How to Teach Modesty Modest-ly

hermit scourging himself

It took me twelve years to complete this modesty article. Why the rush? Let’s just say I enjoy this topic about as much as men enjoy talking about childbirth. Would it surprise you to learn that I’m not alone?

Many of my friends feel the same way. I’m not talking about my neighbors who wash the car on Sunday mornings in their bikinis. I’m talking about moms and homeschoolers – women who know that modesty is the guardian of chastity and who understand that dressing modestly is a societal virtue.

 You’d think we would be on this topic like wool on Amish.

 Yet when presented with a modesty pamphlet decrying women who “administer the fatal potion,” we excuse ourselves and go google: arsenic dealers.

 What is our problem? I’ll tell you. It’s not modesty. It’s presentation.

 It is true that St. John Chrysostom said the quote above. It is also true that St. Thomas More called Luther several names unfit to print. Somehow I doubt they would persuade Lutherans to come home.

 An article I picked up by way of the Patheos blog nails it. The author, who grew up Protestant, states, “Modesty taught me that my first priority needed to be making sure I wasn’t a ‘stumbling block’ to men. Modesty taught me that I was always on display. This took my normal self-consciousness as a teenage girl and amped it up to an impossible degree. I once had a bee fly down my (acceptably loose) shirt and, in flailing around to get it out, had a family member comment that I’d just ‘flashed’ my own grandfather. I was horrified for the rest of the week.”

The rest of the article is less an argument than an impassioned therapy session in print. Yet, if the comment boxes are any indication, most women feel the same way. Their conclusion is (this is an actual quote): “Modesty is immoral.”

What went wrong? It is simple. Modesty was taught immodestly.

Modesty is about more than what you wear. It’s about the way you interact with others. Certainly, no one shirked their duty to tell this girl the rules of outward modesty. Yet, they trampled on her inner modesty – as a growing, changing girl. They humiliated her. She sought a way to be rid of the feeling. So after years of living according to the rules, and still experiencing the shame, she came away with a blanket rejection of the whole concept – and an eating disorder.

There is a better way. I’ve been on both sides of the issue as a growing, embarrassed teenager, now the mother of six daughters. My sisters and I grew up with something like what the blogger described and we gave plenty of resistance. By contrast, we have handled our daughters very differently and have had almost no resistance.

You know how Pope Pius XI talked about how a prudent father needs to be careful in discussing intimate matters with his son? That’s because of the way this stuff affects him. It is the same with girls. This stuff is intimate. It’s the mother’s domain and it has to be handled delicately. We can’t just charge in.

Imagine if the tables were turned.

A growing boy has a temptation to lust, right? Suppose we generate a pamphlet about it. Call it Christ-like Standards for Custody of the Eyes. It would have a picture of a holy hermit scourging himself. 

It would spell out numerous examples of violations of thought, word, and deed from which decent women are not safe. We would back this up with saint quotes. Then, instead of giving it to the neighborhood gigolo, we would give copies to our growing, changing boys – then wonder why they’re thoroughly embarrassed and resentful.

I am in no way saying that we should not teach our sons purity or teach our daughters modesty. What I’m saying is that we have to be careful about how we teach these things. They are very personal.

We not only want to be respectful, we want to be effective.

Before we get started, we need to acknowledge some basic facts about girls.

Girls want to be pretty.

It’s the same thing that makes them glue fake flowers on grapevines and coordinate drapes with the sofa. I see it Thomistically. It’s a good which, when abused becomes an evil – vanity. Personal beauty is a manifestation of the feminine gift of building culture. It’s one of the things we’ve lost in our world of tight, drab jeans and muffin tops. Let’s honor it in our girls and teach them to channel it towards real beauty.

Girls want to fit in.

No. They don’t want to stick out. This is an important distinction. To a young girl, this is the difference between survival and peer induced social torture. Girls choose their style when they are adolescents. They are going to want to look not weird when compared with others. My sister handled the problem by stashing her friend’s clothes in her school locker. She was rumpled, but in her mind, passable. How about we prevent sneaking instead? If there are modest trends, let’s use them.

Girls are prey.

With all the talk about women’s empowerment saying otherwise, young girls don’t know this. But unscrupulous guys know it. They know exactly how to manipulate a girl into getting what they want – whether it’s by pressure, sweet talk, or even mockery. Merchants also know this. Girls are a vast market. Hook them on a contrived standard of beauty and they will buy, buy, buy. Girls expect this to make them happy but it doesn’t. The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty reports that girls get depressed in mere minutes while reading fashion magazines. Most can’t live up to the contrived “ideal” body image. The market does not care. It wins because the solution is more buying.

Girls want true love.

Girls sometimes dress immodestly to get attention, it is true. But they are not ultimately about conquest; they are about romance and commitment. When they become aware of boys, quite early on, they picture themselves setting up house with the creatures – even if the boys are writhing in the dust, pretending to be escapees from the asylum for the criminally insane. The only explanation for why girls behave this way is that they are hard wired to try to attract one of these. Conquest is much more typical in a young guy, who wants bragging rights. Girls falsely assume guys are like they are. Sigh. See: “Girls are prey” above.

Where does modesty fit in with all this information?

If it’s not clear already, the person who benefits most from modesty is the girl.

We can talk all about how immodesty is a stumbling block to men but it is not the boy but the girl who is the most vulnerable when modesty is breached.

It is a girl who gets anorexia from poor body image.

It is a girl who is more likely to emotionally bond after intimacy.

It is a girl who risks motherhood with no male support or commitment.

Or worse, heads for the killing factory.

Yes, I know. It is also the girl who offends against modesty. For what it’s worth, I don’t want to be assaulted with the sight of somebody’s personal assets any more than you do.

A fork in the eye can be preferable to a trip to a crowded beach.

And while it is right for guys to practice modesty, it doesn’t usually carry the same urgency. When we women see a half naked guy, even if the guy is good looking, many of us will be embarrassed, like we’ve accidentally walked into a guy’s locker room. Guys react quite differently so I’m told.

So what do we do with such a girl who deliberately “administers that fatal potion” – dresses immodestly on purpose as if to conquer a man? Here is how a friend of ours handled that very problem.

One time my husband and I were in a rough part of town with our friend Patrick when a fight broke out. A mob of teens rushed a fourteen year old girl and her twelve year old cousin. There was no particular reason. It was just something to do. They even took out their phones and filmed it – to post later on youtube, I’m told. Patrick, who works as a mentor to troubled youth, stepped in and stopped the fight. After the mob left, the three of us grownups waited an hour for the victim girls’ delinquent relatives to pick them up. The older girl was poured into a pair of jeans and low-cut t-shirt. As she stood on the street corner, drive-by guys slowed down to gawk. She shouted obscenities back. Patrick quietly asked her why she was acting like that. I remember thinking, “Good luck.” Then he brought up what she was wearing.

“What do you want people to think about when they see you?” he asked. “Do you want them just to look at this?” referring to the outfit. “Or do you want them to see what’s in your heart?”

“My heart,” she answered softly.

Here was one who “prepared the abominable cup, the death dealing drink.” But Patrick appealed to her as a woman who really just wanted to be loved. And she listened.

That’s how we should treat our daughters and not like they’re a snare to every decent boy who wanders by on his way to Mass.

Okay, how?

On a day to day basis, modesty is one of those things that is more effectively caught than taught. My mother didn’t often tell me explicitly that I should live a well regulated life – get up early, go to bed on time, make supper at a given time every night. She just did it and now so do I. Similarly, a mother can show her daughter how to be modest and look her best. (No clue how to wed modesty with style? Get the fun book, It’s So You by Catholic mom and style consultant, Mary Sheehan Warren.) Dads can lead by example too – my husband gave up shorts years ago.

With such a solid formation, will a girl ever trespass? Probably.

Modesty is like any other virtue – when it’s inconvenient people would rather not bother with it.

This is not a sign that all is lost. Maturity is a process.

This is not a TV altar call; just add faith and presto-chango! There will be times when Mom does have to talk about it. When that happens coaching is more effective than lecturing. “Eh, that’s a little short. How about the black one instead?” Do not condemn. How many of us find condemnation motivating? Anyone? Anyone?

We have to keep sight of the goal which is not just outward modesty. Like the girl in the blog post, that only goes so far. What we really want is for our girls to own it for themselves. They’re worth it.

There. Done. Now, who wants to talk about childbirth?

This article originally appeared in Latin Mass Magazine, Summer 2015. Find more articles from Latin Mass Magazine here.

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