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The Burden of Modesty

May 19, AD2015

universe, milky way, creation, holy presence

As the end of the school year approaches, prom season is in full swing. Delone Catholic High School, in McSherrystown, Pennsylvania, is stirring up a national controversy by requiring girls to submit pictures of their prom dresses for approval. It is reported on both the Huffington Post and Seventeen Magazine web sites; both are portraying the school as overbearing and oppressive to the female students. A group of parents and students have launched an online petition to end this “antiquated and unreasonable” policy.

Contrary to the media reports, this is not a new policy sprung on unsuspecting students late in the prom dress shopping season. The school released a statement reminding all that this policy was published on September 8, 2014, and is the same dress code that has been in place for 23 years. The only new feature is the requirement for dresses to be pre-approved. The intent was to spare girls the embarrassment of being turned away at the door as has happened in the past.

One response to this brouhaha is to end proms altogether. After all, the questionable lyrics of much of the music, the bumping and grinding of the dancing, and the excessive display of skin can make prom one big near occasion of sin. Canceling prom certainly would end the prom dress imbroglio, but also would miss the crux of the issue.
Modest dress should be an expectation at all times, not just at the prom. What are students wearing at athletic events, free-dress day, field trips, or any other school sponsored event? If there is overt enforcement of modest dress in every other aspect of campus life, the policy regarding prom dresses would seem routine.

I cannot speak to the specifics of dress code policy enforcement at Delone Catholic High School. Judging from the prom dress policy as well as their statement that Catholic identity is fundamental, it looks like a school that takes Catholic formation seriously.
On the other hand, I have been to far too many Catholic high school events where there was no concern for modest dress or behavior. The cheerleader and dance team costumes can be as risqué as any prom dress. If your performance cannot be appreciated without showing lots of skin, then it is time to rethink the quality of your choreography.

It definitely would be easier for all concerned to give up on a school-sponsored prom. I am sure Delone Catholic High School officials would love to rid themselves of the headaches this year’s prom has generated. Prom is supposed to be that special last hurrah before seniors go their separate ways after graduation; but it is not an essential high school experience. However, if we despair and get rid of prom because modesty is too burdensome, what are we teaching our young people?

As one who is old enough to remember a previous era when mini-skirts and short shorts — we called them “hot pants” — were popular, I understand the struggle to maintain decorum in the face of a hypersexualized culture. But I also know it is doable. We had dances throughout the year. Some were casual. Some were formal. Sister Ida Marie kept a sharp eye on our uniform skirt hemlines making sure they were at least as long as our fingertips when our arms were at our sides. We were always anxious to follow the fashion trends, but we also knew there were limits. And in spite of the limits, we had a blast.

As I see it, prom is not the problem. Rather, acquiescing to a culture that objectifies both men and women and encourages their sexual exploitation is the problem.

We need to show high school students that modesty and chastity do not sap all the fun out of life. Let our young people have athletic events, field trips, and even prom in an environment that celebrates the dignity of both men and women. They need to experience a culture of virtue to see how liberating it can be. It is virtue, not vice, that frees us to reach our full potential and become the persons God intends us to be.

Therefore, rather than fighting school administrators over the policy, parents should be cooperating and supporting efforts to encourage modesty and respectful behavior. Yes, it will take work. Parents will be faced with the howling protestations of teens who want to wear plunging necklines. Chaperones will endure the rolling eyes of dancers who are getting a little too intimate on the dance floor. Organizers may have to develop guidelines for the DJ to keep the music relatively clean.

But in the end, the kids will have a wonderful time and maybe see that virtue can be just as fun as vice. The opportunity to provide such a lesson makes the burden of a modest prom worth every bit of required effort.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

Filed in: Marriage & Family • Tags: ,

About the Author:

Denise's vocation is being a wife, mother, and grandmother. Her occupation has wound its way through being a practicing family physician to studying Catholic health care ethics to writing and teaching about all things Catholic. She is a fellow with Human Life International and regularly contributes to the HLI Truth & Charity Forum. She also writes a monthly column for Zenit.org. She and her husband John have been married for thirty years and have lived all over the United States, courtesy of John's Air Force career. They are now settled in the suburbs of Northern Virginia and blessed with four children and three grandchildren (so far).

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  • Elleblue Jones

    I saw a TV show where young women who were attending coming out balls had to have their dresses pre-approved and it showed one participant using technology to have her dress from the store approved. Why on earth would we continue to give students the idea that they can do what they want and dress the way they feel as they move out into the adult world where these attitudes do not fly. Everyone I know says there is a dress code for all staff in their workplaces. If you don’t like it, they suggest you move one!

  • ElizD

    I believe part of the problem is really that even when standards were issued (“fingertip length skirt hem”) they were arbitrary and left huge leeway for immodest attire. A RATIONAL minimum modest skirt length is BELOW the knee, covering the knees even when seated. Everyone can understand rationally why a below the knee skirt is modest and mid thigh length skirts immodest. the “fingertip length” rule teaches nothing about modesty, it just approves immodesty.

  • KarenJo12

    The issue is that the school enforced modesty only on girls. Apparently in Catholic doctrine men are always perfectly modest in their dress and appearance.

  • Elijah fan

    The Amish have somethings more right than the Catholics. This is one. I Timothy 2:9 mandates modest and decent dress. Our high school Catholic uniform skirts are hiked up by the girls in some cities so much that a rap song has the ghetto thug telling his girlfriend to put on her Catholic school uniform. When rappers prefer our fashion, that’s a red light. One movie on tv had a pole dancer using the Catholic school uniform as part of her act…? because it combines innocence and sin once the skirt is hiked up?? Very pleasant to devils I’m sure.
    I passed two Catholic girls the other day and the skirts were mid thigh. When she sits down on a city bus seat, the show increases.
    It’s not the culture…it’s us who were the only ones wearing mini skirts in some decades via our school uniforms which the Bishops should have solved decades ago by mandating female slacks…not male slacks on women like the post office and police have had at times. I will not respond to any liberal commenters on this topic; we’re not even close and I fulfilled this week’s quota of responding to the non scriptural intellects at crux. I think I shaved off a lot of Purgatory time just by entering into their foaming heretical world this week.

    • Elizabeth

      I disagree – the schools should have enforced the hemlines of kilts decades ago but gave up. When I went to school mid 1970’s my kilt was to my knees. We HAD to kneel and get them hemmed at that length. If your kilt was too short you were booted. The fact is many parents after decades of not living their faith don’t give a darn about skirt length and many of these girl’s mothers wear miniskirts and short shorts anyways. Why should their daughters be any different.

  • SnowRose

    I find what is happening truly amazing! As society slides deeper and deeper into decadence, Catholics are becoming more and more aware and are actually beginning to take a stand! I think this is wonderful. It will, no doubt, lead to severe persecution but I say bring it on! We need to fight for our children and fight the good fight and the Catholic Church should be leading the way.

    • Rose K.

      I agree. The parents should inculcate certain discipline in the children and modesty in dress is one of them. The mother should explain the need for modesty in their daughters. The fact that your immodest dress that helps generate lust in males is a scandal and sin, must be driven home to our dear daughters. Prom is not meant for display of one’s cleavage or underarm or back. It is for togetherness, for the thought of joyful and responsible student days, for building up friendship even after leaving the school.

  • JDM85

    The values at prom show what has been going on in the years prior to prom. Parents need to press modesty and risk looking uncool far, far before the spaghetti-strap dresses start getting bought. They also need to come up with better reasons than ‘it’ll lead boys into sin.’ That’s a good reason in itself- I generally don’t drink alcohol around recovering alcoholics, for example. But at the same time, girls need to be taught to cherish themselves, not for how they can physically attract a boy, but to look for the kind of boy that is attracted by their virtue and spirits as well.

    • it will lead boys to sin? boys that are attracted to virtue and spirits? Come on now! The old story of sex after the prom is old hat. Sex starts much earlier and with baggy pants and girls’ sweat pants. I worry about post prom boozing more than sex. Drunk driving kills; condoms don’t usually kill.

    • JDM85

      ….why not make sure, in advance, neither one happens? Many proms out my way are hosted by parents who keep track of their kids. I’ve heard & had no complaints as a dad for a while now. It can be done.

    • JDM85

      Plus: Booze doesn’t kill either; it’s what booze leads to. Same with condoms, Phil.

    • In Massachusetts, it’s a different world…no parents run proms?

    • JDM85

      Perhaps that ought to change…some proms in my neck of the woods are, indeed, hosted & chaperoned by parents, while in other cases parents host the after-prom parties. At the schools my kids have attended, none of the shenanigans usually associated with proms have happened as a result.

    • james

      Good one, JD.

  • james

    Really, it’s all about the values these kiddos hold after the prom that
    determine the limits of modesty. It’s just as easy to slip out of a burqa
    as it is hot pants.

  • I was a high school principal for 30 years and one who attended as many proms, allow me to add my voice to the chorus of parents and others who condemn the policy (which I feel is arbitrary and capricious). Parents should control a student’s attire to a prom….not a priggish principal. I am equally aghast that the policy addresses female attire and not male attire (remember those baggy pants which leaves a underwear clad behind hanging out for all to see.) Modesty is so relative a concept and best left to parents to define. Focus on what is important: parties after proms where parents allow booze yet keep the kids “safe” by guarding car keys until the drunk is sober. THE BODY IS NOT AN APOLOGY,,,,,,Shame on this sexist administration; Catholic identity is a deeper concept that cleavage at a prom. Focus on trivia and you develop trivial minds!

    • Micha Elyi

      Parents should control a student’s attire to a prom.

      –Phil Dzialo

      And when, in this Age of Stupidity, so many parents utterly fail to do their duty and leave their girls to be embarrassed at the door to the prom, a compassionate school principal steps in and you get all priggy.

      I am equally aghast that the policy addresses female attire and not male attire (remember those baggy pants which leaves a underwear clad behind hanging out for all to see.)

      Somehow the boys at Delone Catholic High School dress well enough at their school’s proms that they’re not being turned away embarrassed for not following the school’s dress code. I am aghast that so many more girls than boys fail to understand the concept of modesty, need more than clear rules, and try to skirt what rules there are.

      Modesty is so relative a concept and best left to parents to define.

      You’re wrong and wrong again.

    • sexist…..plain and simple

    • Aliquantillus

      It is clear that the school has a responsibility of its own, independent of the parents. Just as the school in its own domain is to uphold Catholic doctrine it is to uphold Catholic practice. This includes upholding standards of public modesty. This is not sexist. It is for both genders and it contributes to the dignity of the appearance of the person. It is sexist to allow persons to display themselves as objects of lust.

    • Reality is that lust exists as a natural human tendency. Even Jimmy Carter admitted that he lusted in his heart. The continued emphasis on externalized nostalgic standards drive kids away. I would not want to deprive a child of an education in religious values because I was hung up on prom dress cleavage.

    • JDM85

      Parents ought to control. But if they don’t, the school has the right & duty to stick to their standards and hold the line.