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The Spanish Dancer and the Duck

Discussions about modesty can turn hopelessly circular. Women should be modest so men won’t lust after them. But some men tend to lust anyway, so maybe we should all just wear whatever we want. But when we wear whatever we want, men are really tempted to lust after us, so maybe women should try to be modest…A recent comment brought out the frustration quite well:

Sometimes it truly is a matter of the heart and not the eyes (”sometimes” is a key word there :) ). I was talking to (my sister-in-law) and she mentioned that the worst experience she had with men being sexually disrespectful was in Egypt when she was wearing a long skirt, sleeves down to her wrists and a headcovering. I’ve had two close friends who attended BJU with a strict modesty code, and one of them recently commented to me how much she thought the policing, the constant scrutinizing of every outfit actually exacerbated the problem.

All this to say… it’s a tricky tangle, those issues of modesty and personal responsibility. When you get it all sorted out, be sure to let me know! :)

Well, I definitely don’t have it ALL sorted out (LOL!), but I do have a few thoughts to share.

As the comment pointed out, there are two issues here, women’s modesty and men’s personal responsibility not to lust.

Timothy 2:9-10 In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array; But (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works.

Mat 5:28 But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.

We are each responsible to keep our end of the bargain no matter what other people are doing. Men are still sinning if they fall into lust even if they are surrounded by tank tops, tight jeans, and mini-skirts. Women are still sinning if they dress and behave immodestly whether or not men are being overtly sexually disrespectful. Different cultures have often allowed either men or women to shirk their responsibilities. In Egypt, it tends to be the men. They are allowed to lust all they want right out in the open, and if it leads to mental adultery or even rape, well that was the woman’s fault. She was asking for it by dressing like that. In Western culture, though, it tends to be the women who get off doing as they please. It’s socially acceptable for them to look and act hot right out in the open, and if it leads to rape or even just mental adultery, well that was the man’s fault. He wasn’t being self-controlled.

Both these extremes are wrong.

Most of us are grossed out by Egyptian behavior, but let’s examine the Western side of the permissiveness coin. Women can’t prevent lust. Responsibility does not rest squarely on our shoulders, but there’s an awful lot we can do to help if we would be willing. Our dress and behavior DO have an effect on men’s lust level. Sure, there are men wholly given over to lust, who can manage to fantasize about what might be under a burka, but most men have a slightly higher threshold, and we really can be a help or a hindrance to an awful lot of them. This was a lesson I learned back in college when I was dancing with the Stanford Ballet Company.

Before I was married, I was incredibly naive about men. I found their attentions thrilling, validating, even titillating. They were also quite rare. For the most part guys completely ignored me because I was usually very modest. My modesty, though, had little to do with understanding men, and a lot to do with wanting to look like the other conservative Christian, homeschool graduates I knew. The only men who paid any attention to me were men who wanted a wife. Looking back, I think that was a compliment, but at the time, I assumed it meant that I wasn’t very pretty, just apparently virtuous.

One day it all changed. It was late November, and like ballet dancers the world over, I was gearing up for another Nutcracker. I had been cast as the Spanish dancer. It was a character I knew well because, with my dark hair, I had been given that role more often than any other. The Spanish dancer is spicy, flirtatious, flamboyant, and my choreography in this production was especially so. I was supposed to spend the entire variation teasing my poor partner while he chased after me.

For weeks in rehearsals that were just for the Spanish variation, I had been focusing on the dancing, mastering the steps and ignoring the character, but on that day in November, the entire cast had come together to start running through the whole show, and that meant we had a bit of an audience. My partner, a Microsoft employee in his late twenties, wanted to get into character. But of course.

The music started. No one was paying attention to us as we stood in our places. And then I opened my fan with a snap that stopped all conversation. I was The Spanish Dancer. In less than two minutes, we were done, and the room erupted in applause. My partner was breathless. “Don’t look at me like that,” he said. “I can’t dance when you look like that.” And like an idiot, I just laughed. I wasn’t about to tone down my character. I knew how to play the part. I did it well. And everyone liked it. They had all just applauded, hadn’t they?

Rehearsals moved into the theater, and I had to wear my costume, black and red, spaghetti straps, typical immodest ballet costume, but sexier. I was the Spanish dancer, after all. My partner, who had always been polite, but aloof, was following me around like a dog follows steak. He brought me flowers. He tried constantly to make conversation. He wondered if I might like a back rub. The other men in the cast, who had previously not even said as much as, “hi,” were now falling all over themselves to flirt with me every time I walked by. I’m very ashamed of this, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it.

I thought it was just attention. I thought it was fairly innocent. Now that I’ve got a husband to explain things to me, I realize that in all likelihood I was being mentally undressed.

After Christmas, we started work on the next show, Peter and the Wolf. I was cast as the duck. I traded my fan for a back scrubber and kiddie pool, my black lace costume for a high-necked, chubby, feathered number, complete with mask. And as quickly as it had begun, the lust fest ended. I went back to my quiet life of being noticed only by men looking for a wife.

Now, let’s think about this a minute. The very same man who couldn’t drag himself away from me when I was wearing an immodest dress and snapping my eyes and fan at him completely ignored me when I was a comedic, well-covered duck, flapping my arms, and fighting the wolf with my back scrubber. Was the guy lust-prone? Um. Yeah. Did my clothes and behavior have an effect. Totally!

Men tend to lust after women. And women tend to lust after being lusted after. We struggle with modesty because we all want to be the Spanish dancer. No one wants to be the duck.

But there are men out there who are fighting hard for integrity. They’re doing battle every day, desperately trying to stay pure and focused on their wives. And what do we do? We whip out our fans. We look hot, on purpose. We flirt. We pose. On purpose. We aren’t about to tone down our characters. We know how to play the part. We do it well. And everyone likes it. They’re paying attention to us, aren’t they? And we’d be lying if we said we didn’t enjoy it.

It’s a heart issue. It’s not about rules. It’s about looking hot. On purpose. It’s about balancing our desire for beauty with an understanding of the depth of its effect. Most of all, it’s about supporting our brothers in battle, accepting a little responsibility of our own, and giving up the “fun” of being lusted after by men we aren’t married to. We don’t need to be ugly, but we do need to pay attention, and constantly examine our own motivation for every outfit and action. It’s time we kept our end of the bargain.

Ten years later, I’m heartbroken thinking of men who took their families to see a “wholesome” show like the Nutcracker and wound up sitting in the dark watching the Spanish dancer, watching me. If I provoked even one man in that audience to lust, then I stole something from his wife. I certainly stole something from the future wives of my fellow cast members. Like I said, I was naive.

Galations 5:13 For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another.

Romans 14:21 It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak.

1Corinthians 8:13 Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend.

Just as a godly, Christian, Egyptian man needs to say, “no,” to his culture and stop ogling women. Godly Christian women of the West need to say, “no,” to our culture and stop deliberately making our brothers weak. We don’t need to be Spanish dancers anymore.

 ***

Note: I just want to be sure and say that, of course, for those of us who are married, we do need to look hot (on purpose!) in private for our husbands.

9 comments to The Spanish Dancer and the Duck

  • Wow! Well said! You have made a lot of good points there.

  • Cheryl

    Amen!!! Very well said. Thank you for sharing and putting this issue in perspective.

  • I asked my husband about your questions: “Are immodest women distracting and what should a woman wear?” the day you first posted, but he’s only ever wanted to comment on the first part of the question. He says (and I believe he speaks for the human side of every man) that he is very distracted by women who dress in a way that emphasizes or exposes breasts or thighs, particularly cleavage or slits. He wouldn’t touch the idea of “How would a woman ideally dress?” but he said most men have an internal sense for what they think is immodest, and I gather most men (apart from the work of God’s spirit in their lives) find immodesty appealing just the way you found attention appealing as a girl. (I also had the same naivity and desire for approval and attention.) I now try to use as my standard, “What would be pleasing to Christ and my husband?” and “Is this above reproach?” bending over backwards to keep from offending women too. Love protects, often by self-sacrifice. The sacrifice of our “liberties” is a true expression on love. I wish both men and women understood that and would practice and respond to true love rather than lust and insecurity-driven immodesty!

  • Kathy

    Very much agreed. It’s an issue of mutual responsibility. Your story really highlights that, and I appreciate the personal perspective.

    I think part of what makes me a little reactive to modesty discussions is when I see conservatives putting too much responsibility on the young woman’s shoulders. Yes, women should be modest. But, I think in conservative circles girls can become a little paranoid if they’re told “if you wear jeans you will be causing men to SIN.” Sometimes as a woman you will attract nonquality men, and it isn’t always your fault.

    I had a coworker who, off and on for several months, would flirt with me, tell me I was lovely and beautiful, when all he ever saw was me in my work clothes. Changing diapers in a mental hospital. In loose fitting t-shirts and jeans with no makeup and my hair in a ponytail. And no, for the record, he wasn’t necessarily looking for a wife. And he wasn’t exactly admiring my compassion and Christian integrity.

    So, yes, absolutely. We should try to be modest and appropriate. But we should also be careful not to take responsibility for things that aren’t our responsibility. Unnecessary guilt is a heartache nobody needs.

    Lol. I’m sorry for the long answer! And I very much agreed with the gist of your post, so only take this as a rabbit trail. I can’t help it; it’s an interesting topic.

  • Against my better judgment, I am commenting again. This isn’t MY blog after all. Kathy, I totally agree. As a woman in my 20′s, I went overboard trying to compensate for everybody’s lack of modesty. I can honestly say that was the frumpiest time in my life. My in-laws seemed to be embarrassed about it, and there was no total reason for it. In the church and with Christian men who are not so exposed to the nonsense of the world, I try to keep my skirts/ dresses on to most of the meetings. But at home? or out shopping? I just wear what makes sense. Is the worldly man going to think I’m wicked because I’m wearing jeans? No. He’ll probably think I look normal. If I wear the dorky denim skirt and tennis shoes (ugh), I’ll attract attention alright. “Hey, there’s a dorky looking woman who could be religious”
    (Sorry if the uniform I described is your favorite outfit) Beyond that, in all things we should follow the Spirit.. and avoid our Spanish dancer costumes in public…

  • Mrs. Parunak

    O.M.,

    Feel free to comment as often as you like! I’m always very interested in what you have to say.

    For sure the worldly man is not going to think you’re wicked if you wear jeans to the store. My question for myself is not whether or not men will think I’m wicked but whether or not they’ll be “checking me out.” I do have quite a few denim skirts, but I can’t remember the last time I wore them with tennis shoes. LOL!

  • Mrs. Parunak

    Kathy,

    You made the observation, “Sometimes as a woman you will attract nonquality men, and it isn’t always your fault.” This is certainly true. I had a rather extreme example of this happen to me last month at Meijer. I was wearing a dress that was practically Plain (and, yes, that’s “Plain” with a capital “P,” as in Mennonite.) As always, I had my head covered. AND I had my baby strapped to my front. Unfortunately, I was also buying “P.J.’s,” and by “P.J.’s” I mean lingerie. I had my purchases carefully folded up so as to be as nondescript as possible, but of course, they were still rather obviously lingerie. Now, usually, I’m careful to pick a check lane with a female checker, but on this occasion, I had the not so brilliant idea to use the u-scan. It was a bad idea because some of my stuff wouldn’t scan properly, and that gave the man behind me the perfect opportunity to “rescue” me. Only, he felt that he needed to stand literally about six inches away in order to “help.” And he kept standing right beside me even after I’d made it past the difficulty. He even decided that it would be a good idea to follow me down to where I was trying to bag my “P.J.’s” (I’m guessing for a better look). And of course, he was trying to talk to me the entire time about how hard it was to use the u-scan, and this and that, all the while staring at me. I actually started to wonder what I was going to do if he followed me into the parking lot. There are some women in Afghanistan who dress more modestly than I was dressed on this occasion, but short of donning a burka, I’m really not sure how I could have been more modest, and yet still the incident happened. (I guess you could say it was the lingerie that was enticing him, not my appearance. But what was I going to to do? I did need to buy the stuff.) That’s what I was trying to get at by saying that “women can’t prevent lust.” Sometimes, it just happens. But I think there really is a continuum. The sexier you are, the more men you’re going to have lusting after you. The more modest you are, the fewer. And there really are men out there who DON’T want to be lusting after women they aren’t married to, but who genuinely struggle when women are immodestly dressed, men like your dad as described in your mom’s (Kathi Armstrong’s) comment above. I’m mostly talking about trying to help them, the “quality men,” if you will, the ones who really want to be pure, but who can’t escape the natural way women’s bodies make them feel.

    I shared this story in an e-mail to your sister-in-law, but I think it fits here, too. A few years ago my husband and I had a conversation with a dear friend. He recounted to us his struggles on the track team at Wheaton College. The women on the team would frequently practice in nothing but running shorts and sports bras. Our friend is a devout Christian. He desperately did not want to be lusting after his teammates. He wanted to see them as human beings, made in the image of God, and full of talents, feelings, thoughts, and opinions, but he said, and I quote, “All I saw were BODIES. I HATE that about myself. That is the thing I hate the most about being a man.” Finally, our friend and several other young men asked the women to wear more at practice. The women were really offended. Our friend said that they just did not understand how hard it was for the guys.

    So, there are always the extreme cases that we really can’t prevent, and as you said, “Unnecessary guilt is a heartache nobody needs.” We can’t get too hyper. We don’t need to take all the blame, or descend into frumpdom, like Organizing Mommy was discussing. But by all means, lets help the “quality men” as much and as often as we reasonably can.

  • thanks for the comment on the blog about the B-52 thing. I appreciate someone commenting!

  • Just wondering, where is Mrs.Parunak? I’m missing her blog!

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