Ideologues in our culture drive public discussion like they own the car. So just on principle, I refuse to write about the current turmoil-du-jour, The Bathroom Wars. Instead I choose the topic of modesty.
- A humble estimate of one’s own merits without conceit or vanity
- Avoidance of indecency, especially in dress and speech.
That looks like two different kinds of modesty: ego modesty and body modesty. Let’s begin with ego modesty, the kind everyone admires… and work our way up to body modesty, which seems to have fewer fans.
Pope Francis enjoys great popularity because of his ego modesty; Donald Trump earns serious demerits for his perceived lack of ego modesty. We appreciate modesty because it disarms our defensiveness, it leaves room for others to shine, it takes the competitive fever out of us. In refusing to hog the spotlight, it concerns itself instead with the well-being of others. In other words, modesty oils the social machinery.
At the Academy Awards, where multi million-dollar egos are stroked, some notable acceptance speeches have nevertheless included lovely sentiments such as these:
- “Many of the previous winners of this award actually taught me. I thank them.”
- “I was going to thank all the little people, but then I remembered I am the little people.”
- “I want to thank everybody who makes movies. You made me want to be an actor.”
Do we not warm to those charmingly modest words, much more than to insufferably immodest words like these:
- “My IQ is one of the highest, and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure; it’s not your fault.”
- “If I walked down the street and a girl saw me, she might take a look back because maybe I’m good-looking, right?”
We rightly admire the largeness of character that does not seek attention; we rightly wince at the character so small that it has to praise itself.
Body modesty, like ego modesty, refuses to call attention to itself. We see it most readily in girls but we are all born with a dash of it. Wendy Shalit, writing from the eye of the hurricane she herself aroused with her highly counter-cultural book, A Return to Modesty, says that girls are born with a tendency for blushing, modesty and averting praise.
In his theology of the body, St. John Paul has an explanation for feminine modesty, rooted in the first few chapters of Genesis. In the beginning, before their mistrust of God, the original man and woman were able to gaze upon each other with a tender love that did not at all partake of grasping. At that point, they were not even capable of seeing each other as something to be used. Their love was boundless, as it received and encompassed the entirety of the other person, and sexual desire was something pure and delightful and whole.
Once the dark chasm of sin had been opened, the sad capacity to see each other as objects emerged. Their mistrust of God’s goodness caused them to regard creation as threatening and insufficient, so that the man looked at his wife now with a grasping desire, a need to possess, and use her.
The woman’s response? She felt the need to protect herself from being seen as an object to be used. She sensed, just as we women do today, when the man wanted her for his own purposes and not for the whole, complex person that she was.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes modesty as an inborn psychological boundary that protects “the intimate center of the person.” It’s a woman’s way of “veiling” those aspects of herself that are susceptible to being used. St. John Paul, drawing from the Biblical Song of Songs, calls the woman an “enclosed garden” and a “fountain sealed.” Enclosed and sealed suggest the proper veiling of her “intimate center.” She is “the master of her mystery,” the subject of her own life, free to choose unveiling by the one from whom she needs no protection – her husband.
Men are, on average, 40 pounds heavier than women, 10% taller and have a whopping 60% more muscle mass. That makes women more naturally vulnerable, and therefore more naturally modest, because modesty is a shield.
Young children need a shield as well. Early exposure to sexual subjects, through sexual indoctrination in the primary classroom and public discussion of sexual topics, breaks down the natural modesty barriers of children. Sexual awareness is forced on them long before the natural threshold of puberty.
A human being is an emotional, spiritual, psychological, physical, intellectual complexity. We don’t arrive on the scene fully formed; there are stages of development associated with specific ages. If the proper tasks of each stage are missed, they become dauntingly difficult later on. Sexual identity must be integrated into a whole, diverse personality at the appropriate time. Without modesty, without the protection it affords, children are exposed dangerously early to our hyper-sexualized culture. The sexual self is developed prematurely, at the cost of fully developing intellect, athletic ability, friendship skills, and emotional mastery.
A study at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois assessed self-sexualization in young girls by showing them the two images below: one in revealing clothes, the other in a trendy but modest outfit. Both were depicted as slim and cute. The girls were asked which one they’d want to look like, which one would be more popular and which one they’d prefer to have for a friend.
In answer to all three questions, the sexualized doll was overwhelmingly preferred. 6-year old girls wanted to be identified with the “sexy” girl.
Could the message be any more explicit? “If you want to be happy, popular, and successful, be a sexual object.” Or, in theology of the body terms, “Make yourself a thing to be used, not a person to be encountered.”
Going straight to the horse’s mouth, a college student at Princeton writes: “Guys pay attention to girls who dress provocatively, and we have been trained by the media from birth to believe that “sexy” is the only kind of beauty that counts. It is the source of a woman’s power and an indicator of her value.”
How will women ever be convinced to embrace modesty if it means giving up perceived power?
Is it really true that the only power a woman can hold is vested in her sex appeal? Not her intellect, work ethic, insight, kindness, humor, experience and education? If that is true, then maybe the power that “sexy” gives a woman is not really worth having. Maybe there is another, richer power, rooted in human freedom.
Author Wendy Shalit writes that modesty brings out the best in both girls and boys. Girls have a chance to complete their development as well-rounded young people before they develop sexually. Womanliness becomes subtle and inviting when integrated into the whole person, rather than crude and aggressive, relying solely on sex.
Similarly, modesty gives boys a chance to develop self-mastery and genuine respect for girls before encountering them in any sexual context. It opens a space for men to behave honorably, regard women holistically and develop the manly virtues of strength and responsibility.
Ego modesty and body modesty have the same root, modus, meaning measure. Someone who is ego modest has a proper measure of his own achievements, and doesn’t permit them to be trumpeted over others. Body modesty, similarly, takes a proper measure of the body and declines to advertise it competitively.
When you’re body modest, you carry yourself in a way that emphasizes you as a person, not as a fractured set of exciting parts, none of which is your brain. Modesty allows others to focus on your face and eyes, providing a meeting of whole persons. The A&F ad above is so clear an example of how the visual focus on sexual attributes negates the encounter with a whole person. The model’s face isn’t even shown; it would be a distraction from the sex.
Being able to relinquish the power of gaining attention through dress or manner requires a good deal of self-assurance, of confidence in your own merit, of not needing a marketing campaign. It’s the belief that your intellectual, emotional, and spiritual qualities are just as essential as your physical self. It’s the peace of being a solid, not a veneer.
It’s also a way of freeing yourself from the influences that would seek to control you. As the Catechism states: “Modesty inspires a way of life which makes it possible to resist the allurements of fashion and the pressures of prevailing ideologies.”
Take that to contemplation: modesty actually contributes to independence. (The Catechism often has that jolting way of going deep and revealing connections we would otherwise fail to make.)
So modesty is not only an assertion of the value of the whole person and a path to purity of heart, but also to free thinking, to being the subjects of our own lives, not passive objects manipulated by others. In this day, when everything (even to the use of bathrooms) is dictated to us, do you not yearn to resist?
Modesty can be, among other things, that path to freedom.
Sheryl Collmer, M.T.S. is the Director of Outreach for TOBET in Irving, TX.