble and Borders bookstores children’s dept, specifically the young adult section. Most of the books are aimed specifically at young girls. The covers are bad enough, what’s inside is worse. Sexualizing the young is not just a “right-wing Christian slogan.” And speaking of Sex and the City, there is a new novel in the YA section titled CARRIE’S DIARY and, yes, it is about that Carrie from Sex and the City as a young girl. New York publishers are as out of control as the music companies or Hollywood studios. As someone with extensive experience in New York publishing I can tell that it is a consequence of the feminist ideology that dominates that industry. In part because the majority of editors — 75% plus — are women from cultures and schools (including one Catholic HS here in Michigan) that have replaced history and civics and religion with political activism. Something so deeply embedded in our institutions will not easily be dislodged. Why hasn’t the USCCB commissioned a study on this? A situation that has real consequences for the young.

  • Teresa

    Miley Cyrus
    I am going to say this: Mr. Billy Ray Cyrus, who claimed to be a Christian on Glenn Beck’s show a couple of years ago, is not doing anything for his daughter now!

  • Jacob

    Such an important point to be making.

    Contemporary men are obviously completely dysfunctional, but without looking to both sexes to fix this we’re hopeless.

    Of course there are many men who are happy with the current situation, but I would argue that the huge majority of my male friends and I (people in their mid 20’s) are simply scared, hurt and ashamed of having believed in what now appears to be such a pathetic lie. The sex culture which at least as a youngster seemed like the only entity the parents had deemed worthy of preservation in our brave new world.

    Now we wake up and we’re all sluts and sexual predators.

    I’m not trying to excuse our behavior in the future, but as people who have been there before you must sympathize with our disillusionment with having found such horrible results from following a way of life that was so strongly recommended to us (or at least ignored as Prof. Eberstadt hints) by the most important people in our lives during the most formative years of our lives.

    I dare say that if a modern woman reached her dream of a male free world she might even be more miserable than she is with condoms, “the pill” and abortions.

    All this seems like common sense..

  • Jacob

    Yesterday’s poem
    The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
    Is lust in action; and till action, lust
    Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
    Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
    Enjoy’d no sooner but despised straight;
    Past reason hunted; and no sooner had,
    Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait,
    On purpose laid to make the taker mad:
    Mad in pursuit, and in possession so;
    Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
    A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
    Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.

    All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
    To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

  • jerryM

    I have read these comments and the article above. It seems to me that there is a lot of male bashing going on. As a male married for 38yrs and 5 daughters and 2 sons, I take offense to the way men are thought of as either predators or protectors in this article and the comments.
    I believe women in society have changed in the last 50 yrs. Since the womens lib movement started in the 60’s, the role of women in society has changed. Men who wanted to get married and raise a family were looked down upon, not revered at all. The alfa male has been revered and chosen over the responsible males.
    Women don’t act or say nice things about marriage, nor do men. Divorce since the 60’s has been an easy way out for women and men. Men are looked down upon and accused of being loosers deadbeats, wife beaters and totally irresponsible.
    Women are accused of hating men, taking the marital assets, not sharing custody, taking half of mens paycheck, and not taking care of the children.
    This has led to both men and women not wanting to get married or raising a family in fear of the dreaded divorce and what they will loose in life. This has led to both sexes not wanting to be together for life, and making their own way in life.
    Since men and women are adults and have adult sexual needs it is only natural that the women reveal more to attract a mate. This is as old as the Bible and depicted throughout the Bible in stories, ie. Abraham and his handmaden, David, Solomon, jezzebelle, none of these people had one partner or were examples of modesty.
    In conclusion, womens dress reflects what society expects of them if they are to find a mate at all. Since men are more visual and women are emotional in their personalities, it is only natural that if a woman wants to attract a man she must dress more seductively.