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.
I got the memo. Those shady powers-that-be behind the Catholic blog world called me, Simcha, Janet, and Darwin and told us that we'd better write about modesty this week or else! So, alas, I have no choice but to share with you something I learned about modesty after my conversion:
Growing up in secular culture, I don't think I ever heard the topic of modesty discussed, at least not like it is in religious circles. Parents of high school classmates might have told their daughters that they had to wear mini-skirts -- no micro-minis allowed in this house! -- but there was a sense of purposelessness to it, like, "I don't know why it's a bad idea for my daughter to go out of the house looking like that...I just have this vague feeling that it is."
Years later, in the process of converting to Catholicism, I encountered serious discussion about this strange new concept called "modesty." Plenty of women in the secular world dressed with dignity and restraint, of course, but this was the first time I'd seen modesty held up as a virtue with specific characteristics, something clear and definable and worth aiming for. These religious folks even had an interest in discussing this issue! A lot! My first few forays into this strange new world involved reading some threads online in which folks talked about modesty proponents who create strict guidelines for how women should dress, then judge them accordingly. Though I never encountered any of these people myself, everyone seemed to know a friend's cousin's brother-in-law who believed that women who wore anything but ankle-length skirts were on a one-way bus to hell.
Despite all the vitriolic debates that surrounded this issue, it seemed to me that, as its core, there was something worth considering here. Nobody in secular culture even wanted to discuss the downsides of women using the Kardashian family as sartorial role models, and so I was relieved to see that the concept was at least on someone's radar. But something still felt wrong. Christianity was said to be the religion of love, but all these harsh judgments based on arbitrary regulations didn't seem loving at all. If these kinds of modesty standards really existed, they struck me as fear-based and legalistic.
Then I began hanging out with actual real-life Catholics, and the whole modesty thing clicked. The problem with both the secular and the religious extremist views was that they were too narrowly, inwardly focused: Secular culture said that each woman should be able to wear what whatever she wants, without regard to how it might impact others; the modesty extremists said that women were made worthy or unworthy depending on the details of how they clothed themselves. In both worldviews, all the energy around the discussion is pointed like a laser beam back at the woman.
In contrast, what I saw in practice among my new Catholic friends was a natural sense of modesty that was other-focused. They didn't avoid cleavage-bearing shirts because they read somewhere that it would make them bad people if they were to wear that kind of thing; they didn't favor longer, flowing skirts over shorter and tighter styles because they thought they could earn points on some holiness meter. Instead, they seemed to have a natural orientation to how the way they clothed themselves could impact the world around them.
I remember a gorgeous young mom friend telling me at a playdate how sorry she feels for young men struggling to live chaste lives in our decadent society. She spoke of her teenage brother with so much concern I thought she was going to cry, saying how proud she was of him for fighting the good fight every day, despite the temptations he must face every time he looks at a billboard or a magazine ad or a television show. As she spoke, I noticed the way she dressed herself: A simple cardigan over a matching tank top, over a fitted but not too-tight pair of jeans. She had the kind of natural physical beauty that could certainly lead others to temptation if she even made half an effort, yet it was clear from the way she carried herself that she was going out of her way to avoid using her appearance to wield power over others. Though I doubt she articulated any of these ideas, on some subconscious level, when she got dressed that morning she considered how her choices might impact the people she would meet that day; she was thinking of them more than she thought of herself.
The more women I met like this, the more the entire issue of modesty made sense. Earlier in my conversion, I had thought of it as an interesting but ultimately restrictive concept that limited women's freedom. But once I saw it in practice, I saw it as an opportunity, not a punishment. By dressing in a way that dignifies the body that God gave us, we have an opportunity to show our gratitude to God. By clothing ourselves in a way that doesn't cause the men we meet to face one more source of temptation that day, we have an opportunity to help them carry their crosses. By not drawing unnecessary attention to ourselves through our physical appearances, we have an opportunity to bless our friendships with our girlfriends.
As my own daughters grow up, I hope they don't face the same confusion I faced. I hope that they never see modesty as irrelevant, as I did when I was in the secular world, or as potentially filled with arbitrary and stressful rules, as I did when I first encountered the subject. I hope they understand that the way we dress is ultimately a chance to love; that, through the way we present ourselves, we have an opportunity to show love to ourselves, to God, and to others.