It was one of the hardest conversations I’ve ever had. What I remember most was her expression of disbelief. “No way! Really?” was what her eyes seemed to be saying to me. I didn’t expect the conversation to end up this way. It all started with a simple request: Could you please dress more conservatively?
We had been dating for a couple of months and were madly in love. We were actively serving in our own church ministries, and our parents approved of our relationship. Things were great. But I was struggling with something: lust. She wasn’t dressing scandalously by modern standards, but the tank tops and loose-fitting t-shirts with low necklines were starting to cause my eyes to linger a little longer than they should. I was starting to cross the fine line between love and lust.
And so, I mustered up the courage to speak to her about it. I admitted that I was struggling to keep my thoughts pure at times. Then I made my request: “Could you please dress more conservatively?”
When Lang requested that I ‘cover up,’ I was insulted. How tempting can a tank top under a cardigan be?! I felt dirty. Embarrassed. Oppressed. I remember the date ending with a layer of tension so dense, it could fill the seasonal section of Uniqlo.
You might think that I was making her take responsibility for my inability to control myself, and I don’t blame you! But I have good reasons for bringing this conversation up, then and now. Hear me out.
MEN ARE VISUAL
These days, we are bombarded with the message that men and women are equal in every way. However, this is often confused with being identical in every way, as if differences between men and women no longer exist. While we are equal in worth and value, we are still different. We’re physically different, and not just in appearance. For example, men and women build muscle differently because of the differing testosterone and oestrogen levels in our bodies. But the most obvious example of our difference is how much more visual men are compared to women.
Let me get to the point: men are captivated by the female body. Once we’ve gotten over the ‘yuck, girls!’ phase, it doesn’t matter if a guy is single, attached, or married for over 30 years. An image of a naked woman WILL get a reaction out of us. Studies have shown that male brain activity is way, way higher than that of a female when they see a member of the opposite sex without clothes on. All sorts of chemicals and hormones are released when this happens. Rational thought becomes harder to hold on to. It takes great effort for us to ignore or look away from the bare female form.
It was partially because of this, I told my then-girlfriend, that I was finding it hard to keep my eyes from wandering whenever I was with her. But that wasn’t the whole story. Just because guys are wired this way doesn’t excuse them from not exercising self-control around girls! The other half of the story had to do with the fact that I was addicted to pornography as a teenager. This meant that I was weak to temptation, probably weaker than someone who had never been addicted to pornography. It was easier for me to be triggered, for my mind to wander off and recall those lewd images that had been so hard to get rid of. Therefore, it would be a great help if she could go above and beyond society’s standards of modesty and help me out a bit — to dress more conservatively.
I could not fathom how what in my opinion was a modest outfit could send a guy’s mind to space. But I started to recall how in polytechnic, my male friends would unabashedly take second — even third — glances at girls wearing mini-shorts and skimpy tops. It was uncomfortable to imagine myself as one of those girls, as the object of their fantasy. And here was my God-fearing, respectful boyfriend, being honest about his struggle with sin. Why should I fault him for acknowledging that he was stumbled?
But does this mean I have to start wearing a spacesuit every time we meet? And even if I wanted to ‘cover up,’ whose standards should I follow?
As I reflected and prayed, I remembered that the Jewish Christians in the early church knew a thing or two about being stumbled. All their lives, they had abstained from certain kinds of meat because they were told those were unclean. But when they followed Christ, all this changed. They were now free to eat whatever they wanted. However, they still preferred to avoid some meats — just out of habit. Their fellow Greek Christians, meanwhile, probably enjoyed a good roasted pork platter. Can you imagine how awkward it would have been for them to share a dinner table?
Paul stepped in to mediate: “For if your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love” (Rom 14:15). It certainly wasn’t wrong to eat pork at the table; the non-Jewish Christians had all the right to. But if they were causing their Jewish brothers and sisters to have a guilty conscience by having certain meats at the table, they were not pursuing “what leads to peace and to mutual edification” (Rom 14:19). In the same way, while it certainly wasn’t a sin for me to wear certain clothes, I could make choices that would edify my boyfriend. I could choose to reject Lang’s request, but instead of taking the issue of my dressing personally, I chose to honour his desire to stay pure and help him in it. If that meant wearing a(n equally comfortable) t-shirt instead of a tank top, why not?
IT TAKES GREAT EFFORT FOR US TO IGNORE OR LOOK AWAY FROM THE BARE FEMALE FORM
I am happy to say that while Evelyn’s dressing isn’t an issue between us anymore, she still seeks to dress conservatively when we go out. She does this because she wants to help other men in their pursuit of purity, just as she helped me. I also know that the chances of other guys looking at her the wrong way in church or elsewhere is lower, and that makes me feel more comfortable as a husband.
I believe the decisions my wife made while we were dating have really blessed me as a husband today, and for that I am very grateful to her. I know that many guys in church struggle to keep their thoughts pure when half-naked (or even fully naked!) women frequently appear in the media. Pornography has never been so readily available, and the sad truth is that many of us are wrestling with or recovering from addiction to it. Would you dare to be gracious to your brothers by dressing more conservatively today? That might just be the best gift you could ever give to them. Your brothers-in-Christ might just thank you for it — I know I do!