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 Register. Both 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.