7 Takes on Modesty: The Case for Rules

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Whenever I gather with Catholic women, we all agree: Modesty is important, and we want more of it.  Especially at church.

But many of the same people who want more modesty do not want rules.  And there are some good arguments from the no-dress-code crowd:

  • Modesty is context-dependent.
  • Any rule can be “worked” to create an immodest outfit that meets the letter of the law.
  • Unless the rules are too strict.
  • Burkas burkas burkas.
  • Pants.  Pants. Pants.  Paaaaaants.

Add to that two bad arguments that fill us out at seven:

Today I give you seven reasons parishes, schools, and families ought to consider making some specific rules to define modest dress.

1.  Modest is not only about interior disposition. I refer you, for a start, to this excellent post by Rebecca Frech on how guys are different from girls.  Can a guy work himself into a sweat just imagining things?  Certainly.  But that doesn’t change the reality that having a woman’s body in front of his eyes provokes a physiological response — the same way putting a plate of fresh-baked brownies in front of a girl makes her . . . well, you know.  Put the brownies away.  Away.  Please.  Now.

2. You have to get dressed.  Everyday. Modesty is not some abstract principle debated by philosophers and mathemeticians.  Girls have to choose what clothes to buy, and then which ones to wear in which combination.  This is not some theoretical exercise, like wondering what you’ll do if a hurricane should hit your corner of North Dakota.  Either the clothes you put on today are modest, or they are not.  You have to know.

3. It’s not fair to leave girls with nothing but judgement calls, and no hope of getting it right.  Yes, there are many, many classy outfits on the border between modest and not.  At home with mom, or in the fitting room with a trusted friend, you can say, “Yeah, that skirt’s a smidge short, but it’s a heavy fabric that won’t fly away, and with opaque tights and a sweater, you’re okay.”  Given how hard it is to find decent clothes on short notice and a tight budget, yes, this is sometimes the reality.

But what if you’re a teen who wants to get it right?  Girls deserve reliable guidelines — a set of simple tactics for choosing an outfit that will work.  It’s no fair to tell teens “cultivate a sense of modesty,” but refuse to tell them what they need to do in order to avoid being gossiped about prayed for by the ministry team.   Modesty isn’t hard.  99% of the time, if you follow a few basic rules suitable to your time and place, you’re gonna be good.

4. Clear rules help you better judge the judgement calls.  Fashion is weird and unpredictable.  Pretend for a moment you have a rule along the lines of “skirt needs to touch the knees”.  Just pretend with me, it won’t hurt.  It’s only pretend.

Okay, so we’re pretending about our rule . . . and now we have a skirt with a slit up the side.  Having already said, “Well, this much leg is okay, that much is too much,” we have a basis for deciding whether the slit is revealing or just convenient.  How does it compare with other skirts we’ve decided are A-OK?

5.  Clear rules end arguments.  If you’re the youth minister charged with deciding whether an outfit meets spec, you don’t have to use your imagination.  You can say, “Shoulders not covered.  Go grab a t-shirt from the supply closet.  Not my rule, parish policy.”  End of argument.

At home, of course, you have to admit you’re the bad guy and just stick to your guns.  And of course your daughter is going to try to negotiate all the stylish concessions she can.  But at least she can shop knowing that no matter how obnoxiously tacky you think the new sequins-and-puff-balls day-glow-bubble-skirt style is, if it’s below the knee and not too tight, and she buys it with her own money, you have to let her wear it somewhere.  Not necessarily anywhere you, your family, or your nationality are known.  But somewhere.

6. Clear rules give girls something to stand on against their friends.  It’s not easy to be that kid who doesn’t get to wear what everyone else is wearing.  Yes, of course girls ought to have lots of guts and inner convictions, and be totally unafraid to stand up to their idiotic “friends” and get new ones if necessary.  Yes, of course a girl should rather face death itself than ever utter a single word against her honorable, admirable, eminently reasonable parents.  But seriously?  Give the poor kid an easy out.  “It’s the dress code for youth group events,” or “My parents have a rule against it.”

7. Clear rules sharpen the debate.  So your right-wing fanatic friend (or pastor, or DRE) swears that exposed ankles are the first step on the way to Hell, and that many a collarbone had led a man to perdition.  Putting together a tentative list of rules, and then opening it up to scrutiny, helps better answer the question.  You can flip through photos from the parish picnic and say, “Look, Sister Immaculata is showing some calf and it’s okay.  Let’s up our hemline rule a few inches, I think the guys can take it.”

You have to get dressed.  Every day, every woman in the universe answers a question with her body: “I think this outfit is just fine.” Why not do it with the confidence?  Make some rules.  Ask for input. Try them out.  Adjust as needed.

10 thoughts on “7 Takes on Modesty: The Case for Rules

    1. I went to the mall two days in a row this week. I came away with a new appreciation for the girls I know — compared to what they’re being sold, they really are making an effort to tone it down.

  1. Erin,

    My four for Mass were:

    Two flexible ones:
    -skirt meet knees
    -cover shoulders

    Two hard and fast ones:
    -tailored yes, tight no
    -no cleavage

    I posted it here: http://jenniferfitz.wordpress.com/2011/08/23/be-modest-at-church-in-four-easy-steps/

    For regular life, I like the shorts rule of shorts (and skorts) extending at least as far as your finger tips. And for my girls I’m okay with sleeveless (not my first choice), but not skinny strap stuff, swimsuit that covers the midriff, and girls need to put on a cover up when they aren’t swimming. (Ditto the boy – put a shirt on.)

    How about you?

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