It’s time that we discuss modesty in its proper and complete role. Modesty goes far beyond our choice of clothing: It is an interior virtue that men and women are equally responsible for cultivating within themselves.
An External Sign of an Interior Disposition
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines modesty as “an integral part of temperance. Modesty protects the intimate center of the person. It means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden. It is ordered to chastity to whose sensitivity it bears witness. It guides how one looks at others and behaves toward them in conformity with the dignity of persons and their solidarity” (2521, emphasis mine). Clothing isn’t meant to protect someone else from our bodies; rather, it is to protect us from someone else’s lust.
Note that the Catechism makes only a passing reference to clothing when it says that modesty “inspires one’s choice of clothing” (CCC 2522). The Church allows the individual to discern, according to a rightly formed conscience, what kind of clothing is or is not permissible. Furthermore, the Church tells us that modesty is first and foremost an interior disposition, and one’s outward appearance and behavior stem from that disposition. Pope St. John Paul II writes in A Theology of the Body that “[St.] Paul considers purity not only as a capacity (that is, an aptitude) of man’s subjective faculties, but at the same time, as a concrete manifestation of life according to the Spirit” (201). (Note: I am here conflating purity and modesty to highlight the deeper point of both, as modesty is a mode of purity.)
The Church tells us that modesty is first and foremost an interior disposition.
Let’s look at the definitions of “disposition” and “modesty.” A disposition is “the predominant or prevailing tendency of one’s spirits; [or a] natural mental and emotional outlook or mood” (Dictionary.com). An interior disposition therefore concerns an individual and how she relates to others around her, not how others relate to her. How do you see someone? How do you treat someone?
Modesty can be defined as being “unassuming or moderate in the estimation of one’s abilities or achievements” (Oxford English Dictionary) and as “regard for the decencies of behavior, speech, etc.” (Dictionary.com). In considering both definitions, we see that modesty is closely related to humility (seeing ourselves exactly as we are) and meekness (being patient, gentle, and kind). I would therefore suggest that modesty primarily concerns one’s behavior and speech towards others. Examples of modesty could include accepting praise with gratitude and without self-deprecation or exaggeration; listening well to someone without inserting yourself into their experience; and refraining from drawing unnecessary or inappropriate attention to yourself.
How We See Others
In order to practice modesty as an outward sign of an interior disposition, we must know who we are and what our role is - and then make this visible to the outside world in a way that properly reveals who we are. Our bodies are part of our communication with the world and while clothing does play a role, it is not the only way in which we communicate. When discussing modesty, choice of clothing must be considered in the larger context of modesty being primarily an interior disposition.
Before all else, modesty compels us to see people according to their dignity. The interior disposition of modesty, in its fullness within the virtues of prudence and charity, guides clothing choice as one among many outward, visible signs of this interior virtue. Too often, we focus on a woman’s choice of clothing as the primary way of practicing modesty - and this narrow understanding can be dangerous.
St. Edith Stein wrote that “[a]ccording to the original order, [woman] was entrusted to [man] as companion and helpmate . . . But the relationship of the sexes since the Fall has become a brutal relationship of master and slave . . . man uses her as a means to achieve his own ends in the exercise of his work or in pacifying his own lust” (Essays on Woman 72). A master tells a slave what he must do to gain his owner’s favor - regardless of how it affirms or denies his dignity as a person - and, if that is not done, he will incur the master’s wrath.
When we reduce modesty to being only (or primarily) a matter of how a woman dresses, we shift the blame and responsibility for another person’s sin of lust onto women, opening the door to the possibility of enslaving women to the lust of men. Furthermore, when we are unnecessarily prescriptive about what modest clothing entails, we run the risk of telling women what they must do to be perceived as good, holy, and worthy, therefore enslaving them to the opinions of others. It is possible for us to create standards for others based on our own opinions, rather than according to Church teaching - and we must be wary of this.
We need to deepen our understanding of modesty and focus on its role as an interior disposition that we are personally responsible for cultivating within ourselves. And we need to remember that clothing is a part of, but not the fullness of, modesty.
Next, we recommend you watch this talk inside the FemCatholic Community:
Did you know that you can equally objectify a woman’s body through telling her to cover up every inch? Hyper modesty feeds into the same problem we’re trying to fight against — that a woman’s body is made to be consumed. As a result, we’ve fallen into the same trap that the secular world has fallen into, just on the opposite extreme. “Modesty culture” has resulted in women seeing their bodies as inherently shameful, vehicles for trapping men in lust. In an effort to completely avoid temptation, women have overcompensated by intentionally dressing in frumpy clothes that not only hide their bodies but also their God-given beauty. In this talk, I will go over my experiences within hyper modesty culture. I will also talk about my experience with Theology of the Body and how it helped me to pay reverence to the body without throwing out feminine sexuality and beauty. I will also talk about how women have been given the special gift of feminine beauty and how the errors of modesty culture have led us to reject this important gift. I will also talk about how we should change our approach and mindset to modesty, including changing the very word “modesty” itself to a term that truly reflects the Catholic teaching behind a woman’s beauty, body, and sexuality.