Just Being Modest

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“Only leave skin showing if you’d be OK with a stranger touching it.”

“Hem lines should fall below the knee, and above the shoulder.”

“Shoulders shouldn’t be bare unless you are at the beach.”

“Wearing form-fitting clothing is just the same as being naked.”

“Any clothes that make people look at you will make men lust after you.”

These are actual bits of “advice” that I have heard over the years – advice given by so – called experts in the field of “modesty.”  The problem is, well, they are, in and of themselves, problematic.   At the very least they fall woefully short.  (Ha, no pun intended!)  They convey a false (and dare I say dangerous) impression of what modesty is truly about.

The Catholic Philosopher and physician, Dr. Herbert Ratner said that a nun could be forced to walk naked down the street and still find a way to carry herself modestly, while Marilyn Monroe

(or maybe for a modern day equivalent, Paris Hilton or Brittany Spears…) could walk down the street in a nun’s habit and still find a way to seem immodest.  I love this alternative explanation of modesty because it illustrates what modesty TRULY is – and it is, first and foremost, an interior attitude.   Did you read that right – an interior attitude.   Not an exterior display, and most assuredly not an excuse for frumpiness.

Well-known Catholic Speaker Mary Beth Bonnacci gave an interview in Envoy magazine where she is quoted as saying that some people seem to think that they are being modest when they “seem to fear all attraction to the opposite sex.  Some women seem to make a test out of requiring men to look past their deliberately slovenly appearance to find the ‘gold’ of inner beauty disguised within.  Personally, I don’t think this is such a hot idea.”  She then goes on to explain, “The object of modesty is to elevate the dignity of the human person.  It’s to demonstrate that we respect the body as the seat of the soul, as a gift from God…we show respect for our bodies when we dress attractively.”

There is a well-intentioned but misguided element in our Catholic Culture that seems to equate modesty with ‘dumpiness.’  I call it the “Frumpy Aunt MacGuillicuddy look.”  This is sad, because as women we are created to embody, in a unique way, the beauty of God.  Why then would we seek to dampen or distract from that beauty by hiding it?  Or at least by making it harder to see.

But what about all that stuff about ‘inner beauty’ and being beautiful on the inside?  What about it?  Yes of course, we all want to be seen for the person we are on the inside.  We all want to be beautiful in and out.  I am simply saying why would we make it harder to see the beauty without?  When did that become Catholic?

Simply put – it’s not.  The Church has always been about beauty – and showing that beauty.  Just walk into any old Cathedral – especially in Europe.  Heck, in Italy for instance, even the little Churches are adorned with Frescoes and gilded in gold.  And what is your body, if not a Cathedral?  What would you think if the Sistine Chapel was all of a sudden shrouded in muslin and all the statues and frescoes covered up with tarps?  It’d be a travesty.  It would actually distract from what that Chapel was built to be in the first place.  At the same time, it would be repulsive and completely inappropriate  if every painting was redone and its subjects made to look provocative and as if they wished to incite lust.  This too would be equally distracting.

So what is the happy medium?  Modesty.  True modesty.  To continue with our analogy it would be the Sistine chapel, with the candles lit, flowers adorning the alter, the frescoes brightly lit, and the gold gilding glittering. Not hidden, yet not demanding attention.  Not disguised, yet not inappropriate.  Beautiful.

You, dear reader, are the Sistine Chapel.  You are beautiful.  You are made to be beautiful!  Do not be afraid of your beauty!

Now let me stop right here before some of you think I am advocating waltzing down Main Street in your bikini bottoms.  A priest named Fr. Peter Stravinkas says that  modesty is  a social virtue that facilitates relationships by preventing people from either behaving (or appearing) too shocking with each other or behaving (or appearing) too fussy with each other.  It is part of the Virtue Chastity, and it is made necessary only because of the Fall (the big one- back in the Garden).  This means that being modest is being appropriate.  That is why some of those “suggestions” I started out with fall so short.  If you are at the beach you’re going to have more skin showing than if you are at Mass.  In the case of the beach, wearing a bathing suit – even one that might show your belly button – is appropriate.  If part of being modest is not calling undue attention to yourself, as was also said by Fr. Stravinkas, who would attract more attention on a beach – a woman in a tankini or a woman wearing a turtle neck and ankle length skirt?  When scanning the pool or ocean who do you notice – the ladies in the bathing suits or the ones wearing T-shirts and shorts?  Now, I have been known to wear a T-shirt over my bathing suit – usually when I am pregnant – but you see my point.

A less obvious example would be what you might wear to Mass versus what you might wear to a formal dinner-dance.  At a formal dance it’s not inappropriate to show more skin than you would at Mass.  Even a little ‘decolletage’ isn’t out of line.  The idea is to not call undue attention to yourself – and to not be seeking to incite lust.

That’s the last part of the equation – the lust factor.  This is usually the part that gets the most attention.  Young women are told that they must dress modestly or they will cause men to lust after them.  The fear of being lusted after is beaten into teenage girls by well meaning modesty speakers.  Now, it is important for us to understand that it is never desirable to be lusted after.  That is after all why Eve clothed herself after the Big Event with the Apple.  We want to protect ourselves from being lusted after because if someone is lusting over us, than we are being used – -and our God-given dignity defiled.  HOWEVER, and this is a BIG however, if a man lusts after you, and you are not actively seeking to grab his attention and inflame his lust, then its HIS problem.  Let me say this again.  Lust is HIS problem.

I see a troubling trend with too many chastity and modesty talks.  They place the burden of guilt for men lusting on the women.   “Don’t wear this, that, or the other thing or you’ll cause your brothers in Christ to lust.”  “Don’t show any skin or you’ll cause your brothers in Christ to lust.”  “Don’t show your knees or you’ll cause your brothers in Christ to lust…”  This makes me crazy.  As a young teenager I went through a frumpy jumper stage simply because I felt so guilty for possibly making my “poor brothers in Christ” lust!  That is wrong!  Our ‘poor brothers in Christ’ DO have self-control.  They have a responsibility to guard their hearts and if necessary their eyes.  Now granted the idea is that we shouldn’t make it unduly hard for them.  Hence, true modesty being about appropriateness and respect.  Respect first and foremost for our own bodies, and secondly for those who see us and interact with us.

Unless this aspect of modesty is explained to young ladies, we run the risk of a damaging message being internalized by the next generation of Catholic women: that their bodies are bad and are only made to make men lust.  In other words, being attractive can be sinful.  This is the dangerous side of the “advice” I cited at the beginning of this post.  Definitions of modesty that are heavy on the fashion advice tend to send a message that our bodies need to be covered up because they are bad.  This is, in fact, a heresy!  The Catholic Church tells us that our bodies are good!  They are beautiful!  We should not use them inappropriately, or to deliberately make others sin.  THAT is the message that we need to internalize about modesty.  The other is what we started with – that modesty is internal.  It is an attitude – something that you exude.  Think of the nun and Paris Hilton…or frumpy Aunt MacGuillicuddy.   Which one do you want to be?

*For some more insights into Modesty, Chastity and Marital Love check out Holy Sex! by Gregory Popcack, P.H.D.

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