The Perils of Excessive Modesty

I found a fascinating piece by a protestant minister’s wife at Musings of a Young Mom (via Danielle Bean’s shared items).  She describes what happened when she and her young kids went to a playground and found an ultra-modestly-dressed Mennonite family there:

A teenage girl followed a toddler around the park, both of them wearing the long plain dresses that hid every shape of their young bodies. The mother sat on a park bench quietly watching while the husband and brother stood nearby arms folded, grimly surveying the area. I watched a young girl about age 9 climbing quietly up and down the play structures, her ankle-length dress billowing around her, her hair tucked into a small bonnet.

The author begins to wonder whether, in the eyes of this other family, she and her children seem immodest.  Extreme self-consciousness follows:

[M]y girls were in t-shirts and the little knee length skirts that they love, with the shorts built in. But suddenly I was uncomfortable, very aware of their bare little legs. Were those men watching them? I felt objectified, suddenly feeling the need to be protected by a long skirt, and wondering if I should have dressed the girls more “modestly”.

It felt creepy to be around them.

Proponents of extreme modesty would say that I was feeling exposed, because I was wearing only jeans and a t-shirt. So I was immodest and therefore felt objectified.

But she recalls suffering the same discomfort when she herself was a child, trained to dress and act with extreme modesty always in mind:

Having an excessive modesty mindset trains you to notice anything and everything that could be possibly construed as sexual. I remember several years ago a young mom in my church complaining that “you can’t take your kids anywhere these days” illustrating her point by a story of her 6 year old son asking her why the lady jogging by in shorts was so “immodest”. Six years old, and already he was in training to see women as sex objects. Excessive modesty teaches men to objectify women, and it trains women to think of themselves as sex objects.

She says that, even today, she sometimes casts her eyes to the ground when talking to men.

Please read the whole thing for more interesting details, and for a worthwhile blog in general. 

Her argument reminds me of an old examination of conscience which pointed out that thin, dainty, fastidious eaters can easily be guilty of the sin of gluttony, even while eating small portions.  Fatties stuffing their faces are not the only gluttonous ones:  it’s anyone who gives food too much thought, too much importance.

Modesty is important.  Terrifyingly important.  We all need to be careful, and it’s an exhausting challenge to guard ourselves and our children against flagrant nastiness in the culture as a whole, and to be sure that we are not making things more difficult for men (and women) who are liable to temptations of the flesh.

But how fascinating to remember that it’s always possible to go too far!  It’s not a matter of “better safe than sorry.”  There are genuine dangers involved in excessive modesty.

Simcha Fisher

By

Simcha Fisher is a cradle Hebrew Catholic, freelance writer, and mother of eight young kids. She received her BA in literature from Thomas More College in New Hampshire. She contributes to Crisis Magazine and Faith & Family Live!, and blogs at I Have to Sit Down. She is sort of writing a book.

  • Lindsay

    I’m not sure that my 6 year old knows the word immodest, but my boys do notice immodesty. I remember going to a restaurant when he was 3 or so and having his STARE at the waitress’s see through lacy top. Most of our friends dress modestly, and the boys do notice when people aren’t. We went to a graduation party for twin sisters in public school, and we really were scandalized. It was hard to discreetly get my children not to stare at these young girls wearing a total of about a quarter yard of fabric, and I’m sure they weren’t looking at them sexually, yk? Even in their innocence, they notice the difference. So, she might have a point about excessive modesty causing issues, but I’m not sure that young children noticing immodesty is evidence of it. Modesty isn’t just about sex. You can talk to young children about covering their bodies because God made bodies holy without lust or anything else sexual ever entering the dialogue.

  • christophe

    I rather doubt that “excessive modesty” is a major problem today. This essay reminds me of Cardinal Newman’s remark, when told that there was “excessive zeal” in the Anglican Church, that it would be a great improvement if England were “vastly more superstitious, more bigoted, more gloomy, more fierce in its
    religion than at present.”

    Excessive modesty? Bring it on.

  • Evelyn

    I really appreciated the article. A lot of my formation as a protestant evangelical was tangled up with protecting the men in the group from lust. I even had a male leader in the college campus minister offer unsolicited comments about some of my outfits being a problem, and I’ve been frumpy my whole life. The same attitude persisted among adults, who didn’t like nursing even under a cover, because they knew “what was going on” under there.

  • Ellen

    I am uncomfortable around people who are excessive in either direction. I saw a woman at the library wearing a pair of shorts made from cut off sweat pants that were so short her behind was hanging out. When I was driving home, I saw a muslim woman wearing long pants, a headscarf and a calf length coat. It was 95 degrees at the time.

    Me – I was wearing bermuda shorts and a tee shirt. I think I was quite modest and comfortable too. Everything in moderation – that’s how I try to live.

  • bill bannon

    We need not go to their lengths but we are in no position to be blaming the Amish for men lusting due to the Amish and others being covered up.
    Logically then, males would have a secret sinful desire to drive through Lancaster Pennsylvania. It is we who after centuries of Catholic begun culture have topless beaches in France…thong bathing suits in Rio’s beaches….and women singing in half dressed on Latin tv from the largest predominant Catholic continent….and we are locating the problem in the Amish. We’ll see at Judgement Day…if that one flies.

  • Zoe

    I’m SO glad I had parents who were not hung up about the body… Modesty was something that went along with dignity and wisdom… you dressed and behaved according to the situation/event, the company, the weather, your age and state in life, and your personal style, with the surrounding cultural norms considered.

    It helped that we were not bombarded with TV and advertising images sexualizing the body. Instead, I grew up thinking of the body as both sacred and natural, and finding the balance was something that depended on many factors.

    Chastity is not about what you wear — it’s about how you view yourself and others, and subsequently behave based on that. If everything is primarily sexual, then chastity becomes something you either over-emphasize out of fear or ignore because of disrespect, ignorance, or lust. It’s awful that we live in a world of extremes.

  • Learning

    I am the standard of modesty. Me me me! Those girls wearing bikinis over there – an occasion for sin I tell you. The weird ladies in the long dresses – what are they implying that I am a slut or something? I need to talk to my housing association board about standards – all dresses can be no more than two inche below the knee or one inch above the knee. Guys will have a choice between bermuda shorts and suits like Scott Hahn wears. If some one doesn’t comply we can put a lien on the property. I have the right to never be made uncomfortable at ALL times.

  • doug

    I think modesty begins first and foremost in the heart and mind.

  • Michiganian

    Excessive modesty is a real problem and can be quite painful and destructive, especially among adolescents. It’s kind of in the same category as scrupulosity; most people are fighting just the opposite, but it is very real for the people who are dealing with it. And, the fact that it is against the obvious cultural problems makes it very easy to mistake it for the good and proper response.

  • meg

    Is this a protestant thing, maybe? Puritanical leanings, etc. I have friends who are quite modest but not one goes the potato sack root, and all are joyful and full of love for life and God. Come to think of it, I don’t think I know any grim Catholics…

  • dymphna

    I was once shopping in the store near some Old Order Mennonite girls. I was struck by three things: they seemed like young girls, not hardened old women the way most teenagers are, they were modest but beautiful and they were happy. They radiated happiness. I’ve found that Mennonites are some of the kindest, gentlest people I’ve ever met. That Mennonite lady in the no frills long dress and bonnet will feed you if you come hungry to her door, raise money for you if you need help, and will never say a word about the way you’re dressed. I’d rather hang out with the quiet Mennonite lady than most of the women you’d see in the mall.

  • Cord Hamrick

    I second the emotion re: the kindness and happiness of the Mennonites.

    On the broader modesty question, I think there are several layers to consider.

    I hope you ladies (since this concern primarily — not solely, but primarily — applies to women) won’t mind me, a man, chipping in my overly-analytical two cents?

    Context
    I think the first thing is to remember that a combination of culture and weather and activity produces a context for how we dress. A woman from a Pacific Islands native tribe wearing nothing but a loincloth was, by so doing, not violating the community standards. She was the equivalent in her society of a Victorian lady covered from neck to ankles. Neither is outwardly immodest. And quite apart from comfort issues, a person wearing clothes appropriate for the ninety-five degree Atlanta summertime yard-work is not dressed appropriately to go to the ballet, in January, in New York!

    Intent
    Of course, either the Pacific Islands woman or the Victorian lady could be inwardly immodest — intending to draw inappropriate attention to themselves — while being outwardly modest in the sense of complying with local standards. Conversely, a woman in what she intended to be a normally modest outfit might be surprised to find that a person from another culture was scandalized by it, because of the discontinuity between the cultural standards.

    Judgment
    Of course, our modern world is full of cultural cross-pollination. People from everywhere go everywhere. So one can’t even say that by staying in one’s own home country and state and county and town and neighborhood, that one can avoid looking a bit like a frump to one passerby and a bit like a strumpet to another. What’s a well-intended woman to do? Use her best judgment, and if her judgment is unsure, then try to achieve a good balance.

    Balance
    Balance is the logical watchword, or perhaps Temperance: Observe that some women cut it a bit too close on the “flaunt it” side of the balance sheet, and others cut it a bit too close on the “morose and drab” side. Then find a middle road between the two, get in the habit of executing that middle road as well as you can, set that habit on autopilot, and don’t worry about it overmuch except from time to time in order to make “course corrections” as needed.

    Here is an example: My wife and I observed that in social settings, a woman can wear a short-ish (not ridiculously short) skirt and not look immodest if she happens to be wearing a looser fitting and more-covering blouse. Or, she might be able to wear a form-fitting dress with spaghetti straps, if the dress length is down to the ankle. So the top half can be balanced against the bottom half.

    Also, fabric and color seem to matter: The same cut of garment which in denim or bright spandex looks trashy, can look classy when it’s in a formal fabric and/or a more muted color. So the cut can be balanced against the fabric or color.

    Propriety
    In these kinds of discussions, the word “Propriety” can be misinterpreted as having prudish overtones; one might think that it conveys the message: “Err on the frumpy side.” But it should not be viewed that way; rather, it should should be viewed as an encouragement to dress in a classy way.

    Words like “classy” and “sharp” and “tasteful” hit, I think, the right note: They convey a way to look impressive but in a subdued and not overly-attention-drawing way; and, they imply neither tacky shamelessness nor drab wallflowerhood.

    Here I speak as a husband and a father: My wife and my daughters are my jewels, my prize paintings. And more important than my feelings on the matter are God’s: They are His beloved daughters whom He created with an artist’s care to detail.

    Now, one does not set a priceless gemstone in a plastic ring from a gumball machine; nor does one put a masterpiece painting in a three-dollar plastic frame. It is proper, it is fitting, that women be dressed nicely, not shabbily: Aren’t they daughters of the King? In a culture where makeup and jewelry is the norm for grown women, then a moderate usage of makeup and jewelry is likewise proper for a woman.

    I am not advocating ostentation, which can be immodest in intent or intemperate in execution or culturally out-of-context. And if even very moderate makeup and jewelry make a person feel uncomfortably conspicuous, why then skip it: It’s a low priority.

    But I am saying that by being too constrained and plain in their garb, in the interest of modesty, some women seem actually to do a disservice to themselves and show (I think) disrespect for their own inestimable value in God’s eyes and the eyes of the men who love them. It is the converse error to women who dress in a trashy way: An error in the opposite direction, but still an error.

    When jewelers package a diamond ring, they set it in a fabric-covered box on velvet, because it is proper to do so. Either leaving it rattling around bare with a price-tag on a string, or (conversely) encasing it in a neon-colored plastic vacuformed blister pack, would be an insult to the workmanship and the value. That, to me, is what a woman does by being either intentionally frumpy or intentionally trashy: Wrapping one of God’s jewels in packaging which communicates a message of low value. Such a shame.

    Those are my observations; I hope they’re useful or at least worthy of consideration.

    P.S. I should note that those observations aren’t entirely mine. I owe a lot to my wife’s insight on some of these things; especially with respect to all those fabric/cut statements. I myself don’t know charmeuse from Charmin, so that bit comes from having conversations with her, often while accompanying her into a fabric store, where she’s in her element and I just look lost.

  • Katharine

    Well you hit one of my hot button topics. :-)

    I have interacted with several different groups of conservative Christians who had varying campaigns for uber modesty. Most of what they were saying revolved around one core principle; men are ravaging, lust filled beasts by nature who have little to no control over their sexual appetites. Thus we women are supposed to do everything in our power to make it impossible for those beastly men to get their crazy sex fiend going when they look at us. I find that very degrading to women and men. That viewpoint also fed into comments within those same communities along the lines of: “Well I know why “Jane” is pregnant, because she wore jeans and tempted that poor young man” and the like.

    Societally we are in a very immodest place right now with people seeing the value of women, and to some extent men, as lying in the extent to which they are worth objectifying physically. The opposite of that isn’t dressing people like shapeless rag bags…we could use much higher comfort level around real human bodies which are beautiful and in no way “force” anyone to think sexual thoughts in and of themselves.

    And if we think calling oneself a Christian or being super strict about modesty trump self-control when it comes to lust we have only to look at statistics that show about 50% of Christian men (and a growing number of Christian women) are viewing pornography on a pretty regular basis if not daily. Several of the most outspoken modesty advocates that I have known personally seem to be attempting to put responsibility for their own sexual weakness on someone else’s shoulders.

    Modesty can help but ultimately it is an individual’s self-mastery that matters most.

  • theresa

    “But I am saying that by being too constrained and plain in their garb, in the interest of modesty, some women seem actually to do a disservice to themselves and show (I think) disrespect for their own inestimable value in God’s eyes and the eyes of the men who love them.”

    I have to admit, as someone who doesn’t have the time, money, or figure to do much about the constraint and plainness of my garb, this kind of thing has gotten really old. I am someone else’s wife, he can tell me if he has a problem with how I’m using my/our resources to dress.

    There is a tradition of Catholic moral theology addressing the display of the human body in ways that might be sexually arousing. Yes, of course, there are limits on how much care we have to pay to every “might be,” and much of this is subjective, so “What if some weirdo is attracted to XYZ, does every woman have to think of him when she gets dressed” doesn’t need to be brought up again. Genuine moral theology tends to address the usual and also give some guidelines for dealing with the exceptions. There certainly seems to be room for differing opinions about hemlines, necklines, sleeves, etc.

    The “so many women I don’t know personally are poor witnesses or even disrespecting themselves, their husbands, perhaps even God with their lack of attention to their appearance” stuff seems to me to be fairly new, and mostly found on the Internet, although maybe I’m not spending enough time talking to Catholics in person who concern themselves with this sort of thing (or maybe they wait till I’m gone to bring it up.)

  • Colleen

    I grew up in the late 50s early 60s. Educated by the very good Nuns in our Parish. A member of the Holy Angels & later the Children of Mary. Said the 3 Hail Marys for Chastity every night. Attended the meetings for these groups and had absolutely no idea what sex, modesty & chastity was all about. None whatsoever. Got married at 28yrs and had absolutely no clue about sex or anything else. I was somewhere betwen 48 & 53 yrs of age when I found out just what homosexuals got up to, although I had heard of them in my teens. I was a total embarrassment to myself. My Mother told me “about sex” when I was about 11 and asked her (after reading a”Dear Dorothy”question regarding why a “man” could not have children. A MAN? I ask you. Women had children. I knew that because my beautiful Mother – & I really mean that – had at that stage had 5 of them. So? how did men have babies? !! I asked my Mum and she gave me the physical side of sex. She also told me how none of her daughters would be sexually uneducated by her. The Poor darling had no clue. She really did her best. It took me a further 50 years to find out about the beauty of the human body and its sexuality. Funny thing that. I had told myself that my daughters would never be deprived of a “good” sex education. Sure I did better than my Mum, BUT. Modesty is more than clothes, but it sure starts out with what we are wearing, especially when we are just little girls.

  • tb

    I’m with Christophe on this one: Would that we had to worry about “excessive modesty”! Just look around ANY parish in the USA during a Sunday morning Mass & you can easily see that the Church has been much much more invaded by the culture than the culture has been influenced by the Church. We have totally lost the notion of what is modest bc we’re (all of us) are so influenced by what is immodest.
    No, Simcha, of all the things we have to worry about, excessive modesty isn’t one of them.

  • Lindsay

    I think that the overly casual nature of dress in America (pjs in public?) and femininity in dress, while related, can be separated from modesty. It would seem that the Vatican City dress code would make a good rule of thumb in this regard, imo. They recently extended it throughout the entire city, not just inside the churches. I just can’t see how it can be an entirely subjective question.

  • Ioannes

    While no doubt there is way too much inappropriate dress in Church as some have mentioned, I think that looking at modesty only by the amount of skin showing misses the broader point as the author is making. It is a mistake to assume that if we all dressed as the example given, which is also the same style of dress assumed by some traditional Catholic circles, that it would fix the problem. There is the old adage that “peace is not the absence of war,” similarly modesty is not the “absence of skin.”

    BTW, There is a difference between Amish and Mennonite

  • Lindsay

    True, but when you are talking about something so ambiguous, “absence of skin” is an effective place to start. If your analogy were turned around, then it would follow that war is a blatant sign of lack of peace, right?

  • Marthe L

    Reading this blog and the comments, I wonder if I may be forgiven if I bring in a seemingly unrelated question… In my country, Canada, particularly in Quebec, as well as in France, there is a debate going on and I would like to know if it is an issue in the US, as well as some opinions. The problem is a garment worn by Muslim women called the “burka”. This garment not only entirely covers the body from head to toes, it includes a veil that conceals the face except for a small opening for the eyes. It is being argued in some circles that it is only worn by a small minority of the Muslim women who have immigrated to the West, so why not let them wear whatever clothes they want? Other argue, and I think it is legitimate, that refusing to show one’s face in public becomes a security concern, particularly nowadays, because we cannot even be sure it is a woman under those layers of fabric (and if there can be something sinister hidden under the garment…). And myself I think that it does objectify a woman (among other problems) and teaches men in that culture to consider a woman uniquely as a sex object that they cannot be allowed to see unless the woman is their wife and is in the privacy of their own home, because, as one Imam somewhere actually wrote (according to something I saw on the Internet), men are incapable of controlling their appetites… I also feel that a woman who chooses to dress in that way in the country where she is an immigrant (although I am not sure they all make that “choice” freely) is cutting herself off from any contact with the community she is living in and maybe is even showing contempt. The main problem is to decide if governments would be justified in making it illegal to wear such a garment in public, and the debate is rather hot, both in France and in some parts of Canada. Is this happening also in the US? And would some of you care to give me some comments?

  • Lindsay

    Zoe blogged about the ban last month: http://www.insidecatholic.com/…-idea.html

  • Michael

    I hardly think so. When I was a young man coming of age I remember thinking to myself all the time, “Why don’t women respect themselves as much as I want to respect them?” If you want men to make eye contact when speaking to you don’t give them skin to stare at. It is a powerful distraction. Men do not automatically objectify women. They will be attracted however even if a woman is not showing skin.

  • Mike

    I like this article because it speaks to youth. Usually there is a problem among youth in how to dress. Usually kids are taught either to dress like a Las Vegas prositute looking for customers or like a 1950’s housewife. Either way they know that the issue is greater than exterior attire. Who will be looking at me? How will they be looking at me? What can I control and not control about how men view my body? My point is that women have a duty to be attractive but not seductive. This is simpler said than done. Attractive for who? God.

  • Micha Elyi

    I’m with Christophe and TB on this one. “Excessive modesty” – what a concept!

    In an earlier comment, Katherine accused “several different groups of conservative Christians” of having “one core principle; men are ravaging, lust filled beasts by nature who have little to no control over their sexual appetites.” Wake up. That bigoted, misadristic attitude toward men is not at all limited to conservatives nor Christians. It’s widespread in America. You can hear the same attitude expressed all over the social map even out to the far corner occupied by the most out-there pagan feminists.

    The reality is that generally men are constantly exercising tremendous control over their sexual appetites while women exercise very little. Consider this thought experiment: imagine an America in which men are just as uninhibited* in responding sexually as women are in advertising themselves sexually. The noise of crying babies in the pews at Mass would soon become the subject of reminisences about The Good Old Days, wouldn’t it?

    The man-bashing is a cover-up for the fact that too few women show any will to master their own lust for sexiness. So often the woman who complains about “objectification” is a woman who has been lustfully dressing, painting, perfuming, and bejeweling herself into an object.

  • The Jerk

    “The man-bashing is a cover-up for the fact that too few women show any will to master their own lust for sexiness. So often the woman who complains about ‘objectification’ is a woman who has been lustfully dressing, painting, perfuming, and bejeweling herself into an object.”

    “If you want men to make eye contact when speaking to you don’t give them skin to stare at. It is a powerful distraction.”

    Beyond parody.

  • Marthe L

    I did like Cord Hamrick’s comments above. And I would like to add something that could be useful:
    Just this afternoon, while I was reading our parish Sunday Bulletin on line, I came across this link :
    “FOR DRESS CODE guidelines and tips please visit
    http://www.purefashion.com/modesty
    While I do not necessarily agree with all the practical details, I think it is very useful and could probably be used as

  • Marguerite

    Modesty is a virtue. Is that something bad? It is a God-given virtue to protect boys and girls against the capital sin of lust. According to today’sw mindset, lust is good, modesty is bad. If more women and men had modesty, maybe there would be less STDs, less abortions, less out-of-wedlock babies born. Think about it folks.

  • Frank

    Perhaps the Mennonite family felt “creepy” being around the young mom and her brood running around in shorts. It cuts both ways. Nothing wrong in teaching one’s children that their body parts aren’t the most important things to expose.

  • Kristi

    if you look at others dressed modestly and it makes you feel guilty. Maybe you should feel guilty enough to put on more clothessmilies/cheesy.gif Or is it just easier to write a post to justify your own choices?

  • bill bannon

    it tough on females as to what is modest. If a female wears a somewhat short skirt to the beach and stands talking to 4 females who are wearing bikinis, she goes unnoticed by gazing men because relatively she is now the Amish in the group…relatively.
    Now place her as the only female with the very same men in a subway train with the same skirt and with her legs crossed and half her thigh visible and she
    suddenly becomes Angelina Jolie….relatively to the very same men who ignored her that way on the beach. The Amish and other covered cultures solve this male relativism of temptation…by dressing covered. Another solution is simply to be relatively more covered in context than society is seeing generally in that context. No woman though has an obligation to consider the excessively tempted man as Aquinas points out as to scandal in general. She must only consider the average man who is rational in the main.
    The covered cultures are not inherently grim as the source essay to this thread painted them. I seem to remember the Amish several years ago extending their love to the family of a mass murderer who killed their children in that little school. That is not the actions of a grim culture.

  • Simcha Fisher

    Sorry for my absence in the comment box – I was out of town for a couple of days.

    My thanks to readers who actually clicked on the link to the original blog post and read the wonan’s article. Her point was a little subtle and unusual, which is why I thought it was interesting enough to write about. Several of the commenters here understood and appreciated a fresh perspective on a wearisome topic.

    To the commenters who protest that immodesty, not excessive modesty, is the major problem in society today … yep, you’re right. Said so in my post. But here’s the thing: obesity is also a major problem in America today. So does that mean there is no such thing as anorexia? Does that mean that people who suffer from anorexia aren’t really suffering?

    I wish that Christophe, Learning, tb, Frank, Kristi and others would go back and read the original article. The writer was speaking from personal experience. She was very clearly someone who takes modesty very seriously, had changed her thinking since childhood, and had learned something in the process. If you still think she’s saying, “Men are disgusting, women should be able to wear whatever they want, and the problem in the world today is that women wear too much clothing,” then you would not pass my fifth-grader’s reading comprehension test.

    Sorry if I sound grumpy, and my apologies to the several readers who took the trouble to listen to what the original author was saying. To the others, I really can’t explain it more clearly than the original author did.

  • Bob

    A supermodel can stand in front of me with a bikini on and it is my job to look at her from my heart as a fellow child of God, not lust after her as if she were some object, or ride at an amusement park. When you see or greet anyone say “hello Jesus”, it will help put your thoughts in proper order.

  • Lindsay

    I’ve been thinking about the original post. Perhaps the perspective the original blogger has means that the obsession with some achievement of “perfect” modesty to which she was exposed growing up meant that she *felt* objectified but not necessarily that her presence caused others (namely men) to actually objectify her. One of the Marian virtues is “resplendent modesty,” and images of the Holy Mother almost always exhibit full coverage including a head covering. I can’t imagine that this is objectifying. So, for her to be so uncomfortable, it really has more to do with her history rather than the practices of those around her. I’m not sure I’m making sense, but I’m wondering if it wasn’t simply her baggage that made her feel uncomfortable with the long skirts and had actually little to do with the long skirts or beliefs of those wearing them. Still evidence that the extreme viewpoint can be emotionally damaging, but it doesn’t project that onto others (Mennonites?) who might chose to wear certain clothes for the sake of tradition and modesty but have a completely healthy view of the human body. Their choice is not what is making this woman feel objectified.

  • Mimi

    @Marthe L

  • Kate

    Excessive modesty would certainly be a problem to wish for if the virtue was internally generated and self-applied. I can’t think of a problem, other than maybe a lack of style, that I could cause myself by taking up an “overly” modest lifestyle.

    The problem with so-called “excessive modesty” is when it ceases to be personal modesty and becomes instead an excessive communal awareness and judgment of everyone else’s possession or lack of personal modesty. I think this is the point both Simcha and other blogger were making – that when we’re all immoderately concerned with modesty, it loses its true meaning and fruits, and becomes instead a skin checklist, and we all end up more concerned with and aware of the sexuality of our bodies – the very thing modesty is supposed to mitigate. (Our sexual awareness, that is. Not our sexuality.) An understanding of modesty that teaches us to look out for skin so we can label all the “immodest” women around us seems to me to be missing the point.

  • Donna

    if the young guys in the neighborhoods where I live and work – a university area with about four schools in close proximity- would wear shirts when they jog or run. I can shut my eyes if I’m walking, but if a shirtless man comes running by when I’m driving, I’m stuck. (At the pool I can take off my glasses and I’m nearsighted enough that I’ve got built-in custody of the eyes ! smilies/grin.gif )

    Sometimes older guys do it too, but that tends to be a gross-out rather than a temptation. smilies/tongue.gif

  • Lindsay

    The “gross-out” factor is an example of how modesty shouldn’t be reduced to a mere reaction against lust. It is about dignity. Just because one becomes less of a sexual temptation doesn’t mean its then okay to dress less modestly.

    Perhaps that would be an effective rule of thumb? Picture yourself at 75 and imagine how much of your body you would feel compelled to cover. Now, apply that. Just kidding. Sort of.smilies/tongue.gif

  • Lindsay

    Please ignore my above comment if it seems disrespectful. On second thought, I realized it might, and I don’t know of a way to delete one’s comments.

  • MRA

    Thanks, Simcha, for pointing this piece out. I’ve always been vaguely disturbed by the sight of those little girls who have to wear long floral dresses even to climb the monkey-bars at the playground, but I don’t know that I could have articulated why. The author’s personal experience gives her opinion a lot of weight – especially her memory that the boys regularly followed her around the playground, trying to look up her skirt. Of course she’s right: to wear such situational innappropriate garb positively draws attention to the little girl’s body. If you let her wear jeans and a t-shirt, she’d just be a child playing, but to put her in this modern-day burka is to treat a 5 or 8-year-old as sexual, which is creepy in itself.

  • Marthe L

    I must admit that I had not yet read the original post, but now I just did, and its conclusion confirms something that I have always thought:
    “Excessive modesty teaches men to objectify women, and it trains women to think of themselves as sex objects. This is the opposite of what the excessive modesty mindset sets out to do. How ironic?”
    And thanks to Mimi for pointing out the origin of the link I had suggested. I had not realized that it originated with the Legionaries.

  • Mrs. F

    Though this a bit of a tangent, reading the original article reminded me of something I noticed when reading Louise May Alcott’s An Old-Fashioned Girl. Young girls wore their skirts shorter and their hair down in braids or loose. They were not sexual and weren’t seen that way, so they did not need to be as covered. When they became women, they had to adhere to a stricter standard of dress: longer skirts and more confining hairstyles. The book addressed the problem of younger girls following the styles of older girls and women, thus looking more adult than they were, and having more expected of them in some areas. This seems the reverse of what we have today. Little girls can still run aorund in t-shirts and modest shorts, or even modest length sundresses. As they grow, society seems to think they need to cover less rather than more. The problem of younger girls being dressed up like teens or adults still exists, though.

    For me, I think the questions is whether modesty is in the eyes of the beholder or the mind of the person being beheld. Or is it some dynamic blend of both, requiring awareness of both self and one’s effect on others? When discussing modesty with my Middle School CCD group, we discussed the boys’ side, how they should not look at women as sex objects or give attention to those who are dressed immodestly, and the girls’ side, how they were responsible for dressing modestly enough to not be a near occasion of sin for boys in general. This was a new way of looking at things for the girls, who were more concerned with being fashionable than modest, and were much more interested in accolades from their friends for an ‘in’ outfit than what the boys thought.

  • KT

    For those who do not know, this is a real problem today. As a Catholic homeschooling mother I do come in contact with the “Amish” Catholics. There are many who don’t agree with women wearing pants. I do believe we are all called to a different vocation but for most we still (unfortunately at times) must live in this world and look somewhat approachable and normal to reach out and cathecise the world at large. It is our duty to be modest but the problem arises when someone freaks when they see a knee, shoulder, bathing suit, nursing mom, etc. This is when we start over-sexualizing the body. Our bodies are gifts and it is important to dress respecting them BUT Because our culture over-sexualizes bathing suits doesn’t mean we (catholics) have to…We need, as other commenters have pointed out, to teach self-control, and that we are encountering Jesus when we encounter others.

  • christophe

    So, Simcha, if someone disagrees with you, he is dumber than a fifth-grader?

  • The Jerk

    No, big guy, that would just be you.

  • dymphna

    I felt sorry for the Mennonite family. There they were minding their own business when this woman with an over active imagination and the urge to make everyone like herself comes along to judge them. I’ve met Old Order Mennonites. The ladies dresses aren’t that long and they aren’t potatoe sacks. They have waistlines and usually are calf length. And unless it was Sunday, the girls wern’t wearing bonnets. We’d be a happier country if everybody minded their own business.

  • MRA

    Dymphna, I assume you did not read the original article. She was not just being a busybody – she was reflecting on this as somebody whose parents made her dress much like the Mennonites throughout childhood and who has had a very hard time recovering. (She mentions, among other things, that when she became large-chested in her teens, her mom and her mom’s friends decided that she would have to wear turtlenecks and vests or jumpers at all times to hide her chest,since even the loosest shirts would not conceal enough.)

  • Zelda

    It’s not really modesty to dress in a way that makes you noticeable, whether you are showing skin or not. Wearing a sack dress/turtleneck combo that screams “Look at me!!! Look at me!!! I have breasts but you’ll never see them nyah nyah nanyah nyah” strikes me as being just as immodest as the slattern with the exposed butt cleavage that no one even wants to look at. And then assuming that someone is going to be overcome with lust at the sight of one’s scrawny neck seems just about as immodest as it is possible to be.

  • Marthe L

    Zelda, I agree with you. I can remember some 20 years ago in the parish church I was attending then, there was a middle-aged mom and her 3 or 4 daughters, wearing long skirts and something over their heads, MARCHING down the aisle, the mother in front and the girls, ranked according to their height, following her, to go to receive Communion, and it always made me feel uncomfortable. I understand they were part of a group called something like the “Blue Army” or the “Army of Mary”. They were very noticeable! At the other end of the spectrum, I remember, even longer ago than the above example, being very surprised to read in a newspaper a little item that announced that some bishop (in California, I think) had to consider it necessary to instruct priests to refuse Communion to women showing up wearing bikinis…

  • Antoine Roguetin

    Nuns were covered head to toe for over a millennium. Now that most have stopped, are we going to rib the anabaptists for the identical thing. What did Mary wear?

  • Marthe L

    Sure, Mary wore a long tunic and a veil, which was fitting for a woman in a society where a man was not supposed to talk to a woman in public even if she was his wife… However I agree that we should allow people to wear anything they want, but within limits. A man who wanted to go out in public wearing a nylon stocking over his face to disguise his appearance might raise eyebrows. And a woman deliberately calling attention to herself, even by wearing excessively covering clothes, would be considered in bad taste and may even be seen as displaying a measure of pride… She would certainly be free to do that, but I would be free to avoid dealing with her as well, unless it was as part of a requirement of my job. However, I see no harm in openly discussing our opinions on a site like this.

  • Antoine Roguetin

    you left them out. Some orders still dress that way….but Anabaptists can’t in the same time period?

  • Marthe L

    I did not leave them out, just took them for granted. They don’t stand out as much because I am used to them, they are part of my childhood and our Catholic culture. However, in Canada, there are very few who still wear their habit, therefore other people who wear similar covering now seem to be different from us. However, I must admit that a young Muslim woman wearing traditional clothing often displays a measure of dignity that is sorely lacking in a teenage girl wearing a micro-mini skirt and a log-cut spaghetti strap tank top… So, you see, everything depends on context. On the other hand, myself and my friends who are artists sometimes see things in a different way; a few life-drawing classes (which are very hard work) do a lot to change one’s perspective…

  • Antoine Roguetin

    art as an excuse to denigrate anabaptists for dressing like our nuns. Watch that excuse and keep track of all it allows you to do.

  • Antoine Roguetin

    to have your perspective without needing to notice what others have chosen especially when their choice is made within Catholicism still by some nuns.

  • Chris

    The article clearly was a conversation starter!

    St. Thomas identifies that there are at least four aspectst to the virtue of modesty:
    1) modesty of the mind-humility
    2) modesty in what we investigate -studiousness is the virtue (curiosity is the vice)
    3) Modesty in our bodily movements
    4) Modesty in our dress and outward appearance

    It should be clear from the discussion this article generated that Christian maturity is a difficult goal. We need to be patient with each other and ourselves. Therefore a certain detachment about modesty, without diminishing the importance of the virtue, is the goal.

    I knew a man who contacted a friend of his to inform him that the man’s wife was immodestly dressed. He had seen her at daily mass and she was wearing shorts.

    All things being equal, it is probably true that she was somewhat immodestly dressed; however it was an act of immodesty for the man to mention to the other man that the wife was immodestly dressed! She was attending daily mass which is a great good. It was his obligation to grant her the benefit of the doubt, praise God for her beauty, seek to purify his own heart, and to leave well enough alone. Charity is the great rule in all things. Her slight immodesty exposed a great deal more about him. The virtue and the vice are ultimately relational. The virtue helps others and the vice hinders, but the same can be said for being overbearing or lacking in charity in these matters.

    Cultural critiques of immodesty are very different than critiques of this person or that person in this concrete circumstance. To point out that Lady Gaga is crassly cultivating immodesty and to condemn the phenomenon is different than talking about this with ones’ daughter or spouse.

    In some sense we are all immodest-if we understand that the state of our soul is not dressed as well as it could be. We are all attempting to build up the wardrobe of virtue-it takes time!

  • LLMom

    So glad to see this issue addressed in Catholic circles. Excessive modesty is creeping up in Catholic circles, especially the Traditionalists groups and Catholic homeschooling groups. I have a blog dedicated to extreme Catholic issues.

  • Lindsay

    I think that Mary was more than just a person of her time, she was a faithful Jew. Orthodox Jews still have very high standards of modesty in dress when out in public even while wearing modern Western garb, but I happen to think that much of their dress that I have seen is quite beautiful and not objectifying in the least. There is an independent film called Arranged which tells the story of the friendship of two young ladies (one Jewish, the other Muslim) who will have their marriages arranged by their families. It is a sweet film, if not an extraordinary one, which gave a small glimpse into these cultures unfamiliar to me, and I think that both girls looked lovely while still remaining faithful to the high standards of modesty required by their individual traditions. Of course, they have a professional designer choosing their clothing for the purposes of the movie, but I found it a good example of how one can be “covered” without suffering from “excessive” modesty as described by the original post and actually look fairly normal (aside from the fact that current norm is decidedly immodest).

    I think it is also of note that, even when appearing in apparitions in different times other than her own (including the 20th century), Mary is still dressed in much the same way though she is no longer bound by the customs of her time. I’m certainly not advocating robes for all, but I think it is significant when reflecting on her as the model of “resplendent modesty.”

  • Susie

    Simcha
    I have been working on a piece called, Why Nice Girls Hate Modesty for over ten years. I couldn’t finish and print it because I was never able to fully articulate it the way you just did. Plus, it just wasn’t funny… Maybe someday I’ll figure out a way to make it funny.
    Meanwhile…
    THANKS!
    Susie Lloyd

  • Marthe L

    To Susie Lloyd: I am curious and interested, although I never married and had children… A suggestion: I do not know what is required to publish an article in Inside Catholic, but maybe you could try to summarize a number of points in your coming book (let’s be optimistic here) and share them with us (Please?) I do think that there is a need for it.

  • Mimi

    Lindsay, I think maybe you got a Hollywood version of what Orthodox Jews are really like. Their world is rife with dissent and has even come to violent levels of arguing regarding levels of dress. Women will tell other women that they are simply better then them because of the higher denier of their tights. Short hair under a cap vs. shaved bald head under a wig can cause family rifts and disownings. Paroxysms of outrage happened once when it got out that some of the human hair from their wigs came from Indian women. who prayed to a Hindu god before cutting their hair to sell to the wig trade. They considered themselves to be religiously defiled, even though it was through no fault of their own. They are excessive in the extreme and it’s far more than just insisting on covering down past the wrists even on 95 degree days.

    The point is once you live with them and scratch the surface, you’d be shocked as to how psychologically unhealthy they are. Remember, for them, they have no Redeemer and their salvation comes from the minutia of the stuff they do and how hard/often/intensly they do it. It’s deadly serious to them. Women are not much more than objects to advance their chances of salvation, through continuous child-bearing and upholding the 600+ rules of life, diet, sex, clothing, education (or lack thereof), etc. Divorce can and does happen but often without any input from the wife whatsoever. You talk objectification; no Orthodox Jewish man will touch another female, ever, because she might be menstruating, and therefore dirty with the capability of rending a male unclean.

    That’s just not mentally healthy, nor respectful of women and how God designed them.

    As for Mary appearing in robes in apparitions, so did Jesus and I don’t see anyone anywhere thinking it’s even slightly appropriate that any contemporary man consider robes.

  • Lindsay

    Well, contemporary men do consider robes when they are serving the mass, join certain religious orders, act as a judge, etc… So there is some dignity attached to the idea. Still not advocating robes for all, thoughsmilies/wink.gif

    I suppose I simply meant to address the assumption that Mary would “show more skin” or whatever if she lived today. There is no evidence of that. Do *I* show more skin than Mary does in her holy images and apparitions? Every day. Do I think I will ever approach the heroic levels of virtue that she did. Nope. I simply mean that her example would seem (to me) to show that wearing ankle length skirts and long sleeves does not inherently mean a woman has an unhealthy view of her body and that Mary’s motives for dress were likely attached to the traditions of her faith.

    You are right, I am very ignorant of all that goes on in Orthodox Jewish circles. We all know the extremes that Muslims can go to in this area as well. The film did seem to present girls who embraced the traditions of their faith in a healthy way, however. I really hope that my own motives for dress are not judged because there are others who dress the same way who happen to be dysfunctional and disordered, yk?

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