My wandering eye

Is it immodest for a woman to wear pants?  There’s been a big debate about this lately in the Catholic blogosphere.  I hadn’t meant to contribute.  My opinion was that standards of modesty are entirely culture-generated, although no less important for that.  (An exception would be that all cultures cover their men’s genitals, for practical reasons given by St. Augustine.  We wouldn’t want women to always know what men are thinking about.)  Therefore, if our culture doesn’t find pants immodest, they aren’t.

I’ve recently read something on the blog In Haught Pursuit that has forced me to reconsider the matter.  (I congratulate Mrs. Haught for making the most interesting contribution to this debate.)  She points out

Conversely, we see how a woman can bring a man down by the way she dresses. Though I read numerous statements in the pants debate to the effect that men should not look if they are tempted by what they see, I believe that a woman wearing pants naturally draws the man’s eyes where they should not go. Here’s a supporting quote from Dressing With Dignity by Colleen Hammond:

Advertising agencies quickly prepared marketing research to find out the reaction of men to a woman wearing pants. Do you know what they found? Using newly developed technology, they tracked the path that a man’s eyes take when looking at a woman in pants. They found that when a man looked at a woman in pants from the back, he looked directly at her bottom. When he looked at a woman wearing pants from the front, advertisers found that his eyes dropped directly to a woman’s most private and intimate area. Not her face! Not her chest!

Is this true?  After all, skirts have their own allures.  I decided to pay attention to my own behavior when I see pretty girls walking by.  Walking around on a college campus, one can get a good sample of very attractive young women very quickly.  (God, how I love academia.)  I paid attention to where my eyes naturally “wanted to go”.

I have a feeling my female readers are going to think the worse of me for this.  Please understand that ordinarily I would try to exert some control over my girl-watching.  Also, this “study” reflects a very restricted subset of my interactions with women, namely strangers who I see for a few seconds but never talk to.  If I ever meet any of you, I will not spend my time ogling you.  Anyway, here are my findings.

1) Woman in pants from the back.
    Hammond’s prediction:   “looked directly at her bottom”
    My observations: Big check. Eyes locked.
    I’m not particularly surprised by this–there
    aren’t too many competing highlights for a
    woman’s back side.

2) Woman in pants from the front.
    Hammond’s prediction: “eyes dropped directly to a
    woman’s most private…area”
    My observations: True, to a degree that actually
    surprised me. My only qualification is that I tended
    to want to look at the whole pelvic area–curve of
    hips and inner thighs. Also, I did naturally look at
    their faces some.

3) Woman in skirt from the back 
    My observations: First glance is to the curve of
    the hips. (No real temptation to stare at the
    middle of her butt.) Then spent some time
    admiring hair (especially if long) and shoulders.
    Then went to legs. Note that checking out a girl’s
    legs is a different thing for pants vs. skirts. For a
    girl in a skirt, it usually means admiring her legs below
    the knee; for a girl in pants, it usually means
    admiring her upper legs/thighs.

4) Woman in skirt from the front
    My observations: very wholistic appreciation of the
    woman’s beauty. Face, breasts, shoulders, curve of hips,
    lower legs, in about that order.

Conclusions:  to my surprise, pants do make a big difference in how pelvo-centric my instinctive appreciation of a woman’s beauty is.  There are two ways one might interpret this data.

  1. Modesty in clothes has a greater objective component than realized, for reasons probably having to do with evolutionary psychology and the male sex drive.
  2. My instincts in this matter reflect a subtle social conditioning.  Perhaps I’ve been shown a lot of attractive girls in pants on television, and the camera tended to focus on their pelvic regions, thus conditioning me to find such cues especially alluring.  If this is so, it would mean that pants are not really modest dress in our culture at all–the fact that we think otherwise just shows that we are not consciously aware of some of the signals that make up our socialization.

Either way, it seems the case against pants is stronger than I’d realized.

P.S. I once again beg the pardon of my female readers, if I still have any.  Maybe I should go to Confession now that this experiment is over.

6 Responses

  1. Oh, thank you, but the credit goes to Colleen Hammond. Still, I am absolutely delighted that you have done this important research! I am in your debt.

    This female reader will definitely keep reading your blog. I am so hungry for insight from the male perspective. And you have a sense of humor! You must be heaven sent.

  2. Indeed, pants on a woman are not modest, for the reasons you state, and since the great wide world beyond the campus has many great wide women in it, pants that are not covered by a long tunic top also offend aesthetically, in my opinion. We women do not want to own up to this because we want our sloppy comfort, but really we are being an occasion of sin, and sometimes of disgust, by our modern way of dressing. Men, I believe, are designed to be very visually oriented for reasons that have to do with procreation, as you alluded to. Thanks for a fun and important read!

  3. Hello Gail,

    That’s an interesting point. My research was restricted to attractive women. I didn’t check to see if I tend to judge unshapely women’s bodies more harshly when they wear pants. I’m not conscious of such a bias, but I might be surprised if I checked, as I was by my first experiment.

  4. I’ve found it necessary to remove the post to which you refer in My Wandering Eye. I apologize to your readers who may look for it. Maybe later I can re-post it.

  5. Dear Mrs. Haught,

    While they may not be able to see that post, I hope my readers will take this opportunity to discover your excellent weblog (assuming I have any readers who aren’t already yours as well). We look forward to hearing your thoughts in the future on these and other issues.

  6. […] the charms of the fairer sex.  (Long time readers will know that the author suffers from no such lack of sensibility.)  Not having any desire to sleep with these women, we shouldn’t care so much […]

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