By Kathryn Casey, Owner and Coach at The Good Life – Life Coaching
It seems like if we know what we want, and we know that which we want is good, nothing should stop us. But time and again, it does not go this way. Maybe I have a belief I’ve held since childhood but it is does not seem realistic to practice it now that I’m dating or working or a parent. Maybe I procrastinate. Maybe I forget. Why does this happen?
To read the rest, go to CoachingtheGoodLife.org/Resources
From the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” published in the Hughson Chronicle, republished online at Coachingthegoodlife.org and thegoodlife-lifecoaching.blogspot.com.
This is the Third installment of a five-part series on modesty. Check back each day to read the latest.
They Ask, Men and Women Respond.
So far we’ve discussed the ways a Christian man can mess up his request that a woman dress more modestly, and a way he can more successfully communicate what he is asking for, which is help. Now, let us consider when there is a group conversation about modesty. As before, acknowledging the standpoint is the key-starting place. God willed each person for his or her own sake, not to exist solely for the use or in relation to another person. We stand in relation to God. It is in God that we find our relationships to others.
Modesty is a fruit of the Spirit, part of the virtue of temperance. “The fruits of the Spirit are perfections that the Holy Spirit forms in us as the first fruits of eternal glory” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, CCC, 1832). If we are debating a lack of modesty in the culture, this approach will look markedly different then modesty —as the term is commonly used.
Temperance is subjective to the culture and the situation. Any virtue practiced is a matter of us acting for the good in the right moment to the right degree. Prudence guides this. To a degree modesty is culture bound: developed over time in a given culture, is largely related to etiquette, and is more common among educated or religious people. There are some basic standards based a given culture. I am not familiar with any cultures in which grown men and women do not cover their genitalia (though I do not claim to be an anthropologist).
If one talks about standards in culture, it is not unlikely that a reference to changing times will come up.
Cultural norms have shifted for both men and women. It does not focus solely on sexuality, but rather on what is decent or appropriate in public.
If discussing modesty with both men and women, exhorting them in the practice of virtue may be the best approach. There are many personal benefits to developing the virtue of temperance. To be virtuous is to have a habit of acting in a way directed towards the good. Difficult or painful at first, continuing to act in a way that is virtuous will develop the habit in the individual. In time, the virtuous actions will become enjoyable to the person practicing them. The acknowledgement of the initial difficulty recognizes and empathizes the position of the person attempting to change. This will help prevent frustration or encourage hope for he or she to continue.
So how would modesty be promoted then, as part of the virtue of temperance? Aquinas connects modesty in dress to temperance through praising the honesty and simplicity possible in one’s manner of dress. He writes that a lack of moderation in dress occurs in two ways.
Dressing against custom, for example, dressing in a sexually revealing way in a place of worship, wearing white to a wedding in which you are not the bride, wearing loud, provocative clothing to a funeral.
Using things that will produce an inordinate attachment. This can happen when one seeks glory (attention, praise), seeks pleasure through comfort (refuses to wear formal/business attire because it is uncomfortable), or obsessively thinking about dressing.
Practicing the virtue of humility can help overcome the search for glory or attention. Practicing contentment can help overcome the search for pleasure through comfort. And practicing simplicity will help overcome the obsession with how one is dressed.
Aquinas also acknowledges that that a person may be deficient in the virtue (may error in the opposite direction). The person may not pay attention or make an effort when it comes to how he or she should dress, or he or she may seek “glory from the very lack of attention to outward attire” demonstrating visibly how humble, simple, detached he or she is from worldly things.
It is not sinful to care about one’s clothing or dress according to custom. When Aquinas asks whether how women dress can be an occasion of sin, he states the importance of the woman’s intention. If she desires to dress so as to incite lust, she may be committing a mortal sin. If she does not have that intention, it may still be a sin, because it leads others to sin, but gravity varies based on her knowledge and intention. With this in mind, telling a woman she will go to hell for dressing immodestly is likely a flat our lie. Don’t try that approach.
And lest the woman feel the blame solely on her, Aquinas takes the time to blame the maker of the clothing and promoter of the fashion.
The rational explanation of virtue, how to grow in virtue, and how virtue involves the use of clothing for both sexes can go a long way in promoting it for people. It provides the foundation, the reason, and avoids the blame and inordinate focus on women often included in these conversations.
If a woman didn’t dress for men to begin with, it allows her a more general focus (to dress in moderation according to the situation) that will be healthier for her than to focus solely on dressing for men.
When I was in a high school youth group, we heard many a talk on modesty: what it is, why it matters, etc. Creatively, we separated by gender and a spokesperson from one group spoke to the other group. A young man testified that he was affected by a woman’s immodesty, and apologized for the way he treated women, his attention reinforcing her reasons for immodest dressing.
When I served with the National Evangelization Team (NET), for the first time I heard the concept that modesty is dressing appropriately to one’s sex. It was not focused solely on women or solely on coverage. After NET, I became very zealous over this modesty crusade. I encountered Christian men who were frustrated by the immodesty of women surrounding them. I encountered men who blamed women for making them weak.
I began to question what modesty really is, what it means, how it ought to be applied, and what its goals are. In this post and future posts I’ll share the fruit of my reflection.
Modesty: man asks, woman responds
What happens when a Christian man asks a woman to dress more modestly? She may (A) feel honored that he seeks to respect her or (B) feel offended that he could see her as an object.
In common use, modesty refers to a style of dressing that adequately covers one’s body, in order to give due reverence to one’s body and protect the virtue of the opposite sex by not providing a temptation that could be avoided. Conversations considering this type of modesty usually focus on the role of the woman, claiming men are more visually tempted to lust.
Modesty does relate to sexuality, as we read in Pope St. John Paul II’s massive work, The Theology of the Body. When the first man and woman lost their original innocence through shame, we learn that the man looked at the woman and felt a reaction outside his will. He felt ashamed because it could not be controlled, and wanted to hide it. The woman was looked at by the man and felt his look at her body, distracted from her personhood, so she felt shame and wanted to hide her body. After the conversation with God, in Genesis, we read God made a covering for them in the Garden of Eden. The Bible does not say how much of their bodies were covered.
That women should dress modesty is important for men. For too many men, the female body is, erroneously, first sexual, and then a person. Some men see a woman dressed immodestly and find it difficult not to view her naked. Men striving to look at her with purity experience the temptation to lust. Widespread pornography can drive a man’s imagination. He, possibly, would have struggled less if he had not been exposed to pornographic images.
All of this may seem absurd and enraging to women. She is angry that he thinks of her as an object. Her objection to dressing modestly is her way of saying, “I am a person no matter what I wear. He should consider me a person no matter what.” She is right to feel that way; no man should view her as an object.
The man and woman end up talking past each other. He is working to overcome a sinful habit of objectifying the woman by looking at her as an object. Men are often oriented towards non-emotional, solution-oriented problem solving. The problem is sin. The solution: remove the temptation. He has perhaps removed pornographic images from his life, but because of the heroin-like nature of the pornography, the images do not go away. Immodest dress acts as a trigger, hinting at particular images he has seen in the past. So, non-emotionally, solution-oriented, he asks her to cover up.
Or it may be more distant than that. He may be merely an organizer of an event and requests a particular dress code for the sake of decorum. He calls it “distracting.”
In both cases, his request may seem to the woman as blaming her for man’s weakness. This view pits men against women, rather than viewing the relationship as one of complementary teamwork, where women and men can help each other in unique ways.
Or the woman may say, “I don’t dress for men, I dress the way I want to because I want to, not because I care about what men think.” Too often, women are viewed only in relation to men, rather than her own person. This again, makes her an object, and he the subject. Christian men may attempt to plea with women, “if you want to be beautiful to us…” but what she desires when she dresses is to be beautiful to herself, to be an attractive person, likeable and appealing to anyone she meets. Her conception of beauty comes into play. To define her motivation to dress as having to do only with thinking of what men think of her limits her personhood.
Anger and defensiveness ensue. The conversation goes no where.
This is one instance in the conversation on modesty. I’ll be addressing other viewpoints in future posts, but please feel free to comment!