There is a discussion going on at FMH that spurred a few thoughts for me, (actually it's a resurrected discussion, that seems to be turning into a free for all). The discussion moved on before I could submit my comments so, they're going here instead! (Good thing too, cause I haven't posted for who knows how long...)
1. Modest v. Appropriate
To be modest is to avoid the sin of pride and vanity. One does this by not seeking undue attention or praise, and by showing respect for one's self and God. Therefore, to dress modestly is to dress in an unassuming fashion, to avoid extravagance or extremes, to follow guidelines set by God and to display respect to one's self, peers, and surroundings. Displaying respect to one's self, peers and surroundings through clothing choices is what I term 'dressing appropriately.'
Modest clothing is not always appropriate and appropriate clothing is not always modest, though a modest person will seek to dress appropriately whenever possible. I find it extremely unfortunate that the vast majority of discussions on modesty focus exclusively on dressing appropriately, more specifically on women dressing appropriately. Modesty is a lifestyle that we are all commanded to live by, not a criteria for women's clothing choices.
2. Reflexive v. Controlled Response
I can't stop a bird from flying over my head, but I can keep it from building a nest in my hair.
In the discussions of appropriate dress for women (the ones often called discussions on modesty) a the thought frequently brought up that a woman's inappropriate dress causes impure thoughts in men. This thought normally continues along the lines of 'Impure thoughts are sins. Therefore, to prevent men from sinning, women should dress modestly.' This thought process is strikingly similar to a common bit of rape apologia that says 'Immodestly dressed women incite men to lust after and rape them. Therefore women should dress modestly to avoid being raped.'
I think that the initial statement is false; that is to say that a woman's inappropriate dress does not cause impure thoughts in men. A woman's inappropriate dress does cause a reflexive response in men. Reflexive responses are not impure thoughts, and are not sins. When men choose to grab a hold of those reflexive responses and dwell on them then they become impure sinful thoughts. Men, therefore, are not captive to the whims of inappropriately dressed women, because the first step in thinking impure sinful thoughts (or raping) is the man's choice to dwell on the inappropriately dressed woman.
3. Intentional v. Unintentional My husband is incredibly ticklish, and it would be very rude of me to tickle him when he's trying to talk to someone, or when he's trying to work, or other similarly serious situations. It is similarly rude for a woman to intentionally dress inappropriately with the goal of distracting the men around her. Even though the men may not be sinning when their reflexes react to her appearance, they still have to deal with the distraction, and must recollect their thoughts every time their reflexes go off. It is considerate and polite to dress appropriately at all times, and youth should be encouraged to dress appropriately.
The trouble is, such behavior is only rude when it is intentional, and all too frequently women, especially young women, are not intentionally dressing to distract men in a sexual way. They dress that way because the magazines said that it flatters their figure, because it's in-style, because that's how their friends are dressing, or simply because that shirt used to fit just fine three months ago. It is rather conceited of men to assume that women see themselves through men's eyes, and always dress with men's thoughts and reactions in mind. We should all be much slower to think of a woman as 'dressing like a whore' when she wears sexually inappropriate clothing, because chances are she's not doing it on purpose at all.
In summary, we do everyone a disservice when we make sexually inappropriate female dress the only meaning of immodesty because avoiding such dress has more to do with good manners than modest behavior, and we miss the opportunity to teach everyone the real benefits of a modest life. We do everyone a disservice when we blame women's appearance for men's sins because it restricts women and allows men to believe they are helpless and out of control. We are rude to men when we disregard their reflexes and the resulting distraction, and we are rude to women when we assume their clothing choices are made maliciously with men's reflexes in mind.