The problem of modesty

Sometimes I have scruples about the things I write, worrying whether words will be misconstrued or pert opinions come across as doctrine. There haven’t been any major problems yet, thank the Lord, which might be because I generally stick to issues on which most can agree, leaving the really contentious ones for those much better educated than I.

But there is one pseudo-contentious issue that I find myself delving into more and more: modesty. As much as I’d like it to be a cut-and-dried issue, it simply isn’t. Modesty, especially within the realm of clothing, is an area shrouded in shades of grey. This bothers me, because I like black and white. I like the rules to be neatly laid out before me with everyone following them in an unswervingly straight line. But that’s not the reality—and I know this because I work with young people who are asked to stick to a fairly specific dress code. It is an area rife with personal judgment calls, body types, colours, fabrics, sizes, shapes—the list goes on and on. Aside from the very, very basics, what’s good for one is totally inappropriate for another.

Can it be any other way? Short of giving specific measurements, how do you go about providing guidance? When we are talking about modesty in dress there are two definite goalposts: Fundamentalist Muslim on one side and Most Definitely Naked on the other, and worlds in between. How does anyone navigate this chasm, with blessed little to concretely go on?

Recently I read a book by Colleen Hammond called Dressing with Dignity. It was a shocker for me because it was the first time I’d heard a Catholic talk about exact measurements in relation to modest attire. Hammond gives a rundown of instructions regarding women’s modesty issued to every parish in 1928 by the Cardinal Vicar of Rome:

“A dress cannot be called decent which is cut deeper than two fingers’ breadth under the pit of the throat, which does not cover the arms at least to the elbows, and scarcely reaches a bit beyond the knees.”

It was all a little irritating for me; I had to admit that a good portion of my wardrobe might not measure up to the “modesty guidelines.” I mean, elbows? Immodest? Really? Yet the more I pondered the more I (begrudgingly) admitted that it was strangely comforting to at least have something to use as a jumping-off point. I know that these guidelines aren’t completely outdated because most churches in Europe have similar regulations. Generally, people (and that’s men and women) are barred from entering if they are wearing tank tops, shorts, strapless tops, or miniskirts (for the ladies) and I can’t say I’d be sad to see that happen in North American churches, where you can come to church wearing something closer to the Most Definitely Naked side with nary a word said. It makes for an uncomfortable and distracting Mass, for both sexes, when there’s a gentleman with shiny, tight pants or a lady with a short skirt and legs-for-days in front of you. And it’s not just uncomfortable. There’s an element of temptation that weaves its subtle-yet-deadly way into it too—especially for those struggling with sexual sin. Jesus tells us that we should be more willing to cut off our hands or pluck out our eyes rather than consent to sin—yet how much more difficult is it to avoid committing sin when the very objects of our affection are standing in front of us, alluringly beautiful and only half dressed?

Do you know what’s attractive? Legs are—among other body parts. The human body is downright beautiful to behold. God did that on purpose; He made us beautiful within our bodies because if we weren’t, the world would cease being peopled. Yet both male and female bodies have inherent dignity far beyond the mere physical and, because of that dignity present in each man and woman, it is not fitting for the body to be uncovered for the entire world to see.

So we ascribe to the principles of modesty, discretion, and decency in order to present to the world what we truly are: whole persons—body, soul, and spirit—all the while protecting the intimate centre of our persons and veiling what should rightly remain hidden. And this is where constant prayer, solid education, and good discernment practices come in. How else can one go about learning, concretely, how to live modestly and treat themselves and others with the dignity owed to the human person? The Catechism and Sacred Scripture are good places to start, as well as books like Dressing with Dignity and websites such as therebelution.com. Then comes the nitty gritty work of taking an honest and hard look at one’s life choices—and closet— and excising the “darker shades of grey.” Because it’s all fun and games, until someone plucks out an eye.

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