Muddying the Waters around Modesty

Whenever summer rolls around, the tide of links rises on my Facebook news feed. “Modesty,” they all say. Sometimes with a sneer, sometimes with a polemic defense, they all say, “modesty.” In theory, I appreciate the idea of modesty, and I think the arguments in its defense are justified. However, glancing over my wardrobe, I have to admit that I’m baffled as what exactly it means I should wear. And, genuinely unintentionally, I’ve stumbled upon the wrong choices on more than one occasion.

I have no instincts and little training in this area. Growing up in a school with a uniform, I never was exposed to the peer vs. peer whisperings (i.e., “Can you believe she’s wearing that?!”) that offer the adolescent mind a social catechism (albeit a dubious one) about what outfit means what.

Additionally, if there’s a culture that epitomizes a schizophrenic balance of questing after external beauty while refusing to judge by appearances, it’s the one that raised me: SoCal. Of those two sides, I’ve always had a strong affinity for the latter; I learned a little too well not to judge by appearances. In college, I went to church and classes in jeans and sandals and shorts among others in jeans and sandals and shorts. Doing so is an expression of that culture’s most prized virtue. Yes, most groups develop a cardinal virtue; where some cultures – like the American south – are big on respect, California is big on genuineness. To a Californian, dressing formally can feel ingenuine (though, bizarrely. wearing make-up doesn’t).

And, to a Californian, being ingenuine is the second of the regionally deadly sins (after “being judgmental,” before “waiting until a green light to turn right”).

So, the articles on modesty always fill me with some terror of the unknown. Unfair as it might be, they center on those endowed by God with the quality of being women. I happen to have that very quality, and I discover every summer on my Facebook news feed that the gift is a liability rather than an asset. There’s some grave misuse of it which I may make any morning, and I don’t really understand where that misuse rests in order to avoid it.

Unlike most virtues, the practice of modesty is culturally defined. That doesn’t mean it isn’t real, just that it has a contingent reality. In Eden, nudity was not immodest. In Starbucks, it is. Some cultures hide ankles. Others, cleavage. This is not to say there is no such thing as modesty, only that modesty looks different in different places and different times. But, you’ve read all this before.

But what many of these articles miss is possibility of degrees of knowledge. While agreeing that modesty is culturally defined, most articles assume that everyone within a given culture understands what goes for “modesty” within that culture. But, every societal convention is better understood by some members of that society than others (see Jane Austen). There is a continuum of understanding often ignored by modesty articles.

And, even among those who understand, there exists a greater deal of confusion than most would admit. For instance, the conventions clearly vary from one body to another. Place a short girl in mid-thigh length shorts next to a tall girl in mid-thigh length shorts; proportionally identical exposure that would never be deemed immodest on my dachshund-like legs would be judged more harshly on hers. Last week, I asked some friends how long skirts should be, and my friends gave a clear answer: not-above-the-knee. Then, they immediately affirmed that the above-the-knee skirt I was wearing was “just fine.” The variability of answers to the modesty question can be exhausting.

At the same time as modesty is a moving target and a challenging one, I don’t want to diminish its importance. I don’t deny the virtue of it. I care about the relationship between God and every human being around me. I care about helping people be virtuous insofar as it rests with me. I do care about respect. I care about the reality of modesty, with its obscured goal which the social rules exist to achieve.

I care about it because, behind what sometimes looks like the rigid face of judgmental rule-enforcement, I still hear the soft-hearted echoes of love.

I believe that deep within the rules and the protection and the judgment there remains a reality. That reality says that my neighbor’s life is my life, and he is not as independent of me as I pretend. We draw hard lines between people, but the boundaries smudge more than we like to admit, perhaps nowhere as ubiquitously as with modesty. The modesty argument exposes our individualistic, court-room stance toward sin; at best, the conversation can remind us that we are morally bound to one another not by blame or fault but by the possibility of really harming or really helping one another.

While the liberal side may want to blame the harmed for being harmed, the conservative may want to cast all the blame on the immodest for being immodest, it seems like throwing blame around will not undo damage or prevent further harm. Without intending to, I can do genuine harm to others by my misunderstanding of modesty. This harm is no less real because it was unintended, nor is the fault either fully mine or fully that of the harmed. What the individualistic, juridical arguments often forget is that the harm of immodesty is not simply fault, but also damage. This is the highest calling of my wardrobe choices: that I do my best to make those choices in love, not simply on the basis of avoiding fault or denying that fault is possible.

So, my point is not to let anyone off the hook, but only to point out some of the complexity which the modesty debate tends to miss. We bear some responsibility for one another. Yet, those who “know” the rules of modesty must accept that the reasons for that pair of heels at that inappropriate time or place may be less intentional than they appear from outside.