The Personalist Project

The modesty wars have been raging so long already that now we’re in the throes of a backlash against a backlash against a backlash (as Simcha Fisher put it the other day).

First came a tendency, more Puritan than Catholic, to devise dress codes that micromanaged every centimeter of flesh from collarbone and kneecap, at least. They focused everybody’s attention firmly on the outside of the cup, the whited part of the sepulchre.


This fomented phariseeism, some objected, and made womanhood itself seem suspect and dirty.

Then came the reaction: people got fed up with the holier-than-thou-ness of it all and refused to humor the micromanagers of appearance any longer.  They emphasized men’s responsibility for their own responses and refused to concede that there were any objective standards of modesty at all.  Some suggested that the word “modest” be retired—not because there is no such thing, but because it was weighed down with so much baggage. 

Next came the reaction against that—it struck some as a convoluted excuse for caving in to a godless culture.  They thought those who wanted to emphasize the person rather than the hemline were just making excuses for being indistinguishable from the pagans.

This is all, of course, a vast oversimplification. For some interesting discussions, I refer you to two recent Personalist Project pieces: one by Katie van Schaijik here and one by Kate Whittaker Cousino here.  Also very worthwhile are Jen Fitz’s piece here and Michelle Arnold’s here.  And for comic relief (if you're in the mood to laugh about the subject) there’s this

So what could possibly remain to be said?

Not much, maybe, but I’ve thought of one distinction that may get rid of one particular misunderstanding.  I think it also sheds light on why modesty talk so often degenerates into the unedifying spectacle of Christians policing each other’s souls and judging the interior of other persons.  This is something which we don’t have enough data to do right and which, in any case, we're clearly forbidden to attempt.

Here’s the new wrinkle: when we talk about clothing being moral or immoral, we fall into a trap.  To say that some kinds of clothing are evil in themselves is clearly nonsensical.  The skimpiest bikini could serve as a cleaning cloth, or to bind up a wound and save a life.  No piece of polyester is moral or immoral, because no material object is moral or immoral.

Well, then, can we judge that wearing certain kinds of clothing is always blameworthy?

No, we can’t do that either, because that would require looking into other people’s souls, reading their interior dispositions.  You may think it laughably obvious that a girl who dresses as if she can’t tell the difference between tights and pants is trying to provoke lust, but she may just be trying to be blend in with her fellow tenth-graders.  Or maybe in her family, or her neighborhood, she was never taught that there was any way to be pretty besides being provocative. 

People make assumptions about what’s going on inside men, too.  Just as some assume they know exactly what motivates a woman to dress revealingly, others don’t believe men are really all that susceptible. Still others refuse to give men any credit for self-control.

So if there's no clothing that's intrinsically evil, and there's no way of dressing that's always blameworthy, aren't we forced to say that it's all relative?

No, of course not.  I think you can make perfectly reasonable assumptions about the moral meaning of certain trends in clothing without making any judgments about the soul of the wearer.  Here's an example, though it's an odd one.

In a movie I saw long, long ago--I think it was Black Orpheus--there’s a Brazilian tribe in which the natives traditionally go unclothed.  Foreigners break in to exploit them, and the first thing they do is dress the women in brightly colored bikinis.  Now they’re less modest, but more marketable.  Strangely enough, here’s a piece of evidence that clothing clearly carries moral connotations—even though in this rare case more cloth means less modesty.

So there's no cause to fall for the false alternative: either it's all relative and morally meaningless, or we're all called to go probing around in other people's souls.

That's all.  Not a definitive decree, but maybe a useful wrinkle.

Now, let the conversation continue.


Comments (50)

Katie van Schaijik

#1, Jun 27, 2014 8:47am

Devra, I agree whole-heartedly that

1) More coverage doesn't necessarily mean more modesty; it can even mean less, and

2) Abandoning emphasis on "objectively immodest" clothing doesn't entail the idea that there is no such thing as immodesty, or that modesty doesn't matter.

I also love that you show again that we have no business probing around in other people's souls.

I agree too that we can notice and lament the increasing sexualization of fashion trends without accusing the girls and women who wear those trends of being immodest or deliberately inciting lust by sexualizing themselves.

I'm not yet convinced, though, that we have gone far enough in exposing and resisting the "control" element in the Christian counterculture, and the wrong of holding women responsible for men's lust. I'm inceasingly of the mind that conscious "acts of resistance" to this tendency, including, say, the wearing of fashion trends that most Christians consider flagrantly immodest, may very well be in order.

In other words, I don't see it as reactionary in the negative sense, but rather responsive.

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Jun 27, 2014 9:01am

Also, while I agree with Jen Fitz that modesty involves mutual respect and consideration for the weakness of others, it doesn't really resolve the problem as I see it.

It stresses too much again, imo, the way girls' way of dressing is inconsiderate of men. 

I really think we have to stop doing that, or at least that it should not be done without an equal stress on the problem of the sinful male tendency not only of objectifying women, but of controlling, blaming, and "subduing" them. We have to realize and make explicit to ourselves and each other that women are entirely right to protest and resist that tendency.

I know a beautiful young Catholic woman who recently told me that she personally is convinced that exposing young men to real women's real flesh is a helpful way of innoculating them against pornography.

Is she right? I'm not convinced she isn't. In any case, when I see her wearing spaghetti strap tops now, I don't think "immodest", I think, "courageous." In her determination to oppose the porn culture, she is willing to be maligned as immodest by fellow Christians.

Katie van Schaijik

#3, Jun 27, 2014 9:13am

This same young woman told me a story. She was late to class on a secular college campus. Carrying a stack of books on her hip, her polo shirt had ridden up, exposing an inch or so of her flesh.

She heard a loud, "Hey!" and turned to find an older man dressed in Muslim garb pointing to her middle and gesturing to her to pull her shirt down.

She told me she was instantly filled with deep shame, followed by rage. She had never in her life felt so objectified. How was it that a complete stranger could feel justified in asserting that kind of authority of her?

What is the right response to such an experience? What does it teach a young woman about how to dress? Does it teach her to dress more or less (objectively) modestly? I say less.

The right moral response to an attempt at subjugation is a refusal to be subued. 

To the extent that there are residues of this tendency within Christian culture, women do well to resist it. 

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#4, Jun 27, 2014 9:42am

I'm conflicted. Much of what you say appeals to me, Katie, but so does St. Paul's counsel:

"But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? 11 So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyedby your knowledge. 12 "

In this case, I am less concerned with the possibility of becoming a 'stumbling block' by exposing my flesh (female flesh being, as your friend noted, an easily accessed commodity in any case), as with exercising my freedom in a way that could be easily misinterpreted as sending the opposite of the intended message.

Devra Torres

#5, Jun 27, 2014 9:51am

Katie, this all makes me realize the importance of recognizing what it is women are responding to in their choice of clothing.  (Modesty isn't just about women, nor is it just about clothing, of course, but just for the sake of making progress in the conversation, I'm limiting it to that for now.) I was never part of any kind of community whose ideas of modesty were contaminated with "the control element in the Christian counterculture."  I've met enough people who have experienced that, so I certainly don't dismiss it or doubt that it exists.  (When my sister Simcha wrote her article about pants, I don't think she had any idea it would awaken such heartfelt reactions on both sides.)  In college, for example, at Thomas More in NH, we had a dress code for class which was entirely focussed on expressing respect for the intellectual task we were taking on. They succeeded in building a culture that made us see the point of that, and constant micromanaging wasn't necessary.  

Daniel Romeyn Davis

#6, Jun 27, 2014 9:52am

Devra, thank you for this article. I agree wholeheartedly that we cannot judge the morality of clothing qua clothing nor make moral statements about another by the manner of their dress. 

Katie, the issue that we are facing in contemporary society is a fascinating with porn and an over-sexualization of the human body (as previously commented). I think that it can only lead to confusion when men are thrown into a marital situation and have children when previously the nude form was purely associated with sexuality. I know of many men who are uncomfortable with mothers breastfeeding in their presence.

Largely, I believe this is from the false equalizing of the nude human form to sexual action. In particular, female breasts have been totally sexualized (in America). There is no denying the beauty of the human form - hence the frequent display of the nude form in art.

There must be a way then (in agreement with the young lady you mentioned above), to expose boys and men to the female form in a healthy and non-sexual environment (scandinavian saunas, beaches, etc). The porn epidemic is not dying down on its own. We need to desexualize the nude human body.

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#7, Jun 27, 2014 9:53am

I left college and immediately struggled with trying to meet other people's standards and ideas of modesty and propriety, to a point that smothered much of my own natural delight in dressing and interacting with others. In realizing this and seeking to reclaim my own comfort with myself, I've likely made some people uncomfortable. I hope that the entire rest of the way I present myself is enough to place my choices in dress in a comprehensible context, but I'm not about to hand out a manifesto to everyone who sees me. :-)

The discomfort may in fact be due more to cognitive dissonance from the "apparent" contradiction in their minds between bearing oneself with dignity and wearing a halter top than be due to any actual scandal or temptation, in any case. ;-)

Devra Torres

#8, Jun 27, 2014 9:54am

My parents disapproved of some of the clothes I wanted to wear and implicitly or explicitly forbid some things, and they did directly tie their rules to modesty, but with no hint of it being an excuse for men controlling women in a way that went against their dignity.  I suspect a lot of people who weren't exposed to this controlling kind of culture have a hard time believing either that it really exists or that it could have such a powerful effect on the psyches of the women who were harmed by it.  This leads to misunderstandings, I think--assumptions that women who claim to be legitimately responding to an assault on their dignity are really just looking to blend in with the culture and sell out for the sake of their own comfort.

Devra Torres

#9, Jun 27, 2014 9:57am

Lots more to say--on the particular responsibilities of parents and educators, on whether or not it's possible or desirable to desexualize the nude human form, on the new situation with so much easily accessible porn that makes it a step up to at least lust after a real human being in real life, rather than an image of one on a screen--I look forward to continuing the conversation a little later today as time allows.

Daniel Romeyn Davis

#10, Jun 27, 2014 9:58am

I fear that if we continue down this path all religiously minded Americans will return to and promote a sense of Puritan dress and all of our art museums will have to have "Graphic Content" warnings upon entrance. Maybe it is too late. We seem to be already going down this path.

I just feel like we need to challenge the idea that everything is sexual or motivated by sexuality. It is like the quote by Oscar Wilde (as reiterated in House of Cards): "Everything in the world is about sex, except sex, which is about power." Might I return with a resounding: No! Interesting to remember as well the more "conservative" culture and times in which Oscar Wilde lived. 

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#11, Jun 27, 2014 10:10am


The truth is that sex *does* permeate human life. And the human body and human person *is* sexual. I don't think it would be a step forward to 'desexualise' everything--more like a step sideways, if that makes sense. 

My intuitive feeling is that we need to recontextualize sexuality--and the context is the human person. Which is one reason I love the Personalist Project!

Devra Torres

#12, Jun 27, 2014 3:22pm

Kate, I think the quote from St. Paul is very relevant, especially the part that acknowledges that something may at once be a legitimate right and a stumbling block to the weak.  I think focussing one-sidedly on women as potential stumbling blocks or occasions of sin probably leads to far more and worse unintended consequences than many of us have realized all this time.  But it seems clear that we do have a responsibility to avoid being a stumbling-block as much as reasonably possible. This is not the same as making a woman responsible for a man's sin, right?

Katie van Schaijik

#13, Jun 27, 2014 3:27pm

Kate, in response to your first comment, I have real sympathy with the point. I wouldn't take a bottle of whiskey to a party hosted by evangelicals. If I know a friend of mine struggles with financial jealousy, I wouldn't invite her over see slides of our sabbatical in Europe.

There is real value in being considerate toward the weakness of others. 

My point is that that value is practically harped on in the Christian counterculture, while other values also at stake are completely overlooked.

You say you felt the pressure when you left college. I have felt it too.  My daughters have felt it. I regret now that I am partly responsible for their feeling it.

We think we're teaching modesty, and maybe we are. But here's what else we're teaching: self-consiciousness and judgmentalism.  We're also teaching our girls to feel ill at ease and marginalized in the culture around them. I don't think that's what we want to do.

We certainly don't want to teach men to think that a girl who dresses immodestly can be blamed for their lust.

Katie van Schaijik

#14, Jun 27, 2014 3:42pm

Devra, I see we posted almost simultaneously.

I agree that we should avoid being a stumbling block when possible.

My problem is that sometimes we're often not dealing with a clear cut case of one kind of weakness, viz. a weakness toward lust. We're also and at the same time dealing with other weaknesses—our own and others'. I'm thinking, for instance, of the master/slave dynamic between men and women.

The Christian challenge for men with respect to that dynamic is to learn to restrain the urge to master and instead lay themselves down in service.  The Christian challenge for women is to learn to stand up for themselves, to refuse to be mastered, to insist on being treated as peers and companions, not slaves, not subordinates.

That latter part is typically lost in the Christian counterculture, which so rejects feminism and so emphasizes the value modesty and humility and obedience in women (like Mary!) that, imo, it ends up playing into the destructive dynamic of the fall.

Women who feel this dynamic at play are right to resist it.

What looks like immodesty might really be something else altogether, viz. a thoroughly legitimate and courageous self-assertion.


#15, Jun 27, 2014 10:24pm

Well ..

I would like to ask one thng ...

please stop using the term "Pharisee" as an epithet.  Perhaps your Jewish origins were too thin to understand but your own Jesus was a follower of these teachers whose greatest goal was to use non violence to resist the Roman oppressors.

Later, with the Roman wars, the destruction of the church of James in Israel,  and the effort to create a distinct Christian religion amongst the Romans, the Pharisees were demonized.  Modern Chrsitian scholars, however, trace much of what is in Jesus' words (as opposed to Paul) to the Pharisees.

Finally, our son is named for Hillel, the greatest of the Pharisees and likely the man who inspired Jesus.

You might benefit from reading some of what is attributed to this amazing man who was the great intellectual ancesterfor ML King, Cesar Chaves, and M Gandhi in our own time.

I would be pleased to get a response.

Devra Torres

#16, Jun 27, 2014 11:59pm

SeattleJew, I'm a Jew from Brooklyn, Ashkenazi on both sides, but rather than get into whose origins are thicker than whose I'll be happy to find a different adjective than "pharisaical" to describe the tendency to probe around in other people's souls for wrongdoing.  I meant no offense.


Rhett Segall

#17, Jun 28, 2014 8:26am

A couple of responses to our exploration:

A mother tells her 13 year old daughter:

 “Don’t dress like that. It’s too revealing. It will get you pregnant.”

Is the mother “old school” or filled with common sense?

I’ve heard that the Vatican advised nuns missioning in certain areas to utilize contraceptives since they were in serious danger of being raped.

Was the Vatican hypocritical or using common sense?

An anecdote:

Recently I showed Jason Everet’s talk on modesty, referenced above, to my class of 11th graders. These are 16/17 year olds, co-ed. (I teach theology in a Catholic high school.) Everet stresses modesty in dress for girls. Over 90% of the reactions of the students, done anonymously, agreed with Everet . Yet a few days later when the school had finals and the students could dress “down” it was amazing how many of the students garb honed in on their very sexual bodies. Talk about “cognitive dissonance”!

Katie van Schaijik

#18, Jun 28, 2014 8:28am

In Israel earlier this year, I was taken aback to discover that Herod is greatly loved in Israel. He is called Herod the Great.

It was strange.

Katie van Schaijik

#19, Jun 28, 2014 8:33am

Say, Dan: Yesterday Jules said: "I think Dan has a real point." I said, "You should say so in the comments!" He agrees, but finds it hard to find time. Maybe later. Anyway, I thought you'd like to know. 

Katie van Schaijik

#20, Jun 28, 2014 8:41am

Rhett, what you say reinforces what I've been trying to express. "Modesty talk", even when well done, as by Jason Evert, is mostly fruitless, if not worse than fruitless. The culture is what it is. Girls are dressing the way it teaches them is fashionable.

To Implicitly demand that they buck the fashion trends of the day, or stand accused of immodesty is to be unfair to them. It's also bound to increase our own sense of frustration and resentment, and our hyper awareness of sexuality.

Christians would do much better to calm down, stop trying to control what other people wear, realize to ourselves that others are responsible for themselves and we are responsible for ourselves, realize further that there are good reasons for dressing according to fashion trends and that there are problems involved with dressing in a counter-cultural way, including the problem of making us look and feel awkward, self-conscious, dowdy and out-of-place, none of which helps serve the new evangelization.


#21, Jun 28, 2014 12:41pm


Thank you.

Nancy Restuccia

#22, Jun 28, 2014 7:27pm

It is so hard as a parent to stand as critics of the culture and teach your children to avoid passing judgments on persons.  We went the Little House on the Prairie route for a few years (ok the bonnets were only worn at Greenfield Village- but we did OWN them..) but very soon one of our daughters made it clear this wasn't for her.  We have tried to shift the emphasis from the negative to the positive, with mixed success.  

One of the issues with the Burka Brigade (my Mom's phrase- you should pardon it) is the emphasis on the avoidance of provoking lust in men, when a happier focus might be on helping girls to understand wherein true feminine beauty lies, and when are the appropriate times to celebrate its different aspects.  

Also, as the mother of four good boys, it's not like they are carnal gorillas on the prowl, but a lot of female skin means they have to expend energy to keep their thoughts and eyes where they should be.  It's just a kindness to give them a break by keeping it somewhat under wraps. 

Nancy Restuccia

#23, Jun 28, 2014 7:28pm

This gives NO ONE the right to control or shame anyone for what they are wearing, and I am sorry that those things have happened to you ladies and that you have been made to feel bad by other people's judgments and actions towards you.

Devra Torres

#24, Jun 28, 2014 8:35pm

Nancy, it is hard to express how honored I am that you've joined the conversation (Nancy is someone I admire so much that I pretty much entrust my 9-year-old's liberal arts education to her, and also someone whose kids are turning out so nicely, I take her opinions very seriously.)  

There is a whole other dimension of this subject to be addressed: raising children (boys and girls) and also deciding on an approach to take for the running of institutions, like colleges, or smaller-scale ones like homeschool co-ops and CCD classes.  Often you don't want to micromanage, but you're forced to get more exact than you meant to, and before you know it you're talking about the pit of the throat and how many inches between which part of the kneecap and which part of the hem.  Often you think you're just teaching your own child reasonable standards, and you find that what she's hearing is disdain for people who draw the line somewhere else. 

Katie van Schaijik

#25, Jun 29, 2014 9:46am

Nancy, I too have sons, aged 20, 16 and 11. I've felt knots in my stomach when their dates to Catholic school dances show up in strapless mini dresses. I've been frustrated with their dates' mothers. "What were you thinking to allow her out like that?!"

I've said often to my daughters, "Give your boyfriend a break. You don't make it too hard for him to stay chaste!"

I totally get that line of thought.

The problem is that while in individual cases, modesty might be a simple matter of kindness, as a whole, the problem is much more complicated than that.

It's not just the tendency toward externalism and judgmentalism—though that's a big, bad one—it's also that some "immodesty" is not immodesty at all, but a right response to wrong (e.g. the wrong of the porn culture or the wrong of male domination of women or the hyper-sexualization of the female body).

I'm beginning to think there is even a large element of this in fashion trends generally. Christians are quick to spot and condemn the sexualization trend. We're slower on the uptake when it comes to recognizing the legitimate aspiration toward sexual equality it embodies.

Katie van Schaijik

#26, Jun 29, 2014 9:53am

BTW, I think your mother is on to something with that "Burqua Brigade" term.

We can all easily see that the extremist Muslim demand that women be completely covered is demeaning to women, right? It's a manifestation of the master/slave dynamic of the fall. It's a way men master women.

Why is it so hard for us to recognize that a residue of that tendency remains among us too? 

The feminists weren't all wrong.

Rhett Segall

#27, Jun 29, 2014 10:42am

To be fair, Katie, I think it's important to note that women can be tempted to use their sexuality as a leverage for power-think of Salome, Herodias and John the Baptist!

If I understant your position you have come to the opinion (conviction?) that while modesty in dress is very important it is counterproductive to preach it/ Why? Girls will dress the way the culture  invites them to dress.

If the principle is  "they're going to do it anyway" there should be no preaching! Of course, prudence is called for. That's why, perhaps, in addressing this issue young mothers, and young women in general, who grasp the intrinsic worth of modesty in dress,and exemplify it themselves, will have the greatest impact with the upcoming generation. They would also have the greatest responsibility to make clear the value and desireability of modest.

From an aging, but still very much alive, soon to be 70 year old member of the opposite sex.



Katie van Schaijik

#28, Jun 29, 2014 11:03am

You are right, Rhett, that women can wield their sexuality in power-over-men way. This, too, is a participation in the evil master/slave hermeneutic of the fall. 

You don't understand my position, though, which I suppose is mainly down to the fact that I am only beginning to understand it myself, and therefore have yet to express it well.  Dialogue helps a lot, so I really appreciate everyone who comes here and pitches in. Thank you!

I think I wouldn't say "modesty in dress is important", exactly because I think the focus should be off dress, especially other people's dress.

Definitely the principle is not "they're going to do it anyway" so no use preaching.

Keep in mind, spaghetti straps and short shorts are not intrinsically evil. They're not even necessarily immodest. 

I will own that I wear them now. I wear them in part because I want my sons and my daughters and others to know that you can be a Christian in spaghetti straps. I am consciously resisting the "control" and externalism and judgmentalist habits of the Christian counterculture. 

Also, I've just spend 9 months in Europe, which has made me aware of the sick hypersexualization over here.

Katie van Schaijik

#29, Jun 29, 2014 11:17am

So, how do we inculcate sexual virtue?

I say the focus should be primarily on interiority, on our dignity as persons, on the meaning of the body and human sexuality.

Our aim should be to incorporate our sexuality into our subjectivity. Our aim, in our attitudes, gestures, manners and acts to embody love and respect, for ourselves and for others.

We should teach ourselves and our children about the master/slave hermeneutic—the way it menaces all our relations. We should learn to recognize it and to resist it in ourselves and in our way of relating to others.

Men should be taught not to view women as objects or as subordinates, and to refrain from holding them in contempt, no matter how they're dressed or how they're acting. They should humbly realize that we are all co-responsible for the state of the culture and the fashions of the day. Maybe they can offer the torment of sexual temptation in penance for men's sins against women throughout the ages.

Women have to learn to stand in our dignity as persons without lashing out against men, or playing in with sexual power dynamics. We have to conscientiously refrain from deliberately inciting lust.

Nancy Restuccia

#30, Jun 30, 2014 7:30am

Thanks for your responses, Katie.  I do see that there is a larger issue at play, the one of hypersexualization and the effort to resist it; I think you re saying, in a nutshell, that by refusing to play along with it we can change it.  Some decide not to play along by covering up to a larger degree; your thought is that by doing that we actually foment and sustain such sexualized ideas about the female body.  So your way of refusing to play along is to refuse to cover up to this larger degree, thus attempting to lessen the degree to which body-power influences male-female interactions.  Am I close?

Nancy Restuccia

#31, Jun 30, 2014 7:46am

And Devra- what an intro- you made my year... <3

Katie van Schaijik

#32, Jun 30, 2014 8:29am

Yes, Nancy, you're close to at least one other aspect of the whole thing. I think when we "require" the young girls and women of the Christian counterculture to dress in a way that is conspicuously out of fashion, when we practically-speaking make the virtue of modesty a matter of girls' covering themselves up to help men not struggle with temptation, according to our ideas of modesty, we are, unfortunately, adding to the problem of hyper-sexualization of the female body.

Besides the hypersexualization issue there is also the control issue, which looms larger and larger in my expeirence.  We are generally far too concerned with trying to control the way other people behave and dress rather than trying to conform our own selves to Christ.

Then there's the whole question of motive. If it were true that modesty (in the sense of more coverage) were a simple matter of kindness to men, then we could judge that women who dress with less coverage are plainly being unkind or inconsiderate. 

But, as in the case of the young woman I mentioned above, that's not always so. She dresses the way she does in part to help men adjust to female flesh.

Katie van Schaijik

#33, Jun 30, 2014 8:47am

My daughter is rather open in the way she breastfeeds her baby in front of her brothers. She's doing it partly just because breastfeeding a newborn can be challenging, and partly because she thinks it's good for them to see it, and to get used to the reality that women's breasts are designed to feed babies. She wants them to experience in front of their eyes the deep, meaningful connection between sexual attraction and family life.

As the mother, I was nervous about it at first. I was imagining how awkward it would be for the boys. But now I think she's entirely right. They DO get used to it, in an entirely positive sense.

Whether we agree or not that that's good moral pedagogy, we should all be able to recognize that there is no unkindness or lack of consideration toward men involved in her mode of approach. On the contrary.

Similarly, a woman who chooses to dress in "immodest" fashions as an act of freedom-from a life of oppressive control—from an overbearing authoritarian father or religious group—is not being immodest. She is being a courageous self. If we frown on her, we're making her concrete moral task harder.

Nancy Restuccia

#34, Jun 30, 2014 1:32pm

I absolutely see the points you are making, and I see the value there.  I can't help but think that there is a risk in thinking of relationships in terms of power and control at all. If it is wrong to act in a certain way so as to control others, it may also be wrong to act in a certain way so as to not be controlled.  In other words, it is the viewing of relationships as a power struggle that is problematic.  Perhaps responding in such a way for such a reason gives the control freaks the victory- we have bought into the power hermaneutic.  Just a thought.

Nancy Restuccia

#35, Jun 30, 2014 1:43pm

I really appreciate the spirit of this discussion, Katie- you've certainly helped me re-examine some of my assumptions about why we teach what we do about personal comportment.  Can I comment on one more thing without being obnoxious?  You mentioned the young woman who dresses with less coverage in part to help men adjust to female flesh.  If this is truly part of her motivation, I applaud the sincerity of her intent. I know there are many people who do things with which I ardently disagree, who nevertheless have noble intent in doing them.  I do feel she will ultimately be disappointed in this aim; after all, if wearing less were going to help men adjust in this manner, surely we should have seen some improvement after sixty years of pretty unrestricted clothing norms in the wider culture?  I am interested in your thoughts.

Katie van Schaijik

#36, Jun 30, 2014 2:02pm

Nancy, I value your questions and contributions greatly. Don't worry at all about pushing the issue or raising questions. We're all about sincere dialogue here at the PP.

About the power and control dynamic: I got it from JP II.  It IS the evil dynamic of the fall.  The Gospel is its undoing. Mutual, self-oblating, love, repsect and life-giving service are its undoing.

Would-be "masters" have to learn to serve. And would-be "slaves" have to learn to stand up for themselves. This is the kernel of truth at the heart of feminism. (Again, I learned this from studying JP II.) It's also the theme at the heart of the Solidarity Movement in Poland, and at Martin Luther King, Jr.'s theory of "non-violent resistance." Rosa Parks wasn't being "controlled" when she declined to go to the back of the bus. 

To refuse to be mastered is an act of love requiring great courage and sacrifice. It is the opposite of the master/slave hermeneutic.

If we can do it lovingly, great. If we can't, we might still have to do it. As Chesterton said, whatever is worth doing is worth doing badly.

Nancy Restuccia

#37, Jun 30, 2014 2:47pm

I see. I'll look into what JP has to say on this, you've piqued my interest...  thanks Katie.

Devra Torres

#38, Jun 30, 2014 3:29pm

See, this is why I love the Personalist Project: the internet is full of discussions of this subject (at least one particular corner of the internet is) but very few of them are as reasoned or as balanced as this one.

A lot of people have made the point that true modesty is not only about women, or about clothes, or about lust, or even about sexuality--but they treat the whole question so abstractly that there's no acknowledgement that some kind of application needs to be made when we and our children are deciding what to put on in the morning.

As far as breastfeeding, too, there's a false either-or cropping up in a lot of discussions: there's no acknowledgement of, as you say, Katie, "a deep, meaningful connection between sexual attraction and family life."  Either we reduce sexuality to functionality, and try (futilely, I think!) to train men to see women's bodies as asexual, or we fail to see the functionality as part of the whole picture of love and attraction and family life.

Rhett Segall

#39, Jun 30, 2014 5:58pm

Apropos of our discussion I quote Alice von Hildebrand:

“We have pointed out that the reproductive organs of the woman are hidden in her body; they are not ‘exterior,’ they are not visible. For these various reasons, it is justified to say that the ‘second sex’ is wrapped in mystery; when women betray the mystery confided to them they hurt not only themselves, but society at large, and very especially the Church. The fearful sexual decadence that we have witnessed in the course of the last forty years can be traced back, at least in part, to the fashion world’s systematic attempt to eradicate in girls the “holy bashfulness’ which is the proper response that women should give to what is personal, intimate, and calls for veiling.  To dress modestly is the appropriate response that  women should give to their “mystery”. Noblesse oblige.  The fashions of the day are all geared toward destroying women’s sensitivity for the dignity of their sex.  Deep sadness is called for when one watches Western girls running around practically naked and then compare them with how the Hindu or Moslem women are clothed with modesty, grace, and dignity. 

Rhett Segall

#40, Jun 30, 2014 6:00pm

.  No doubt, a mastermind has initiated these decadent fashions which aim at destroying female modesty

. The state of our contemporary society sheds light on the fact that when women “no longer know how to blush” it is a portent that this society is on the verge of moral collapse.  Women carry a heavy share of guilt because they betray their human and moral mission.  When women are pure, men will respect, nay, venerate them; they will also hear the call challenging them to chastity.

  Education in modesty should begin ate the earliest age.  Little girls should be gently trained to respect their bodies. Saint Benedict understood deeply the effects that our body language, our bodily postures have on our souls.  This includes one’s way of dressing; one’s way of sitting; not crossing one’s legs in a manner which can be offensive, not wearing shorts which, although acceptable for the male sex, are likely to undermine the female respect for the mystery of her body.

The Privilege of Being a Woman  Alice von Hildebrand

pp. 89-90

 I know AvH is highly respected. Is she "old school" or on target?

Nancy Restuccia

#41, Jun 30, 2014 6:55pm

How amazing, Rhett- I just quoted Dr. Von Hildebrand seconds ago in a similar discussion elsewhere.  I think Dr. V is both "old school" and on target! :)

Katie van Schaijik

#42, Jul 1, 2014 8:57am

Rhett, I was "raised" by AvH, intellectually speaking. (And it happens picked her up yesterday, so she's with us again now.) I owe her more than I can ever repay. 

And I think what she says in that quote is true as far as it goes. Of course girls should be trained to respect their bodies. (So should boys.) Of course we should teach children (and ourselves) about the profound meaningfulness of bodity postures and gestures. (This goes for both sexes.) Of course we should teach and reflect the mysteriousness and intimacy of the sexual sphere.

But unless this training is complemented by a profound awareness of and sensitivity toward other values, issues and dynmanics at stake, it easily "derails" (to use one of her favorite terms.)

And, when it comes to girls' dress, what happens (most typically) is that it derails into externalism, hyper-sexualization, and the control dynamics of the fall.

Further, while I agree with her entirely that evil "powers and principalities" have had a hand in the fashion trends of the day, I also think that they are not the only explanation for them. 

Katie van Schaijik

#43, Jul 1, 2014 9:16am

The same goes for feminism. If we see it as nothing more and nothing other than a fiendish attack on femininity (which, no question, it partly is), then we  misperceive it, and hence to respond badly to it. We wil become reactionaires, and we end up opposing not only its evils, but also its real goods.

John Paul II was radically different. He opened his spiritual ears to the cri de coeur at the root of the feminist rebellion. He listened intently and sympathetically to its complaints and aspirations, he set about discerning, he separated the wheat from the chaff, then he took the wheat and made bread with it.

Also, he incorporated what was valid into the living Tradition of our Faith. Hence his writings on the dignity of women and on the complementarity of the sexes. Hence the dramatic developments of the Theology of the Body.

I often think of his saying (I paraphrase), "Even revolution may be legitimate, provided it aims at establishing real values and not just nihilistically tearing down the old order."

The cultural trends of our day are not entirely evil and negative; they embody and reflect real goods, which deserve our recognition.

Katie van Schaijik

#44, Jul 1, 2014 9:30am

Nancy, I have so many things I want to say!

First, yesterday Jules was perplexed that I keep mentioning "spaghetti straps," as if they're even controversial. He loves to see me in spaghetti straps. He grew up seeing his sophisticated, well-dressed mother wearing them on vacation in Spain. To him they mean summertime and relaxation. He can hardly wrap his head around the idea that they are condemned as flagrantly immodest in the American Christian counterculture.

My daughter reminded him yesterday, "Dad, we were not allowed to wear spaghetti straps." (I had prohibited it.)

I wear them now very deliberately, because I have come to agree (since they are entirely normal today) that it's good to wear them. It's good for my sons to see their mother and their sisters wearing them. I see myself as resisting the bad dynamics of the counterculture, plus teaching my boys, plus learning to be properly free in my body, which I now realize I wasn't raised to be. I was raised to be extremely awkward and self-conscious and out-of-step with the world around me. I was raised to be judgmental of others.

My parents didn't mean to do that, but they did.

Katie van Schaijik

#45, Jul 1, 2014 9:42am

Now, suppose you (and Rhett, say) "passionately disagee" with my reasoning. What then? 

Can you see that there's something strange and off in passionately disagreeing with what someone else (a fellow Christian, a Catholic mother) chooses to wear?

Suppose you were to teach others around you (about my dress): "It's unkind to men; it's a lack of modesty..."

I would say to that: "You are misjudging me and my motives. You are teaching those others to view me negatively and falsely. You are directing their moral attention to someone else's exterior rather than to their own interior."

I don't mean to accuse you here, but to point to the problem with the intense focus on girls' dress. It leads us right into the "splinter in your eye" mode.

I think this is exactly the danger Pope Francis has been trying to alert us to. He wants Christians out of that mode entirely.

Katie van Schaijik

#46, Jul 2, 2014 2:57pm

Conveniently enough, yesterday on my facebook feed appeared this timely example of the kind of authoritarianism I have been talking about. Speaking of the problem of immodesty, this "Catholic leader" writes:

The solution of course is for man to correct his wife and daughters when they attempt to dress immodestly or simply when an article of clothing doesn’t meet the standards of modesty, possibly accidentally chosen. The wife and daughters are bound under the pain of sin to obey the man of the house.  So it should be a simple enough solution to return modesty to society, at least for Catholic and Christian households. 

When this man orders his wife or his daughters "on pain of sin" to dress in accord with his ideas, is he teaching them modesty? Is he cultivating virtue in them? No. He is establishing dysfunction in his household. 

Very likely his wife and his daughters will have a skewed sense of themselves and confused consciences. Their sense of the meaning of modesty will be messed up.

We should realize that this kind of thing is very widespread in the Christian counterculture.


Devra Torres

#47, Jul 2, 2014 3:10pm

Wow.  And "possibly accidentally chosen"?  In other words, regardless of their being reasonable or not, but just because he chose them?  "Pain of sin"?  I think my good experience has skewed my view of how widespread this kind of thing may be.  My upbringing and education were very Christian and very countercultural in many ways, but this kind of thing was, thank God, very foreign to it.

Katie van Schaijik

#48, Jul 2, 2014 3:21pm

By "accidentally chosen" I took him to mean "perhaps his wife and/or daughter didn't realize that what she had chosen is immodest."

But, regardless, it's perverse. 

What he is teaching is exactly what the Covenant Communities taught.

It's prominent in the evangelical world too.

So, my point isn't that it's bad to be countercultural, but rather that there are problems in the counterculture, and, hence, a chose to wear the fashions of the day, may have nothing to do with succumbing to worldliness and everything to do with learning to get free of those false and abusive dynamics.

Katie van Schaijik

#49, Jul 2, 2014 3:38pm

Here's another example. When my fourteen year old daughter started at a traditionalist Catholic high school in New England that required girls to wear  calf-length skirts, thinking of the cold winters, I bought her nice low-heeled leather boots to wear with them.

She was told the boots were not allowed, because, "they draw attention to your legs."

She had thought they were pretty and stylish. I had judged them practical and warm. At school though, she was taken to task by Catholic authority figures, as if she were deliberately flaunting her sexuality. She was shamed repeatedly, both publicly and privately, for this and other alleged cases of being immodest and causing problems for the male teachers.  

And she wasn't the only one. I could list countless instances from our two or three years at this school that led to a groundswell of resentment and indignation among the girls and mothers involved with this school.

Who was this man in charge of the dress code who was constantly castigating these young women from Catholic families for dressing provocatively, when in truth they were desperately trying to find outfits that were acceptable within the dress code without being utterly dowdy?

Katie van Schaijik

#50, Jul 2, 2014 3:48pm

Sorry about all the typos. I'll ask Jules to look into the editing function glitch.

Sign in to add a comment, or register first.

Forgot your password?