I have scruples sometimes about the things I write – worrying about whether words will be misconstrued or pert opinions will come across as doctrine. There haven’t been any major problems yet, thank the good Lord, which might be because I generally stick to issues on which most can agree, leaving the really contentious ones for the much-better-educated-than-I.
Yet there is one pseudo-contentious issue that I find myself delving into more and more these days. Modesty. As much as I’d like it to be this precisely cut and dried issue, it simply isn’t. Modesty, especially within the realm of clothing, is an area shrouded in shades of grey and this bothers me. Because I like black and white. I like the rules to be neatly laid out before me as far as the eye can see with everyone walking them in an unswervingly straight line. But that’s just not the reality and I know this because I work with young people who are asked to stick to a fairly specific dress code. It is an area rife with personal judgment calls, body types, colours, fabrics, sizes, shapes – the list goes on and on. Aside from the very, very basics, what’s good for one is totally inappropriate for another.
Yet can it be any other way? Short of giving specific measurements, how do you go about providing guidance to those whom perhaps have had no guidance on this issue? When we’re talking about modesty in dress there are two definite goalposts: ‘Fundamentalist Muslim’ on one side and ‘Most Definitely Naked’ on the other, and worlds in between. How does anyone navigate this chasm, with blessed little to concretely go on?
Recently I read a book by Colleen Hammond on this very topic called Dressing with Dignity. It was a shocker for me because it was the first time I’d heard a Catholic talk about exact measurements in relation to modest attire. Mrs. Hammond gives a rundown of the instructions regarding women’s modesty issued to every parish in 1928 by the Cardinal Vicar of Rome at the time:
“…a dress cannot be called decent which is cut deeper than two fingers’ breadth under the pit of the throat, which does not cover the arms at least to the elbows, and scarcely reaches a bit beyond the knees.” ~pg. 92
It was all a little irritating for me – admitting that a good portion of my wardrobe might not measure up to the “modesty guidelines”. I mean, elbows? Immodest? Really? Yet the more I pondered the more I (begrudgingly) admitted that it was strangely comforting to at least have something to go on, something to use as a jumping off point. I know that these guidelines aren’t ridiculously outdated because most Churches in Europe have similar regulations. Generally, people (and that’s men and women) are barred from entering if they’re wearing tank tops, shorts, strapless tops or miniskirts (for the ladies) and I can’t say I’d be sad to see that happen here, in North American Churches, where you can come to church wearing something closer to the ‘Most Definitely Naked’ side with nary a word said. It makes for an uncomfortable and distracting mass, for both sexes, when there’s a gentleman with shiny, tight pants or a lady with a short skirt and legs-for-days in front of you. Heck, it’s not just uncomfortable, but there’s also the element of sin that weaves its subtle-yet-deadly way into it too – especially for those struggling with sexual sin? Jesus tells us that we should be more willing to cut off our hands, or pluck out our eyes rather than consent to sin – yet how much more difficult is it to avoid committing sin when the very objects of our affection are standing in front of us: alluringly beautiful and only half-dressed?
Do you know what’s attractive? Legs are – among other body parts. The human body (and especially the feminine body) is downright beautiful to behold. God did that on purpose, you know, made us beautiful within our bodies, because if we weren’t, the world would cease being peopled. Yet both male and female bodies have inherent dignity far beyond the mere physical, and because of that dignity, present in each man and woman, it is not fitting for the body to be uncovered for all the world to see. I was amazed to see the movie Pretty Woman wherein Julia Roberts’ character acts and identifies herself as a prostitute, yet even before she begins changing and covering herself more and more, she expects to be treated as something more than just a body. And she’s right to demand it. We are more than just our bodies, we’re souls and spirits too – package deals – and the Eternal in us commands respect and admiration, just as much as the physical.
So we ascribe to the principles of modesty, discretion and decency in order to present to the world fully what we are: whole persons – body, soul and spirit – all the while protecting the intimate center of our persons and veiling what should rightly remain hidden. And this is where constant prayer, solid education and good discernment practices come in. How else can a person go about knowing, concretely, how to live modestly and treat themselves and others with the dignity owed to the human person? The Catechism and Sacred Scripture are good places to start, as well as books like Dressing with Dignity and websites such as therebelution.com. Then comes the nitty gritty work of taking an honest and hard look at one’s life choices – including what’s hanging in the closet – and excising the ‘darker shades of grey’. Because it’s all fun and games, until someone plucks out an eye.
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Sarah explores authentic Catholic femininity on her blog The Feminine Gift.