As I have mentioned previously, I spent two summers in college working for an amazing catechetical program called Totus Tuus. It was an incredible period of my life, to say the least. My first summer, I was asked to give the modesty talk for the high school girls camp. I was equally honored and scared. There were so many things I wanted to say, and I wanted the talk to impact these girls and make them think about modesty in a way that they had not considered.
I was typically the kind of kid that, if I was told not to do something, I just didn't do it. There are always exceptions of course, but when it came down to the big issues of faith or teenage peer pressure, I was always astonished when asked to participate. “I can’t smoke pot! It’s Illegal!” “You guys are going to get some beer? But we aren't 21!” “You are breaking up with me because we are not having sex? We aren't married, though. I don’t understand…” “You are skipping Mass this weekend? Are you sick?” And so it went for the most part. It would follow that I also listened on the edge of my seat to modesty talks. It was my job as a Christian woman to help guard my brothers in Christ. This happened to fit right into my own inability to wear most standard fashions as I was just taller than most, and did not enjoy it when my stomach was hanging out the bottom of my shirt, or I did not have adequate posterior/breast coverage. I was made for t-shirts and jeans, so modesty was my game.
Teaching Totus Tuus began to make me think about modesty in an entirely different way. At first, it was good. I liked the way that the program emphasized team work when it came to modesty. Clothes should be clothes, and not a way to draw unwanted attention to your body. There was at least the façade (more on that later) of gender equality with modesty amongst the teachers: the men shouldn't walk around shirtless, etc. either. As I began to think about my big talk, I wanted to draw attention to modesty of our thoughts, words and actions, not just the clothing we were wearing, but what it meant to be a woman of God in a more holistic sense.
I very nearly had the talk taken from me just after the first week of teaching. A former teacher was supervising our first week, and there was one night my teammate was overheard having a “modesty” talk with a few of the high school ladies. Praise was heaped on her for how thoughtful and realistic she was with them, and that it sounded like she really reached out and they heard her. (I’ll vouch for her: she’s my best friend to this day and she is fantastic at witnessing!) It happened to be the same night that I accidentally changed into the wrong pair of jeans after Mass, and they were a little lower in the back when I sat down so the shirt I was wearing did not quite meet the waist. The former teacher informed my team leader of how inappropriate I was dressed. He took me aside privately to let me know and I was mortified. It was strike one.
In a week or so my teammate and I were approached about switching our camp talks as she was now dubbed the Modesty Police. To say the least we were both offended and refused to switch. I was grateful that she was as upset as I was. Little was said again about the issue until camp was underway. She and I spent a few nights
discussing fighting about talking modesty with a priest and a few of the
teachers. I began to see how one-sided the modesty debate really was amongst my
peers and even my educators. Guys are different. They have a physical response
that women do not have, so a girl running in a sports bra is leaps and bounds
more offensive and inappropriate than a muscular boy running without a shirt.
After a few hours of incredulous head-shaking and rather loud, defiant
arguments, the priest ended the conversation by telling us that we were refuting
years of women telling him the opposite, so he simply did not believe us. Strike
Over our summer break, and my teammate and I had gone shopping. As a birthday gift to myself, I purchased an orange V-neck shirt and a tank that went under it. I was very pleased with the purchase: I never found orange tops that fit correctly! I wore it once over the break and then happened to be wearing it the day of the modesty talk. During the boys camps, the female teachers took more of a helping role (as the male teachers did during girls camps) so when it came time for the high school boys camp, I was ready to fade into the background a little and concentrate on my talk and prayer. I do not think I spent more than an hour the entire day around any of the boys. After the talk, we went into the chapel for Liturgy of the Hours, and on the walk back into the main gathering space my team leader informed me that one of the campers had asked that I change my shirt. I felt my face flush red. I was hurt, and trying not to cry in front of a seminarian. I complied and spent an hour or so in our sleeping area feeling as though I was a hypocrite or a sinner or some awful example of a Christian woman. Strike three.
I look back on things now, and I am amazed I was able to give the modesty talk successfully. My confidence was shaken on a weekly basis. Don’t get me wrong: I loved my teammates and I grew in my faith in ways I did not know were possible. I am a stronger person today because of my time with Totus Tuus and I still love the program and pray for its success. However, now that I am an adult and I have spent some time thinking about feminism and Catholicism, I see that there were some attitudes and ideas that held me back from growth as well. (The word “accountability” still makes me want to vomit. A story for another time, perhaps…)
To save myself some time, I will be blunt here: Modesty is a good thing, but the general ideas and attitudes that surround it really are not, because attraction knows no bounds. Women in a potato sack with only extremities visible might be the only way to be sure we are guiding our brothers in Christ away from sinful thoughts. Even then, some guys like toes: maybe even fingernails. Yes we can exercise some caution in our wardrobe choices, but I cannot get behind the idea that I must do so only to be supportive to a man.
In my experience as a young Catholic woman, I certainly was given many reasons for modesty. These reasons included valuing and respecting my body. The experiences I outlined above were not about me, but about men and their struggles with modesty. I know that this issue is complex, but what message do we send our young women when we tell them the clothes they wear are about men’s thoughts? Isn't that just as bad as telling them that they should wear fewer clothes to attract men? What do clothes, make-up, or our hairstyles have to do with men in the first place? What messages do we send our young men if we tell them that it is a woman’s responsibility to keep them from sin because they cannot control their own actions?
I ask these questions honestly. I have a son and a daughter. I work harder than I should have to in order to find my 17-month old daughter clothes that are appropriate for the things a 17-month old does (Such as play, run, eat, fall down.) The battle has already begun to keep her from a sexualized childhood. I work harder than I should have to in order to avoid clothing choices for my three year old son that glorify violence and promiscuity. I fight the same fight when choosing their toys, and I will continue to fight these fights as long as I am their mother. When it comes time for the more direct modesty conversations, I will avoid relying on the “brothers and sisters in Christ” model of modesty, because I find it to be damaging to our young women and men.
What are your thoughts on modesty? How do you plan to talk about modesty with your children?