Is it Okay to Look at Swimsuit Models?
First of all, I'd like to say that this website, from what I've seen so far, is amazing and full of good advice. Now, I was wondering what kinds of images are not appropriate and in line with chastity. For example, are bikini models on magazine covers not right to see? And what about women who pose nude in a "graceful" way that doesn't show anything inappropriate (doesn't show any frontal nudity)? Sorry if this question is confusing or weird. Thanks in advance.
Your question is not a weird one at all, although it certainly is complicated. With the availability of pornography steadily on the rise and cultural standards of modesty deteriorating rapidly, it certainly can be confusing for someone striving to live the virtue of chastity to know what images are and are not okay.
The soon-to-be canonized John Paul II wrote a book about all of these issues called Love and Responsibility. This is an excellent resource on all issues connected to sex and sexuality, and in it, I found a really helpful passage about art/pornography (at the end of a chapter entitled ‘The Metaphysics of Shame'). Let’s tackle the issue of artistic works first, images that can feature nudity (sometimes full-frontal). Some of the key things JPII said on this issue include the following:
- Art has a right and a duty, for the sake of realism, to reproduce the human body, and the love of man and woman, as they are in reality, to speak the whole truth about them
- Pornography is a marked tendency to accentuate the sexual element when reproducing the human body or human love in a work of art, with the object of inducing the reader or viewer to believe that sexual values are the only real values of a person, and that love is nothing more than the experience, individual or shared, of those values alone.
- If [a work of art] shows a tendency to distort this [truth about our sexuality] it can only give a distorted picture of reality.
Like most issues of morality, intent is key. There is a place in the world for art that features nudity – but we must ask ourselves about its intent.
Michelangelo’s David, for example, is a masterpiece of Renaissance sculpture. It is also a 17-foot-tall statue of a naked man. But Michelangelo’s intent in creating that work was not to arouse sexual excitement in viewers, nor to turn David into an object of lust. His intent was to create a work that symbolized strength and youthful human beauty. Anyone who has seen this statue in person would agree that he was successful - his artwork is incredibly moving.
The world of pornography is very different. Images of nude men and women exist to create arousal and excitement in viewers. They do not exist to express the beauty of the human person, but rather to turn the human person into an object of lust. It reduces a human being, created to be loved, into a sexual being to simply be used and discarded. JPII has also said that problem with pornography is not that it shows too much of a person, but too little. By reducing people to objects of sexual arousal, we separate their bodies from their hearts, minds, and souls, and so turn them into objects of lust.
The distinction between pornography and art should be very easy to determine – although if a person has seriously struggled with pornography and has not received healing through counseling and/or the sacrament of Reconciliation, it would be wise for that person to avoid all images of nudity until he or she is in a place where art can be viewed as art. Romans 13:14 instructs us to make no provisions for the flesh – there is no shame in knowing ourselves well enough to avoid that which might lead us into sin.
That takes us to the other half of your question, one of swimsuit models on magazines. Again, the real question here is one of intent. Swimsuit catalogs exist to sell swimwear for women. One could safely say that these kinds of images should be harmless to someone striving to live chastity. The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue (we use this example because the SI Swimsuit Issue is the highest grossing, most widely distributed issue of their magazine every year... interesting, for a magazine that is supposed to be supporting a culture of sports fandom) exists to sell supermodels to men. No one purchases that particular issue of SI in order to buy a new swimsuit for his wife. The women in those magazines are styled and posed in such a way that could easily lead anyone viewing them to lust - they're often topless, sometimes naked; posed not to show off the swimwear, but their bodies.
One might say, 'But I'm just admiring their beauty, what's wrong with that?' The problem lies in JPII's quote above - you can't admire their full beauty as a human person, because you don't know them. All you have to admire is their physical form, separate from their heart, mind, and soul, so it's impossible not to objectify them. Furthermore, the women in those magazines don't express the wide variety of God's beauty in all men and women - all the women in those magazines are roughly the same size and shape, a cultural standard of 'beauty' that simply means 'sexy' and is impossible for the average woman to achieve. Beauty is much broader than the images displayed in magazines. It's not that these images show too much, but too little.
Does this mean that if you happen to catch a glimpse of the cover of the SI Swimsuit Issue in the check-out line at the grocery store, you have sinned? Probably not. But in order to grow in the virtue of chastity, it would be wise to not pick it up and flip through the pages. In as little as two-tenths of a second, an image can be emblazoned in one’s memory for years. And Jesus would rather you not risk it, since he said that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Mt 5:28). Again, make no provisions for the flesh...
I’d recommend looking into Love and Responsibility for any other questions you may have like this. I also found a really good article on chastity.com that I hope will be helpful. I’ve included the link below.
Thanks again for bringing your question to us. I hope this was helpful. Know that you will be in our prayers.
The REAP Team