Wondering how not to talk to young girls about modesty?
Then look no further than the New Jersey junior high that banned strapless dresses from its eighth-grade prom.
In late April, Sharon Moffat, the principal of Readington Middle School announced the ban, explaining that the dresses were “distracting to boys.”
Her explanation triggered a mini-media firestorm, with parents denouncing Moffat as sexist and bloggers indicting Moffat for “slut-shaming.” A dance scheduled at the school on April 26 was even canceled when a threat was made against Moffat’s life.
Where did such a seemingly innocuous decision go wrong?
Clothes reflect dignity
First, the school started the conversation by focusing exclusively on what’s good for the boys.
“If we want women to dress in a way that reflects their dignity, we need to rethink the language we use,” explained Janet Sahm, co-founder of Verily Magazine. “We can’t pit women against men, simply telling girls they have to cover themselves for the sake of the guy.”
Instead, she said, a better conversation about modesty begins with understanding the reasons women dress suggestively in the first place.
“All women desire to be beautiful,” said Sahm. “We desire to be seen as valuable, precious and worth fighting for. The way we communicate that is through the way we present ourselves.”
That desire is good. After all, women are made in the image of God, who is beauty. But what’s not good is desiring the wrong kind of beauty — a beauty that equates “attractive” with “sexy” — then communicating that desire through clothing, which reflects that limited understanding.
“When you wear something that shows more body, it’s easy to get a quick reaction, a quick high. But it’s really only a shadow of what you’re looking for,” Sahm said.
And that’s where modesty comes in.
Modesty as a virtue
Contrary to what many a young girl (and grown woman) thinks, modesty is not a synonym for frumpy. It’s not about wearing burlap sacks and denying feminine beauty. Nor is it merely a list of fashion do’s and don’ts.
Rather, modesty is a virtue, one which recognizes that the Fall made men more prone to using women and women more prone to letting themselves be used. Modesty helps a woman make choices about fashion, as well as about how to speak, move and interact with others, all so that the beauty of her whole person, not just the beauty of her parts, shines forth. In that, the Catechism tells us, modesty affirms feminine beauty and awakens in others “a respect for the human person.”
“Modesty isn’t primarily a ‘no,’” summed up Sahm. “It’s a woman recognizing the depths of her own dignity and beauty.”
In a culture where even 6-year-olds strive to be sexy, cultivating that understanding of modesty in young women isn’t easy. Which is why Justine Schmiesing, a mother of seven who lives outside Pittsburgh believes the conversation about modesty must begin well before eighth grade.
“You can’t start talking about modesty when kids are teenagers,” explained Schmiesing. “Even when they don’t quite understand what the words mean, it helps to introduce phrases like, ‘That’s not modest’ or ‘That’s not appropriate’ and to talk about their body as a temple of the Holy Spirit.”
Equally important, she added, is making the conversation about fashion choices a positive one that looks at how girls can choose colors, styles and sizes that help them look their best.
“So often, the girls dressing the most inappropriately are just copying what they see in the magazines,” said Schmiesing. “They want to look beautiful, and the only way they know how to do that is imitate an advertisement.”
Good role models
For that same reason, both Sahm and Schmiesing agree that girls need to see other women setting a good example.
“So much with modesty is about showing, not telling,” said Sahm. “Women of all ages need to see women who exemplify modesty and live it in an integrated way, who are beautiful, fashionable and confident.”
What that ultimately means is that if mothers and teachers, aunts and friends want to have a more constructive conversation about modesty than the one currently taking place in New Jersey, they need to understand modesty from the inside. They have to understand that the source of their dignity and beauty isn’t their clothing size, but the God who created them and loves them. They have to recognize their own worth, seeing themselves as subjects to be loved, not objects to be used. And they have to dress and present themselves in a way that reflects all that.
That doesn’t rule out talking about how immodesty affects men or establishing dress codes like the one set by the New Jersey school. As Sahm pointed out, “dressing more modestly can help you understand your dignity. Virtue can work its way from the outside in.”
But it does re-focus the conversation, helping women recognize, as John Paul II wrote in Love and Responsibility, that, “Modesty is good, first and foremost, for the woman herself.”
Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.