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Modesty: What’s the Point?

Modesty: What’s the Point?

Have you ever been frustrated by the way men treat women and wondered what could be done to restore a sense of respect? If so, the solution is closer to you than you realize.
Throughout history, women have been considered the gatekeepers of morality. This is not to say that men lack a conscience or that they are any less responsible for living upright lives. What it does mean is that women have a unique and irreplaceable influence on their cultures. Some females resent this responsibility, seeing it as a remnant of outdated and sexist stereotypes. Other women, however, view this role not as a burden, but as an opportunity to influence entire civilizations for the better.
Most young women are aware that they have the power to seduce a man, but few girls are aware that their femininity also has the power to educate onlookers. Pope John Paul II once noted, “Men must be taught to love, and to love in a noble way; they must be educated in depth in this truth, that is, in the fact that a woman is a person and not simply an object.”[3] While every woman on earth would love for men to receive such an education, how many are willing to offer the lessons? Whether a woman realizes it or not, the way she dresses has an extraordinary ability to help shape a man into a gentleman or into a beast. Her clothes and demeanor send out an unspoken invitation for men to treat her the way she looks.
In order to appreciate the influence that women have on men, females must first realize that males are very visual creatures. This is partly because of how their minds work, but it is also because women possess great beauty. In fact, nothing on earth approaches the beauty of women.
With this great gift of feminine beauty comes a corresponding responsibility for how it is used. If a woman chooses to expose the beauty of her body to strangers, she will indeed receive stares. An immodest outfit will attract a man to a woman’s body, but it will also distract him from seeing her as a person. This is why, as one man noted, “Women who dress immodestly often complain that men are all ‘animals.’ That’s because the wild ones come running while the decent men stay away.”[4]
As an antidote to the irreverence many men express toward the opposite sex, one woman suggested, “Modesty, on the other hand, instead of treating men like dogs, invites them to consider an idea.”[5] Without a word, modesty invites men to realize that women have more to offer than just their bodies. Because the beauty of the woman can be intoxicating to a man, he may find it difficult to see beyond it. Modesty does him the favor of concealing what he is not yet worthy to see. When the woman veils her body with modest clothing, she is not hiding herself from men. On the contrary, she’s revealing her dignity to them. As a result, the man is free to take her seriously as a woman.
Master of Your Own Mystery
Some women may argue, “Guys should respect me no matter how I dress. Besides, I don’t pick my outfits to impress guys. I choose my clothes because they look good on me.” Although a woman who feels this way thinks she is being confident and assertive, she becomes, in the words of one blunt woman, “walking entertainment for men.”[6] Her pride blinds her from seeing that her body is actually worth more than she thinks. Although she is made in the image and likeness of God, she seems to be more concerned with resembling a mannequin. If she realized the tremendous dignity of her body, she would grasp the purpose of modesty. Humility is the proper attitude toward greatness, and modesty is humility of the body.
In the Old Testament, the most sacred place in Israel was the Holy of Holies. The room was veiled, hidden, and set apart because God’s presence dwelt within it. Only one person, the high priest, was worthy to enter, and he approached with trembling reverence. You may be surprised to learn that the Bible expresses a similar sense of awe about the body of a woman. In the Bible’s love story, the Song of Songs, the lover refers to the woman’s body as an enclosed garden:
“You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride; you have ravished my heart with one glance of your eyes, with one bead of your necklace. How beautiful is your love, my sister, my bride, how much more delightful is your love than wine . . . You are an enclosed garden, my sister, my bride, an enclosed garden, a fountain sealed.” (Song 4:9–10,12) Like the Holy of Holies, the image of the locked garden and spring reveal that a woman is not unapproachable. Rather, her body is revealed only to the one who is worthy to see her.
Modern culture tells women, “If your body is so great, show yourself!” The woman who understands her worth resists such an invitation and replies, “Because of my value, I veil myself. My body was not given to me for the sake of exposing it to you. If I show too much, I wouldn’t be revealing my true worth to you. I’d be distracting you from what matters most.”
Modesty is the proper attitude of a woman who knows the value of her mystery. It is fitting, then, that Pope John Paul II called women “the master of your own mystery.”[7] Women choose how and to whom they will reveal themselves. Never forget that the Bible says that God has glory in what he conceals. So do women. When a woman observes how God chooses to reveal himself, she learns the truth about herself: Only a worthy spouse deserves to experience the glory of an unveiled mystery.
Sadly, our culture does not make it easy for women to view themselves this way. Girls today are raised in a pornographic culture where toy dolls wear lingerie and department stores feature “push-up” trainer bras for grade-schoolers. Every television commercial is sexualized, even when products have nothing to do with sexuality. Wendy Shalit commented on the effects of this phenomenon: “There is no longer any mystery or power to sex—it is just expected that everything will be sexual, and so nothing is. There is nothing to wait for, or to look forward to.” She continues, “Someone who is almost naked in front of strangers . . . has little left to reveal to her lover.”[8] Our culture needs to rediscover what women have understood for thousands of years: There’s a deeper allure in what is not seen.
According to Dr. Alice Von Hildebrand, “If little girls were made aware of the great mystery confided to them, their purity would be guaranteed. The very reverence which they would have toward their own bodies would inevitably be perceived by the other sex. Men are talented at reading women’s body language, and they are not likely to risk being humiliated when a refusal is certain. Perceiving women’s modesty, they would take their cue and, in return, approach the female sex with reverence.”[9]
Living beauty
All this theology is interesting, but what does it mean when it comes time for you to pick out your outfits? There is nothing wrong with looking cute. Problems arise, however, when clothing (or the lack of it) is worn in an immodest way. As a follower of Christ, you have a responsibility to dress in a chaste way, thus helping men to maintain the purity of their minds and hearts.
When a girl puts on a belly-button-showing, spaghetti-strap shirt, she is not thinking about leading men to sin. She’s probably thinking, “That’s a cute top, and it will look perfect with my shoes.” But girls are called to adopt the attitude of Saint Paul, and live in a way that does not cause your brothers to stumble (Rom. 14:21). Therefore, use this rule of thumb when you’re trying on clothes: If your heart is asking, “Is this too short?” or “Is this look too tight?” listen to it. It has already answered your question.
Some may think they can dress in a sexy way, as long as they’re not doing anything bad. One woman effectively cleared up this misconception when she wrote, “Chaste woman plus unchaste clothing equals instant hypocrite.”[10] A woman who is honest will wear clothing that reflects her intentions. For this reason, modesty is not only about what you wear. It is a virtue that influences everything from the way you dance to the conversations you have.
God has entrusted you with the mission of being the master of your own mystery. Therefore, the men who frustrate or upset you by whistling or making crude remarks need you to realize your own dignity as a daughter of God. Because of your tremendous worth, only reveal yourself to the man who is worthy to be your husband. Imagine how the world would be transformed if women embraced such a calling from God!
“The hour is coming, in fact has come, when the vocation of women is being acknowledged in its fullness, the hour in which women acquire in the world an influence, an effect and a power never hitherto achieved. That is why, at this moment when the human race is undergoing so deep a transformation, women imbued with a spirit of the Gospel can do so much to aid humanity in not falling.”[1]
—Vatican II
“Your adornment should not be an external one: braiding the hair, wearing gold jewelry, or dressing in fine clothes, but rather the hidden character of the heart, expressed in the imperishable beauty of a gentle and calm disposition, which is precious in the sight of God.”
—1 Peter 3:3–4
“The beauty on the outside never gets into the soul. But the beauty of the soul reflects itself on the face.”[2]
—Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen
[1] The Council’s Message to Women (December 8, 1965); AAS 58 (1966), 13–14.
[2] Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, as quoted in True Girl 1:1 (February/March 2006).
[3] Karol Wojtyła, The Way to Christ (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc., 1984), 38.
[4] T. G. Morrow, Christian Courtship in an Oversexed World (Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, 2003), 106.
[5] Wendy Shalit, A Return to Modesty (New York: Touchstone, 2000), 102.
[6] Wendy Shalit, Girls Gone Mild (New York: Random House, 2007), 158.
[7] John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, translation, introduction, and index by Michael Waldstein (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 2006), 110:7.
[8] Shalit, A Return to Modesty, 175.
[9] Alice Von Hildebrand, The Privilege of Being a Woman (Ann Arbor; Sapientia Press of Ave Maria University, 2005), 91.
[10] Dawn Eden, The Thrill of the Chaste (Nashville, TN: W Publishing Group, 2006), 148.