Things Modesty Hasn’t a Damn Thing to Do With

Our sexless, sterile, intolerably flaccid, bored, addicted, all-but-objectified, whored-out, frigid, entirely depersonalized, anti-erotic culture wouldn’t know modesty if she took her shirt off and flashed us in an episode of Girls With Low Self-Esteem. (Not that she would, being modest.) This seems apparent in our inability to articulate a definition or criticism of modesty that isn’t immediately suspect.

Mainstream feminists stumble through their obligatory vocabulary to tell an uncaring universe that “modesty is an oppressive, sexist idea imposed on women by men who want to control them.” This potentially valid point is instantaneously negated by their simultaneous support of the pornography industry, which is an oppressive, sexist institution imposed on women by men who want to control them, one that objectifies every inch of the female body into an object of sexual arousal, thus creating a demand for the very same repressive “modesty” — which seeks to cover every inch of that sexual, sexual female — that mainstream feminism mocks. But modesty as repression is not modesty at all.

Christians, on the other hand, tend to do one of three things. They might get busy inventing arbitrary standards of modesty, defining the precise number of centimeters between knee and skirt, breast and shirt, strap and shoulder — objective standards ruined by the first breast-baring culture to poke it’s head out of their National Geographic magazines, the first breast-feeding woman, and just about every resplendent depiction of the nude form, ever. But modesty as mere obedience to law and dress-code is not modesty at all.

Or they’ll say “modest is hottest,” that it “leaves room for the imagination,” as if modesty were a particularly perverse method of reverse psychology, in which the Christian male is aroused by the sordid, steamy not-showing of cleavage. But modesty as a coy, hard-to-get alternative to immodesty is no modesty at all.

Or, and this is probably most likely, they just don’t think of it.

But almost everyone who has the courage to lift their heads above apathy’s drowning pool and talk about modesty at all — Christian, feminist, atheist, the lot — expresses the virtue as a thing primarily determined by its effect on the other, as if total modesty was, by way of dress, the ability to not tempt a man into lust. Thus seems to me the saddest, most hopeless definition of them all.

First of all, virtues are good in themselves. We should love our neighbor even if his answer to our love is hate, because the virtue of charity is not valued for its effect — though what wondrous effects! — but for it’s far more wonderful being, it’s is-ness and its what-ness and the fact of its existence. We are to love because it is good to love, and there’s not much more we can say. That the value of modesty is primarily expressed as dwelling in usefulness — its capacity to help others master their lusts — seems to me a hollowing out of the thick, life-affirming center of modesty.

Secondly, most Western men — Christian or otherwise — are busy masturbating to objectified human beings. This normal, healthy support of sexual slavery has two nifty effects. Through porn, men either (a) trample into extinction their ability to see women as anything but sex objects, making modesty-as-lust-control virtually impossible or (b) irony of ironies, develop dopamine addictions that render even the most revealing swoop of dress relatively unexciting in comparison to an infinitely humping set of pixels, making modesty-as-lust-control as pointless as immodesty-as-seduction.

In a bored, pornographic culture, we need — more than ever — a definition of modesty that is not based on the gaze of the other, because the other is more than likely a little head-screwed about what is arousing and what is not. This much as clear: Modesty as merely a method of preventing lust in the onlooker is no modesty at all.

Now the Catholic Church has a definition of modesty that’s so revolutionary, so fearlessly true, so holistic and personal that our wannabe fearless, revolutionary, and holistic culture has done what all wannabe cultures do — ignored it, because, as everyone knows, ideas developed in 1976 inspire far more faith than ideas wrestled with for 2000 years, and who wants to listen to a Church who claims to speak with the authority of God, right? Gross. But the Catholic knows (because Catholics are smug, arrogant prigs) that the swarming multitude of idiocies surrounding the concept of modesty are only bad attempts at imitating what the Church has declared to be true for all eternity. Indeed, as a multitude of ripples on the surface of lake suggests a particularly massive rock plunged into its waters, so the multitude of reactions to and from the Church’s definition of modesty only indicate its terrible, awe-inspiring weight.

“Modesty exists as an intuition of the spiritual dignity proper to man. It is born with the awakening consciousness of being a subject.” (CCC 2524) God, how a little existentialism can clear the air. In my next post, having hopefully cleared up some false conceptions of modesty, I’ll begin the far more difficult task of expressing a true one. Do stick around, and read this post, which might help anchor you in the vocabulary I’ll inevitably be using.

The real discussion:

Modesty is Honesty

Modesty Sets Fire

Fury and Catholicity
The Difference Between a Martyr and a Victim
Bettering Your Boring Christian Playlist: Jenny & Tyler
Insulting ISIS
  • Anon Youth Minister

    The upcoming post is the one I’ve been waiting for! As a youth minister, I’ve fallen into the traps time and again of the “modest is hottest” and “leave room for the imagination” ideologies. Never questioned them until I started reading your blogs posts on it. Thank you.

  • roughplacesplain

    gracious, this is good. there are so many flaws in the usual discussion; I look forward to your next post

  • Liana

    I spy with my little eye an Arrested Development reference

  • Dale

    Marc, I enjoy your blog because you tackle weighty matters and are not content with simple slogans and paper-thin apologetics. I am not a regular reader, but I need to work on that.

    However, I was surprised to read your claim that mainstream feminists support the pornography industry. That statement needs a great deal of clarification and perhaps more support than was provided by your linked article. Anti-pornography was a major push of second-wave feminism, particularly in the 1970s. Feminist leaders decried not only the objectification of pornography, but tied it to sexual harassment, sexual coercion (rape) and sexual exploitation (particularly human trafficking.) Granted, there was pushback as the third wave of feminism developed, particularly regarding the issue of being “sex-positive” and the issue of being anti-censorship. The weight given to these competing values still roil the waters of feminism. Although the positions of some feminists might be accepting of pornography, there are many who are strongly against it, e.g. in Iceland

    I think something most feminists can unite on is that when modesty has been traditionally discussed, it almost always is in reference to women, as if only women are to be modest. I sense you are about to address that point, and so I look forward to the next installment of this discussion.

  • David A. Carlson

    I believe modesty to be akin to humility. Therefor, having really nothing to do with how little you wear or how little you bare. But instead having to do with being so humble as to not think that everyone in the world must absolutle want to see your physical beauty. Women in the Amazon may wear so little because it is easier, more simplist, and too freaking hot (temperature-wise, not hot as in physically attractive). However, they are so much more humble than we in the civilized parts of the world. As are the men in those parts of the world. Just because women walk around with their breast exposed, the men dont just sit there staring at there breasts all day. For all their nakedness, they are more modest than most in the civilized world.

  • Kelvin

    I don’t mean this as a criticism or anything, but have you read “Love and Responsibility” by Karol Wojtyla? It does an amazing job of utilizing almost every intellectual avenue to explain what true love ‘is’ and what true love ‘is not’. If you haven’t, it would definitely supplement your ongoing project of clarifying society’s misguided language of love. And if you have, I think your readers would benefit from JPII’s succinct teachings. If you’ve already worked it into your previous posts, I might have missed it since I don’t see too many citations for sources other than the Catechism.

    Long-time Viewer, First-time Caller

  • filiusdextris

    Christians should be sensitive to the fallen nature of mankind in particular (both sexes), and even more sensitive if they know they are likely to interact with someone struggling mightily with lust. As a practical matter, that applies more to women. But being sensitive is not the same as being oversensitive. Subjective beauty is a nice gift from God that we can all admire, and it can be framed by women (or men) without sin.

    I sometimes wonder if it might not be helpful for men to briefly imagine a beautiful female in their presence naked, appreciate that beauty, realize that God is present and the author of that beauty, be happy for that female and that aspect of her personhood, trust that the beauty will be used in the right way, and move on with life and other thoughts. Defeating lustful thoughts by quickly acknowledging the (naked) truth, so as not to trouble rationalizing and repressing the lie.. And it would likely be ok (good?) to admire the same sex as well along the same lines. God makes lots of beautiful people. Subjective beauty helps for sure, but don’t fail to appreciate the objective beauty too!

  • Dave G.

    You know what? This is all very good and well, and shows that we are all children of our respective ages. People who hold various views on dress and fashion are children of their age, their culture, their generation. Making some general points about what modesty is and isn’t is a task worth exploring. Apologetics jumps the shark, however, when the apologist loses the ability to discern where the Gospel ends, and the culturally and generationally conditioned preferences and opinions begin. Arguing that ‘this’ is modesty and it’s best expressed the way I like it, comes dangerously close to blurring the lines. What one thinks is acceptable is likely an opinion based on many factors, whether it’s more clothes or less. Fact is, there is little to suggest that since women have shown more skin, the world has lurched closer to a Christian concept of sexuality. One could, with little effort, argue the opposite. But it’s really a matter of opinion, and personal honesty. And that’s all fine and dandy. But if in the attempt to promote a valid point, we begin to argue that our preferences and personal opinions just happen to be what the Magisterium really means, as if our likes and dislikes are the ones Jesus has been yearning for after all these millennia, it’s time to take a long break and recollect ourselves. It’s a common trait in fundamentalist circles, after all, to imagine subjects from fashion to pizza toppings are a matter of good vs. evil, and that includes if we’re pushing for spaghetti straps over bodices.

  • Sarah @

    Dude, this. is. awesome. I’ve been thinking and writing about modesty for a long while – working it into my mind that modesty is more about being a ‘subject with inherent dignity’ and less about inches and necklines (although modesty does eventually touch those things too). I also LOVE that modesty is intuitive – although I would hazard a guess to say that many have squelched that little voice and perhaps might have to re-cultivate it?

  • Seraphim

    May I suggest a critique of something you said here, along similar lines of what you’ve been saying recently?

    You said pornography “objectifies every inch of the female body into an object of sexual arousal”. I’ve always had a problem with that and similar complaints about pornography. Having every inch of the female body be sexually arousing is NOT the problem. (Every inch of my wife’s body is, down to the last hair on her head.) If anything, something more akin to the opposite is the problem – that women’s bodies become reduced to those parts which our society deems sexually arousing.

    The problem is rather that pornography, as with all forms of lust, separates sexual arousal from personal intimacy. The problem is that the body is objectified by sexual arousal – not that the body is arousing to begin with, or that it is the cause of arousal, or even that it is erotic. (I would say that most nude paintings are indeed very, very erotic. They are not supposed to be arousing, though, because the viewer is not conjugally intimate with the piece of art.)

    This is an excellent blog and I’ve loved the line of argumentation you’ve been taking the past few months about modesty and chastity; my objection to that one sentence follows the same logic as you’ve been developing.

  • Baron

    Marc, I love you man, but that is a terrible definition of Modesty. In fact, it’s not a definition of a virtue at all.

    “Modesty exists as an intuition of the spiritual dignity proper to man. It is born with the awakening consciousness of being a subject.”

    Modesty is a virtue, but that definition doesn’t define a virtue. Virtues are habits. The definition does not describe a habit. It makes no reference to a power of the soul, which is the subject of a virtue.

    You mock the idea that ” ideas developed in 1976 inspire far more faith than ideas wrestled with for 2000 years”, but then you use as your only reference a Catechism that was published in the 90′s and a philosophy from the 19th and 20th centuries. You really need to go back to the Fathers and Doctors of the Church and see what the Church has been saying across those 2000 years. I.E. Summa Theologica II.II Q160

    Donald Goodman also wrote a fantastic book on the virtue of modesty with many references to the Fathers and Doctors of the Church.

  • Mark

    I enjoyed the Arrested Development reference.

  • Ball of String

    Hi Marc,

    I really appreciate your last few posts about the concept of modesty. Modesty has been something on my mind lately, in particularly because I’m not often sure what to make of it. I really do think, though, that at the bottom of it all is how we view the human body.

    I guess in general, I wanted to thank you for making me think!

  • michicatholic

    I’m a female, a modest female. Modesty doesn’t have anything to do with any particular man or even men in general. I have no idea what goes on in the minds of the men I meet, and what’s more, I really don’t care. If they have a problem, they need to get over it.

    Moreover, I usually don’t participate in these modesty discussions for two reasons: 1. Invariably there’s some guy involved who has to tell me how necessary it is to wear a near-burkha to protect his over-blown libido, not to mention ego. Talk about immodest! Who is he to talk about modesty? Ok, now I’m creeped out just thinking about it.

    2. The whole topic strikes me as artificial, repressed and silly.

    Tell you what: Cover up because you respect yourself as a person like God does, and you’re modest. That’s what modesty is about.

  • Paula

    I was beginning to despair that the subject of modesty was not going anywhere real when I spied your line, ” an intuition of spiritual dignity…” and I am won over!

    thank you!

  • Lemon

    Have you read any Dostoyevsky? Your expression of internal reasoning strikes a familiar cord.