On Modesty and Evangelization: 5 Lies We Tell Our Daughters

If we’re going to evangelize, we need to live our faith fully, and we need to teach that faith in our parishes and at home.  This includes aspects of the Christian life that might not come naturally to us, or that generate disagreement among Catholics of good will.

Today I want to tackle a sore topic: modesty.

It is difficult for women today to dress modestly.  It’s hard to find modest clothing.  It’s hard to set modest standards in an immodest culture.  And frankly, we ladies don’t instinctively understand modesty — we’re no more aroused at the sight of a bare shoulder than at the sight of a naked Golden Retriever.

But if we’re going to do this Christian thing, we have to be honest with ourselves.

Lie #1: Modesty is Optional. 

Nope.  It’s part of the Christian moral life, both as a sign of respect for ourselves, and out of consideration for those around us.

Yes, offer a warm welcome to the immodestly-dressed lady, same as you’d welcome anyone else.  Christ came to heal sinners, and none of us achieve perfection in this life.

But it’s not Christianity if we pretend that immodesty is no big deal.

Lie #2: You Can’t Handle the Truth.

A well-meaning priest expressed a widespread fear: “If I say anything, they’ll all leave the Church.”  Well, that’s an understandable fear.

But what’s the implication?  You’re too stupid to follow a dress code? Or perhaps: You’ll never make it as a real Christian?

Come on.  We’re supposed to be teaching our young people to lay down their lives for the Gospel, and we’re afraid they’re gonna have a crisis of faith if they have to buy a longer skirt?

We cheat our youth when we treat them like spiritual lightweights.

Lie #3: You Can Be Pure Without Being Modest.

This is a half-truth.  It’s like saying, “You can drive safely without following the traffic laws.”

Sure, it is possible to run a red light while still being very careful of yourself and others.  Yes, there are times when you must make an evasive maneuver in order to be safe on the road.  But there are some common-sense precautions we take when we get behind the wheel that give us the edge in the battle to get home in one piece.

Modesty isn’t a set of immutable laws; it’s more like a speed limit on relationships, or a flashing yellow light saying “slow down.”  Dressing modestly is part of the collection of things we do in order keep ourselves whole, our families intact, and our bodies healthy.

You wouldn’t tell your daughter not to worry about that yield sign, as long as she’s trying her best to be a safe driver.  It’s hard to stay pure in sex-crazed society.  Our girls deserve every help they can get.

Lie #4: Men Just Need to Get Over It.

Even if it were possible, would we really want this?  Imagine:  It’s your daughter’s wedding night.  She’s saved herself for the love of her life.  He lights the candles and opens a bottle of champagne, while she slips into that pretty little silk number.  He gazes at the lovely curve of her thigh, the delicate arch in the small of her back, a radiant young woman who has vowed to give herself to him and him alone – what a lucky man! Then he yawns and says, “Oh, I’ve seen that view a million times before.   You wanna watch a football game or something?”

No. We don’t want our young men to grow so accustomed to the intimate curves of the female form that their wives are just another specimen at the museum.  Indeed, this is a good measure of modesty: Is this a body part I want my husband desensitized to?

Lie #5: Your Clothes Are Just Fine. 

It’s hard to tell a friend her clothes are inappropriate.  You know she means no harm. You know she’ll probably be a little embarrassed, maybe even defensive.

But would you let her go all day with spinach stuck between her teeth?  No.  Surely she also deserves to know if her outfit is generating gossip and setting her up for disaster.

 So what does modest look like?

I recently polled a group of faithfully-Catholic ladies about their standards for modesty, and the answers varied quite a bit.  So I know that what I propose here is going to seem too strict to some, and too permissive to others.  But here are the standards we set at our house, and they’re consistent with typical school and church dress codes over the last several decades:

  • Just say no to: strapless tops, exposed cleavage, bare midriffs.
  • Only as swim or exercise wear (cover up after): Tight pants, skinny-strapped and tight shirts, short skirts and shorts.
  • Cover shoulders for Mass and for work, and if in doubt, everywhere else, too.  My husband points out that while sleeveless and wide-strapped tops can be sufficiently modest, a covered-shoulders rule is easier to explain and follow.
  • What’s the shortest allowable hemline?  Some say knees need to be covered; the more permissive touches-the-knees rule works well, too.  (My son observes that when you sit, your skirt rises a few inches more.)  I compromise with the fashion-hounds in the house and, for non-flyaway fabrics, accept the standard of our local Catholic schools for uniform skirts: Two inches above the knee for little girls, three inches for high school.  An equivalent measure is “the width of four of the wearer’s fingers.”
  • For shorts there’s the old standby: Finger-tip length or longer.
  • Skorts sit in limbo.  An easy rule is that the skirt needs to meet the skirt rules, or the shorts need to meet the shorts rule. Or just add another inch of leeway to the skirt guidelines.

Even if an outfit “meets dress code,” each of us also needs to consider whether, given our own body type, we need to add a little more fabric or choose an alternate style.

Also, husbands and fathers need to speak up about “guilt by association” outfits – styles that are technically modest enough, but happens to echo a style associated with prostitution or deviant sexual practices.

Gentle but Firm

No matter how egregious a girl’s outfit, always assume good intentions.  Most ladies are just trying to be pretty and stylish.  Plenty of us have fashion accidents – the outfit that got too short or too tight since last time we wore it, or the one that looks fine in the mirror, but isn’t so fine in-action.  As we moms try to strike the balance between too strict and too permissive, yes, sometimes we make a bad call. It happens.

Do have confidence in the girls in your parish and in your family. Don’t give up on us just because we don’t “get it” right away.

Girls and women have a hard time with modesty because our brains do not function like male brains do.  But we ladies are not second-rate Christians, and we deserve a chance to learn how to follow our faith 100%.

Copyright © 2013, Jennifer Fitz

Jennifer Fitz

Jennifer Fitz

Jennifer Fitz is the author of Classroom Management for Catechists from Liguori Publications. She writes about the Catholic faith at her Patheos blog, Sticking the Corners.

5 responses to “On Modesty and Evangelization: 5 Lies We Tell Our Daughters”

  1. […] monthly column at New Evangelizers is up this morning.  FTR: I’m absolutely no good at telling whether my daughters’ pants are too tight, […]

  2. Thank you for this column. It is a good, common sense discussion about modesty, and I very much like the fact that you can talk frankly with your son about female modesty in dress. My wife and I are “boomers”, and we – alas – were too immersed in the muck of our secular society to have known better when our sons were young. I am thankful for our awakening today because it has lead our marriage to a new level of bliss.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      Funny thing about my son, for all he’s Mr. Casual in the usual boyish way, he’s always been annoyed by too-skimpy clothing, even as a fairly young child. I set a rule for myself that if my son was concerned about one of the girl’s outfits, I’d listen to him and take it seriously. (Not necessarily make him Fashion Judge — but at least demonstrate we valued his opinion.)

      Something I learned from Jim Curley at Bethune Catholic — the importance of taking advice from our kids when they have something good to contribute.

  3. Nancy Ward says:

    This topic is as sparsely covered as a bikini and needs way more coverage! Thanks for the old-fashioned approach to a modern day dilemma. The older my granddaughters get the shorter their skirts! The solution for my daughter was to sew for her and teach her to sew. We even made bathing suits one year because nothing on the rack passed the dress code for church camp.

    • Hehe. Yes, sewing. I wish I had learned how as a youngster, but my daughter is learning, and I give her free reign with the machine and lots of scrap fabric to play with. I’d love to see sewing classes offered at parishes, specifically so that girls weren’t beholden to the fashion industry.

      On bathing suits . . . last year my daughter wore “sport shorts” and quick-dry shirt, both of which were sold as outerwear, but were cut like a bathing suit. The stores were selling decent suits here and there, but she’s hard to fit. Aggravating.

      Needless to say, I’m 100% sympathetic to the parents that have to make do with what’s in the stores. It truly is difficult to keep a growing child in modest clothing.

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