I get frustrated when I see this seemingly endless discussion in certain Catholic circles about how women should dress. How long should the skirt be? Are skinny jeans appropriate? How much cleavage is allowed?
I also remember my sisters describing shopping for wedding dresses and the saleswoman assuming they were Mormons because they didn’t want a strapless gown or too much cleavage. They were really annoyed when only shown dresses with tiny sleeves that looked more like extended shoulder pads because that was the Mormon minimum but looked horrendous on them due to their shoulder shape.
On Twitter I get sent a lot of “ask a priest” questions and about once a week the theme is modesty: is jogging as a date modest? Does listening to this song go against modesty? What about this hand gesture?
Problems with the modesty line
Unfortunately so much of the discussion I hear or the phrasing of the questions I read is based on a misunderstanding of what modesty is. Modesty is not a line where your skirt can’t be more than 13.5 inches above your ankle and your cleavage can’t be more than 0.25 inches. If we impose such legalism and exacting standards, no wonder people are stressed out about it: no wonder it’s one of the top questions I receive.
Having a line for modesty creates several other problems. First of all, it doesn’t take into account situations and personalities. For example, I think we would all agree that it is immodest for a priest to wear spandex outer garments while performing priestly duties but when I mention that I wear spandex bike shorts while cycling 50 to 100 miles a week. I doubt in that scenario that many would consider that immodest. As well, the clothes you wear around the house, and especially in the privacy of your bedroom could very likely be immodest outside.
Second, it doesn’t take cultural considerations into account. Cross-cultural studies have shown that different cultures have very different standards of behavior and dress. Some are extreme like the Marshall Islands where female toplessness is the norm. But even in cultures we might think were little more familiar with, radical differences can appear: for example in friendly conversation in Puerto Rico people touch 180 times an hour while in London they touch zero times. A Londoner might assume a Puerto Rican was hitting on them or even being inappropriate, when he was just following norms where he is from.
Third, it forgets the essence of modesty as a virtue. Virtue is always something positive: it is not simply that we avoid doing evil but we actually do something good. Christian morality is not centered on not breaking rules but on imitating Jesus through virtue. If we want to promote Christian modesty, we need to understand it as a virtue not simply as a set of don’ts regarding dress and behavior with people of the opposite sex.
The real definition
Instead of being a line, modesty is a direction. It has to do with respecting your own body and respecting others both in mind and body. As such it is the part of the virtue of chastity regarding those things not directly related with the marital act. It is most often talked about regarding clothing but also refers to how we act or treat others, and our words. A young man who ogles a young woman dressed overly provocatively sins against modesty just like she does. Or a man who speaks in a way some might dismiss as “locker room talk” sins against modesty with his language.
The direction modesty points is the direction of greater respect for our body and mind and those of others, especially in the sexual arena. Instead of asking “Is this skirt to short?” we should ask “Does this skirt this short respect my dignity and the dignity of those who’ll see it?” Instead of asking “Does this joke pass some arbitrary line for crudeness?” we should ask if the joke shows respect for the human person and for human sexuality.
One of the challenges of this is the need to form a conscience so people will know what is respectful and what is not. When you have a line that a skirt can never be more than 2 inches above the knee, even a robot can tell if the rule is broken but if we have a rule that a skirt should be respectful of human and sexual dignity, the person needs more formation to understand what dignity is and what leads towards it and away from it.
Advantages of the real definition
There are several advantages of viewing chastity as a direction rather than a line. I want to explore three of the most important briefly: marital chastity, positive action, and peace of soul.
With this definition, “marital chastity” or “marital modesty” actually makes sense. It is about showing proper respect for our body and for those will meet: if someone alone with their spouse, covering up is no longer needed to show respect. In fact, it can be modest to accentuate one’s own sexuality in ways that would be completely immodest inappropriate elsewhere. In marriage respect is shown in self-giving to the other.
Being modest in public even seems like it might lead to a little more romance or even sexiness in the appropriate context of marriage. In A Return to Modesty, Wendy Shalit notes that Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods in New York – where women always wear monochromatic long sleeve shirts and ankle-length skirts outside – seem to support more lingerie shops than otherwise similar neighborhoods. That’s not what we would first expect but when we think about it, having shown respect for their body by not displaying it to everyone, they are more able to show the respect of revealing it to the one this is respectful for.
As Christians we are always moving towards positive action. Christianity is not defined by simply not murdering, stealing, or committing adultery but defined by actually growing in virtue and becoming like Jesus. Nobody says Mother Teresa was a great Christian because she didn’t break the 10 Commandments but because she went above and beyond the call in her imitation of Jesus. If modesty is just a line, once you are modest, you cannot grow in modesty. Modesty is then like a class with a pass/fail grading system rather than one you and strive for an A in. Yet as Christians we are not just called not to step over a line but to show the utmost respect for her own body and the bodies of others.
Defining chastity simply by a line often leads to a lot of scruples when someone gets close to the line. Scrupulosity seem present in a large percentage of the questions I get on modesty. When we define modesty as a direction, there are less scruples because people generally know which direction they’re going. Of course, this assumes what I said above about forming the conscience.
An extension of the problem of scruples is remorse. Sometimes someone will wear a certain piece of clothing or do a certain act thinking it is respectful, then compare it afterwards to an abstract standard of modesty and realize they failed so then they have remorse. However, if the standard is respect it is much easier to realize the attempt to be respectful: then they can correct it next time to be more respectful but they can know no sin was involved because of the lack of awareness.
Modesty is abstract line for everyone but a virtuous direction. It is not about scruples or guilt. Instead, modesty is a direction in which we show as much respect for ourselves and others as we can.
Since modesty is part of chastity, chastity is also a direction not a line. It involves all said so far plus the marital act and precursors like kissing.