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God Cares about Modesty, Not Fashion

02/10/2012 Comments (33)

A reader writes:

I have a question concerning the cut of a woman’s hair. Does the Church discourage or forbid short hair, especially pixie cuts similar in length to men’s hair, on women? I have heard all sides on the argument, and I was wondering your opinion. Much thanks.

No.  The Church does not concern itself with matters of fashion except to say that we should aim for modesty.  How that looks in different cultures varies with the place and time.  A perfectly modest person in period of history might be seen as a wild profligate in another.  It depends on the “grammar” with which our clothes and hair speak.  So, for instance, a perfectly modest and chaste member of a Kalihari tribal people might, according to the grammar of her culture’s fashion go about with scarcely more than a string of beads on.  A serving wench in 17th century England might dress modestly in clothes that would scandalize a Victorian.  An ordinary modest girl in 2012 might wear jeans which, a century ago, would have marked her off as a rebel against all common decency a century ago.  Joan of Arc, a saint of the Church, wore male military garb.  St. Pio or Petrelcina disliked women in pants.  But St. Gianna Molla wore them.  Both had their reasons.  Neither stands for us as a mediator of the True Catholic position on Pants.  That’s because there is no True Catholic position on Pants. 

Same with hair.  The Church has no Doctrine of Women’s Hair Length.  Only a doctrine of modesty.  What some fundamentalists (including some Fundamentalists who are members of the Catholic communion) do is take a passage out of St. Paul and elevate it to dogma because it happens to suit their tastes about how women should wear their hair (and, by the way, typically it is men who do this).  The passage is this:

I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you.  But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled dishonors her head—it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her wear a veil.  For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. (For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.) That is why a woman ought to have a veil on her head, because of the angels. (Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God.) Judge for yourselves; is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not nature itself teach you that for a man to wear long hair is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her pride? For her hair is given to her for a covering.  If any one is disposed to be contentious, we recognize no other practice, nor do the churches of God. (1 Cor 11:2-16)

The Church does not treat the Bible like the Big Book of Everything, and so it does not read this passage as God’s Hairstyling Commandments for Women.  Fundamentalists (whether Protestant or Catholic) do, however, read the Bible this way and so they assume that Paul is laying down eternal dogmas about hair length.  The trouble is, the same people who want to pretend this passage is about God’s views on hair length never seem to be eager to have parishioners erupting in prophetic utterances in the middle of the liturgy.  In short, they fudge their Fundamentalist reading of Scripture to try to make it sound like God is a Cosmic Hairdresser, but carefully avoid addressing Paul’s assumption that prophesy is part of the liturgy.

In reality, of course, what Paul is doing is addressing the cultural norms of his day and—you guessed it—saying that modesty is a good thing.  He is not laying down an eternal law about hair fashions.  At that time and place, long hair was the norm for women and cutting it was a sign, not merely of fashion, utility or comfort, but of rebellion. (This shouldn’t be strange, since certain sorts of hairstyles today—such as, say, a spiked mohawk or a skinhead can likewise signal not a mere fashion choice, but an act of revolt.) Notice how Paul assumes this in his discussion of husbands as the “head” of their wives just as Jesus is the “head” of the husband.  His thought is dominated by the interdependence of man and woman their total dependence on God, per the book of Genesis. (He lives, remember, in a culture where there was no such thing as a “single working woman”, so his remarks address families at worship.) Similarly, Paul is contrasting Christian prayer practice with Jewish liturgical norms when he insists that men pray with their heads uncovered.  His point is not “Hats are evil”, but that covering the head is a sign which violates the Christian insistence that men come before God as children and not merely as servants.  In short, he is insisting that God is our Father.  What concerns Paul is not hair length but the significance and meaning of hair.  His condemnation of long hair for men is, of course, conditional on Greco-Roman culture since he knows that there are also those who were dedicated to God with a Nazirite vow which forbade them to cut their hair as a sign of fidelity (think of Samson for instance).  He doesn’t mean that Samson was degraded.  Rather he is referring to any deliberate attempt to blur gender lines.  But this, as Samson again demonstrates, is highly dependent on the “grammar” of a particular culture’s fashion.  In Paul’s day, a woman’s hair expressed her femininity by being long.  In other ages and cultures, other hairstyles of varying lengths have expressed both masculine and feminine gender. 

Bottom line: You do not find the Church issuing doctrines and dogmas about hair length in the centuries after Paul penned 1 Corinthians, because it is not the purpose of the Church to micromanage fashions.  A pixie cut is quite as capable of communicating femininity and beauty according to the “grammar” of a particular culture.  The issue is modesty and humility.  Don’t get hung up on the legalisms that some Christians mistake for essential Christian teaching.  Christ has made you free of such traditions of men.

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About Mark Shea

Mark Shea
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Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.