Updated: Sep 16, 2021
What is modesty?
"Modesty protects the intimate center of the person. It means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden...It guides how one looks at others and behaves toward them in conformity with the dignity of persons and their solidarity" (CCC 2521).
We tend to write off modesty as prudishness, but the modest person is acutely aware of the mystery and depth of their sexual/personal value. The prude person may outwardly perform the same gestures of covering up but do so not because sex and sex appeal are beautiful and cherished (as the modest person), but because they are shocking and repulsive.
In his book Love and Responsibility, John Paul II then Karol Wojtyla offers insight into the nature of modesty and how it might be crucial for our mental health.
Our Experience of Shame
In his analysis of modesty, Wojtyla begins with the shared human experience of shame. Shame is characterized as the tendency to conceal something. It often coincides with embarrassment or humiliation with doing something dishonorable or immoral. However, we can experience shame with good things as well. For example, say you did something honorable, and it got out, however you did not want it to get out, and you felt a sense of embarrassment. That, too, is shame in the less negative sense.
What is sexual shame? It is an example of having shame due to something good being revealed. Why would someone cover up when a stranger walks into the bathroom? Why does a female who loses her bathing suit top stay hidden in the water before finding the top? In neither case are they covering up to hide something bad. What we fear, and in particular women fear, are the gazes that might bring about use. We abhor being used—especially being sexually used. Genesis goes into this after the fall of man.
The original man and woman were capable of gazing at each other with a tender love that was free of any grasping. They were incapable of seeing the other as an object to be used. Sexual desire for them was something pure and delightful and whole.
When sin entered the world, their eyes were opened, and they saw the capacity to see the other and being seen by the other as an object. Eve understood the threat of Adam looking at her with a grasping desire and the desire to possess her. What was her response? She felt the need to cover up just as women do today.
Unfortunately, our women are sexualized at a very young age before their eyes can be open to the threat of use. As a result, they become desensitized to the need to cover up. Everywhere they look, they see women half-clad from advertisements to walking down the street. Children do not feel the need for sexual shame. They do not know the psyche and biological make up of the other sex, sexual attraction, or sexual use.
Shame affords one the sense to veil their sexual values so that the person, which is hidden, can be seen. The way we dress and present ourselves to others reveals to others the hidden person within. Our body speaks a language, and this "language of the body" is a physical reality which is a sign of another reality not so easily seen or visible. The way you dress sends clear signals to others.
When a women veils herself in modesty, she is not hiding herself, she is revealing her dignity. The higher her virtue, the more noble her character, the more devoted to truth, justice, and goodness she is, the more man has to aspire to be worthy of her.
That is the answer to "Why is it my responsibility to dress modestly? If men struggle with lustful thoughts." The purpose is not primarily to prevent men from impure thoughts but to protect women from being treated as objects of sexual pleasure. Yes, men should be able to control their impulses, but the type of men young women are attracting when dressing provocatively are not men who can manage their impulses. It is not a man who wishes to make himself worthy of her. Those men seek women who dress modestly.
Ultimately, modesty invigorates true love - the unification of persons. For more on how chastity can make love more personal and intimate, read my post on How can Chastity Raise Your Relationship with Others on a Personal Level? Deep down, we all want to experience this profound personal love. So, we should all dress in such a way that we inspire this love. When we dress immodestly, we hinder the possibility for true love to develop, for it draws attention to our sexual values to an extent that it overshadows our true value as a person.
Wojtyla also argues that women are less aware of sensuality and of its natural orientation in men, because in them emotion is usually stronger than sensuality, and sensuality tends to be latent in emotion. He claims in that sense woman are purer in that she experiences more powerfully the value of a human being of the other sex. Since a woman does not find in herself the sensuality of which a man as a rule cannot but be aware in himself she does not feel so great a need to conceal the body as a potential object of enjoyment. He asserts the evolution of modesty in woman requires some initial insight into the male psychology.
What Does This Have To Do With Mental Health?
The hypersexualized culture in which we live exposes children to danger before they are even aware of it. Modesty helps protect our kids while they are developing more fully into their emotional, spiritual, psychological, physical selves. With the great help of many adults and parents, the world is telling our children, "you want to be happy, you need to be sexually attractive." What they are really saying, "Do not make yourself a person to be encountered, but a thing to be used."
Is it a wonder that the top two prescribed drugs in university health centers are anti-depressants and the birth-control pill? Our contemporary sexual culture is toxic for our children and in particular our young girls and until we stand up and acknowledge the fact that we are fueling the high rates of eating disorders, addiction, anxiety and depression by allowing our kids to become sexualized we will see little change.
Odell Terrell is a mental health counselor in Greensboro, NC. He graduated with a MS in Counseling from Divine Mercy University in Arlington, VA, and places an emphasis on working with spiritual integration, adults and adolescents, trauma, family and children, and grief and loss. Odell received his undergraduate degree from the University of St. Leo's in St. Leo Florida, with a degree in Psychology. He has spent his last 15 years working in the field of emergency services. It is in working with people in emergency situations, both patients and first responders, that Odell has learned how to deal respectively with people in crises mode, helping instill a sense of hope and healing. Odell is happily married, for 17 years, and is the father of 9 children and brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to his family and child therapy practice.