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.

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.

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