Modesty

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monina

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I have 4 young daughters and modesty in clothing is an issue.

Here are several questions I’d like to be prepared for before my daughters ask them:
  1. How do you decide what’s modest?
  2. Why is showing one’s navel immodest, but showing one’s ankles not? (In the 1800’s a woman showing her ankes was scandalous!)
  3. Why do modesty values change and depend on the time in history in which you live and the culture in which you live? (In some Islamic cultures it is immodest to leave home without a headcovering. I have heard a Muslim woman defend her modest dress by saying, “I want the public to judge me by what I do, not by what I look like.”–sounds like the same thing I might be saying to my daughters, so why not have them cover their heads as well?)
Thank you,
monina
 
Social customs and mores change over time. There is nothing at all wrong with the human body. We can be sure that customs will change in everyone’s lifetime, and as they change, the older folks will be shocked, and the younger will wonder why.

Ankles and calfs were forbidden 100 years ago; now nuns show them. The generation that was shocked by this died out. The generation that is shocked by hip huggers today will also die out. The kids wearing hip huggers today will be shocked when their kids wear something new. Then they will die out, too.

In 100 years someone will write to a chat board saying that even hip huggers were shocking in 2004. People will find that amusing.

I often wonder if the reason the older generation doesn’t like the new fashions is that they look so fat in them.
 
One of the more interesting things you see in the Muslim countries is the disrobing that occurs as soon as an airlier’s seatbelt sign is turned off. A typical flight out of Dhahran, Saudi Arabia might have 40 women in full abaya. As soon as they can, they take off the abaya to reveal modern western fashions, just as revealing as anything we see here. Maybe three will remain in the abaya.

The return trip is the reverse. In Singapore, a Dharan bound flight might have no women boarding in abaya. By the time they get off in Dhahran there are 40 women in abaya.
 
Ken, I couldn’t disagree with you more. To simply say that there is nothing wrong with the human body and we’d all better get used to seeing more skin at Mass is ridiculous.

Yes, the human body is wonderful, but it was designed to be displayed for another only within the context of marriage.

Yes, cultural taboos about what consists of modesty do change from place to place, but there are some basic standards. The first one being that men’s and women’s clothing are distinctive and separate and that in normal circumstances it is forbidden to dress like the other sex.

Ever had that queasy uncertainty in public when you need to get the attention of the person about to run into you but you don’t know whether to say “Excuse me, sir!” or “Excuse me, ma’am!” This generally doesn’t happen when men and women dress appropriately.

Second, I want to point out that for all the different cultures into which Catholicism has been absorbed, that I have never seen the Virgin Mary depicted in any local clothing style that would be considered immodest by universal standards. She never has bare arms or a short skirt, never wears pants or shorts, never has her blouse cut low or wears spaghetti straps and yet she always looks good and immaculately modest, if I may venture to say so. Certainly you can’t go wrong trying to imitate the Blessed Virgin.

I don’t have a problem with girls/women (since were mainly talking about the fairer sex so far) wearing sports gear for sports and work clothes for dirty jobs around the house or whatever, but in general we should try to dress femininely.

I do insist that my three girls wear dresses or skirts to Mass. I also have adopted this custom because the parent should be the first example. (I spent my teens and twenties rebelling against it.) I don’t allow them to wear shorts or sleeveless shirts outside the house or our yard. (We live in the Pacific Northwest and rarely is it truly a necessity to go about bare armed and in shorts. Besides, dresses are usually cooler.)

I do insist that they dress nicely for school or any time we are out in public. My husband running up to the hardware store in his grubby work clothing for a piece of pipe fitting is one thing. Showing up at the ice cream shop in your pajama bottoms and an undershirt is something else entirely.

Showing arms and legs versus the belly or cleavage: It is true that different cultures find different parts of the body erotic. I have heard that in one culture the upper arms of a woman is the most desireable aspect of her body and in that culture a woman would never walk in public in short or no sleeves. However we should not act as if we belong to that culture. We are Americans (for the most part and some Canadians, British, etc.) here and what is immodest in our country (showing off the body between the collarbone and the knees and the general tightness or sheerness of the clothing) is what we should be worrying about.

I have seen the same argument done with liturgical dancers. The side that wants dancing argues, “Well, in Africa (or insert favorite culture here) dance is integral to worship. Therefore I don’t see why we shouldn’t have dance in our liturgy too.” We are not part of that culture! We can’t just pick and choose from the cultures of the world as to which standards we like and substitute them for the standards of our culture that annoy us. It trivializes the foreign culture for one thing and ignores the history that brought both cultures where they are today for another.

OK, tangent over.

I think girls in particular should attempt to dress:
  1. femininely–in a dress or skirt for most occasions, work or sports clothing as necessary
  2. modestly–covering up the parts of the body that are reserved for our spouses alone not out of shame but out of respect for the wonder of our creation, in anticipation of our future Groom and for those around us that they might not be led into impure thoughts so easily
  3. appropriately to our station in life or class–don’t get your hackles up! I only mean that clothing shouldn’t be the focus of your life. If you can afford to buy your clothes at Nordstrom’s and then pass them on down to all sixteen of your daughters and nieces and friends’ daughters, then praised be God that He has provided for you! If you rely on hand-me-downs, clothes you’ve made yourself, items on sale or thrift store finds (and then pass them on down…), then praised be God that He has provided for you!
I mention this because modesty should also include not attracting undue attention to oneself. I love how the Blessed Virgin is dressed in many holy cards, but I wouldn’t walk around in a full-length veil and flowing cape trumpeting my piety. Women and girls should beautiful but simple in ornamentation for most occasions.

Peace and modest blessings,
The Hidden Wife living the Hidden Life
 
Personally, I see nothing wrong with wearing pants to Mass. I occasionally wear a dress but most of the time I wear pants. And even if I wore a man’s suit I would never be mistaken for anything but a woman. 😉
I do agree though that WAY TOO MUCH skin is showing at church and everywhere else for that matter. One of my friends happened to be sitting behind a young girl (about 14 or 15) at Mass last month and she said that she not only could have told you the color of the girl’s underwear but also the brand name and size. This is disgraceful. I do allow my daughter to wear hiphuggers, however they are the high cut ones and she has to wear a shirt that is long enough to cover her stomach and her backside even when she squats down to pick up something. She is not allowed to wear spaghetti straps outside of the house. She can wear tanktops, but they have to be at least 3 fingerwidths wide and NEVER at church.
I hope that this fad passes quickly because I really hate for these girls to go around dressed like this. They don’t even seem to realize that they could be, and probably are, causing others to sin. It would also be nice to hear a bit about this subject from the pulpit.
 
Its funny i should come upon this thread, my mom and I were just talking about how one church near us has rules with attire. Women wear dresses, no pants. No sleaveless shirts… (although i don’t wear dresses much, i thought it was neat that a church would have rules for the attire in attending Mass.)
**I think that modest dress is the way it is suppose to be, you wouldn’t go to a dinner and be immodest! There is a certain way one should conduct themselves correctly. I cringe whenever I see young people, and even some adults, in my parish wearing immodest clothes.😦 **
 
Thanks to everyone for their thoughts.

However, I noticed how subjective everyone’s responses are regarding what they consider modest dress. This is what I want to avoid when the inevitable discussion with my daughters arises–when they say, “Mom! Why can’t I show ________ (insert body part here)?”

There seems to be no standard. No objective way to say, This good. This bad. Why should we let culture decide what’s modest?
 
Well, call me old fashioned. You are not obligated to defend your postition to your girls. Children just are not going to understand where you are coming from till they have girls of their own. You & hubby decide what parts will not show outside of clothing.

Just let them know that they should not be a part of someone else sinning or being in a “near occasion of sin.” Elaborate on that if you care to, according to age & maturity.
 
I am shocked at what girls wear today and am concerned as the father of a six year old. I want her to grow up with a healthy self image and impervious to the “Hollyworld” image pressures on women today.

RE: appropiate attire for church. I would never wear jeans and a t-shirt to Mass but it is out of a reverance and respect; if it is the only way a brother will show up on Sunday then fine but is this just the way of the times? I would rather see a family of soccer players in uniform than have them not make it to Mass but at what point does it become rude or disrespectful? why not everyone get real comfortable and just wear sweats? Should we bring pillows to sit on too?
 
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monina:
Thanks to everyone for their thoughts.

However, I noticed how subjective everyone’s responses are regarding what they consider modest dress. This is what I want to avoid when the inevitable discussion with my daughters arises–when they say, “Mom! Why can’t I show ________ (insert body part here)?”

There seems to be no standard. No objective way to say, This good. This bad. Why should we let culture decide what’s modest?
Dear Monina,

Below and in the next post is a portion of an excellent homily given “On Modesty” by an incredible, young priest, Fr. Augustine Tran. I hope it gives you some help with the “fill in the blank” part of your daughters’ questions and others they may come up with!

In Christ,

Debbie

Anyone who has ever been in my office has noticed this paperweight on my desk in the form of a red apple. It was a gift given to me by the teens in the youth group at my first parish and is related to this story, which I shared with them.

Before being elected to the Chair of Peter, Good Pope John XXIII was Il Cardinale Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, the papal nuncio to France. One evening, at a large formal dinner, he was seated next to, shall we say, a very well endowed woman wearing a dress with a very low cut neckline. Everyone at the table was waiting for the cardinal to say something to this woman, but the dinner went on and he did not mention anything to her about her immodest dress. Finally, at the end of the dinner, as they were passing the fruit plate, he offered the woman an apple. She politely declined the offer, to which Cardinal Roncalli responded, “Oh, but you must, for it was not until after Eve ate the apple that she realized she was naked.”

Hence, all the teens in the Youth Group knew that if I ever offered them an apple, it meant that they were immodestly dressed. They also learned very quickly never to say, “It’s cold in here,” to me; because they knew that my response was always, “If you had more clothes on, you wouldn’t be so cold.”

Modesty helps us to be pure and it helps our neighbors to be pure. It helps us to be pure because it reminds us that our bodies are sacred temples of the Holy Spirit. We do not veil the body because we are ashamed of it. We only veil that which is sacred. Why do we veil the chalice at Mass? Because it is set aside for sacred use. … Why is the conjugal act “veiled” and not exposed for everyone to see? Because all these things are sacred! Not because we think they are bad or dirty or are ashamed of them, but because we revere them as being sacred, and we want to preserve that sanctity. The conjugal act is a sacred act because only God can create life, so He must be present in that act. If the act is sacred, then so too are the bodies that we use for that act sacred. These bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, hence, they, too, should be veiled.

Of course, modesty also helps our neighbors to be pure for, I should think, obvious reasons. Now, here I have to say that women cannot be the arbiters of modesty. Asking a woman if something is modest is like asking Hercules if something is heavy. Women are too virtuous and strong in this arena. This is where husbands and fathers have really dropped the ball in our society. We are the ones who understand how the male mind works, which means that we are responsible for pointing out this truth; and, being the spiritual leaders in the family, husbands and fathers are the ones responsible for setting the standards in their own homes. Women just want to be comfortable and fashionable and often have no idea of the impact that their dress has upon men; because a woman who sees a man walking down the street in shorts and a tank-top does not have the same thoughts a man does when he sees a woman walking down the street in shorts and a tank-top. Men are very definitely the weaker sex in this regard.

continued in next post…
 
continuation of excerpts from homily “On Modesty”

Now, when I bring this up in modesty talks, I often get this reaction from women: “I should be able to dress any way I want. If men can’t control their passions, then that’s their problem, not mine.”

Well, that is very much like saying, “I should be able to rape any woman I want. If they’re not strong enough to defend themselves, then that’s their problem, not mine.” Obviously, that makes no sense; and it is certainly not a very charitable attitude. Men are the weaker sex when it comes to concupiscence of the flesh. So, the question is, are we going to assist each other in our weaknesses, or are we going to just ignore each other’s weaknesses, or, even worse, exploit them? Which fulfills the commandment to love thy neighbor as thyself?

All acts of love require a sacrifice, as our Lord demonstrated to us upon the cross. If no greater love hath a man than that he lay down his life for his brother, then is it really too much to ask a Christian to be a little unfashionable; or even to endure a little heat as one moves from an air-conditioned house to an air-conditioned car to an air-conditioned office or air-conditioned church or air-conditioned restaurant?

We should also keep in mind Christ’s words in this regard: “Temptations to sin are sure to come; but woe to him by whom they come!” (Lk 17:1).

Now, I am willing to guess that when I mentioned the word modesty at the beginning of this homily, there were a few people in here who squirmed just a little in their seats. I say that not to embarrass anyone, because I am also willing to guess that prior to today most of us had not even given this topic enough thought to make it a culpably sinful act. Hence, I say that not to embarrass anyone, but only to make the point that even if someone is not malicious about it, even if someone is not willfully leading others into temptation, our sensibilities have not changed that much, our culture still recognizes that today’s fashions are immodest and that clothes are fashionable not because they are no longer immodest, but precisely because they are immodest.

Clothes are even advertised as being sexy these days. Well, what does that mean? It means that these clothes are intended to invoke sexual thoughts in the person who looks at you in them. Well, if the only person with whom we should have any carnal knowledge is our spouse, then why should we want to invoke sexual thoughts in persons who see us on the street? There are a whole host of sins associated with that type of attitude, not the least of which is vanity, pride, a lack of love and charity for our neighbors, leading others into temptation.

Having done a lot of work in youth ministry, I constantly heard complaints from young ladies about the boorish men whom they date. I always said to them that every fisherman will tell you that the type of fish one catches is dependent upon the type of bait one uses. Hence, whatever one uses to attract a man is the type of man one will attract. If one uses one’s parts instead of the totality of one’s being, then one will attract a many who is interested in one’s parts and not the totality of one’s being. They usually get the point, but just ignore me anyway; so, I just have to keep offering them apples.

Now, I do not like to be overly abstract and ambiguous, so when I talk about modesty I try to give some concrete guidelines. As a general rule, I define modesty as covering the shoulders and the knees and everything in between. Of course, covering the knees means having them covered when seated, not just when standing. It is probably even more important to have them covered when seated. Then, of course, skin-tight or see-through clothing, which kind of defeats the whole purpose of covering something, would also be considered immodest. Of course, there are reasonable exceptions, reasonable exceptions for certain athletic events and beaches, for example; but those are private places where people know what to expect and can choose to go or not to go. However, we who do not want our minds bombarded with impure images do not have the choice not to go to the grocery store, not to go to school, or to the office, or to church, so those are the places where Christians need to be most conscious of loving their neighbors as themselves.
 
monina said:
(In the 1800’s a woman showing her ankes was scandalous!)
  1. Why do modesty values change and depend on the time in history in which you live and the culture in which you live? (In some Islamic cultures it is immodest to leave home without a headcovering.
In Western cultures, standards for modesty don’t appear to have changed much from the dawn of Christianity until about the year 1900. After this point, one will note a progressive decline in public standards of modesty.

This may be a hard lesson to teach your children, but at some point you’ll have to tell them about the mass paganization of Western culture in recent years, and the fact that cultural standards since 1900 have mirrored the cultural standards of Pagan cultures like Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, Ancient Egypt and primitive Polynesia.

It was immodest to show ankle in 1800 because it was considered a violation against common mores of behavior. It is, and always will be, immodest to show navel because it is, and always will be, sexually suggestive.

As far as head coverings, it used to be a fashionable necessity for ladies to wear hats in public. It also used to be a standard of behavior for Catholic ladies to wear head coverings during Mass. It would not be a bad thing for this tradition to return.

Having been one once, I can imagine that an adolescent boy will pay very little attention to the Mass if there is even a single exposed limb of a young female in his line of sight. I can theorize that the relaxation in dress code has had a dismal effect on vocations, both male and female. Mass is supposed to be a refuge from the very polluted world and culture in which we live, not a celebration thereof.

It is not going to be easy for your daughters to hold onto their Catholicism throughout their lives. Our country and our culture are rapidly degenerating and it would not be surprising if the Church undergoes repression in the next century. You need to prepare your children to fight a lifelong war against the death culture’s attempts to assimilate them. You need to toughen these kids up, and teach them that to compromise their morals is a choice worse than death. Because it is.
 
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seamole:
It is not going to be easy for your daughters to hold onto their Catholicism throughout their lives. Our country and our culture are rapidly degenerating and it would not be surprising if the Church undergoes repression in the next century. You need to prepare your children to fight a lifelong war against the death culture’s attempts to assimilate them. You need to toughen these kids up, and teach them that to compromise their morals is a choice worse than death. Because it is.
Powerful!

Thanks for stating the truth.

Chicago’s Cardinal George recently told Pope John Paul II something very similar: “Church’s Ability to Evangelize Is Diminished”.
The increasingly oppressive legal system and the bureaucratic apparatus of states are abetted by a media industry which selects for publication only facts which fit stories it wants to tell. The public conversation, like the political, legal and economic systems, is based on the generation of conflict between individuals and groups. Culturally, the right to sexual freedom is now the basis of personal freedom.
In this culture, the Gospel’s call to receive freedom as a gift from God and to live its demands faithfully is regarded as oppressive, and the Church, which voices those demands publicly, is seen as an enemy of personal freedom and a cause of social violence. The public conversation in the United States is often an exercise in manipulation and always inadequate to the realities of both the country and the world, let alone the mysteries of faith. It fundamentally distorts Catholicism and any other institution regarded as “foreign” to the secular individualist ethos. Our freedom to preach the Gospel is diminished.
Debbie, thanks for the terrific homily. I agree with everything he said. Before I read that, my response to modesty would have been somewhat provocative, yet with a genuine point:

Any part of your daughter that it would anger you to see me touching should be covered up.

I am thinking, for example, of my nieces who are in their late teens and early twenties. I could innocently and legitimately touch them on the forearm, for example, while talking with them. I could put my palm on the cheek of their face while saying, “You look so great today.”

If I touched their belly button, or their back just above their pants, or the front of their thigh five inches above the knee, or just below their collarbone, everyone (me included) would find that touching inappropriate. Then those parts should be covered up.
 
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rfk:
Any part of your daughter that it would anger you to see me touching should be covered up.

I am thinking, for example, of my nieces who are in their late teens and early twenties. I could innocently and legitimately touch them on the forearm, for example, while talking with them. I could put my palm on the cheek of their face while saying, “You look so great today.”

If I touched their belly button, or their back just above their pants, or the front of their thigh five inches above the knee, or just below their collarbone, everyone (me included) would find that touching inappropriate. Then those parts should be covered up.
Well said!!
 
When I dress I think of what kind of statement I’m making. Is it, “Look at my body and drool!” or is it “Know me for my personality.” Lately I’ve been a po’ college student so I wear jeans and hand-me-down T-shirts from a friend’s husband so I’m not exactly stunningly dressed. But still, when I order or buy new clothes I do so with an eye for modesty. I do not wish to be a sexual object. My body is not here to be put on display. Therefore my clothing keeps my belly and bosom covered and I wear long skirts. If a man can’t get past my modest clothing then he’s not worth my time. I purchase hand-made clothes from a seamstress because I cannot find anything modest that isn’t at the same time “old lady” and dowdy. You know, the shapeless paisly polyester shirts, the neon stripes, the loud flashy fake jewels and sequins. Ugh! So I order really nice modest clothes for the same price that I’d pay for the latest fashions.

What is modest for me? Clothes that cover my body without hugging every contour. So my clothes are a bit baggy - but not shapeless sacks. I find that poet blouses (with modest necklines) paired with long flowy skirts work great: they look good and serve their purpose. I have fun with jeans by having patchwork pannels put into them or other fun things. Yet the jeans are long and just baggy enough to keep a man from staring. I have found that you can be modest and quite stylish without having to compromise. The Blessed Virgin is my role model and I highly doubt she’d be decked out in tight hip hugging jeans and navel-showing sleeveless shirts!!
 
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