Friday, September 12, 2014

7QT (Vol. 101): Skirts are not modest

Let's start with a definition. Modesty is defined as freedom from conceit or vanity, also propriety in dress, speech, and conduct. I would paraphrase to say that modesty means avoiding undue or improper attention. Modesty, therefore, is extremely culturally dependent.

I believe most people in the modesty discussion accept the modesty is cultural. We understand that being topless in some cultures is completely modest at the same time that showing one's knees may create scandal. Here's the problem: we Americans each believe our own culture is the American culture.

I function in a fairly insular culture. The vast majority of my social interactions are with observant Catholics, many of whom homeschool. In my culture, skirts - even long ones - are modest. However, I live in a suburban small town. I can tell you that wearing an ankle-length skirt around town is not modest. I attract much more attention just walking down the street. People notice me. They look more closely at me and my clothing. I make no assumptions about whether the attention is improper, but it is certainly undue!

The skirt in question looks a lot like this one

We live in America, a land of many cultures. What is modest in one setting is not modest in another. We choose our clothing to send a message (even if the message is "I'm just wearing this because it's comfortable"), but those receiving the message see us through their own cultural lens.

What about the idea that skirts are less sexual than pants? I mentioned this to my husband, who shook his head. "Skirts are always more sexy, unless the pants are basically painted on. But even a pair of fitted pants is never as attractive as a skirt. Think about a camera panning up a woman; when is she ever wearing a pantsuit? Skirts are feminine; femininity is attractive." We asked a male friend of ours who said it depends on the girl and the pants, but agreed that it is ridiculous to say skirts are less sexually suggestive across the board, even discounting short skirts. (... or across the broad... hehe)

There is also the claim from the "cover everything" camp that women are responsible for protecting the men around them from their base instincts. This does a great disservice to men (see How the modesty police are hurting my son) and women. What at first glance may seem like a call to accountability and high moral standards can also pave the road for shaming and blaming the victim.

Finally, much of the cry for modesty smacks of gnosticism (all matter is evil). Since when did our bodies, made in the image and likeness of God, become a near occasion of sin? "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been purchased at a price. Therefore, glorify God in your body." Our bodies are not shameful, meant to be hidden away, never admired, dismissed as not "the real us". In different bodies, we would not be who we are. Our bodies are temples. So yes, treat them with respect. Remember that God is living in you; dress, talk, and live in such a way that others can see Him. If you want, wear a skirt.

Read more 7 Quick Takes at Conversion Diary


  1. I agree with all of this so much! Right on!

  2. Oh my gosh Liana I love you so much! You once again hit the nail on the head! I hadn't ever thought about this before, but this makes so much sense!

    So to clarify...Would you say there is a difference between dressing to look nice and dressing to attract attention--or maybe that depends on the individual and the situation? Would you say the best motivation in getting dressed is to send the message "I care about me and I care about you"? Or something else?

    1. I'm thinking about answering this as a blog post; sorry for the delay. :-)

  3. I love this post! At my alma mater, Franciscan University of Steubenville, they hosted a "skirt challenge week" where all of the girls were "supposed to" wear skirts because they are "more modest" and it supposedly represented our "sisterhood" by all wearing skirts. I was offended but couldn't find the words to express why. This post is perfect. Thank you!

  4. Very insightful; thank you....It seems to me that wearing an ankle-length skirt around town may not be immodest even if it attracts attention. Your definition of modesty eschews vanity or conceit--nothing else. And there is nothing wrong with trying to look attractive or to flatter one's figure. It's annoying to see a woman wearing a sack and to hear her almost brag that she's being "modest." A married woman should ask herself, "Would my husband be comfortable and even proud to walk down the same street with me dressed like this?" A young woman looking for a husband had better make herself attractive--for the same reason! The key word is propriety, and you're right: That varies from place to place....For the record: I dress precisely to attract attention! It's my "job." A mid-calf-length habit with a veil tells people that God exists and that he and his Church love them--whether they appreciate the message or not. Dress, speak, and act modestly, and people will be attracted, not only to you, but to the One you say you live for.

    1. Thank you taking the time to comment! I hadn't really considered the nuances of "undue" attention. And certainly I've never thought, "What a vain woman!" when I see a habit. :-) I appreciate you sharing your thoughts with me.

  5. I found it puzzling that a long skirt would be cause for attention. Living in a smallish town as well, with a large community of Hispanics, Assyrians, and Sikhs, the only thing that seems to cause attention is saggy male pants and gang colors. That being said, I found your article refreshing, spot on culturally, and, yes, men need to take responsibility. It is not a woman's job to protect them from themselves. In fact, that last I heard, men where the traditional protectors of women and children. What a confused world we live in.

    1. I don't really know why it is attention-grabbing. I was surprised when it happened, but it happens consistently when I walk through town after Mass. * shrug * C'est la vie!