When I was a teenage Trekkie, my mother remarked that the heating system on the Starship Enterprise must have been rather strange, as the men wore heavy jerseys and trousers whereas the women wore mini-dresses. I thought of this yesterday in a Catholic church as I listened to a choir sing Vespers and
Bare arms, bare shoulders... It really doesn't seem like much to cause a distraction. They're just arms. They're just shoulders. (We'll get to the upper chest later.) And yet the male choristers didn't appear in the sanctuary in tank tops. I couldn't see their arms or their shoulders, and I would certainly have found it startling if I could. I am just no longer used to seeing bare arms and bare shoulders in church. Indeed, I am no longer used to seeing women in the sanctuary, so seeing women--women under the age of 60, that is, for I occasionally go to Mass in the Ordinary Form--in the sanctuary was itself a bit of a rarity. Speaking as a woman, I wish all the women had dressed as decorously as the men. Speaking as a woman, I was embarrassed.
To be strictly fair, I should note that B.A. didn't even notice. He was much more interested in which composers' works were going to be used for this Vespers, which was both a Christian celebration and yet also a performance in an arts festival. And also to be strictly fair, the woman showing the most flesh had a lovely, professionally-trained voice. For a moment, it made me forget the vast expanse of pale flesh contrasting so dramatically with all the black clothing. I suppose it would be most charitable to assume that she didn't know she was going to be performing in a Christian church, or at least, that she didn't know she was going to be appearing at the very front of the Christian church. However, I doubt such an assumption would be intellectually honest.
It is much more likely that neither she nor her conductor thought there was anything wrong with women choristers wearing black camisoles during Christian services (although presumably they would have objected to male choristers doing the same), and if any Christian were offended by this, that was the Christian's problem, not theirs.
And maybe it is. However, I can't get past the contrast between the men who were covered from neck to wrist, from neck to floor, and the women who weren't. I feel something similar when I see a man wearing shorts and a T-shirt while his wife, clad in hijab and a black abaya, pushes a pram beside him. Why does the man wear western clothes when his wife does not? Why don't women cover up for church when men do?
I mean, really. Put yourself in my shoes. I am in a large Catholic church, and all the men and women I see in the congregation seem to be soberly dressed. It is not a hot day although I certainly feel warm wearing my coat indoors. There are perhaps 15 men on the altar, a half-dozen in clerical choir dress, perhaps three of those in chasubles or dalmatics as well. The rest of the men are in decorous black. The women, too, are in black, except for the flash of arm playing the cello and--in the very centre, right behind the altar, right before the tabernacle--an expanse of bare female chest.
Am I getting old? Would I have noticed this ten years ago? Is this what happens when you habitually worship among men who wear jackets and women who wear veils to Mass? Is human flesh really THAT distracting in a place of worship, or am I suddenly oversensitive?
As certain instruments demand freedom of movement, I could understand that musicians would prefer to wear sleeveless shirts during performances--except that men musicians don't. Somehow a convention has sprung up that men must not show any flesh but their faces, necks and hands in formal settings, but women may show our legs, arms, shoulders, cleavage, stomachs--anything at all, really, as long as it is not "bikini area", or too much all at once. Why? If it is to express proud femininity--well, there is such a thing as a skirt.
There are overwrought young Catholic men (or at least I know of an overwrought young Catholic man) who think women should dress as the Blessed Virgin Mary is depicted on statues, which I imagine would be extremely uncomfortable and inconvenient in urban Scotland, if sensible for first century Palestine. Let's not be ridiculous. However, let us not entirely discount the testimony of men who say they are distracted--quite against their will--by what flesh women flash in church. I am a middle-aged married woman and yet I too was quite distracted by what flesh women flashed in church. It entirely ruined any enjoyment or edification I might have experienced or true worship I might have expressed. To a certain extent, this is probably my fault. But only to a certain extent.