Many thanks to the Guest Author for this beautiful and powerful testimony!
I’m 18 years old, a rising sophomore in college, and a few weeks ago, I threw out many of my dresses, most of my shorts, and all but one swim suit.
I am fairly recent “re-vert” to Catholicism, and I went to confession (for the first time in 10 years) and started attending mass again about six months ago. Since then, I have been on fire about my faith (About as on fire as anyone who just realized life is infinitely more special than they ever knew!) I read anything I can get my hands on, attend daily mass, attend adoration at least weekly, confession every two weeks…I’m all in, for the most part.
But there was something I kept skipping over as I learned more about my faith.
Modesty, especially modesty of dress, is a touchy subject for girls today. We have been taught that clothing is about expression, that our bodies should be bared while we are still young and beautiful, that we have no responsibility for men’s eyes that wander. I bought into these explanations.
Since I was very young, my family has put my self-worth and importance on how I look. It had something to do with the fact nearly all of my extended family is overweight, and I have never struggled with my own weight. I spent my life receiving compliments such as “you are so thin!”, and “what a beautiful girl,” from well-meaning relatives.
My mother has struggled with her weight and appearance her entire life, even though to me her heart makes her the most beautiful woman in the world. But, I believe she encouraged my way of dress because she never got to dress that way herself. I wore bikinis, short skirts, half-shirts, you name it from age 10 or possibly younger. At one time I owned over 30 swimsuits, and only one was anything close to modest. I could wear anything I wanted, and frequently got in trouble at school for broken dress codes.
“Respecting myself” came to mean showing off what I was given to me. My mother thought it was good. It made sense. It was natural. After all, God created us naked, right? And that is just how I lived my life.
They say if you find yourself justifying an action again and again, it is probably sin. And that is certainly the story of my journey to modesty. As I came back to the Church, I began to feel a discomfort about my clothing choices. But I was stubborn. Extremely stubborn.
But God knows our hearts, and he knew mine. He knew exactly how much of a push I needed, and he gave me what I needed to change.
First, he introduced me to nuns. I had never met a nun. I thought they would be sad, strict, unhappy women who would pass judgment on me. Instead, they were some of the happiest people I’d ever met. By chance, I got into a conversation with one sister about what her habit meant to her, since some nuns are abandoning the practice of wearing a habit at all. She explained,
“My habit does a ministry that I cannot. If someone looks at me across the street, they see me and think of God, even if we never exchange a word.”
Huh, I thought. Well that must only work for nuns! And I ignored, again, the pull on my heart to something greater.
So God nudged me again. During a confession, a priest asked me to mediate on this question: If you really loved the Lord with your whole heart and your whole life, what would that look like? And although he hadn’t been asking about the way I dressed, it came to mind first in my meditation. Hmm…I would probably choose to dress in a way that made my mysterious and beautiful self…well, a mystery! But I was again, able to justify my actions to myself. It seemed stupid to change something so “minor” when there are so many greater evils in the world.
God then started offering me little nudges. My spiritual reading mentioned modesty in passing. I heard someone speak on the origin of the bikini. I spoke to a young man in seminary about how difficult it was to have immodestly dressed women all over ads and the streets. I saw a study from Princeton University that showed that when young men looked at photos of scantily clad women, the part of their brains associated with tool use were used, almost exclusively. Tool use!
It was swimming in a bikini in a friends pool when it suddenly hit me. No, I didn’t suddenly feel self-conscious. No, I didn’t see a vision or hear a voice. All of the sudden it just hit me. What I was doing was wrong.
Why shouldn’t people see God when they look at single girls? Why shouldn’t they see God when they look at me? Why shouldn’t I glorify the Lord in everything I do, even clothing choices? Why am I not worth keeping a mystery? Why do I feel this is what I have to offer the world? Why won’t I recognize that I am above a tool? I am wondrously made, and my wardrobe needed a makeover that helped me show it.
After the realization came the questions. Should I start immediately? Will people think I’m faking it, or being dramatic? How will I explain this to my mom? And, as I feel I am called to marriage, how will I attract my husband?
Changing My Ways
When I finally made my choice, I ended up sharing it with my mother first. And because she is my mother and she loves me, she made sure I was sound in my decisions by presenting some common anti-modesty arguments.
1. Don’t let anyone make you too modest. People are overly prudish about things. Sometimes values are changed because of pressure from Christians with puritanical values. Can anyone “make you modest”? Although someone may require you to dress modestly, modesty is a personal choice. It involves more than just clothes, and it is not something that can be forced, only instilled or realized. And since when are shorts that come closer to the knee or one-piece swimsuits or jackets worn over strapless dresses and shirts puritanical instead of just a bit more covered up?
2. You said you have been dressing differently, and for most people your age the way dress represents your autonomy/uniqueness. I have always admired your style. Yes. My new clothing that covers my body does represent me, although that me might be better than before! It says, “Hello! I am beautiful on the inside, so beautiful that I don’t have to show the whole outside to just anyone! I have more to offer!”
3. The way things look is not as important as how they are and feeling valued and worthwhile for the uniquely beautiful person God created you to be. I agree with so much of this argument. The way things look is not as important as they are! I could say it right back! The only problem is that your clothing is not just a “look.” it is an “are”, or an action that you take every single day. Every morning I dress myself, and now I choose clothing that respects me and others. That is how things are. And ironically, nothing helps me feel more ‘valued’ than the realization that I am more than a body!
4. I am just asking you to reflect on how your dress might be perceived by those around in all situations. People you might be led to reach to may not be able to relate to someone they perceive as “dressing like a nun.” By this logic, you should dress like a prostitute to do ministry to prostitutes. Why would you dress like the world, when you have something so much more to offer them? Something mysterious, something worth covering up.
5. You are great the way you are! We love you how you are. This part of the argument hurts. It says “We love you how you are! …as long as how you are never changes and is rooted in how you look.” But why would you want to stay ‘how you are’ when there are bigger and better things in store for you?
I have faith my mother will see the value in my decision in time, as long as I can show her by my life. Taking action to speak how I felt about these arguments was not comfortable or easy. But I wasn’t created for comfort. I was created for greatness.
The Fruits of Modesty
I also had a big hang-up on modesty because I feel I am called to marriage. I’m sure others can understand this. How will you attract a man if you aren’t dressing a certain way? How can you possibly get a boyfriend?
Well, the first realization is that God created your future husband to desire a modest wife. That means he won’t have to look around your modesty to see you are the woman for him, he will love and admire you for it. If that is too far away from home to really hit you, try this: do you want to marry a man who chooses who to date based on their exposed skin? Or would you rather have a man that knows and loves who you are in your heart?
Even in the times where I thought I didn’t deserve the church-going, non-drinking, respectful, hilarious, and handsome man of my dreams, I prayed for him. And God is faithful. His plan for us is infinitely higher than our own. But in order to receive what we ask him for, we must create room for it in our own lives. And the way to create room for a faithful Catholic husband in your future is to start dressing like his future wife now! In fact, in a study on modesty by The Rebelution, 95.4% of men surveyed agreed that modesty was an important quality for their future wife.
The reality is, the church-going Catholic man isn’t looking at the women in miniskirts for his future wife. He can already see what they are offering, and it isn’t what his heart desires! But a girl who is modest catches his attention. He sees that there is more to find out, and that is refreshing in today’s “show me” society.
It’s Not My Problem!
This is perhaps the most troubling of the arguments and rationalizations behind the issue of modesty in dress. Guys should take control of their own eyes, and it just isn’t our problem as women.
Yes, it is your problem. The “guys” you are talking about so generally are your brothers, your uncles, your fathers, your close friends, and your future spouse. Even the guys that aren’t any of those things are still your brothers in Christ, and you have a call to love them as you love yourself.
Love is an action. Love is an act of sacrifice. Modesty is an active way to say to your brothers in Christ “Hey! This is difficult for me. Something it involves spending a little more money, searching a little longer for clothes, dealing with the reactions of others, and separating myself from what media and culture is telling me to wear. I am making a sacrifice for you, because I love you and care about you, and I want you to get to heaven!”
Modesty was not easy for me. It wasn’t something I grew up with, or something I was taught in my religious education. It was something God helped me discover when I sought out the truth. I know it is a difficult attachment, one that is ingrained in society. The world tells us modesty is outdated, unnecessary, and holding us back. But, as Jesus tells us, we are not of this world because He has chosen us out of it.