On Modesty, Shame, and Our Need for Love: Insight from Sartre and John Paul II
On Nakedness and Shame
Human beings show an almost universal desire to conceal certain parts of their body from the gaze of others, especially persons of the opposite sex. We react instantaneously and spontaneously to try and hide our nakedness. But why do we respond in such a way, and why do we feel shame if we are exposed to the gaze of others?
Jean-Paul Sartre and Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II) have incredible insight pertaining to this phenomenon. They both affirm that the unsettling “gaze” we feel in our nakedness is a gaze of reduction and objectification: in our nakedness, we are not seen as persons; we are only seen as sexual “objects.” Thus, when our sexual parts are exposed to the sight of others, we intuitively feel a loss of personhood.
The sense of danger and vulnerability that we feel under this “gaze” is the sensation we have learned to call “nakedness,” and our instinctive defense against this danger is the phenomenon we call shame. In this light, shame (which causes us to instinctively cover ourselves) should be understood as a good, for sexual shame is nothing less than a reflexive defense against this possible “depersonalization.”
As can be seen with the phenomenon of shame, human beings have an instinctive need to preserve their subjectivity—their value as persons. We dress, therefore, in order to keep our personhood. We are “modest” in order to be seen as persons with value, not sexual “things” to be used. Modesty, then, can be understood as an affirmation of one’s dignity. It protects our status as persons, for clothing ourselves allows others to see the person that exists beyond our body and its sexual parts. In this sense, we cover ourselves to be truly seen.
Juxtaposed against this understanding of modesty, Wojtyla explains “immodesty” as “dress that contributes to the deliberate displacement of one’s value…that which is bound to elicit a response to the person’s sexual value instead of one’s personal value.”[i] Essentially, Wojtyla equates “immodesty” with a person’s motive. The immodest person is not one who fails to dress in accordance with an “objective standard,” but one who intentionally dresses in such a way as to receive value from one’s body rather than one’s value as a person.
Modest persons, then, are those who cover their sexual parts in order that they—and their value as persons—may be truly seen. In contrast, immodest persons are those who, in confusing “self” with “body,” reveal or accentuate their sexual parts, also in an attempt to be “seen.”
Both the modest and the immodest person desire the same thing in how they dress—to be valued. In other words, they desire to be loved; for love, in the ethical sense, is an affirmation of the value of the person. But ethical love looks beyond physical appearances into the inherent beauty that every human being possesses by simply being a person, and responds to that value alone.
Love’s response to our true value, inevitably, is always that of delight! So much so that it seeks to show its ecstasy with service. Thus, love is selfless and sacrificial; it understands that the immeasurable value of the person demands they be treated as an end to be served and never as a means to be used.
Unbounding, unchanging, ecstatic love through service and self-giving is the only adequate response to the inherent value and beauty that every human being possesses. It is this love, this proper response to our value as persons, which both modest and immodest persons seek. The former seeks it through their value as persons, the latter through the value of their bodies. But as can be known through experience and reason, the value of the body will never be capable of receiving this agape love that we all seek; only our value as persons is capable of bearing the weight of such love.
Love’s Absorption and Restoration of Shame
Sexual shame, then, exists for the very possibility of cultivating such a love. We cover ourselves so that we may have a chance at being wanted and valued, not just our bodies. Shame is only a means; the end is always love. In effect, once the love we seek is found, we return to the freedom our paradisial innocence.
This is why in the arms of her husband, a modest woman can freely set aside her shame and remove her covering, for the bride understands that even in her nakedness, she will remain a person in the eyes of her beloved. Likewise for the husband, even in his most vulnerable state, he feels completely safe, for he knows that he will only be responded to with self-offering and love, rather than being treated as a mere object to be used. In the eyes of authentic conjugal love, the beauty of the person is never lost sight of. True love absorbs sexual shame.
Yet love can also restore shame where it need be restored. The immodest person, having lost their shame in order to find value elsewhere, can have it restored only by being shown that their value as a person truly exists. However, this restoration will only be brought about to the degree that the person in front of us is responded to in love. Rather than reacting with lust, disdain, or judgment, may we instead strive to see all humans—regardless of their physical appearance—as infinitely valuable persons, and may our response always be that of love: of self-giving, service, and delight.