Modesty is Not Toxic

Written by Ann Burns

October 15, 2021

When the Villains are Beautiful

One of the things I keep hearing from Catholic Influencers and Speakers is how toxic modesty culture is. Midst these assertions, I have noticed a massive increase of free nipples, exposed midriff, and scantily ripped up clothing masquerading as appropriate fashion even in Catholic circles.

With this onslaught of people talking about appropriate dress, why does it seem that Catholics are getting laxer in their standards regarding dress? I think it has something to do with this preoccupation with “toxic modesty culture.”

What is this Toxic Culture?

The first thing that we need to address is the infamous “modesty culture.” I do not want to ignore this concept. There are many women, myself included, that poorly taught modesty injured.

Unfortunately, some people teach that modesty is necessary because women are born seducers. While the wording might not be so harsh, the sentiment remains. I remember sitting with some young girls, squirming in our seats, listening to a talk. “You don’t know how many men wind up in hell because of you.” This is not only horrifying to a little girl, who can’t even process this, it is toxic.  I remember feeling sick to my stomach when a Young Girls’ talk took a turn to modesty and began stating how we make men sin when our neckline is lower than two fingers below the collar bone.

I did not understand modesty. I just understood I was born a pseudo-harlot.

As a result, I had painful, agonizing scrupulosity. I even worried that maybe my confessions were invalid if I wore pants or a skirt that failed to hit the floor.

Thankfully, my parents did not take a crazed approach to the WHY of modesty; they did their best to explain that they embraced the virtue because they wanted the world to see my full beauty as a woman, and not just my parts. But juxtaposed the insane talks and the occasional woman who made it her business to say “you are dressed badly,” I was confused when I hit my late teens. I knew that the crazy your-body-is-a-beacon-of-sin mantra was false, but I had a sensitive soul and it took awhile to shake the condemning voices in my head.

This outlook is unhealthy. I want to scream this out loud and clear. I watched a number of my friends rebel so hard due to this wound they walked right out the door of the Catholic Church. Teaching women that “modesty is the virtue that hides their sinful bodies” inspires a different brand of negative body image; one that often produces serious rebellion. Again: this is unhealthy, it misses the point of modesty, and it encourages more women to abandon the virtue altogether than ever come to love it.

All the same, I am reluctant to call this ideology “modesty culture” because this kind of thinking has nothing to do with modesty. It is a weird perversion of modesty and caters to an idea that the body is inherently sinful, which is false. The body is good. SO GOOD. 

Actual modesty is incapable of being toxic because it is an inherent good; it is a virtue. We cannot throw out the word because in doing so, we might find that we also throw out the virtue.

So, let us go back to the roots.

According to the Catholic Catechism 2521-2522, we read:

“Purity requires modesty, 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.

Modesty protects the mystery of persons and their love. It encourages patience and moderation in loving relationships; it requires that the conditions for the definitive giving and commitment of man and woman to one another be fulfilled. Modesty is decency. It inspires one’s choice of clothing. It keeps silence or reserve where there is evident risk of unhealthy curiosity.”

When I first came across the fact that modesty is the handmaiden of purity, I was enthralled; that beautiful statement alone prevented me from ever totally abandoning the term. And we must not forget this: we will not have a pro-purity culture when we throw modesty in the trash. Purity requires modesty.

Modesty blesses the body because it safeguards our dignity. As such, it extends to much more than just the way we dress. It also inspires how we talk, treat others, temper idle curiosity, and so forth. Donald DeMarco described modesty as the “virtue that allows one to focus on what is good without being distracted.”

Modesty does not condemn our bodies as women, but instead, it blesses our bodies because it showcases who we are in the best light. It says our bodies are good. Modesty reveals our dignity, our preciousness, and our sacredness.

When we opt for less clothing, we encourage an immoderate focus on our parts rather than who we are as an individual. We end up dehumanizing ourselves for the sake of what? Attention? Someone to tell us we are pretty? Or that we fit in? All of the options come at too high a cost because we sacrifice our self-worth and encourage others to do the same.

Conversely, modesty is steeped in the confidence that we are of value and we are beloved.

Modesty poses the best solution because this virtue strives to cherish your beauty and your immense value. Modesty acknowledges that you are more than the sum of your parts, whereas immodest dress focuses specifically on just your parts and not your personhood.

How Can We Heal & Embrace Modesty?

1. Dress to communicate not self-express because regardless, how we dress speaks volumes about who we are as women, what we think, our beliefs, how we view ourselves, and how we view the world.

In seeking to communicate truth, beauty, and goodness, we reveal to everyone we encounter that we acknowledge our human dignity and the dignity of others. We bring beauty into the every day and encourage others to do the same.

Often, we fall into the trap of wanting to just self-express as a means to set us apart from other women, but ultimately, this can turn into a dangerous headspace. While cultivating our sense of style, we need to ensure that we root it in Goodness. That is why we should seek to communicate. For example, our style should set us apart from men; it should showcase our unique privilege in our maternal calling and that we are sacred vessels.

Communicating in dress is also fun because it gives you the power to dress beautifully. Sadly, many people associate the word modesty with Little House on the Prairie. However, there is nothing in the definition of the virtue that demands you dress like Laura Ingalls. Instead, make an effort to seek out clothing that blesses your body, reveals your God-given womanhood, and showcases your dignity.

Remember: You are worth more than the sum of your parts.

2. Pray for healing and guidance.

Ask Our Blessed Mother and Lord to help you heal if you have any wounds regarding badly taught modesty. Or, if you are new to modesty and struggling to discern what is modest, again, take it to Mary and Jesus! Ask them to help you give up any old hurts, sentiments, or outlooks that are preventing you from growing in this virtue. They hear you. And they are going to help you, as long as you are open to it.

Furthermore, if any negative comments or encounters haunt your memory, place them at the foot of the Cross. Embracing modesty has nothing to do with curmudgeons who may have injured you or the confusion you may have experienced. You are not dressing to appease an angry person; you dress with dignity because you are worthy of that as a daughter of God.

3. The “Who Do I Reflect” Test:

I was taught this by some incredible nuns at an all-girls’ summer camp I went to. They encouraged us to always pray to reflect the Blessed Mother because she perfectly reflects Christ.

In doing so, they also advised that we look at ourselves in the mirror and ask “when people see me, who do they see?” Do they see the Blessed Mother and my love of Christ flooding through me? Or do they see someone confined to the ever-changing, vain ways of the world?  

Are people going to see the Blessed Mother through me, or does my outfit draw more attention to my legs, stomach, rear,  chest, etc…?

We manifest the internal through the external, and that is why I think this easy-to-do check is golden. It’s a beautiful (and easier) way to deepen our connection with the Blessed Mother, all the while ensuring that we reflect the Beauty of Christ to our neighbor.

Modesty is a Beautiful Word and an Even More Beautiful Virtue

It might be said that society speaks through the clothing it wears. Through its clothing it reveals its secret aspirations and uses it, at least in part, to build or destroy its future. — Pius XII

Do not be afraid of modesty; there is absolutely nothing toxic about it. In fact, modesty has your best interest at heart.  Sadly, sometimes broken people spread brokenness, but that does not give us a reason to abandon what is true and good.

God did not make us to fit in with the world but to stand out. So, let us embrace modesty and stand out for GOOD.

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