Let's Talk About Modesty

Dawn Eden posted a link to the Diocese of Amarillo website, where the Bishop has posted A LOT of commentary on modesty in dress.

This is an issue that really gets people going, in my experience. On the one side, you have people who long for a return to the prairie dresses and bonnets of the American frontier. On the other, you have the people who say that no matter how a woman (or man -- but this issue, frankly, always seems to be about the women) is dressed, better that she (or he) is at Mass than anywhere else. And then there are the people in the middle, like me, who know there's a line somewhere, but aren't quite sure where it is, and note with some frustration that in thousands of words on the Amarillo Diocese website, the Bishop manages to avoid drawing one.

The more I grow in my Catholic faith, the more care I take in what I wear to the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Unfortunately, my carefully chosen attire might be another's scandal. My knee-length skirt may show too much shapely calf. My v-neck top may show my oh-so-sexy collarbone (hey, who knows what may turn someone on?). My dressy sandals may set the guy with the foot fetish two seats over off on some kind of weird fantasy. You never know.

Are we, as women (and I refer to women here because the most I've ever heard someone say in the way of complaint about a man's inappropriate attire was that it was sloppy or had a beer logo on it), obliged to dress to the lowest common denominator? Are we morally required to dress in the 21st century American version of the burka to prevent our brothers from sinning in their hearts? And for that matter, do we have any evidence that cultures which impose such strict dress requirements on women actually respect women more or produce holier men as a result (I'm looking at you, radical Islam)?

For the record, I, too, gawk a bit when I see young women in tight-fitting crop tops and low-rise jeans or miniskirts dragged into Mass by their parents. I wonder about the conversation that took place on the way out the door: "I don't want to go to Mass, Mom." "Too bad, you're going." "Fine, but I'm not changing." "Fine. Get in the car." Why would Mom stand her ground on the one serious sin, but not the other? And is it more sinful for a rebellious young woman to miss Mass, or to go with her heart not in it and cause half the men in the room to sin just by being there dressed as she is, all while taking communion and risking "drinking judgment upon herself?"

Of course, older women do the immodesty thing, too, albeit in a "classier" way (i.e. they don't look like slobs a la the teenagers, they just look wildly inappropriate). I see a lot of short skirts and mile-high heels, along with push-up bras and low-cut blouses -- usually not all on the same person, thank God. But I just want to make clear that it's not all "those darn kids" who dress like call girls for Mass. This problem is pretty universal.

All that said, I return to one of the first things I wrote here, which is, essentially, "One person's scandal is another person's 'trying really hard.'" While I try not to gawk at the woman wearing the micromini and stilettos, there's probably someone in a long, loose-fitting jumper and sensible shoes trying not to gawk at me. And that brings me to my point (finally), which is that we'd all have a lot less to worry about if we just worried about ourselves. Find the plank in your own eye before picking at the speck in your brothers' and sisters', and all that.

I'd love to hear other people's thoughts on this matter. Whenever I ponder it, I always end up settling on "It's between each person and God," but that somehow doesn't seem totally right. We are a body of believers, after all, and the actions of one affect the rest. In my own life, I've defaulted to the St. Peter's Basilica guidelines, which are basically covered shoulders and slacks or skirts to the knee or longer. But then, I can't seem to get worked up about people who do bare their shoulders in this summer heat, provided they aren't wearing some spaghetti-strap monstrosity that shows a whole lot more than a little bit of shoulder. I end up looking at immodesty the way the Supreme Court looks at obscenity -- I can't define it, but I know it when I see it. Maybe that's the best anyone can do. But I'm open to second opinions. Anyone care to comment?

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Anonymous Rachel Rose said...

Nicely said. I commented on Dawn Eden's blog, about the necessity to be hospitable and put newcomers at ease. I once went to an Orthodox synagogue and was greeted after services by one of the women, who said, "Come again. Next time, wear a hat and leave your pocketbook home!" I did not feel welcome and did not want to come back. There are Pharisees in the Church, too.

7/13/2006 12:56:00 PM  
Anonymous Kate P said...

Hi C.C., I came over from Dawn's blog. I thought the Bishop's words were wise and kind, and didn't single anybody out with a wagging finger or anything. And it was well explained--which goes with what Rachel Rose said at Dawn's--how would some people, especially those who are just starting out (or is that "in"?), know unless it was explained to them? I would hope it gives us pause to think about things rather than immediately take it as a personal condemnation.
You're right that this topic gets people going. Where I kind of part ways with the "We shouldn't care" or "Who's to say what's inappropriate"--and honestly for the most part I find people are pretty tolerant anyway--is that I believe there are at least a few objectively inappropriate styles of dressing, at least for church--not really your sandals/collarbone examples, but more like one's unmentionables are showing on purpose.
If you think there's a debate over modesty in church, let me tell you I've been looked at curiously by some people who think all women should wear chapel veils but, thankfully, nobody has ever said anything obnoxious to me like Rachel Rose's synagogue experience. I've read a few things about it, but still I haven't come across anything convincing enough for me to wear one. And isn't that more the general idea of the bishop's words--here are the Church's statements on modesty and where it comes from? I don't think it's as extremely puritanical as people get all bent out of shape about. This Sunday is the Feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel which is a special feast for our church (of the same name). We will be processing with Our Lady's statue and praying in the local streets after Mass, and it's gonna be hot. I'll be wearing a nice tank top that covers my, uh, foundation, and a linen skirt I got a few weeks ago on sale at the Gap (falls below the knee on me b/c I'm short). I won't hear anybody complain about my bare arms or anything like that, and for that I am glad! :)

7/13/2006 03:41:00 PM  
Blogger Jessica said...

I also came over from Dawn's blog. I appreciated your thoughtful reflection and I agree that "You know it when you see it" is probably the best line that can be drawn, imprecise as it is. The only nuance I would add is that I think it behooves one to consider cultural differences as well. Last year I attended a couple Spanish-language Masses in my area. Most of the congregants were lower-middle class Mexican immigrants. I was struck by the women's outfits: many were in very tight shirts, short skirts, heels, with (in my opinion) garish makeup. Afterwords I was talking with a Mexican-American friend and she commented on how important the Mass was to the Mexicans and how they always took care to dress up, to wear their very best clothing to church. I immediately ashamed of my judgemental attitude. In these women's eyes, they were not being immodest; rather, they were demonstrating to God that he deserved their very best clothing. Since then I have tried to be more humble and less judgemental.

7/13/2006 09:44:00 PM  
Blogger C.C. said...

It's interesting that you say that, Jessica. My parish is dominated by white, upper-income families, but there is also a growing minority of newly-immigrated Latino and Filipino families of varying income levels present, as well.

In general, I have noticed that the immigrant women, regardless of socioeconomic status, dress with more respect and modesty than many of the wealthier American women do, even though their clothing may not be as expensive. I'm surprised to see that your experience has been the opposite.

I guess my question for your Mexican friend would be, "Why is this considered their best?" When I think of my "best" clothing, I think of my wedding dress or my nicest suit or my cashmere sweaters. I own some overtly sexy things, but I would be embarrassed to wear them in public, let alone to Mass -- they're really just for my husband.

I guess what I'm wondering is what the difference is in the culture that someone would choose a miniskirt, spike heels and a tube top as their "best" outfit as opposed to something a little more demure. You know, something you could wear to dinner with Grandma. Or the President. Or, as in this case, Jesus Christ. Any thoughts?

7/13/2006 10:43:00 PM  
Anonymous Kate P said...

Hey, you know, C.C., I was going to bring up the dinner analogy also but I wasn't even sure if that was relevant, primarily for the questions you asked, and also b/c I was thinking how some restaurants have attire requirements--some turn people away, some lend them neckties or whatever. And then some people would say, well, God wouldn't turn anyone away b/c He loves everybody and is happy to have them come. Personally, I think it's a 2-way street. . . that's why some people have a hard time embracing faith; they know it requires something of them in return.

7/14/2006 09:00:00 AM  
Anonymous Rebecca said...

I think God knows your heart, and if you are dressing with the intention of looking your best, I just can't imagine He would blame you for being immodest or consider it a sin equal to sins covered in the 10 commandments.

If we're being honest, we all know its possible to sin in your heart without much provocation, so whether you are wearing a short dress with heeled sandals and spaghetti straps or a turtleneck burlap ankle-length dress, someone will be turned on by it. You can't be responsible for others' reactions to you.

I think everyone should dress however they feel is appropriate, and everything else is between them and God.

In fact, I have a really hard time believing in God that cares if you wear blue jeans and a ripped t-shirt to Mass. That is such a human concern. I don't think the Holy Father is concerned with superficial things like that. I think PEOPLE are concerned with that, while God hopefully has bigger fish to fry. I think PEOPLE like to get offended and judge each others' holiness as a pasttime, which to me is a bigger sin than letting your bra straps show.

Just my opinion.

7/14/2006 10:03:00 AM  

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