Modesty: A Less Weird and Angry Approach

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December 1, 2012 by lucieromarin

Alas! If you are going to move in Catholics circles, you are going to hear lots of other people’s thoughts about modesty (including mine. Ahem). You can either let it drive you mad, or you can develop a filter, understanding that not everything spoken is of equal merit; some thoughts do not need to be remembered or repeated. I think these are some of them:

1) Any assumption that a speaker can argue anyone into adopting his or her sartorial norms. You can explain why you hold the values you do, and you can defend those values if they are misrepresented, but you cannot argue anyone into modesty. Why? Because you can’t argue people into virtue. A temporary change of behaviour is not a conversion of heart. Virtue is about God, which means love, and you can’t argue someone into loving anyone in a particular way.

2) Any argument that could equally be used to defend the hijab or the burqa. If your argument could lead one to that conclusion, and you don’t want it to, then don’t use it.

3) Any argument based on the consequences of immodesty. I’m not saying that immodesty has no consequences, but to focus on those consequences as an incentive to virtue plays right into the idea that virtue is largely about avoiding the punishments of a vindictive God.

4) Exaggerated promises of the rewards of modesty. I’m not denying that modesty has its rewards; I’m just cautioning against their excessive promotion. The world – and by this I mean the Catholic loop –  is full of modest women being treated badly and immodest women being treated well, and to believe otherwise is to inhabit a fantasy.

5) ‘Modest is Hottest.’ Apologies to whoever first thought up this slogan and applied it to stickers and pins…but, well, hotness is about being sexually attractive, and modesty isn’t. I don’t mean that modesty is about being sexually repellent; I mean that real modesty (not frumpiness) has a wider and deeper agenda than the stimulation of physical appetites. It’s closer to the ideal of ‘cool’. If guy says, “She’s so cool,” the chances are he means something like “I really like her,” or “I really want to hang out with her.” If he says, “She’s so hot,” he means, at least, “She’s so good to look at,” or, at most, “I want to sleep with her the instant I look at her.” Saying ‘Modest is Hottest’ is like saying, ‘Modesty Shuts Down the Male Brain With Thoughts of Sex More than Anything Else Does.’ ‘Modest is Coolest’ is closer to the spirit of the thing, but, as slogans go, is equally ridiculous in its own way.

What does that leave us with?

It leaves us with church architecture. I’m not joking. You’d never vandalise a church, or disguise it as a nightclub or a seedy pub or something worse, because God is there. You worship Him there. Well, He is also in us (I know you know this! This is just part of the explanation!); we are liturgical beings, whose every action of the day can be an act of worship. This is why we don’t deface ourselves, or disguise ourselves as nightclubs, or seedy pubs, or something worse; because God is within us…(and it doesn’t hurt to remember that there is no uniform for us any more than there is for churches.)

You can’t predict the effect that the beauty of a church will have upon those who see it; some minds will be ennobled, some won’t, some may be driven to acts of violence against it. It doesn’t matter; the beauty is there because God is there. In the same way, it’s true that modesty can be ennobling, but we can’t predict its effects on those around us, and it’s not our job to try. We choose it with an inward look, not a sidelong glance; we choose it, not because we have men’s issues on our minds, but because we have God’s own immensity in our souls.

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