I was talking about modesty with my friend the other day. She works as a youth minister and was drafting a dress code for her teenagers attending a service camp in a few weeks. In the past, she hadn’t included one because she remembers how, as a young woman, she so often felt ashamed of her body as the result of well-meaning adults instructing her and her friends on modesty (“modest is hottest” or so they say). But she also told me that last year many of the girls showed up on the first day wearing shirts so long and shorts so short that it appeared they were wearing no pants at all—not exactly what you want your 16 year olds wearing to serve the homeless and represent Christ’s hands and feet. I shared my struggles as a male teacher who is supposed to strictly but also uncreepily enforce the dress code in a co-ed Catholic high school with a mandated skirt length for girls. We also discussed the priest from our archdiocese who was roundly excoriated for his criticism of women’s bare shoulders in mass.
We talked for a while and asked each other many questions. What is modesty? What is its value? What does the bible say? What does the Church say? How does that apply in the cultural and ethnic milieu of 21st century America in the throes of a discussion about sexual assault, consent, toxic masculinity, and female bodily-autonomy?
I don’t think we hit all the answers but here are some of the things we talked about.
Modesty is secondary to Chastity
The tweet puts it pretty succinctly: Jesus focused more on the responsibility of the viewer to not lust than on the person being viewed to not elicit lust. It’s possible to lust after someone in a burka, or to be chaste with one’s naked spouse. What one wears and how one presents their body is of secondary concern to how others view them. To the extent we focus on modesty for ourselves and others, we should focus first and foremost on viewing each person (ourselves included) as a beloved child of God and not as an object for gratification. Someone’s appearance is no excuse to look or act upon them with lust. This is both challenging for those of us who struggle with lust and encouraging good news for those of us who obsess over how others might lust after us because of our appearance.
In scripture, modesty is not primarily about sex and it’s certainly not about shame
As this article on Relevant breaks down, to the extent that the bible talks about modesty, the focus is not really on sex. 1 Timothy 2:9 says “Women should adorn themselves with proper conduct, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hairstyles and gold ornaments, or pearls, or expensive clothes, but rather, as befits women who profess reverence for God, with good deeds.” Paul asks women to focus on reverencing God and treating others well, rather than intentionally drawing attention to themselves. This means that modest dress is a Christian value, but so too is modest behavior and speech.
This reading also helps us get out of sexist, misogynist traps of modesty being only a virtue for women and their bodies. To return to our service camp discussion, if the girls should not serve the poor while apparently pantsless, the boys should not serve the poor while apparently needless in their $200 sneakers sporting apple watches. Modesty is not about shaming someone for their beauty or their belongings. It’s about purifying our intentions in the way we present ourselves.
This more holistic view of modesty has been particularly challenging for me. As a man, I rarely have been exhorted to be modest and I have realized as I’ve grown older, that I’m not very modest. I really like to make sure other people notice when I have something awesome going on. I’ve had to rethink think the way I present myself in a way I never had before: Should I go running without a shirt? Should I pull out my guitar at this party? Should I post about the race I just finished? Should I talk about myself right now?
Now this is not to say St. Paul would be ok with showing a lot of skin, but rather to say he is focusing on what is most important—loving God and others, not drawing attention to ourselves. To those of us who are well-endowed with beauty, possessions, or abilities—we have something which someone else does not have and may covet in lust or envy. While not denigrating our gifts, we should neither wave our blessings in their faces if we can avoid it. As Jason Evert often says regarding modesty, “we veil what is sacred, not what is dirty.”
Thomas Aquinas can help you get dressed
Thomas Aquinas (based on Aristotle) said that every virtue is built from little bits of the four hinge (cardinal) virtues of Temperance, Prudence, Justice, and Fortitude. Modesty is no different. So when it’s time to dress yourself, consider these four thoughts:
Temperance: AKA Balance and moderation. Shoot to find a happy mean between extremes. Ask yourself, am I being moderate in what I wear? Am I intentionally wearing the most attention grabbing thing I can find? On the other hand, am I going overboard and obsessing because my potato sack shows a little too much ankle? The saying goes, “if you got it, flaunt it.” I would suggest rather, “if you got it, don’t flaunt it or be ashamed of it. Display it only in appropriate ways and situations.” This leads me to . . .
Prudence: AKA wise judgement applied to practical situations. This means that modesty depends on context. Going running while shirtless or in a sports bra on the beach is different than doing so in your own neighborhood. Am I in France? Am I on the streets of Dubai? Am I with my family at a dinner party or am I at a speed-dating event? Is it hot out? Am I at a work camp serving the poor? Am I at church? Who’s around? What’s my body like?
You’ll notice I’ve listed almost no specific rules about what sort of dress is or isn’t modest (yoga pants, tank tops, bikinis, short & skirt length, etc). That’s on purpose and not just to avoid hate in the comment section. It’s because modesty is not a one size fits all dress code. It requires our prudent judgement in each specific situation.
Justice: AKA treating yourself, others, and God according to their inherent dignity. In other words, what do I deserve? What do others deserve from me? What does God deserve from me? How do I or don’t I deserve to dress as I child of God? What do or don’t other children of God deserve from me in the way I dress? What do I owe God in the way I dress?
This is a tricky one, because in our culture of entitlement, we tend to think “I don’t owe anyone anything! Ima just do me and be my sexy self!” or in our insecurity and guilt-ridden lack of self-worth, we obsess over the tightness of our shirt because the implied outline of our torso might be a temptation for someone to sin. Neither of these mindsets are helpful or are truly what we or others deserve.
Fortitude: AKA perseverance in doing the good, even in difficulty. Sometimes, choosing to dress modestly is difficult. Just because you would look slammin’ in that dress doesn’t mean you should wear it. Just because you’ve made epic gains in the gym doesn’t mean you have to post your flex on Instagram. Modesty may require you to wear an outfit that is less than your favorite or something different than what your friends would wear.
Check Your Rearview Mirror
When I was learning to drive, one of the rules my Dad taught me was to check my rearview mirror whenever I came to a stop—especially an abrupt stop—just in case the person behind me was going to rear-end me, I could potentially get out of the way. I remember asking him, “Isn’t it their responsibility to stop? Why should I have to look out for them? It would be their fault anyway.” To which he replied “it would definitely be their fault, but wouldn’t you like to avoid someone else’s idiocy?” I took his advice to heart and I’ve avoided at least one serious accident because of his rule. I think similarly about modesty. No, it is not the fault of our appearance or dress if someone looks or acts toward us in lust or envy, but to the extent that we can wisely present ourselves in a way that considers our own dignity as well as other people, we should.
Mike Tenney has spent the past 15 years speaking, teaching, and leading worship and retreats for youth and young adults of various backgrounds and faiths and has been a featured musician and speaker for national, regional, archdiocesan, and parish events including the Couples for Christ National Youth Conference, Catholic Underground, Life Teen XLT's, Theology on Taps, and Christ in the City. He has shared the stage and worked alongside Matt Maher, Jason Evert, Steve Angrisano, Jesse Manibusan, and Chris Padgett. Mike’s writes for The Holy Ruckus and Grotto Network. You can find more about Mike and his ministry including online talks at www.MikeTenneyMusic.com and follow him @pkMikeyT.