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I feel scandalized.

I was scrolling my Facebook newsfeed (there’s my first mistake) and suddenly my eyes were viciously assaulted by immodest and improper images that had been posted by someone clearly begging for attention; some shameless floozy selfishly attempting to enflame lust and covetousness in the heart of the unsuspecting viewer.

I should mention that the person in the images was a man, and he was, mercifully, fully clothed.

In fact, the focus of the photo wasn’t even a person at all. My Facebook ‘friend’ had posted a picture of his expensive new boat. I know that it was expensive, because he alluded to the steep price in the caption, saying that he has the ‘best wife in the world’ because she ‘actually let [him] buy this.’

You see what he did there (besides insinuating that the value of his spouse depends on her cooperation with his desire to purchase pricey recreational equipment)? Lest you accuse him of being uncouth, he cloaked his boast in a compliment of his ‘best wife,’ which means he actually disguised a brag by wrapping it in another brag. That’s kind of like hiding the shame of eating a Cinnabon by lathering it in a gallon of butter.

Impressive.

And immodest — intended to present a one dimensional image of success and luxury, thus, if all goes according to plan, send everyone else plunging into a salty stew of envy and resentment.

Immodest because it calls attention to him, while saying nothing of value about him as a person, a unique entity of spirit and flesh. It turns him into an object — an object of jealousy.

Immodest because it is arrogant and dishonest.

I bring this up because — and I’m not sure why this is the case, maybe it’s the warming temperatures — I’ve received several emails in the last few weeks on the subject of modesty. Most of them boil down to a request that I share my opinion on the topic.

Like this one from James:

I’ve been reading your blog now for a while and have greatly enjoyed all of it… I was wondering if you could say something about societies abolition of modesty, both in the church and in more secular environments. It seems that nearly all churches (even the Catholic Church) have neglected the topic of modesty for fear of losing touch with popular opinion and coming across as “judgmental”… Most churches and pastors don’t so much as mention the topic – even when an attractive 18 year old walks into church wearing yoga pants and a deep cut V-neck.

And this one from Beth:

Matt, can you write something about modesty? I get so tiret of these girls walking around showing everything off and then they act up SO surprised when they get treated like sh*t by men. Maybe if they had more respect for themselves… When I grew up, girls were taught to be modest and protect their purity. What’s your opinion? Modest is hottest I think.

And this from Laura:

Matt, help! I just started a huge war on my Facebook page about modesty, simply because I said that I was having trouble finding a modest bathing suit for my daughter. You wouldn’t want to chime in on this subject would you? I’ve always been taught that modest is hottest…

And this from Matt (a different Matt):

I just read your post from a while ago about porn. I agree with it but I think you’ve left something out. Women need to help men in their struggles with lust by attempting to dress modestly. Everyone is afraid to say that but it’s true. In our society it’s like we’ve completely given up on modesty…

I have to confess, though I am an opinionated blowhard in most respects, the whole idea of having an opinion about modesty seems a bit odd. Modesty is a virtue, like courage or integrity. Or rather, modesty is an integral dimension of Greek and Christian philosophy’s Cardinal Virtue of temperance, otherwise known as restraint. So what opinion can you really have of it, other than, ‘yes, I am in favor’?

OK, I’m being naïve, I realize. Nowadays, virtues have to be defended at a conceptual level. The world has always had unvirtuous men and women, but rarely has it been populated by so many people who deny the fundamental and intrinsic importance of virtue itself.

Modesty is good, and good things are always hard to do, so weaklings (like yours truly) have always struggled to do them. But now — thanks in large part to the tireless work of academia, pop culture, mass media, liberal feminists, the legions of Hell (excuse my redundancy) — the weak have taken control and flipped the universe upside down, claiming that they ought not do those good things, because the good things aren’t so good at all. There is no good, they say, or if there is a good, it’s the opposite of whatever our grandparents and every generation that’s existed anywhere on the planet before them would have identified as good.

This is all a long way of saying that, yes, maybe it’s necessary to expand on the reasons why, yes, I am in favor of modesty, and, yes, I think women should dress modestly, but, no, I don’t think the whole burden of modesty should be laid at the feet of womankind.

Modesty, I’m aware, is a hot topic in both Christian and feminist circles.

Side note: Here’s the part where I’m breathlessly told that it’s possible to be both a Christian and a feminist, and here’s the part where I insist that any Christian who thinks Christianity needs to be baptized in the waters of feminism doesn’t understand Christianity or feminism. Whatever redemptive qualities exist in some streams of feminism have already existed in perfect form in Christianity for the past two millennia, without all the arguably problematic teachings about the ethical importance of murdering babies and voting for Barbara Mikulski.

Unfortunately, when a topic is ‘hot’ we know that means lots of  points are made by lots of people, and most of the points miss the point.  Nearly everything I’ve read about modesty — for or against — concentrate solely and exclusively on a woman’s responsibility to be modest in how she dresses, or else her right to be free from the suffocating oppression of longer skirts and one-piece bathing suits.

Somehow, men are left out of the conversation, much to our delight. We speak as though modesty were a feminine virtue, when in fact, all virtues are universal. The discussion about a woman’s outfit only touches on one solitary aspect of modesty. It doesn’t define the issue. In fact, it doesn’t even help us in our quest to get to the definition, if all we do is argue about V-necks and bathing suits. If I were to attempt a definition of modesty based on the way in which we speak of it, I would have to assume that it means: “A particular dress code for women. The end.”

See, women aren’t the only ones called to be modest, for the same reason that firefighters aren’t the only ones called to be courageous. A certain sort of courage might be especially required of firefighters, and a certain sort of modesty might be especially required of women, but we’re all destined for a fire of a different kind if we think those two virtues are solely contained within those two contexts.

If you can bear it, I’m going to get all Catholic-y on you for a moment.

The Catechism has this to say about modesty:

Purity requires modesty, an integral part of temperance. Modesty protects the intimate center of the person. It means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden… It guides how one looks at others and behaves toward them in conformity with the dignity of persons and their solidarity.

There is a modesty of the feelings as well as of the body. It protests, for example, against the voyeuristic explorations of the human body in certain advertisements… Modesty inspires a way of life which makes it possible to resist the allurements of fashion and the pressures of prevailing ideologies.

The forms taken by modesty vary from one culture to another. Everywhere, however, modesty exists as an intuition of the spiritual dignity proper to man. It is born with the awakening consciousness of being a subject. Teaching modesty to children and adolescents means awakening in them respect for the human person.

I’m not sure how to sufficiently summarize that, but I know how it shouldn’t be summarized:

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Modest is hottest might work as a bumper sticker, because it rhymes and it’s three words long, but it makes for a woefully abysmal defense of modesty. The point of modesty isn’t to better achieve the intended results of immodesty. Modesty isn’t virtuous because it’s ‘hot,’ it’s virtuous because it’s concerned with something far greater than being hot.

Modesty protects the “dignity and solidarity” of a person, and inspires a “way of life” which allows him or her to “resist the allurement of fashion” and the pressures of “prevailing ideologies.” Modesty “respects the human person.”

So why should a woman dress modestly? Because it’ll help her maintain a shallow image of “hotness” to every stranger she passes by on the street? No, if that is her goal than she is being immodest, whether she’s dressed in a burka or her birthday suit. The ‘modest is hottest’ mantra seems to encourage not modesty, but a more modest immodesty.

We are modest for the sake of our dignity, so as to avoid making of ourselves a shell, a construction, a label, a category; a phantom of someone else’s desires. We are modest because the motivation behind immodesty will leave us vulnerable to shifting trends and popular ideologies. Every one of these modern trends and ideologies are designed to help us project a falsehood, leaving our true essence buried under the noise and commotion of it all. The immodest person, you might say, turns themselves into a marketing strategy.

Skimpy clothes are just one way to project that falsehood and market the lie; just one way to undermine our dignity; just one way to subjugate ourselves to changing trends and hollow fashions. There are many other ways. My friend with the boat demonstrated one of them. When I drove by a big house in a nice neighborhood the other day, and thought about my smaller house, and felt a ping of envy for the family in the bigger one, and chose to bask in that envy for a few moments, I conveniently demonstrated still another way to be immodest.

If I were to go to the store and purchase a shirt with a giant brand name plastered across the front of it, I would be immodest — attempting to call attention in a way that undermines my human dignity, while objectifying myself; in this case, I’d have made myself into an object like a billboard or a catalogue for the company whose name I’ve paid to advertise.

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Really, skimpy or not skimpy, most of the clothing on the rack nowadays could be considered immodest. Much of it is ridiculous and flashy, cleverly marketed to consumers who wish to conform to whatever fabricated fabric trends the fashion industry has concocted this week.

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Meanwhile, men who stare at women are guilty of immodesty, regardless of what the woman is wearing. It’s true that she really should take into account the struggles and weaknesses of those around her, and try humbly to avoid being a stumbling block. But I think this “stumbling block” rationale sometimes falls flat because it seems as though men aren’t expected to take any initiative to avoid stumbling in the first place, block or no block. We are painted as helpless victims of our own passions; pathetic little boys who can’t be expected to avert our eyes and control our thoughts.

Besides, millions of American men have cluttered their minds with so much pornography, disordering their sexual passions so profoundly, that there’s no telling what will set them off. This is not the fault of women, nor can women be expected to conform their habits to combat whatever fetish the man in their midst might spend his downtime Googling. Part of the problem (and there are many problems) with pornography, is that it drives a wedge between intimacy and sex, reducing the man to a passive consumer, a John, and the woman to a collection of body parts. The will of sex, the love, the power of it — all flushed down the drain, leaving all parties concerned with only some flat and flimsy cartoonish imitation of what was once romantic and erotic, procreative and redemptive.

I’m not sure that women can combat this phenomenon by minding their necklines, but they should nonetheless concern themselves with elevating those around them, rather than encouraging their Brothers in Christ to sin.

What I’m trying to do is present a slightly more complex vision of modesty. One that puts the onus on all people — male and female alike — and extends beyond legalistic bickering about precisely how many centimeters of skin one should leave uncovered. Modesty is much bigger than a dress code, and as far as dress codes go, it is true that it changes depending on the culture and the occasion.

The hazard of an overly legalistic view of modesty is that it’s forced to ignore context entirely. Whatever your feelings on bathing suits (I can tell you for sure that we will not be buying bikinis for our daughter), we all agree that you’ll show more skin at the beach than at the grocery store or the DMV. Nudity is appropriate in an anatomy textbook, but would be out of place and inappropriate in a math textbook. We all wear less in the summer than in the winter. There’s a difference between the nudity you might see on the National Geographic channel and the kind of nudity you might see on Cinemax at 2AM.

Context, culture, occasion, motivation. All of these things, quite reasonably, govern our clothing choices. Modesty should also govern our clothing, but we don’t know how to submit our wardrobes to the demands of modesty until we understand how to submit our entire beings to the demands of modesty.

So, do I think women should dress modestly? Yes, but if we’re assigning virtues exclusively to one gender, why don’t we give the girls honesty, prudence, and fortitude, too? There, now that women have covered all the virtues, us guys can have some fun with the vices.

Party time, fellas.

Or else, if that plan seems problematic, we can all just share the virtuous burden, and work on being better people — modest people — no matter what we’re wearing.

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