Can We Stop Fretting About Modesty?


sillohette beach woman sunset alone isolation peaceSeems like, lately, everyone’s been writing about how much women should wear, why it matters (or doesn’t), how too-strict standards can be emotionally damaging, and how we’re all contributing to the rape culture. I agree that modesty is important, but I’m sensing an unhealthy dose of fear, insecurity, judgment, and tunnel vision. Guys, we all need to chill out and get some perspective. It’s not as big of a deal as we’re making it.

Men and women, all striving for chastity, often get in petty spats because they misunderstand each other. Men are frustrated that women wear yoga pants; women find them comfortable and wish men would make eye contact instead of accusations. Then there’s the classic, “if men can swim in shorts, why can’t women?” followed by a cold-shouldered “you don’t even understand!” It goes back and forth until everyone is exasperated and distracted from the important things in life – like love, respect, courtesy, and recognizing human dignity.

We’re stressing about it too much. Everybody has different standards of modesty, and – wait for it – that’s okay. The Church has never defined what types of clothing are acceptable, and for good reason. She expects us to practice the virtue of prudence in applying a timeless truth to our particular situations. Women vary in what they’re comfortable in; men vary in how much skin is tempting and how much temptation they can handle.

If we’re all going to pursue chastity and treat each other with dignity, we have to realize that we all see the world differently, we all see each other differently, and we have to meet each other halfway. Men, not every woman-striving-for-chastity will dress in a way that meets your individual needs. Women, not every man-striving-for-chastity will look at you without temptation. Do what you can, and understand that others are trying, too. Nobody’s going to be perfect at it, and nobody’s standards are identical to yours.

Modesty, believe it or not, is not primarily about preventing rape, protecting women, or helping men control their sexual desires. Modesty is primarily about love, about recognizing our own human dignity and that of others; anything else is secondary or corollary. If love doesn’t underlie all our conversations and all our decisions, we’re doing it wrong. To dress modestly, we dress in a way that says “I respect you, and I respect myself.” That’s why we don’t wear gorgeous white dresses or trashy jeans to our friends’ weddings; that’s why we don’t wear swim suits to work; that’s why we don’t wear clothes that scream “easy.”

The myth that women can, by their virtue and captivating beauty, inspire men so as to change the hearts of the filthiest scoundrels into havens of virtue, frankly, is stupid. Men who make catcalls are going to make catcalls no matter what you’re wearing; men who sexually abuse women are going to do so whether they’re in bikinis or long skirts. Men who are striving to respect women, men who struggle with lust (instead of bowing to it) – those are the men who appreciate women dressing modestly. If you dress in a way that says “I respect you, and I respect myself,” it’s a lot easier for men to say “I respect that.”

Respect is where we ought to be focusing. We get so worked up over men not lusting after women and men not seeing women as a collection of body parts that we forget how men should see women. Here’s an oft-missed point: it is good and healthy – not just okay but good and healthy – for men to find women attractive, even sexually attractive. The reverse is also true. We should like each other. It makes no sense to believe in a God who says “be fruitful and multiply” on one hand and “don’t be attracted to each other” on the other hand. He never said the second.

Attraction and lust are entirely different things. When young men get don’t look at her butt training, they confuse healthy attraction with lust and try to banish it all. That leaves them sexually confused and scrupulous, and it’s not too far of a stretch to go from “she’s attractive” to “this must be lust” to “would she please put more clothes on.” When young women get cover up for creepers training, they do so dutifully and wonder if they will ever find a decent man to marry. They struggle to reconcile their desire to be attractive and loved with their desire not to be creeped on. It perpetuates the myth that men are fundamentally incapable of authentic love.

Here I would like to propose that we stop talking about modesty altogether, because I’m tired of it, but that’s not the right approach. Instead, let’s try some perspective. Men, be chaste; if you need to look away, do so out of respect for the woman, not judgment. Be patient; know that those of us who are trying really are trying and those who aren’t trying probably won’t no matter what you say. Try to understand that it’s often very difficult for us to find clothing that’s cute, modest, and reasonably priced. Women, dress respectfully. Try to understand that men see the world differently, and the ones who are trying really are trying. Level-headed men can give you a helpful perspective on what that skirt looks like to men, but know that individual men differ and ultimately, you can make your own clothing decisions. If a man calls you a temptress or a slut, ignore him. Know that he doesn’t represent all men.

We already spend plenty of energy to uproot sin. This is good; let’s keep at it. But let’s also watch out for pride, anger, resentment, impatience, frustration, scrupulosity, infighting, and disunity – these are all sins or symptoms of sins, and if this is where we’re headed, we haven’t gotten any holier. This should be our focus: love, human dignity, and respect. It’s sin we’re fighting, not hemlines.


This article originally appeared on and is used with permission.


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  • Anthony

    Respect is obviously the key. You say that women should dress in a manner that says “I respect you and I respect myself” yet you seem to refuse to indicate any guidelines as to what “dressing respectfully” means. Perhaps you think everyone already knows. I think not.

    And, based on the fact that Our Lady of Garabandal asked the girls, in a very loving way, to wear longer skirts below the knees, I think that there are basic minimum guidelines to follow in order to call it modest.

    On a second point, most guys do know the difference between the sentiment “she’s very attractive” and “she’s hot”.

    • Anne

      If I understand correctly, Garanbandal is not an approved apparition by the Church.

      • Liz

        Even disregarding the point of O.L. of Garanbandal, it does seem true that some guidelines are necessary. Its not enough to say that women dress in a way that’s comfortable and that they want to convey they respect themselves. Plenty of women are comfortable with showing cleavage, and would still consider their outfits respectable, but that doesn’t mean they are.

  • Sharon

    I’m not familiar with the Garabandal apparition, but one need only look to the Church-approved apparitions (Guadalupe, Fatima, Lourdes) to get a general idea of how Our Lady feels about modest yet attractive dress.

    Modesty is a fruit of the Spirit. The extent to which one feels compelled to care about it likely reflects some aspect of one’s relationship with the Holy Spirit on some level. Although in some ways modesty is subjective, there are some objective, sensible guidelines on the internet.

    In any event, I think discussing modesty on a Catholic website in a respectful way is as worthwhile as the study of other virtues, especially considering its obvious lack in our culture at large.

  • C. Maggard

    We must ALL be aware of our own role as custodians of our modesty and our responsibility toward our neighbors in society.

    Men must come to grips with the fact that their displays can be distracting to a woman’s thoughts as a flauntingly (under)dressed woman’s can be to men.

    Yes, the culture is toxically sexualized. And yes, women are thinking about sex in ways more forthright and ‘mannish’ than in our great-grandmothers ‘day. (Although I doubt that in any era ALL women were really keeping their eyes only on a man’s FACE.)

    As I understand it, Islam places all the blame on the woman who tempts the man. It is up to Christianity to remind the world that “male and female He made them” and that it takes two to tango.

    Guys, keep your shirts on those gloriously sweat-shiny torsos, and pay a little attention to the fit of your swimsuits/Speedos!

  • Margaret Mary Myers


  • AE

    We just spent a week at the beach where 99% of the women were wearing bikinis that cover less than most people’s underwear. It was brutal to see how little self respect most women have for themselves and for those around them. I think the church DOES have standards on what is and isn’t appropriate to wear in public. You can’t go into a church in Rome wearing jeans and a tshirt, some parishes have standards and hand out shawls if women are dressed immodestly. The CCC has much to say about leading others to sin in regards to purity. Our bodies are a temple of the Holy Spirit and we have a moral obligation to dress in a way that honors our body AND the purity of those around us. In our pornified culture it’s better to set our standards high for ourselves, our children, friends, and strangers. As Catholics we have a responsibility to set our standards even higher than most. Modest doesn’t equal frumpy or ugly it equals classy and respectful. We tell our kids not to watch, read, or listen to things if they wouldn’t do those things with Jesus sitting next to them. What we wear and how we behave is the same. Modesty IS a big deal, especially in our culture.

    • Anne

      I lived in Italy for four years and visited Rome many times. Jeans and T-shirts are allowed in the churches in Rome. Sleeveless shirts are not allowed, and they will hand out shawls to wrap around your arms if you try to enter wearing sleeveless tops. Shorts are not allowed either (for men or women).

  • DthyL

    Modesty is important. Some parishes do post guidlines–hemline below the knees, dresses & shirts with sleeves, neckline not more than an inch below the collarbone, avoiding skintight pants and sheer fabrics certainly isn’t unreasonable. We appear in public completely dressed out of respect for ourselves and our neighbors. Why would we want to go out expecting others to look away “if it bothers them”? The guidlines would differ for swimming, of course, and men’s swimwear differs from womens swimsuits because of the difference in anatomy. And for that matter, I often see women in public, even, shamfully, at Mass wearing what would be more suited for swimwear, but I’ve yet to see a man at the grocery store or at Mass wearing swimming trunks.

  • SK

    Mmhhh. …. you seem to have no idea how men think …. wait, you are a woman. Even then, the Church has since time memorial laid out what is acceptable as modest, it’s just that some prefer to be their own Gods. Sadly your blog and a couple others use the Catholic name go on relaxing the rules and telling everyone it’s ok to do so.

    See the Rome Decrees on Modesty:

    Mind you even trousers are not allowed :

    Pope Pius XI and XII spoke put a lot on modesty too. So did John Paull II. Their teaching still stands. If you think the Catholic Church has no stance try reading the Catholic Catechism i.e. the part on the ninth commandments. Try reading the modesty guidelines by and as you heard, in Rome there are guidelines on what to wear.

    What’s more you should be aware that you should go to confession if you dress immodestly–it’s part of the examination of conscience. Also refer to and learn what the saints had to say about modesty.

    Exposing your body won’t get you a husband. Men will look at virtues when looking for a wife. One of these is modesty. Only a wierdo won’t want a modest wife. Latest clothing is unimportant. Learn from the modestly dressed clergy i.e. the pope, nun, brothers etc …

    Finally, immodesty is Satan’s virtue and the love of nudity is just diabolic.

  • EH

    Here’s the standard my mother told me to use when deciding if an outfit is appropriate or not… “Your clothes should be tight enough to show you are a woman, but loose enough to show you are a lady.” In addition, wear a one-piece bathing suit.