Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Lady at the Beach

The Thai people, as far as I can tell, tend to be conservative dressers at the beach. Despite, (or perhaps because of,) the influence of Western tourists and ex-pats, most of the locals I have seen at the beach don’t seem to follow the gag-inspiringly liberal beach attire of their European guests. In fact, they seem, so far as I can tell, not even to have any idea of specific “bathing attire” at all. They just go down to the beach and have fun, at least the particular beach that I happened to be living on at the moment.

Today I went down and sat on the rocks and read T. S. Elliot’s “Four Quartets” and watched the waves and the wind and the people. There was a small Thai family who stopped by for about half an hour or so, a little further down the beach, a man, woman and their son, and a little dog. The humans all went into the water and tried to get the dog to go in with them, but that poor little quadruped was having none of it. The dad finally chased after the dog and caught him, and they took him out until the water was waste deep to the humans, but even at that depth the waves can swell up to head height or even higher. He was just a little dog, and as soon as they let go of him he headed for shore with a much put upon attitude.

They were all wearing ordinary, everyday street clothes, (except for the dog, who had no clothes). The man and boy were wearing shorts and polo shirts, and the woman was wearing a dress, and there they all were, splashing around up to their necks at times in the warm salt water. There was something achingly beautiful about the woman especially, quite apart from the beauty of wind, water and billowing hair (which is a magic combination in its own right). It was somehow enhanced by her unapologetically feminine attire, and even more so by her obvious enjoyment of time spent with her family. She seemed valuable, infinitely so, possessed of a playful dignity, not only evident in her but also in her husband and her son. The way the little boy ran splashing through the waves to bury his face in her stomach with a flying leap/hug and the way she returned it struck a powerful chord of recognition in me. When she stumbled through the surf and put her hand on her husband’s shoulder to catch her balance, he caught her around the waist with a laugh and spun her round in front of him as if he had half a mind to send her tumbling into the water and dive after her himself. He probably thought about it for a second. I know I would have. But she took it with good humor (I could see her laughing from where I was) and was not the least bit nonplussed. You just don’t dunk someone with that much dignity.

Why did the dress make so much difference? I am not sure. Certainly nothing would have changed within that family’s inner dynamic if she had been wearing shorts and a t-shirt or a bathing suit. But there it is. Somehow it enabled her to recapture a little bit of the unconscious queenliness that Eve had before clothes were ever invented. The fact that she was wearing a dress to the beach was amazing, and the fact that she wore it to go tumbling in the water with the two most important men in her life was even more so.

Blessings upon that family.

Including the dog.


  1. It seems to me that what you're actually admiring about this woman is her confidence in her femininity and as a person. Nothing wrong with that, but what you fail to grasp is that women who live in societies that constantly scrutinize their appearance and evaluate them based on it have a very hide time achieving this kind of confidence. I don't really see much difference between "That bikini makes you admirable to me (a man)" and "That dress makes you admirable to me (a man)." The second is less sexually charged, but it's still just trading one form of Western objectification for another.

  2. Replies
    1. I would have to disagree that there is no difference between the two thoughts. You don't see the difference, as a woman, but as a man my experience is that they are not the same thing at all. The reactions to a woman in a bikini and a woman in a dress are so different there is no comparison. (I am talking about reactions, not actions or thoughts). A woman in a bikini is not really seen as a woman. She is seen as a woman in a bikini, a collection of body parts very conveniently displayed for our appraisal. A woman in a (modest) dress is seen as a woman, that is, as a person. The body is not advertised so we can pay attention to things like "her confidence in her femininity and as a person." Trust me, when a man looks at woman in a bikini, the last thing he notices is confidence. We simply don't see the personality of a stranger who is displaying that much skin. That is the point of modest dress, really. The skin distracts us. Bikinis are easier to judge. It's either, "I'd hit that," or "Yuck, put some clothes on." A stranger who does not show that much skin, however, leaves us with nothing to judge her by but face and actions. It is this that leads us to want to know a person.

      Of course I can take responsibility for my actions and treat a woman in a bikini as a person, and of course I could treat a woman in a dress as an object. The point is not my eventual choice, but my initial reaction. If I objectify a woman in a modest outfit I do it despite the initial lack of encouragement. If I decide to respect a woman in a bikini I do so despite the initial urge to drool.

      This may be disgusting and incomprehensible to you, but that is the experience of being male. The two women are totally different problems.

  3. What matters here is that you're only thinking of your own reaction. I'm not defending bikinis or immodesty. What I'm trying to make clear is that your reaction to the woman in the dress is also an objectification--a different kind. A "You meet MY standards of womanhood" kind of objectification. This is inherently disrespectful, because it is not that woman's job or any other's to live up to your standards. Try to think, instead of focusing on the effect her actions have on you, about the effect your actions (in this case, a judgement, even if it's an approving one) have on her. What do you think it's like for a woman to constantly be on the receiving end of scrutiny and judgement from men who think they know better?

    This is a serious problem among Catholics, and it needs to end. Believe me, we've all heard about the effect immodesty has on men until we're sick. It's time for people to start thinking about the effect that this over-emphasis on clothes (from the point of view of men) has on women.

    1. I have to disagree again. The attitude that I had towards her, as towards all modestly dressed women is exactly the opposite of objectification. There isn't really a good word for it (I've thought of "personification" "subjectification" and a few others) but it is specifically the acknowledgment of this person as a person. It is an attitude of respect. If I think about women like that at all I think things like, "What does she think about A, B or C?" "I wonder what her interests are?" "Or she looks like a great Mom." Or I might just think, "She's pretty" and continue on my way. I register delight in something that is objectively good and beautiful. This is not objectification because it is an awareness of the other person having value specifically as a person.

      Nor is it a question of her meeting my standards at all, as I never have and never would set up wearing a dress to the beach as a standard. I don't set standards for women's dress or actions. I simply observe what is there. In this case it was not the modesty of her dress that was noteworthy, but the context. I am unused to seeing women wearing dresses to the beach. The oddity was what caught my eye. The bulk of the post was about her actions, with the dress as a lens highlighting those actions. The relationship between her and her family was a beautiful thing. I wanted to share that with people.

      Nor do I think I am focusing on her "effect on me" because I don't consider her to have had any effect on me. I didn't desire her, or make any judgments about her holiness or modesty or anything like that. I simply saw and shared what I saw. This is what we do, as writers, or as artists. Art is all about seeing beauty that others don't see, and sharing it with them.

      As for my effect on her? Not a concern. If she saw me at all all she saw was a white guy sitting on a rock with a book. I did not bother them, they did not bother me. And honestly, now I have to worry about the effect of an approving judgment? Really? How far can you take that before it becomes an absurdity? If I tell my sister, "You look pretty in that dress" or "I like your hair" or "That was a really sweet thing to do", I'm objectifying her? I'm subjecting her to my standards? I think you're going to need to clarify that position a little. Sometimes a compliment is just a compliment.

      The bottom line is that every time you meet another human being you are being judged. I watch and listen to people. It is what I do. I sit in coffee shops and pay attention to what goes on around me, or eat out with friends and spend minutes at a time just silently listening to the back and forth of their interactions. People are fascinating to me. I watch and listen, and sometimes I share with people what I see and hear. It is a judgment, in a way, but it is a loving one. I want people to see and love the good, the true and the beautiful.

  4. The problem is this: "Why did the dress make so much difference? I am not sure. Certainly nothing would have changed within that family’s inner dynamic if she had been wearing shorts and a t-shirt or a bathing suit. But there it is. Somehow it enabled her to recapture a little bit of the unconscious queenliness that Eve had before clothes were ever invented. "

    That statement goes beyond just a simple compliment or moment of admiration. You went out of your way to say that she would have been less deserving of (your) admiration if she had been in normal beach clothes, even something as normal and non-controversial as shorts and a shirt. You acknowledge that she would be the same person, but she's elevated to Eve's status ONLY BECAUSE OF WHAT SHE IS WEARING and not because of anything else. That means her clothes are actually more important than who she is as a person.

    It's probably hard for you to grasp this because as a man you've never been on the receiving end of this kind of thing. I have. Many times. It's completely demoralizing and, yes, objectifying, to be told that you're less of a woman because you've chosen not to wear a dress. It's also offensive to be told that you're more of a woman because you've chosen to wear one.

    Men, if they truly want to respect women, need to stop evaluating them based on their clothes.

    1. What I meant by that, and what I tried to make clear, was not that she, or her relationship with her family, or her worth or dignity were determined by what she was wearing, but only my ability to see it. That is why I was at such pains to point out that nothing would have changed within the family (which was what I was primarily admiring) although the phrase "it enabled her to recapture" is ambiguous in that sense. It would have been more clear to say "it enabled me to see". But the observation was not meant to imply that her worth was in any way changed by what she was wearing. The only thing that would have been changed would be the likelihood of me having noticed it. You can consider that an indictment against myself if you like.

      I will not accept, however, that clothes do not make a difference in behavior. Women do look more dignified in a modest dress than in shorts and a t-shirt, and it is not objectification to say so, anymore than it is objectifying me when a woman thinks I like more dignified in my dress uniform than in workout clothes. She is quite right, I do look more dignified, and I act in a more dignified fashion, commensurate with the uniform and what it represents. It does not make me worth less as a man when I wear workout clothes. It just means that the uniform is better for making visible an interior dignity that I should always possess.

      My little sister is one of the most beautiful women I know. She always looks womanly to me, whether she is dressed up to play the organ at church, or dressed down to help a sow deliver piglets. Her dignity does not change, but someone who does not know her may be less likely to see it. The trick for me as a man is to know God, so that I see all women as His daughters.