5 Things that Modesty Is Not

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Summer is upon us and, as the Midwest humidity levels creep higher and higher, the pools and beaches are calling our names. But perhaps more heated than the sidewalk outside is the debate surrounding what modesty is. 

Some will say that modesty is an old-fashioned thing of the past. Others will encourage people (read:women) to watch the way they dress lest we lead our brothers to sin. But neither of those polarized positions encourage conversation about the virtue of modesty.

Perhaps the best way modesty can be understood is by examining what the virtue isn't. Although this isn't an exhaustive list by any stretch of the imagination, here are five things that modesty is not:

1. Modesty isn't just for women

In Introduction to the Devout Life, Saint Francis De Sales writes that far too often, modesty is falsely assumed to be an issue only women should consider. "Saint Paul expresses his desire that all Christian women should wear 'modestly and sensibly in seemly apparel'; and for that matter he certainty meant that men should do likewise," he writes.

A few chapters before he discusses modesty, Saint Francis writes about the virtue of purity and its connection with the virtue of modesty. "Purity has its source in the heart, but it is the body that its material results take shape, and therefore it may be forfeited both by the exterior senses and by the thoughts and the desires of the heart," he explains. 

Modesty isn't a gendered issue because striving for Heaven is a human issue. The problem concerning the blatant objectification of human beings and a rejection of human dignity isn't solved by pointing fingers and blaming people. This isn't an issue that is 'fixed' by saying women or men should dress or act a certain way.

Instead, we should be viewing our interactions with others as a way encourage each other on this journey towards Heaven. This striving needs to be a mutual endeavor, and finding ways to place blame one one gender or the other isn't going to help the situation improve.

2. Modesty isn't a skirt length

In one of the best articles I've read to date on the subject of modesty, Rebecca Bratten Weiss points out that modesty isn't about the length of our shorts or the style of our skirts. "Perhaps we can best understand modesty by looking at its opposites: what does it mean to be immodest? To be boastful, flaunting, overbearing, swaggering," she writes. "When we think of dressing immodestly, the point is not what is or is not showing, whether accidentally or on purpose, but the intention one has to use one’s powers to overwhelm or manipulate another." 

Modesty isn't solely about clothing, and we don't get very far if we determine modesty by labeling certain clothing items modest and others immodest. "It's a mistake to call a short skirt immodest," Rebecca argues. "If modesty is a virtue, because virtues are properties of human action, or habits of the soul, and skirts do not act or, as far as I know, have souls."

While there is a plethora of articles available for how to determine if our necklines meet a modest standard, there isn't much out there when it comes to discerning whether our shows of wealth or power are modest. Modesty is a virtue that should be lived out in every aspect of our lives, not just what we pick out of our closets to dress ourselves for the day. 

3. Modesty isn't just about our physical bodies

Modesty isn't solely about our clothing because, as human beings created in the image of God, we're more than just a body. "The human person, created in the image of God, is a being at once corporeal and spiritual," the Catechism reads. "Man, whole and entire, is therefore willed by God." 

We are more than just our bodies - regardless and despite what society screams at us from advertisements, billboards and get-fit-quick ten day programs on Facebook. Because we are body and soul, men and women shouldn't be defined by how 'hot,' 'fit', or 'attractive' we look as we make our way to the beach this summer. Our figure is not our greatest accomplishment. How sun-kissed (or, in my case, sun burned) we look at the end of the summer and where the tan lines fall is not the sum of our being. 

Modesty is a virtue that inspires the way we think, act, and speak. "There is a modesty of the feelings as well as of the body," the Catechism continues. "It protests, for example, against the voyeuristic explorations of the human body in certain advertisements, or against the solicitations of certain media that go too far in the exhibition of intimate things. Modesty inspires a way of life which makes it possible to resist the allurements of fashion and the pressures of prevailing ideologies."

4. Modesty isn't about one or two piece piece swimsuits

It wasn't until I was in college that I ran across Saint Pope John Paul II's writings on the idea of the functionality of a piece of clothing. "If then we wish to pass moral judgement on a particular form of dress we have to start from the particular functions which they serve," he wrote in Love and Responsibility.

He goes on to explain how important context is when considering modesty: "When a person uses such a form of dress in accordance with its objective function we cannot claim to see anything immodest in it, even if it involves partial nudity. Whereas the use of the costume outside its proper context is immodest and is inevitably felt to be so. For example, there is nothing immodest about the use of a bathing costume at a bathing place, but to wear it in the street or while out for a walk is contrary to the dictates of modesty."

5. Modesty isn't black and white

Far too often as humans we desire for things to be black and white - cut and dry. While it's true that things would be easier that way, it's also true that the human heart is a complicated, messy, beautiful thing. 

"The forms taken by modesty vary from one culture to another," the Catechism reads. And while what is considered modest will differ from culture to culture, one aspect of the virtue is steadfast. "Everywhere, however, modesty exists as an intuition of the spiritual dignity proper to man. It is born with the awakening consciousness of being a subject," the Catechism concludes.