A Modesty Proposal
One evening, a member of our Catholic single women's group was trying to decide what to wear to a party. So she called her father and asked him what he thought. He said, "Well, you have nice legs, why not wear something short?"
So, she wore something short... and very glitzy. The solid Catholic men-the type she really wanted to meet-stayed away. It was not her happiest moment.
After that we began to discuss modesty, and she picked up on it. She later attended a party where the women were all dressed in slinky, revealing outfits, while she had her long skirt and non-revealing top. "I got more attention than any of them!" she announced.
Chastity simply cannot work without the virtue of modesty of dress in both men and women. Although we don't always think of it, men must be modest, too. Tiny bathing suits, skin-tight trousers, and T-shirts with the arms cut away deep into the center of the shirt would be examples of immodest dress for men. However, as St. Teresa of Avila wrote in her autobiography, ". . . women are obliged to modesty more than men." So, feminine modesty will be our main focus.
Insight Into Male Psychology
Pope John Paul II pointed out in Love and Responsibility (henceforth, L&R; p. 176, 177):
Since sensuality, which is oriented towards "the body as an object of enjoyment" is in general stronger and more important in men, modesty and shame-the tendency to conceal sexual values specifically connected with the body-must be more pronounced in girls and women.
Yet, since the woman is not nearly as "visual" in her attraction as the man is, she who has more reason to be modest, often does not feel the need for modesty. John Paul concluded, then, that "The evolution of modesty in woman requires some initial insight into the male psychology" (L&R p. 177) Women often have noclue as to how men are stirred by them.
And, many young men (who believe in chastity) have never thought about modest dress in women. Some are perfectly ready to visually exploit a woman in a short skirt or bikini, though not physically. Often as they begin to think about the root causes of lust, they start to recognize the negative effect immodest dress has on them. One who has thought about it is Fr. David Knight (The Good News About Sex (pp. 227, 228):
I think we would have to be deliberately naive in this age of psychological sophistication to ignore the fact that certain visual stimuli are objectively and normally provocative to the sex drive of the ordinary male. We might close our eyes to this, but the merchants don't. And the fortunes they make by putting their theories into practice prove they know what they are doing... Whether the women and girls of our culture know or do not know what is going on, they lose by it all the same...
...In the measure that a particular style of dress is consciously and deliberately provocative-whether the deliberate intent is on the part of the designer, or the wearer, or of both-this way of dressing must be recognized as a mild form of reverse rape by which a person arouses unsolicited sexual desire in another person who may not want to be aroused.
After reading Fr. Knight's book I began to observe my own reactions to immodest dress. I felt a certain sadness for the woman, who I feared would perhaps be the subject of exploitation by men.
The Catholic Catechism teaches (nn. 2521, 2522):
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. Modesty protects the mystery of persons and their love. It encourages patience and moderation in loving relationships; it requires that the conditions for the definitive giving and commitment of man and woman to one another be fulfilled... Modesty is decency. It inspires one's choice of clothing...
What Are Immodest Styles?
So what types of dress are the worst offenders? The most common is short skirts. Several times I have heard from devout, with-it men, that they could not believe how short some of the dresses were on women coming to daily Mass or prayer. The men saw their dress and their devotion as completely contradictory.
Dresses or skirts cut way above the knee do affect men sexually, at least in a mild way, but perhaps even more psychologically. That is, their opinion of the woman as a whole is affected. Women wearing longer dresses or skirts often look fashionable, feminine and very appealing to the man who wants a virtuous wife.
Other things which typically stir a certain sexual reaction in men include bare navels, semi-exposed breasts, tight clothes, and revealing swimsuits. Sometimes women are amazed to hear the way men are reacting to them.
One woman responded to a talk I gave on modesty by saying, "Are you saying we shouldn't wear bikinis at the beach?" (She was from California.)
"Yeah, that's what I'm saying."
"That's kind of radical, isn't it?"
"Very. Almost as radical as the Gospel itself."
Several months later I saw her at the beach in a one-piece bathing suit. Her conversion had begun! Four years later she entered a contemplative Carmelite Order. Now that's radical-in the best sense!
What would the Blessed Mother wear at the beach if she were single, 25 and walking on the earth today? I'll bet it would be a classy one-piece bathing suit. If you hope to get into the Kingdom you have to be more like Mary than the reigning movie queen.
It is a wonder to me that young girls from seemingly good Catholic families seem to draw a blank on the issue of swim suits. A Catholic man took a small, informal survey of men at the beach on whether or not they agreed with this statement: "I find it hard not to see a young woman in a bikini as an object of enjoyment.'" The response? All agreed.
Women, do you want to be remembered for your legs? Your navel? Your chest? Your figure? Or, do you want to be remembered for your warmth, your personality, your decency, your goodness, your holiness? If a woman over accentuates her physical values, she will surely drown out her other, more personal, more significant, and more lasting values.
"It's their Problem!"
Occasionally a woman will say, "If men have a problem with what I wear, that's their problem, not mine. They can just deal with it." Not so, for two reasons. First, it's not Christian. St. Paul teaches us, "Carry one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ" (Gal. 6:2). And, in His second "great commandment" Jesus taught, "Love your neighbor as yourself." Love, here, remember, means a concern for the good of the other.
And second, it's not just their problem in the long run. The woman who dresses immodestly brings problems on herself, and other women.
Some women who have met with bad behavior by men get very offended by this argument, and say, "Look, you're trying to make me feel responsible for what happened." Not so. A woman bears some responsibility for the way men react, but that's a far cry from saying men are justified in their bad behavior because of how women dress. They aren't. But when women dress immodestly, they invite a point of view that women are objects to be used. That is a terrible lie that does all women a grave injustice.
The woman who dresses immodestly is selling herself short, saying, in effect, that her best assets are her sexual ones. Unfortunately, when a man sees a sexy woman in the afternoon, he develops an attitude that stays with him into the evening, when he picks up his more modest date. So immodestly dressed women hurt not only themselves, but other women as well. Because some men over-react, this does not remove all responsibility from immodestly dressed women.
A Christian Woman
A good Christian woman has so much going for her, that even if short skirts and other "in" fashions were a benefit-which they aren't-they would be of minimal importance. A woman living in the state of grace has a bit of an aura which far exceeds any fashion statement. Christian women sometimes underestimate their inner beauty, perhaps because the fashion designers have such a strong influence, placing so much stress on the exterior.
"...women should adorn themselves with proper clothing, with modesty, and sensibly, not with braiding and gold, or pearls or costly attire, but rather by good deeds, as befits women who profess reverence for God by good works" (1 Pet 2:9, 10). In other words, it is by their holiness that women should be attractive, not for fancy or immodest clothes and jewelry. There is, after all, nothing more attractive than holiness.
Also, women need to ask themselves, "Whom am I trying to please, God or the world?"
St. James tells us (Jas 4:4) "...whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God." St. Francis de Sales wrote (Introduction to The Devout Life, ch. 25, Ryan trans.): "For my part, I would have devout people, whether men or women, always be the best dressed in a group but the least pompous and affected. As the proverb says, I would have them ‘adorned with grace, decency and dignity.'"
It's All Relative!
Now some may argue, "Well, we've come a long way (baby). Styles are much more revealing today than sixty years ago. It used to be risqué for a woman to show her legs at the beach. The things that are called immodest today may seem quite commonplace twenty or thirty years from now." True, to a degree, but generally those committed to the Lord are not at the cutting edge of revealing styles. That sort of ground-breaking, it seems, could be left to the godless, no?
Others may argue, "Well, it's too hot out in the summer." Hot as it may be, there are modest clothes that allow you to be cool-people from India wear them. And besides, which is more important, being comfortable or deterring sin-and fostering good treatment?
When I see a woman modestly dressed, I think, "There's a woman who doesn't play up to the media, designers, or any man. She's her own woman, or, better yet, she's God's woman. She knows what she wants-decency-and she'll get it." If I were a young single guy, looking at such a woman, I'd be thinking, "She's classy. I want to meet her!"
There are plenty of modest, chic women, who dress sharply, but not sexily. These women are in control of their social lives, and get less pressure for sexual favors than others.
Of course, young people should get the message about modest dress at home, from their mothers and fathers, but alas, not all do. Happy the girl with a modesty-conscious parent, who's willing to teach his/her daughter the value of modesty.
Why do some women dress immodestly? Some feel a certain titillation wearing something slinky or revealing; others are driven by fashions... well, certain fashions; some just want to attract men, and this is a way of doing it.
The fashion argument is weak, given the eclectic styles of today. And, titillation is hardly a value for the thinking Christian woman.
Does dressing in a sexy way give a woman a certain power over men? It sure does. But, it's an expensive power. It's like the power a person gets from taking drugs: it comes with a heavy price. A certain type of man, will be powerfully drawn to an immodestly dressed woman, the type of man who sees women as sex objects, not as potential spouses.
And his response to her? It's certainly not, "I bet she's got a great personality!" or "I bet she'd make a great wife!" It's... well, far more earthy.
In summary then, women have nothing to lose by dressing modestly, and much to gain, including good treatment, decent men friends, and... eternal life.
Much of this text is excerpted from the author's book, "Christian Courtship in An Oversexed World" (Our Sunday Visitor, Huntington, IN, 2003). Used by permission. No other use of this material is authorized.