Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
One of the things I’ve found most refreshing about Catholic culture is the understanding of the importance of modesty. Though each woman may have different ideas about exactly what it means to be modest, there is a general agreement that putting forth some level of conscious effort to avoid looking like a backup dancer in a Snoop Dogg video is a good thing. And it’s fascinating to see the effect that it has on women’s interactions with one another.
When I was in my 20s, I worked at a startup company where there were no standards for appropriate dress. Over time, an unspoken tension developed among the females of the office. Sally from marketing showed up to a board meeting in a startlingly short skirt, then Jane the office manager started wearing shirts with lower and lower cuts. Kelly the analyst would turn heads when she breezed through the break room in jeans so tight they looked like they were sprayed on. And this kind of thing didn’t just happen in the office where I worked; though I wouldn’t have used this term to describe it at the time, immodesty was rampant in the culture of women who worked in that particular industry during the high-tech boom. And whether or not this was the intent, wearing revealing clothing always came across as a power play, and even sometimes as an act of aggression against other women who were wearing more reasonable attire. The effect of all of this was that the female friendships in these social circles were always on rocky ground.
It’s a fact of human nature that women are judged by their physical appearances more than men are, and therefore it’s easy for a feeling of competitiveness to arise in this area. When a girl would arrive at the office wearing a tight little outfit that commanded everyone’s attention, there was an unmistakable—though unspoken—feeling that a competition had been initiated. Even among the women who couldn’t care less about engaging in office beauty contests, who even pitied the scantily-clad girl for drawing the wrong type of attention to herself, there was a vague feeling of resentment that she had tried to initiate this “game” in the first place. All of these interactions remained below the surface, but they were very much present.
To describe how it felt to be a woman in that culture, imagine if men walked around displaying their annual incomes on nametags. To allow no-holds-barred competition in an area where men are particularly sensitive to judgment would inevitably poison their relationships with one another. And so it is with women.
Discussions about the benefits of modesty tend to focus on preserving the dignity of women and respecting men who are seeking chastity. Those are great points, but I think that the impact that it has on relationships among women is a huge benefit that is too often overlooked. The other day I saw a group of Catholic young adult women chatting after a meeting at church. They were about the same age as I was when I worked at that startup, and seeing them brought back memories of that time. In contrast to the culture I remembered, all of these girls looked beautiful and stylish while observing some basic ideas about modesty—and the effect was that there wasn’t that vibe that some of them were trying to be the center of attention with their dress, unlike back in my career days. It made me smile to see how well this system works. For women to embrace modesty is to declare a truce with one another. They can still aim to look nice, but mutual agreement on of reasonable standards of dress draws the boundary lines so that it doesn’t break out into a distracting competition.
Let me hasten to add that when I say that I’m now in social circles that value modesty, I don’t mean that we show up with pitchforks and torches at the house of any women who dare to wear skirts above the ankles, or that it’s something that is ever discussed at all (the occasional internet flare-up aside). I’m referring here to some basic ideas about how to dress that are so deeply embedded in this subculture that I doubt the average Catholic woman even realizes she’s doing anything different than women in some segments of society. As I’ve seen it practiced, embracing modesty isn’t about following a specific clothing checklist or mistaking fashion choices for holiness. Rather, it’s just a decision that women make, mostly in the back of their minds, not to make their bodies the center of everyone’s attention. It’s a small gesture, but the impact is striking. It brings an air of peace to a gathering of women that you just don’t have if a couple of gals have shown up in tiny tank tops and super-short shorts. It’s as if we simply say to one another, “I won’t show up in hotpants to your barbecue, you won’t wear a cleavage-bearing dress to my wine tasting, and we’ll all have a lovely time.”