Modesty is not about guilt and shame, but about accountability and humility.
Bear with me. You are not about to be instructed to wear only maxi skirts, shapeless long-sleeved tops and a headscarf to ensure the absolute minimum amount of flesh is on display. In fact, that is the very essence of the way in which we have become too caught up in the physical implications and drifted away from the true meaning of modesty.
Modesty is not synonymous with oppression. It is not a concept intended to hold women down or restrict their growth as individuals by instilling in them a sense of inferiority. Neither is it intended to hide women away under folds of fabric so that they cannot be seen or heard. In fact, it is entirely the opposite. Modesty is NOT a matter of the hemline, but a matter of the heart. It is not restricting, but freeing. The word itself is defined as ‘the quality or state of being unassuming in one’s own abilities.’ Where does that definition mention the body? The point is that the applicability to the body is merely a consequence of the applicability to the heart. Instead of using our femininity to achieve, we should acknowledge the reality that it is not by our own strength, but by God’s, that all things come about – ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me’ (Philippians 4:13). THAT is true modesty.
“Women who claim to be devoted to God should make themselves attractive by the good things they do.”
1 Timothy 2:10
When we hear the term ‘modesty’ our thoughts automatically jump to clothing and appearance. We think of being told not to wear short skirts or low-cut tops… and our thoughts generally go no further. In stopping on the outside of our bodies, we stop on the outside of the concept. By neglecting the heart, we don’t pierce the reality of what it is to be truly modest.
“Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.”
A prime example of this is the original nakedness of Adam and Eve. Before original sin, Adam and Eve were able to ‘see and know each other…with all the peace of the interior gaze’ (JPII – ToB, Jan. 2nd 1980). They did not associate their bodies with impurity or with shame, because their view of the world and of each other was in line with God’s. They saw God’s plan in their bodies, and that is what they desired. The fact of this shows that the initial intention of modesty was not to hide the body, but to protect the heart.
Purity is not prudishness! When the Sistine Chapel was restored several years ago, Pope John Paul II instructed the removal of the loincloths from several of Michelangelo’s nude paintings, which had been added by previous popes in a bid to cover what they deemed ‘impure’. And John Paul did so ‘in the name of Christian purity’ (Christopher West, ‘Theology of the Body for Beginners’). The previous popes had sadly missed the point in this instance! Purity does not mean avoidance or aversion, because those two words imply quite the opposite: the need to remove yourself from a situation implies the presence of something to be avoided – something impure. Striving for purity in this way actually in itself prevents the recognition of what is truly pure.
“Man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart.”
1 Samuel 16:7
The way we choose to appear to the world is our expression of the way we want our heart to be seen by God. Purity is achieved only when the two fall in line. If we desire to be pure but dress provocatively we are doing that desire a disservice. Likewise, no matter how many layers we cover our bodies with, an impure heart will still be seen by God. Covering up the flesh won’t stop you from acting provocatively if you haven’t challenged the human lust within us all which resulted from the fall of Adam and Eve.
So, rather than being at the forefront of our impression of modesty, the physical aspects should stem from the internal aspects. If we gain a deeper respect for ourselves as human beings, and for our hearts as women, then from that emerges the desire to dress modestly, rather than simply surrendering to the pressure of the Church to do so. The way that you dress then becomes merely a natural, outward expression of your inner desire for purity and humility. Modesty is not about guilt and shame, but about accountability and humility.