Sunday, 21 February 2010

Auntie Seraphic and Modest Millie

Dear Auntie Seraphic:

Modesty Talks stress to women that men are extremely "visual". We are told how to dress in a becoming-yet-modest way. We want to honor our beauty, but at the same time aid our brothers in their pursuit of virtue. Something that might be appropriate among women alone is scratched when we know men will be around. When every well-catechised young woman opens her closet or shops for a new dress she is asked to take into account, NOT her own feminine worldview/ideas of what is appropriate or acceptable but, in charity, the "visual" tendencies of the other sex. And well she should.

My beef is with the male half of this equation. While we women are told that men are "visual", and we should dress accordingly, men are told that women are "emotional" and they should--nothing. I feel this to be a source of grave inequality in Christian education.

Women, good women, are taught to be ladies. On the other hand men, good men, are taught to be gentlemen in ways that don’t teach them to see themselves through women's eyes, but just build their egos instead. They are taught to be content with outward acts that any trained monkey could do when it is really the selfless habit of putting others first that distinguishes a good man.

A man can outwardly act the part of a gentleman and still be, at heart, a chauvinist pig. I've met them. Their interactions with the opposite sex reek of noblesse oblige. I was once given an over-large bouquet of flowers by a young man who replied to my "Oh, why thank you, you shouldn't have!" with "Of course I should... That is what gentlemen do."

Yet it is also about excellent men that I write. Although the fine young Catholic men of my circle would never consciously manipulate or lead a young woman on, some are naive about how their charm and, shall we say, "emotional promiscuity" can be misleading. They by-and-large have fine male fellowship available to them, but the sweet and affirming company of women appeals to them. They rejoice that they know holy and virtuous women. They delight in the fact that these women bake them brownies and seem to always answer the phone when they call, and they start to drop in to their homes, and they are clueless, utterly clueless, about what the poor young ladies might be assuming.

These men begin asking and taking too much, emotionally, from their female friends. They are like babies smacking and breaking things because they do not realize their own power. Hearts are broken. Friendships are damaged. It is not pretty. And all because the only "modesty" talk they were ever given was "be very kind to girls when they are PMSing, and open doors, and affirm the fine women in your life." The real kicker is, the outward acts of "being a gentleman" are precisely the sort of charming emotion-candy that start to make women swoon and struggle.

I have been told, in essence, that when male-female friendships are complicated in this way it is the girl's fault for "reading too much into it." I freely admit that, just as men do not always keep custody of the eyes, women do not always keep custody of the emotions. Point taken. But here I am, helping the man keep custody of his eyes AND also the sole guardian of my emotions? Really, Auntie Seraphic? Must the girl do all the work?

I'm begging you to blog on this topic. How can guys act with emotional modesty and "dampen down their allure?" How can women keep custody of their emotions? Your "Crushing a Crush" post was a good start.

Modest Millie

Dear Modest Millie,

I had a good laugh at your soi-disant gentleman. One hallmark of a gentleman is that he never refers to himself as a gentleman. A gentleman also gives modest, tasteful presents, only at appropriate times and only to appropriate people. It is appropriate to give flowers to one's mother, a hostess, a hostess's mother, a guest of honour, a performer just after her performance and one's love interest. It is not appropriate to give floral tributes willy-nilly.

This is because flowers are tributes. Once upon a time, family members kept an eye on whoever gave tributes to their unmarried womenfolk. A watchful mother would raise an eyebrow, bide her time, and then "have a word" with the young man if she disapproved of him in general, or if she thought he was unfairly encouraging her daughter to love him and/or making her conspicuous, i.e. gossiped about.

Sadly, advertisers and other baleful influences have come sharply between mothers and daughters, and daughters no longer tell Mama anything, let alone everything, whereas Mama is even more afraid of her daughter than she is for her. So, for good or ill, having the word is up to young women themselves.

(In some cultures, the "having the word" is left up to a girl's brothers. Unfortunately, they often are confused about whom they are to have this word, so in extreme cases they just turn on their sister and murder her in cold blood. So let us count our blessings.)

Pompous asses bearing gifts are easily dealt with. Say, "Thank you so much! My mother will love them." Then add, "Chrysanthemums are not my thing" or "I'm off chocolate this week" or whatever polite evasion seems most appropriate. That should tip off Pompous Ass that you are not interested in his tributes and that they are wasted on you. Watching him deflate should give you a thrill of private amusement. But private, please. If he does not get the message, you may eventually have to say, "Stop giving me things. You're making me feel uncomfortable."

This is the way to deal with pompous asses. It is a more delicate when you are dealing with a man who is seriously smitten. So in his case, just say "Thank you, X" and smile. No more, no less. Unless he behaves in an egregiously inappropriate or frightening way, it is dirty pool to complain about his gifts to your friends. You remain 100% free to turn down all his invitations to coffee, dinner, his brother's wedding, et cetera. A gentle and consistent "No" should discourage his attentions. If not, you may have to say, "Please stop. You're making me feel uncomfortable."

Now I shall address the problem of the boys intruding on your girl time and giving you Ideas. I agree that it would be nice if boys were told not to take advantage of the motherly nature of girls, i.e. Not To Lead Girls On. Part of the problem is that Chastity speakers assume that Nice Girls are A) not visual themselves (which is why none of us ever bought Tiger Beat nor ever taped a film star poster to our bedroom walls) and B) made of sugar and spice and everything nice. Another part is that men, not having been brainwashed into thinking about their "allure" 24/7, don't know that they have any. Often, the nicer they are, the less conscious of their allure men are.

Men can be stopped dead in their tracks by a flash of bosom or thigh. Women can be stopped dead in their tracks by a quirky eyebrow or a fine set of shoulders filling out a jacket. But several thousand years of culture have told us that Nice Girls hide this weakness, so we do. Men reveal interest, women conceal interest. So men assume we are not interested in them "in that way" to an egregiously obtuse extent. That is why, if she wants to reveal to a man she is interested in him, a Nice Catholic Girl is eventually forced to say something like, "Hey, Steve! Looking good!" and then touch his arm. All the brownies in the world are not going to make him clue in.

Speaking of those brownies, if you deliberately left out an open bag of gerbil food for a gerbil, and the gerbil came along and ate so much of it that he exploded, who would be to blame, you or the gerbil? You, of course, which is why, after I tell men that (SHOCKER!) women harbour desire too, a desire of which men should be respectful, I would give women a hard time about how much attention they lavish on men. When it comes to female-comfort-without-strings, lonely men are hungry gerbils.

In general, I would say to a Nice Catholic Boy that he should not kiss a girl on the lips unless he thinks he'd like to marry her. This may sound strict, but give me a break. Nice Orthodox Jewish boys behave that well; he can too. Men should not give girls romantic presents unless they want to be seen in the light of a suitor: romantic presents include roses, chocolate, perfume, poetry and jewellery. Men shouldn't give these things unless they mean business. But if a girl offers a boy a brownie, he can eat the damn brownie. Eating a brownie is not tantamount to a marriage proposal.

Emotional chastity means that women don't make themselves so available. It means you are too busy to listen to X obsess about his ex-girlfriend. (That's his priest's or therapist's job.) It also means you don't make brownies for boys. (That's their mothers' job.) It means you don't invite lone male friends into your home for a chat or a meal. (That's their girlfriends' job.) It means you never, ever, ever do a domestic chore for a male friend. I don't care how cutely clueless he is about the washing machine. Don't do it. It means that you don't submit to long, warm, snuggly hugs from non-related men. It means that you don't give non-related men long, warm, snuggly hugs.

My grandmother, a wonderfully friendly woman, was a genius at not letting men take advantage. When she was in the nursing home, she refused in no uncertain terms to cut up a widower's meat for him at table. Perhaps you (or his dead wife) would think this cruel. "Awwwwww, poor old guy. Obviously his wife used to cut up his meat for him; why wouldn't your grandmother?" Because it wasn't her job, that's why! Heaven only knows what the widower would have asked her to do for him next. Wash his socks, perhaps. Rub his feet.

I, a married woman and an Auntie to the Singles of the World, will listen to a man obsess about his ex-girlfriend, but only for a limited time. I say straight up how much time he is allotted. Thus, I create a boundary and an understanding that I am not The Nice Girl You Can Always Cry To. I am too busy for that. The only men who are allowed my full attention for longer than 15 minutes are my kinsmen and my husband. I sincerely encourage all young women to develop such boundaries themselves.

Anne Landers often said that no-one can take advantage of you without your permission, and I firmly believe that. So you keep an eye for chinks in your armour, Modest Millie!

A Quick Do and Don't List for Single Girls

1. Do invite Single unattached men to parties you are hosting.
2. Don't invite a Single unattached man to your place for meals or chatting.
3. Do bake goodies for your female friends or for mixed groups.
4. Don't bake goodies for your male friends.
5. Do help out relations and elderly friends with domestic chores.
6. Don't you DARE do a domestic chore for a Single unattached man!
7. Do accept a date for coffee from a nice Single unattached man.
8. Don't accept another date from that man if he spent coffee talking about his ex.
9. Do have long telephone chats with female friends.
10. Don't have long telephone chats with Single unattached male friends. Have short ones.
11. Do lavish female friends and relations with little gifts and hugs.
12. Do not lavish Single (or Married!) men with little gifts and hugs.

Treat 'em mean, keep 'em keen. Incidentally, Single unattached men include priests and seminarians. I know it's so totally unfair that, as usual, this is all being put on you. But be careful, girls. Protect your little hearts.

UPDATE: Seraphic Singles available on UK Amazon! But not until May 31. That's a looooong time after the book comes out.

Also available on Japan, France and Germany Amazon! Goodness me. Again, though, May 31.

©Dorothy Cummings McLean 2010


Clare H said...

I sympathize greatly with Modest Millie, for I too was frequently been annoyed with the overemphasis on female modesty in my Catholic high school. Women are visual too, but in a way that is not focused on genitalia.

Have any of you seen the Modesty Survey? ( It's a very large survey of Christian men on women's clothing and what they find objectionable or a "stumbling block." I found it faintly uncomfortable when I ran across the site a couple of years ago, not least because stretching (that includes arching the back) is considered a stumbling block, as is the removal of a pullover when there is a modest shirt beneath.

Now, I am not one to be constantly calling misogyny, but this site makes me even more uncomfortable now that it did a few years ago. It has an air of control that is somewhat disturbing, and is just generally the wrong way to be talking about modesty. But I'm curious to see if others will have as strong a reaction as I.

Incidentally (to make a long comment longer), I think that modesty talks should tell boys not to cutely flip their curls out of their faces, or to cover their nicely shaped calves, or to wear scarves so as to cover that appealingly bobbing Adam's apple! All of these things have been "stumbling blocks" for me, at least...

Seraphic said...

Word to power, Clare H! And does anyone ever tell them not to play football "Shirts vs Skins" when girls are around? I BET they don't!

Seraphic said...

Clare, I just had a look at that site and steam is coming out my ears. "Stumbling block"? The word "skandelion" translates to "stumbling block". If seeing a woman exhibit a natural range of motion is too much of a scandal for a Christian man, he needs serious help.

If my breasts bounce when I'm walking or running, or if I feel like stretching, the oversensitive types (what HAVE they been watching if this is too much for them?) can bloody well look the other way!!!

Clare H said...

That makes me feel so much better! I mean, I'm sure the survey was done with the best of intentions, and I'm pretty sure it was spoken of approvingly by Catholic bloggers. But the whole tone is just so... squicky (to use the technical term).

Seraphic said...

Squicky is the perfect word.

Now, I imagine any of those commentators, even the ones who bellow "Girls should be more careful" would admit that the West is not and should not be Saudi Arabia, and that MEN are the ones who must take responsibility for their own responses to women. And in various places this modesty survey links to pages saying the latter.

Men can look away, or they can get over that fact that women, like men, have legs and arms and shoulders. But I think what really bothers me about that survey--and I know the guys were asked, and they answered honestly--was that the men seem to think appreciating the sight of a beautiful female leg (for example) is a Simply Terrible Thing. It was interesting how they felt about skirts tailored or tailored at the waist. They seemed to agree that that was very nice--very pretty. The waistline, therefore, as long as it is covered up, is both attractive and innocent, in their view. What, I wonder, is wrong with breasts, then, when they are nicely covered up. So you can see the shape, just as you can see the shape of a waist--what's the problem?

Appreciating beauty is not a sin. Objectifying women and judging them by how they present each body part (which this survey sort of does) seems very wrong to me. "Her breasts are too small" comes very close to "her breasts jiggle too much when she walks" for me.

But then men are different from women, and these guys were being honest and...

Still--squicky. I know how they feel about my boots (modest but gives the wrong message); I must check out how they feel about bare arms.

IA_ said...

Modest Millie,

Please accept my apology on behalf of all men for the "emotional promiscuity." You're right that it wasn't conscious or intentional, it is just that... we didn't know.

Sheila said...

I agree with Modest Millie, too. Guys can be terrible flirts sometimes! But if we believe it, that's *our* fault, whereas if they notice some body part of ours, that's our fault too. Of course we ought to dress modestly to avoid making it any harder for men than it has to be -- but if a lady in modest dress is still a temptation to a man, he is just going to have to work on that himself.

Alisha said...

This is a very interesting post. I agree that men are generally not taught to have much responsibility in any of these areas.

"A man can outwardly act the part of a gentleman and still be, at heart, a chauvinist pig."

Oh, is that ever true...which is why, I don't necessarily look at gestures - many Christian boys can be taught "gestures", or "appropriate dating behaviour", but if it's not rooted in something other than moralistic rules (i.e. care for the other's destiny because you recognize they are God's creation), all of that means nothing, and in fact cheapens the gesture.
I always, always look at character - for some, it will come out in very noticeable ways, in others, not.

As far as the dos and don'ts...I'm definitely guilty of some of the don'ts...but shouldn't distinctions be made - i.e. behaviour should be different if you are or are not interested in the guy or vice versa? or the type of person you are? What if you just like to bake and happen to have good guy neighbours whom you would never date in a million years?
Overall though, I agree with a lot of what is said here...and the modesty survey: ew. ew. ew. ew. I would rather spend time in the company of my crazy heathen friends who may not have the modesty I hope because they do not act like I'm constantly a potential scandal needing to be contained.

theobromophile said...

Like the idea of men taking responsibility for themselves, too. I see it as my job to not tease them with my body and to make it easier to focus on the human that I am; it's their job, in return, to focus on the human that I am and to not obsess (which is really the right word for it) about my body.

Jewellry? I heard (Miss Manners) that a lady should not accept such things from a man who is not related to her (fathers, grandfathers - usually an heirloom - are fine, boyfriends are not); an engagement ring is the one exception.

Not sure your thoughts on that.

Final question: so can girls bake brownies for boys who are their boyfriends? Miss Manners (who, before you, was my sole go-to person for all things proper and healthy) says that this is one way in which Nice Girls reciprocate for dinners, movie tickets, and all the other things that courting men pay for.

fifi said...

I would recommend to our throughly Modest Millie that she adopt your excellent view that men who wish to spend time with her one-on-one be considered dates. Not boyfriends, mind you, simply dates. There doesn't have to be any pressure or expectation, but it seems more honest to acknowledge that opposite-sex friendships have a different kind of potential and character, and this seems to put the boundaries into a much better perspective, for me anyway. Instead of being more restrictive, I'm actually finding it to be more freeing.

Regarding "emotional promiscuity", I would recommend to all women that they look for men who seek first to give, to serve, (dare I say, to spoil?) rather than to receive. And to men wishing to avoid it, I have this thought: ask yourself, in your heart of hearts, will your relationship be the same when the lady begins dating someone else? Joins a religious order? Moves to Tahiti? If you envision yourself taking it down a notch under those circumstances, might it not be more honest to act as though that day has already arrived?

bolyongok said...

Auntie Seraphic, thank you so much for this post! I am afraid I have a gerbil on my hands... He's a sweet guy, and he has called me on a regular basis, but it's becoming increasingly apparent that it's not going anywhere and I think he likes some other girl. I think I have been a sympathetic ear for long enough.
Thank you! This simplifies things!
Your lists are awesome!

Seraphic said...

Theob, there's jewellery and jewellery. Jewellery is definitely a romantic present (I was just listing romantic presents) and at the cheap end of jewellery are trinkets.

I would have no problem with even a teenage girl accepting a trinket, like a charm for a charm bracelet or a nice pin, from an admirer. Start getting into gems/bling, and then my eyebrows would raise. No woman should accept a very expensive present from an unrelated, unattached man, not if marriage isn't in the air.

Seraphic said...

Oh, yes, you can bake brownies for steady boyfriends. If one nice man keeps taking you places, go ahead and bake him brownies. If he's actually courting you, you're not in danger of wasting all your feminine kindness (and flour) on a chump.

But never, ever bake for a mere crush object.

Seraphic said...

Bolyongok, he sounds like a chump. My own personal definition of a chump is a sweet guy who is taking up too much of a woman's kindness, time and baking supplies without giving much back.

Anonymous said...

re: the Modesty Survey

I actually found the survey pretty interesting. It's also interesting filtering it by age group. The older men seem to struggle less (they've made it through puberty and have learned how to guard themselves better... or perhaps it is that the women around them have learned that pretty and lusty aren't the same things and dress accordingly?)

I completely agree with comments made above, that men have to be responsible for themselves (ie, this isn't Saudi Arabia and guys need to learn how to differentiate between appreciating beauty and lusting after women), but it's interesting... because the guys who took the survey seemed to think the same thing:

"If you look at the survey results you will find that 99.9% of the guys take full responsibility for themselves, and don't expect women to cover every inch of skin -- they're just asking for help."

Modesty is a tough issue, because we women don't want to be controlled (and, you know, shouldn't be controlled), but as we expect and want men to respect us (ie, not turning us into objects because they happened to catch site of some ankle or collarbone ), we should also respect them by not wearing plunging tops and tight skirts... or whatever else. (Okay, *now* I'm done being facetious.)

It should be a partnership. We should be helping each other. If the men are at fault, we should still be helping each other. If we're at fault, we should still be helping each other. If no one is at fault and it's just the beauty of how God made us... we should still be helping each other.

And it really is beautiful how God has made us.

Alisha said...

I like your question in the second paragraph - people should check and see if they would behave similarly towards a person should the circumstances be altered.
I disagree with you about considering all one on one time with members of the opposite sex dates...While I can see how this may help some to set boundaries I think it can put a LOT of pressure on a person, and cause them to be uncomfortable, esp if they are the nervous type.
Secondly, there are times where it would just be absurd to consider those times dates...if I get together to work on a song or talk shop with a fellow male musician, whether single or married, we're definitely not on a date even if we're spending time one on one.
I think partly what defines a date is the asking - if the guy or girl asks to take the other to dinner or tea or coffee, especially when you don't know each other well, then it's a date: they are asking for the other's exclusive attention with no other purpose other than the other's company and conversation. If you've been friends for 10 years and you are getting together to catch up or even for regular conversations, it's just not a date. I would be hugely surprised if a guy friend whom I've been hanging out with one on one forever told me all those times were dates. Especially since he was dating others through that period, and we've both clearly said to each other there has never been any ambiguity of relationship.
If a guy or a girl has intentions of dating, they shouldn't be vague. If they are vague, assume nothing (as in, don't draw conclusions, don't read into things) just keep your heart guarded. If he/she complains later that you didn't pick up on their vague signals, that's their fault and you can tell them they weren't clear enough. If you are just starting to become friends there is no reason to be so direct and ask someone on an explicit date...I know for me that can just spoil the possibility of a friendship, because I think the guy is interested romantically and that's weird, if he doesn't even know me yet.

fifi said...

Alisha: Good point. I guess I should have clarified: when I say "dates" I mean something much more along the lines of a 1950's- style social interaction where, unless a couple had agreed to "go steady", they were perfectly free to date several different people at once, to "double date", to set each other up with their friends, and to generally improve their social and communication skills, have fun, and enjoy each other's companionship, without any of the pressure of exclusivity, physicality, and emotional verklempt-ness that "dating" or being boyfriend/girlfriend entails today.
If you think about it, this is really a much more healthy way of understanding the process than our current culture allows. I completely agree with you that thinking of all one-on-one meetings in the *modern* dating sense *would* be "too much pressure." But I've watched several friends/roommates go through "just friends" relationships that were extremely close and involved a lot of time one-on-one. I could appreciate that they weren't at all ready to be a "dating couple" in the modern sense of the word (some never did get quite that far), but "just friends" wasn't truly an honest sum-up of the relationship either: they were much closer to one another than they were to other platonic aquaintances, and the relationship did eventually change dramatically when they dated others/went into religious life.
Instead of "just friends," I wish we could go back to a '50's style "just dating" where it doesn't have to be a federal case. In my case, it's become just a personal recognition... "I'm spending one-on-one time with Single Stan today. Is it business?(working on a song, discussing club or charity work)If it's not, and he's not either already taken or we've discussed our mutual lack of attraction, thinking of it as Dating Lite, '50's style (even if only in my own head) helps me to keep myself honest: this might never go anywhere, neither of us might want it to, I can be completely relaxed in this person's company, but I also have to be honest that the *potential* is there, and guard my heart accordingly. No law says I can't choose to continue spending time with guys even though we both know we'll never be an item. But the reason I prefer this mindset is that, if I ever realize that I DO want to get serious with a guy and he's not interested, it's much, much easier for me to recognize that and move on if I think of our meetings as (very casual) dates. If I've been thinking of him ONLY as a friend the whole time, not acknowledging the potential for more, or if I've been reading into his every word hoping for more, I get much more neurotic. If I can think of it as a casual date, I relax. It's a paradox!

Christian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Catechumen said...

This is a very nice article, but the flaw and missing gap is covered by a Gentleman Saint and Doctor of the Church in his writings about friendship. Published more than Shakespeare, no one can top St. Francis de Sales' sections on friendship and "Society and Solitude" in the book titled _Introduction to the Devout Life_. I wish more men and women were familiar with the sections on friendship by this Church Doctor and Gentleman Saint.

This is a really good article. Do not forget that VIRTUE requires God's grace and something that must be prayed for constantly. Guidelines are good, but we must show charity and love of God in everything we do, including our friendships and love of neighbor.
The virtues: prudence, temperance, justice, fortitude, faith, hope, and love.
(Revised comment with link to St. Francis de Sales' writings on friendship and society.)