Bright red and yellow leaves danced in the breeze as I pulled into the high school one fine fall day. The merry sense of welcome they created didn’t last long. It ended when I spotted a gaggle of girls strutting about in revealing clothing that would have put Sodom and Gomorrah to shame.
Nor did this particular crowd represent an exception to the rule. Throughout the school, as I soon saw, immodesty was as ubiquitous as it was bold.
Stupefied, I returned home and called the school’s vice principal. I referred to the school’s dress code and asked what could be done to address the pervasive immodesty. Addressing me as if I had recently flown in from some distant planet, the vice principal assured me that the school was “too large” to do anything.
And then there were priorities. The school had clearly decided, for example, that it wasn’t “too large” for a host of other activities. It wasn’t “too large” for football, for soccer, for homecoming dances, for assemblies and frivolities of all sorts. It wasn’t “too large” to teach a young girl how to navigate an automobile on the town roads. But, evidently, it was much too large to teach a young girl to navigate morals on the road of life.
The vice principal’s attitude toward the collapse of modesty reflects the perspective of the culture at large. It can be summed up in two words: Why bother?
There are a plethora of reasons to “bother,” but the most important reason rests with the girls themselves. Modesty protects the mystery of persons, as the Catechism reminds us (No. 2522). Quicker than the eye can blink, immodesty can dispel mystery in a girl. And once that mystery is dispelled, what fills the void? Will a school or a town simply stop thinking of girls? It most surely will not. Instead, it will begin to think of them in a distorted way. It will begin to think of them as objects.
Webster’s defines an object as a “tangible and visible” entity. Immodesty so funnels attention onto a girl’s “tangible” body that it dismisses the intangibles that comprise her personality and immortal soul.
Girls once admired for their beautiful eyes, smiles, compassion, dignity or grace — or perhaps how they lovingly cared for younger siblings or patiently sat with an older grandparent — are now bluntly and crudely referred to as “hot.” Is it any wonder that America has successfully bred multiple generations of anorexic, bulimic and depressed young girls, each one struggling in vain to be a perfect “object”?
The more a girl is protected from being viewed as an object, the more likely she will be viewed as a mysterious gift from heaven with hopes, joys, sorrows, talents, thoughts, feelings, likes, dislikes and a precious personality all her own. It’s only then that her soul, made in the image and likeness of God, can begin to shine through. Each girl yearns for this, whether she knows it or not, because that is the truth of who she is, and of who she was made to be.
One major offense against modesty, so widely accepted in our day, is high hemlines. High hems among women are a relatively recent development. Throughout history, it was as if women, in their wisdom, instinctively saw themselves in need of the protection modesty offered. Prior to the early 1900s, for centuries, hemlines wavered somewhere between floor length to just above the ankle. Skirts began to slowly rise about the year 1912. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
In 1912 Margaret Sanger began to actively promulgate the concept of artificial birth control. Artificial birth control removed consequence from action, and thus led men toward the indiscriminate use of women as sexual objects. Is it coincidence that the promulgation of artificial birth control is timed precisely with the onset of higher hems, which reflect that objectification?
Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae explained how artificial birth control can “open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. … A man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.”
The birth control pill was fully legalized in 1965, and in 1966 skirts rose to “miniskirt” level — again linking the advancing of contraception with increasing immodesty. Presumably, if one could protect women from pregnancy through contraception, one would not need clothing for that purpose. Contraception may have “protected” some women from becoming mothers. But contraception could never do what modest clothing does so well. It could never protect women from being viewed, and treated, as objects.
Contraception has led us down a dark path where every day women now delight in being viewed as “sexy” rather than decent, dignified or attractive. It’s a disturbing path where motherhood, a most miraculous vocation, is routinely shunned. It’s a path on which ordinary women, having been objectified for so long, now freely objectify themselves.
One can sympathize with school principals who do try to promote modesty. Some have struggled valiantly. They’ve disciplined students and sent letters to parents. But what often happens next is what I call the “yo-yo sleeper” principle. The skirts come down for a while, and then, as if they were a yo-yo on a string that was merely doing a sleeper trick, the skirts go right back up.
How do we win the battle for modesty? We need to ask God to help us. We can pray for a spirit of modesty in our homes and throughout the world. We can heed the message of Fatima, where Our Lady told the children that many fashions will arise that will offend Our Lord very much. We can follow what Our Lady asked of us at Fatima: reciting the Rosary daily, honoring the five first Saturdays at Mass, offering sacrifices, and consecrating ourselves and our families to her Immaculate Heart.
And we can examine our own consciences. As mothers, are we modeling modesty in the home for our children? Are we covered from the neck to the knees, and is our clothing loose-fitting? Are fathers expressing dissatisfaction with suggestive clothing, and forbidding it in the home? Are we discouraging television shows that promote immodesty? Are we teaching girls that they can be attractive without being provocative?
Families can’t fight this battle alone. Families need schools and churches to help. The importance of modesty needs to be elevated above the importance of activities like sports. Girls need to see teachers, administrators and peers actively modeling modesty.
And to reach the real root of the problem, we need Catholic schools and colleges to teach the beautiful, liberating truths of Humanae Vitae and the Catechism on modesty (see Nos. 2521-23). We also need to hear these truths proclaimed from Catholic pulpits everywhere.
What should we do about immodesty? That answer may be different for each of us. But immodesty has so wounded American girls for so long that the answer to that question, for any one of us, can no longer be “nothing.”
Mary Anne Moresco writes from
Monmouth County, New Jersey.