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The Burden of Modesty

May 19, AD2015 21 Comments

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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.

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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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