Few things light up the comments section like a post on modesty. Reactions range from, “Teaching modesty is body shaming and promotes rape culture!” to “Muumuus and turtlenecks for everyone!” Usually, when people are passionate and polarized about a topic it probably means it is an important one. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all agree on some reasonable common ground?
On one end of the spectrum—It seems commonplace for teens to challenge their school’s “body-shaming” dress codes. The belief for many is that encouraging women to “cover-up” is showing that our bodies are bad and bring about sin. I do not doubt that many people have been hurt by teachings that made them believe that their sexuality is sinful, dirty or gross. For those of you who have heard this type of message, rest assured, it is neither the teaching of the Church or of our Lord.
On the contrary, modesty concerns something so sacred and holy that it is more about reverence than shame. The body’s revelation is kept until a moment of grace and celebration which points to its dignity rather than its disgrace! By way of analogy, at this very moment, the crown-jewel of Lego Friends sets is hiding in my closet awaiting my daughter’s birthday this weekend. It is hidden in a box, inside a box, inside another box underneath a pile of clothes. This isn’t because I am ashamed of it. Rather, when it is revealed at the right moment, the anticipation of its awesomeness will be what makes it so special! Similarly, I have a dear friend who taught her daughter that her body is like “fine china.” It has a specific purpose, not because it is bad but because it is so good.
Of course, one of the main arguments in favor of modesty has to do with helping men avoid temptation. I recently heard a story of a large family who refused to teach any level of modesty to their daughters after two of their young children were sexually abused despite efforts to dress purely. Along these lines, some argue that these teachings further rape culture insofar as this message can sound as if it blames women for inviting sexual abuse. This couldn’t be further from the heart of the matter. Women should be respected and upheld no matter how they act, dress, or carry themselves. If you are someone who has known the earth-shattering pain of sexual abuse, know without any doubt that you have no fault within you. The evil of sexual abuse is incalculable and no one could ever merit or deserve to be used in such a way. Fortunately, God’s healing heart is infinitely bigger than our pain. He desires to encounter you in your wounds.
Turning to the other extreme in the modesty debate—Dressing modestly is all about love and with that I invite those on the flipside to also act in love. When we see someone dressed scantily, the temptation can be to judge the intentions of the person without knowing anything about them. Oftentimes, people can sit on the other end of the spectrum, judging modesty legalistically which can lead to some unreasonable standards. Consider the Pharisees, who stretched the commandment “Honor the Sabbath” to such an extreme that they even condemned Jesus for healing people on a Saturday! There are realistic standards of modesty that don’t require every ounce of skin to be covered. Ankles and wrists, arms and even knees are reasonable areas of exposure for those who feel comfortable baring them. Believe it or not, ladies can be stylish and modest at the same time.
But what of the proposed responsibility of helping the men in our lives live purely? Think of it this way: I have a few friends who are recovered alcoholics. When I am with them, I refrain from drinking myself. I don’t offer them alcohol in my home and we don’t go to bars together. I don’t do this because I have to, I do it because I love them. If they chose to drink, it is their own choice. However, I am happy to sacrifice in order to support and encourage them in both their struggle and their triumph. In considering modesty, this again becomes a way not to constrict us but to free us to love extravagantly.
The truth is that these sorts of posts aren’t about topics or issues, but about people. Behind every revealing outfit is a person. Behind every visually stimulated man is a person. When we remember to love one another well, modesty no longer becomes a debate but a joy.
Katie Hartfiel is the author of Woman In Love, which coaches women as they pray for their future spouse. Katie received her Theology degree from Franciscan University of Steubenville. She served as a youth minister for seven years in Houston, where she resides with her husband, Mark, and three daughters. For more on Katie, her books and your first chapter free visit womaninlove.org.