Modesty: Who’s Responsible?


prom dance school dress fancy couple teens teenagersSome recent events in the news have highlighted just how difficult it is to affirm modesty as a virtue worth instilling.  In one particular instance, a public school principal took a stance for modesty, and may end up in court as a result.  The principal refused admittance to two girls attending their high school prom who were deemed to be inappropriately dressed, a policy for which was outlined in a letter sent home to parents prior to the event.  The remarkable aspect of the story is that the girls’ mothers were outraged by the principal’s stand on principle, rather than concerned about how their daughters’ choice of attire might reflect on their character or reputation, or affect those around them.

As the prom dresses of spring morph into the bikinis of summer and families head to the beaches, it seems timely to comment on this issue of modesty of dress as the standards of what passes for ‘style’ become ever increasingly indiscreet.  In previous essays, I argued for increased respect for the primacy of parents’ rights in determining how and when their child might be confronted with, or burdened by, knowledge of sexual material, and advocated for support from society in this undertaking.  But as noted above, not all parents see the issue in a similar manner, and some not only accede to, but actively support, their adolescents dressing in a manner that scandalizes other parents.  Other parent’s jobs become increasingly complicated when a wholesome tradition like the annual beach vacation mimics running a voyeuristic gauntlet rivaled only by the grocery store checkout line, which at least can be minimized if not avoided entirely.

But where should the responsibility for modesty lay? With the boy, the girl, or the parents?

Tempting Girls or Dirty Old Men?

Although the issue is not entirely gender specific, it does generally run in one direction. The argument for uninhibited fashion is that the woman should not have to bear the responsibility for the inability of the male to control his roving eyes. While from a psychological perspective this has the semblance of a reasonable setting of boundaries, in that one should not ordinarily take responsibility for the behavior of others, in another way it seems to be hopelessly naïve.…By way of comparison, each of us should be able to walk through the streets of downtown at night without fear, but, we know better.

Whether we see the issue through the lens of “Puritanical” standards, females dressing provocatively, or males “sexualizing everything,” the heart of the matter is something larger: what will best help adolescents and young adults, who are struggling with what it means to be a man or woman, to live a respectable, virtuous life, and prepare for a flourishing future?  Just or not, the scantily-clad woman is more likely to be seen and valued, by both men and women, in a base physical sense than is a woman modestly dressed.   Setting aside the indignity to her person to which the female in this instance is opening herself, adolescents and young adults are in a developmental phase of forming and improving their character strengths, not living them out reliably with constancy.  Young males are, hopefully, in the process of striving for chastity and custody of the eyes, and young females are, hopefully, striving for honor and protecting their bodies as a singular gift for their future spouse.  But, they both need help.

Ultimately, yes, young men are in fact responsible for themselves and for the choices that shape their character.  But, in that they are young, like so many other things, they cannot yet do it alone.  They need the help of parents.  They need the help of girls and women.  They need the help of a community, which calls forth the cooperative support from our neighbors (and fellow parents) not to raise the level of difficulty unnecessarily, nor increase the temptation that one might say is naturally a part of a young man’s discovery of the beauty of the fairer sex.


At the risk of parodying the “it takes a village” mantra, it does seem that tackling this issue will take a community effort to some degree. While parents bear the brunt of educating and ensuring their own children’s formation regarding appropriate dress and managing of sexual expression, we are all in this together. Inasmuch as my choice about what is acceptable will inevitably become a public event when my child attends school, prom, or any such event with your child, I have a responsibility to think broadly.

Accepting indiscretions as just a part of “adolescent rebellion” and ignoring the issue will not advance the battle to re-establish a society with standards that support healthy growth and development; parents must take the lead in setting the standard and sticking to it.  As a society, we know there are innumerable adolescents who are struggling with the virtues of chastity or modesty.  Consider parental boundary-setting an act of charity if need be; an act which reduces the potential objectification of girls, and the distraction of boys; an act which prepares young ground for a richer love.

The adolescents of today are the husbands and wives, mothers and fathers of tomorrow.  For them to be successful in such roles, they must be capable of growing beyond the eros of human sensuality to a deeper, more sacrificial love.  It is only in an environment where the virtues of modesty and chastity are taught, practiced and widely observed, that such growth is possible.


This article originally appeared on The Culture of Life and is used with permission.


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  • Struble

    Wise points. But how do Christians persuade a depraved and hostile culture to even listen to wisdom?

    • goral

      I suggest starting with words and language. We exchange more of that than ever before and it falls on more ears. We will be accused of using “hate speech” but this term was invented precisely for silencing robust and meaningful debates. The pen and the tongue is still mightier than the sword.

      It’s time to use words that convey the proper meanings. We’ve become so soft that even the devil is a cute little guy tattooed on the shoulder.

      Let’s start calling liars – liars and see where it takes us.

      • Struble

        Every time I use the word “sodomy” in my postings or writings, a certain relative of mine goes ballistic. Nonetheless, I propose to keep calling it for what it is, unless someone can suggest another word that conveys the reality.


    Christian culture has been abolished in the USA. We are seen as a counter culture standing in the may of modern reform. That is why the current administration is waging its war against the Catholic Church. There aren’t even enough Catholics in the nation that truly follow the teachings of the Church to force change. We are now a country that has a Culture based on what feels good.

  • MM

    The simple answer to the question of who is responsible for modesty is, if the child is under 18 the parent is responsible. The problem is, parents reject this responsibility. These are the excuses I hear from my fellow moms: ” I have to pick my battles.” “I don’t want to embarrass my child by making her/him dress differently.” “Kids need freedom to express themselves.” I even heard this from what I thought was a conservative Catholic mom: ” I let my daughter wear a [itsy bitsy] bikini because she is too tall for a one-piece bathing suit” (never mind that a tankini or a long-torso swimsuit like I own would work). Parents have just opted out of parenting and will rationalize it any way they can.

  • Slope

    So, to go right to the extreme, wouldn’t the best, most modest option, be burkas for one and all, male and female?

    If not, why not?

    PS: Don’t object on safety or practicality grounds – those can be overcome. Stick to why shapeless bags are not the most prudent option to keep people out of sin.

    • Maria Famula

      The key is moderation. We don’t go from profaning the human body by treating it as an object of pleasure to Jansenism, which oversimplified, says that we have to abstain from all that is good for fear of misusing it. God doesn’t give us free passes on issues of prudence. We’re responsible for having properly formed consciences and using them.

  • noel fitzpatrick

    I read here “Christian culture has been abolished in the USA”.

    The USA is the most Christian/Catholic country on earth.

    As you know I believe in loyalty to family, Church and God. So in a public forum insulting your country is not to be admired.

    I am reminded of the Irish patriotic song

    “He’s all a knave or half a slave
    Who slights his country thus”.

  • T Michel Jmb Vianney

    St. John Vianney refused to absolve men and women alike for dancing…so that would mean NO PROM.
    He also refused to absolve women for dressing not just immodestly but vainly.

    I guess St. John Vianney was “puritanical.”

    But he’s just the Patron Saint of Priests and one of the most self-sacrificing priests in history.
    What would he know? After all…”the times have changed.”

  • T Michel Jmb Vianney
  • Abby

    Can we stop talking about modesty in terms of others, and instead talk about it in terms of self. Self-respect, self-love. Or how about just in terms of God. How would a love like God’s clothe us? When we teach girls to dress modestly in the context of keeping herself covered so that her body is reserved for her spouse in a way we turn her into an object, a prize. The same can go for boys, though I think as a society, the pressure is more on girls. I dress modestly out of respect for myself, my spouse, and God.

  • Midwester

    First, we must acknowledge that we no longer live in anything resembling a Christian culture. Therefore, we must live radically different from our neighbors. We must inculcate a sense of modesty into our children – teach them to respect themselves as temples of the Holy Ghost created in the image and likeness of God so that they do not compromise with the world. This is much easier said than done, but we must begin by setting a good example ourselves in how we comport ourselves both privately and in public.

    Next, we need to practice (and teach our children to practice) custody of the eyes. We should not let our eyes linger on those wearing immodest clothing, etc. It would help if we just turned off the television and stopped going to movies so that we could re-sensitize our consciences to recognize that which is immoral and immodest.

    Third, we need to avoid the near occasion of sin in viewing suggestive movies, listening to music with depraved or suggestive lyrics, and avoiding television and internet content that is immoral. We need to root out of our hearts the tendency to concupiscence that fuels so much of the culture today. This is difficult but not impossible. Avoidance of the images and ideas in the first place makes it much easier to resist once it is presented. For example, I have not had a working television in my home that received American programming for 12 years.

    Finally, we need to pray, especially the Rosary, for ourselves, our children, and the culture at large. We are entering a new dark ages, a post-Christian world where we must stand as pillars of light amidst a depraved generation, showing them the light of Christ. Easy? No, but with God’s grace it is possible, and for our salvation it is essential.

  • K.C.Thomas

    I have only one question. Why nakedness of parts of female body is displayed by some so called progressives? Do they not know that it is lust generator for males and so scandalous ? Is it right for us to dress or talk or behave in immodest way? A practicing catholic catholicwill surely think like this and will not flaunt their nakedness. If we adopt “dont care attitude “, the interpretation is ” an ad. For sale” .Was Mary or any female saint wearing skimpy dress ?