The modern world seems to neglect and even ridicule the beautiful concept of modesty. For Catholics, however, modesty is essential for the path to holiness, and in helping us to understand the misguided path of androgyny taken by many today. For Catholic women, a proper understanding of modesty and the problems of androgyny will also help us to appreciate the importance of our authentic femininity.
Modesty is the appropriate reflection of one’s dignity. This dignity recognizes itself as subordinate to God, seeking to glorify God in one’s body and preserving it from scandal. It means avoiding sins of lust and preserving the body’s glory, covering areas that will lead others to temptation.
Modesty honors the Imago Dei common to all human beings. “In the image of God He created them.” The Book of Genesis further refines the definition of human dignity as it specifies, “Male and female He created them.” Each person is created in the image of God, and invariably either male or female. God created us, body and soul. The body itself, with a soul, is the image of God that we are respecting in modest attire; we were given an image of God to bring with us throughout life, and we must respect it, treating it appropriately and as something sacred (I Cor. 6:19-20).
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Though male and female are distinctly different, they also distinctly complement each other. They are equal in their human dignity, but different in form and function. If God, in His perfect knowledge and will, created them—us—with these distinctions, then we can trust His design and comply with it.
Just as we reflect our Imago Dei, we must also reflect God’s desire for our modesty and dignity. This means dressing and presenting ourselves in one of two ways that are dependent not on our preferences but on our nature according to God. These two options are once again of the same dichotomy: male and female. Not something in the middle, and not something that fluctuates alongside one’s emotions. If you are a female, you always will be; if you are a male, you always will be.
What does this mean for an individual’s practice of modesty?
It means dressing distinctively feminine, if you are female, and distinctively masculine, if you are male, and not succumbing to androgynous behavior or looks, but dressing as you know you ought. This proposition might irk or offend you, but it must be made.
Men and women have long had distinctly different styles (see, for example, I Cor. 11:1-16). Perhaps these necessary differences have been manipulated at times to “oppress” women in forcing excessive outfit restrictions while allowing men much more freedom, or in secretly encouraging indecent attire. But even if something has been abused, should we do away with certain standards altogether, or compensate in the opposite direction? Not if we have common sense.
It should be simple enough to understand that the abuser and the abused are very separate entities. By way of example: good food is not bad because it could lead to gluttony; heavy objects are not inherently evil because they could be used to commit murder; things are abused, manipulated, and warped to produce sin. Indeed, Original Sin occurred, and we must deal with the consequences, being careful not to mistake good for bad. The action of abuse, not the object of abuse, is the issue.
The object in our case is gender differences. Yes, they have been abused and manipulated, but the over-compensatory response to this has led to a world of problems, confusion, and destruction. But, let us pause to recognize the beauty of this distinction in its natural, pre-fallen state. Forget, for a moment, about the suffragists, Amazons, harems, and tomboys. Return to God’s design in a world without original sin.
Slow down and think again of that verse, Genesis 1:28. While in the untarnished Image of God, man and woman were fundamentally different in the Garden. Having been made by God, that design is perfect, natural, and, as He proclaimed over Creation, good. It is very good—the crown of creation (see Gen. 1:31). This beautiful distinction completes our definition of human dignity, and we must preserve the difference to preserve the dignity.
This requires doing away with androgyny.
It is a simple reality that what is modest for a boy is not always modest for a girl. (This is supported by Pope Pius XI in his Papal Decree Concerning Modesty.) Both the preventing of lust and the presenting of God’s beauty should be considered when judging the modesty of a particular clothing choice.
Regarding current fashions, it is easier for girls to fall into these errors; at least within our Catholic culture, it is much more likely one will see a girl in a flannel and jeans than a boy in a sweater and jean skirt. Those two examples may seem disproportionate (one commonplace and the other appalling), but that only goes to show how far the issue has already declined. While cross-dressing is a more alarming concern than the ungendered clothes of this first example, they are different levels of the same issue, the disregard of one’s gender; ultimately, the degradation of God’s sacred design of man and woman. It may be surprising to recognize, but we have accepted gender-neutral wear as it has been stealthily integrated into our society, adding to the modern distaste for this beautiful distinction.
Girls, dress like girls, and you will be women; boys, dress like boys, and you will become men. Embrace the difference as natural and good. If past scars tempt you towards rebellion against nature or tradition, then resist that temptation; seek virtue and truth. Evil attacks and manipulates the truth, seeking to destroy, confuse, and divide. It separates us from our Divine design. Some have lost their way in all this confusion and come to believe that following truth is wrong, because they see not the truth but its manipulation. If you encounter mutilated truth, restore it, emphasizing not the counterfeit, but the original image: different clothes for different genders. No insipid androgyny. No excuses.
This needn’t be a vain pursuit, nor a pursuit in vain. Femininity is simple and graceful, separate from the silly frills and fuss that deter so many.
Women, take Mary as your model. She is the ultimate example of authentic femininity. Men, take Saint Joseph as yours. He is the guardian of virgins, and protector of the infant Christ, a pillar of chastity and preserver of innocence. He is a man, and with his example, you may be too.
So, how do we reflect our God-given dignity through bodily modesty? First, by dressing appropriately, presenting our bodies purely and sacredly. Second, by clothing our bodies with respect to our genders, not succumbing to the claims of oppressive stereotypes with manipulative purposes, but revealing the beauty behind gender.
Embrace the Truth, and live your life boldly, using the body God has designed as He intended it. This is beautiful. And it is very good.