Where Has Modesty Gone?

The innocuous carton of eggs, the milk, and bread moved along the black conveyer belt as my daughters surveyed the candy on the rack behind me in the checkout line at the grocery store. As they excitedly begged peanut M&Ms, my eyes drifted up and went wide as my jaw dropped at the sight of the licentious magazine cover before me.

Public Shock and Private Failure

I hastily flipped the magazine over and embarked on a quest to find the store manager, groceries in hand and daughters in tow. “Have you seen this?” I queried, showing him the magazine cover. I explained how such images rob children of innocence. “You’re right!” he said. To my relief, this man was sympathetic since he had daughters of his own. Much to his credit, he pulled these magazines from their racks.

But prior to my complaint, many parents, teens and children had lazily strolled through the checkout line seemingly unfazed by what they had seen. What point have we reached when we can view, and allow our children to view, such magazine covers without blinking an eye? Like the proverbial slow-boiled frog, could it be that we have been so slowly cooked that our sensitivities to modesty were boiled away before we knew to jump from the pot?

Given that America is the land of “freedom,” some wonder why so many American girls appear to be part of such a depressed lot. A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that a startling 30.4% of girls in grades nine to 12 have thought seriously about suicide. The increase in recent decades of teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, abortion, eating disorders, promiscuity, addictions, date rape and depression is a sign we are failing our young.

One way we are failing them is with unbridled permissiveness. This permissiveness rears its head in a multiplicity of ways, but one way our permissiveness is blatantly manifested is by the situation where girls may wear what they like with no thought to the impact their mode of dress will have on themselves or on others. Our silence in this regard has been interpreted as assent by our girls, and with our perceived assent, many girls have chosen a style of dress that unwittingly leaves them vulnerable and unprotected — a state that adds nothing to a young girl’s self-esteem or true identity as a child of God.

Immodest dress only encourages boys to look at young girls as objects of desire, when what the souls of girls need most from boys is respect for their dignity and for the truth that they are made in the image of God (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 357). We do no service to boys, either, by our permissiveness, as they should also be taught to seek a life of chastity and virtue. Willfully permitting immodest dress by girls does not aid them in this regard but instead sends them quite the opposite message. When children understand who they are in Christ, it is then that they will truly understand who they are. It is only in recognition of their identity as treasured children of God, children called to purity, chastity and holiness, that our girls can fill the empty void that would otherwise take them down the road to depression, despondency and despair.

Bishops’ Guidelines

Our girls are not fully responsible for their dress. It is we, the adults in their world — we who are teachers, educators and most of all, parents, and thus called by God to be the “primary educators” of our children — who have failed to properly shield them. We have failed to teach them the Catholic truths on the subject. “Train a child in the way he should go; even when he is old, he will not swerve from it” (Prv 22:6). We have failed to teach our girls to the point that many young girls do not know what modesty is let alone understand why it is a virtue to be treasured and upheld.

Bombarded by magazines, television and the Internet with a plethora of immodest images at every turn, it is very possible that we adults no longer understand what modesty is ourselves. But when Christ ascended into heaven, He did not abandon us. He sent His Holy Spirit to dwell within us and to speak to us. The Holy Spirit whispers God’s immutable truths to us through the Magisterium, through the Catechism and through His shepherds on earth. The Catechism guides us that modest dress “keeps silence or reserves where there is unhealthy risk of curiosity. It is discreet” (No. 2522). Modesty “means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden” (No. 2521). It is designed to protect our girls.

US bishops and cardinals have approved certain standards of dress as acceptable and practical for women and girls. These standards provide a “reliable guide for anyone seriously interested in avoiding immodesty in dress….” The standards issued by the bishops consider all of the following objectionable: bared-midriff styles, low-cut necklines, halter and strapless dresses, “short” shorts, skirts above the knee and swimsuits that are strapless, bared-midriff or bikini styles. The bishops also indicated “transparent fabrics are not considered as coverage.”

In Need of Adult Guidance

Our girls need to know that the children of Fatima in 1917 heard the warning that “many fashions would arise that would offend our Lord” and that many of these offensive fashions are being actively promulgated directly to American girls. Why did Our Lady warn us of this? Wasn’t she trying to protect us? Did she perhaps foresee that one day young girls would enter Catholic churches and receive our Lord in Holy Communion while wearing halter tops, miniskirts, and strapless and low-cut dresses? Did she foresee that the adults in their lives would see fit to offer not one word of guidance or correction? The damage immodest dress does to the purity of a young girl’s soul is like the damage cigarettes do to a human lung: Very slowly, over time, it is left dark and malfunctioning.

By permitting our girls to dress immodestly, we make them a cause for the near occasion of sin for others, including boys. Jesus dealt harshly with this type of sin: “Everyone who looks at a women lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart” (Mt 5:28). If immodest dress promotes lust, and if lust is equivalent to adultery, then we can allow our girls to be an occasion of serious sin for others simply by our permitting them to wear inappropriate attire. There are plenty of clothes in America that are both fashionable and modest, clothes that protect rather than expose, clothes that honor rather than offend. It is toward these clothes that we, the adults in America, ought to be guiding our girls.

Our Blessed Mother is the epitome of purity and beauty. She is a model for girls that beauty comes from a pure heart and a soul that honors God. Modesty does not detract from beauty. It adds mystery to beauty and thereby enhances it. Modesty helps everyone to see a girl not as an object but as a precious soul made in the image of God. It helps girls to maintain their self-esteem and to know they are valued for who it is they truly are: daughters of a loving Father who are called to do His will on earth so that they spend eternity with Him in heaven. It is time to teach our girls these immutable truths.

Mary Anne Moresco writes from Howell, New Jersey.

(This article originally appeared in the National Catholic Register.)

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