The confusion of modesty

Posted on June 28, 2013 by


The Catechism on modesty (emphasis mine):

2521 Purity requires modesty, an integral part of temperance. Modesty protects the intimate center of the person. It means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden. It is ordered to chastity to whose sensitivity it bears witness. It guides how one looks at others and behaves toward them in conformity with the dignity of persons and their solidarity.

2524 The forms taken by modesty vary from one culture to another. Everywhere, however, modesty exists as an intuition of the spiritual dignity proper to man. It is born with the awakening consciousness of being a subject. Teaching modesty to children and adolescents means awakening in them respect for the human person.

This is such a complex subject, and there are too many aspects of it to address in one post, but I’ll make a stab at it here.

I guess, the central thing about modesty, is that it doesn’t draw attention to (unveil) your private bits. For women, that would be your breasts and cleavage, your behind, and your genitals and upper thighs. So, by that measure, this Christian burqa would undoubtedly be modest:

It’s also quite ugly and a bit mannish, and would cause you to stick out like a sore thumb in most places. When you walked by, everyone would be wondering if you had wandered off of a compound somewhere, or if you lived in fear of your certainty that every man was a potential rapist. If you’re wearing it as part of a uniform for your particular cult or religious order, then I can see the point of it. And it is, perhaps, appropriate wear for mopping floors or shoveling out a stall full of manure (although I would dispute that), but wearing it in Catholic suburbia is inappropriately aggressive.

This is in direct contrast to what St. Francis de Sales wrote:

Be neat, Philothea; let nothing be negligent about you. It is a kind of contempt of those with whom we converse, to frequent their company in uncomely apparel; but, at the same time, avoid all affectation, vanity, curiosity, or levity in your dress.

You get that? I totally get it. We owe it to the people we interact with to put some effort into our appearance and to not display our contempt through our mode of dress, at the same time that we shouldn’t look try-hard, decadent, or like an attention whore has taken over our closet.

But even then it’s not that simple. As the catechism points out, what is modest in one region might be immodest in another. This is considered quite modest, in the country it is generally worn in:

She’s not exposing her side so that you men get all excited. Honest.

And the same goes for this:

I know that you can see her décolleté and the outline of her waist. It’s supposed to look like that.

This woman is dressed modestly, for a princess attending a formal occasion:

It is fitting to dress according to your status. Royalty should not look like a peasant. It’s both an insult to the other royals and to the peasant.

So, what should we wear?

You know, I’ve given up on specific rules, as they change depending upon where you live and the company you keep. I have a general rule-of-thumb that I try to dress like the Romans when in Rome, but with slightly less skin showing. So, like I’m a slightly prudish Roman.

So, instead of wearing this:

I wear this:

Instead of wearing this:

I wear this:

Instead of wearing this:

I wear this:

A note on swimsuits: Those of you wearing t-shirts and bizzare swim-burqas to the pool… we’re all staring at you.

Generally speaking, modest clothes, like wearing the most flattering colors for you, will tend to redirect attention to your face rather than to your ass-ets. When you put on an outfit, look at it and ask yourself, “What is the first thing someone seeing me is going to look at? Will they find it hard to look me in the face and respect me as a person, or will they just think, ‘Hey, she’s pretty!'”

“Hey, she’s pretty!” is what you’re generally going for, not “Wow, she’s hot!” Pretty is generally the word men use to describe women who look neat and feminine and slightly stylish, but who don’t look like they’re looking for something. There’s going to be some dispute over where that line is drawn, but as long as you’re somewhere in the general vicinity of that line and have your heart in the right place, you’re fine.

Posted in: Homemaking