Modesty. It’s a word in our society and culture that definitely comes with a more of a negative connotation than a positive one. No one, women in particular, enjoy being told how they should dress, especially when personal fashion is something people take a lot of pride in as a way to express themselves.
In the religious realm, people have associated the word modesty with “telling people to hide themselves and their bodies.” For me, personally, I think back to a middle school retreat I attended where all the girls were in a room with a speaker who told us, among other things, that whenever we bend over we should put a hand on our chest, so as not to reveal cleavage, and a hand on our back, so as not to reveal any part of our backside. While I can appreciate the speaker’s point, later my friends and I just laughed at the thought of bending over to pick something up and having no hands to do so as they were already occupied. The only other thing I remember from this retreat was a 30-minute session of what not to wear, even though at the time we spent most of our time in our Catholic school jumpers. I wasn’t left with a positive idea of “modesty.”
Now as shocking as it may seem, the fashion industry has seen modest clothing sales on the rise. Whether it be because of a more welcoming attitude toward religious cultures, or simply a shift in popularity it’s refreshing that this news may be helping to phase out a “sex sells” culture. We see the vast differences in the fashions of celebrities such as Kate Middleton who is known for her fashionable, yet conservative clothing as compared to other celebrities who walk the red carpet underneath very little fabric.
While modesty definitely has its part in the fashion industry, this alone does not cover the expansive thoughts behind the word.
Leah Darrow, a Catholic speaker and writer as well as a former model on America’s Next Top Model, wanted to clear the air and help people to have a more accurate view of modesty, asserting that it isn’t just about keeping our elbows and ankles covered. Through Ascension Press’ segment “Ascension Presents” Darrow talks about modesty in 2016. Fear not, this video is not simply a 3-minute episode of What Not to Wear: Catholic Edition. She delivers beautiful insights into the virtue of temperance, and that modesty is about respecting the dignity of the whole person, not just certain parts of it.
We’re in a very difficult culture for women, and particularly young women. As a part of the fight for feminism, women are constantly in a defensive battle against things like “slut-shaming” and aspects of rape culture that are limiting a woman’s worth to what she wears. Darrow points out that women are witness to “all the things that want to enslave us to the idea that they are only as good as their body.” This comes back to the need of valuing the dignity of the whole person, and not just the (body) parts that make it up. This is where Darrow feels liberated from enslavement through her Catholicism and faith, because through Jesus she knows she is more than the sum of her parts. Creating this conversation that modesty is more than “what not to wear” and about the value of the person can only help for women and men to be liberated from harmful culture mindsets.
All in all, Darrow does a beautiful job of telling us what modesty really is and how we should practice it so that women and men alike can benefit.
— Megan Imwalle
[Editor’s note: Singer Emily Wilson has spoken on this subject as well, adding valuable insight along the same vein as Darrow’s.]