How to Be Immodest About Modesty

Corita brought up an interesting idea:  we can behave immodestly while discussing modesty.  I realize that I’m pretty much doing this right now by writing my third straight post about the topic, so—I don’t know, pray for me.  (I’m going to be out of town all day anyway, so if the comment box gets all cluttered up with rabbits and pant suits and whatnot like it did on Thursday, don’t blame me).

Corita said:

I am distressed at least a little by the way that these modesty discussions inevitably draw so much description of the female body, clothed or barely-clothed.
. . . I am totally with you on pants, and modesty being situational.  Is there, though, a limit to how to discuss modesty?  A point, or a manner, in which it becomes, itself, immodest?

Ohhh, yes.  There are three basic types of immodest modesty that I’ve seen in religious circles:

1.  Praising chastity in such glowing terms that the windows fog up. This must make our guardian angels roll their eyes.  Picture, if you will, a Catholic youth group in which young men and women are sequestered in a comfy lounge, going on and on and on and on about how wonderful it is to save oneself for marriage.  Objectively, their words are on the up-and-up—but if you blink and shake your head to clear the air, you’ll realize that it’s really just a bunch of panting teenagers talking about how much they wanted to have sex.

They definitely get points for trying, but at a certain stage, you really have to say, “Well, I’m going to go play basketball now!”  or “Hey, I’m going to hurl myself in this thorn bush a couple of times—who’s with me?”

2.  Tireless vigilance about immodesty in others.  This is especially loathesome in children.  I’ve heard women boast about how their six-year-old son makes cutting remarks about the attire of a woman who jogs by the house:  “Mommy, that lady must not like herself very much!”  This is not the kid’s fault, of course.  It’s the mom who should be smacked upside the head.  Obviously we must set standards for ourselves, and teach our children how to dress and behave.  But we are in charge of how we dress, and unsolicited rudeness about other people’s choices is rude and counterproductive.

Another form of this vigilance, popular among women, is to anonymously mail some “how to be modest” literature to one of our erring sistern.  If you’ve been tempted to do this, you should know that (a) ill-mannered stunts like this make decent women want to start clothes shopping in the spray paint aisle; and (b) Dressing With Dignity is one of the most poorly-written books I’ve ever come across.  And I own Scooby Doo and the Haunted Cupcake Factory.

3.  Thinking about modesty until you can’t think about anything else.  This habit is just as objectifying as any soft porn:  if you only think about thebodythebodythebody all the time, you forget that you’re not the only one with a soul.

Remember the rumor of the Catholic executive who made his female employee kneel down on the floor to see whether her skirt was sufficiently long?  True or not, it’s the perfect illustration of someone who’s entirely forgotten why we have guidelines for modesty in the first place:  to promote respect for each other.

When we obsessively debate the specifics of clothing, we start out with good intentions in a tricky world, and end up as prickly, sour, neo-perverts.    I’ll never forget the complaint of one guy who battled valiantly to inject some reason into the pants debate of yesteryear (in at least four different comment boxes).  He was a guy who had struggled to begin to live chastely.  He said that the end result of having to explain over and over to Leviticus devotees why it wasn’t a sin for women to wear pants was that he found himself thinking critically and probingly about every single woman he encountered.  For instance,  he used to enjoy a TV talk show with a female host, because of its excellent content—but after the modesty debate,  he found himself thinking, “Should she be sitting that way?  Am I being overly legalistic, or overly lax when I notice that she has knees?  What if she buttoned that other button—would that help?  I think I can see through her blouse—probably another fabric would have been a more modest choice.”  He was justifiably furious at the cretins who forced him back into that mode of hyper-awareness of women’s bodies, when he had fought a long fight to overcome.

After a certain point, thinking about modesty all the time is just another way of thinking about sex all the time.  No matter how you got there, it’s not a good place to be.