Teenage Modesty and the Beautiful

Doug McManaman
September, 2004
Reproduced with Permission

A battle always ensues whenever I remind my students that they have a responsibility for the way they dress. They tend to agree that to show up to a funeral wearing sweat pants, running shoes, and a Nike T-shirt is insensitive and thoughtless, as it would be to wear similar attire to a wedding.

But if we admit this, then we accept the principle that our attire expresses an interior disposition. Obviously I am not terribly grieved over the death of the person whose funeral I choose to attend in jogging apparel, and I am not particularly concerned that the grieving relatives may get precisely that impression.

But it is more difficult to get young people to acknowledge a responsibility to dress "appropriately" everyday, on holidays and weekends, especially school "civies" days. There just isn't any agreement on what counts as inappropriate and what does not. It is true that what is appropriate is somewhat relative and flexible. So let me attempt to offer some principles that are not so relative, so as to more easily determine whether current trends are consistent with the virtue of modesty.

Modesty of apparel is reasonable restraint in our choice of clothing. It is a part of temperance, which is the virtue by which we moderate the pleasures of touch according to reason. And since virtue is a mark of excellence, temperance is principally about those pleasures that excel, that is, the most intense pleasures. It turns out that the most intense pleasures are associated with those activities ordered to the preservation of individual human life and the species as a whole. These, of course, are eating and drinking (individual), and sexual activity (species).

The teenage years are always difficult, but I think being a teenager is more difficult today than it was for me on account of the overall culture in which teenagers are forced to grow up. Let me explain. Hedonism is the philosophical school of thought that regards the pursuit of pleasure and the minimization of discomfort as the principal purpose and sole meaning of human life. One could always find individuals throughout history who were devotees of hedonism within a larger non hedonistic culture. But today, the culture itself is hedonistic. Consequently, no longer can teenagers rely on the current culture to teach and impart even the basic outline of what constitutes noble character, or the basic principles of morality. And temperance is regarded as pointless in a hedonistic culture. Why moderate the greatest pleasures, especially sexual pleasure, when pleasure is what life is primarily about? Human existence has become a quest for the perfect orgasm and everything conducive to that end, so why concern yourself with moderation? Such a notion can only appear arbitrary and archaic.

But for us, human life is not a quest for the perfect orgasm, but a quest for the perfect good, which is God Himself. From this angle, life is a quest for something higher and larger than the self, not lower, and pleasure is lower and smaller than the self. The institution of marriage, the common good, and God Himself, however, are larger. Human sexuality, if it it to be fully human and even fully satisfying, must be taken up and elevated to serve this higher purpose. This is done when sex becomes expressive of a marriage and the generosity that institutes a family.

The reason we see less and less modesty today - or more and more immodesty - on commercials, advertising, and prime-time television is that more and more people today are simply intemperate, or to be more specific, unchaste, and since attire expresses an interior disposition, it should come as no surprise that immodesty of attire has become somewhat the norm. If a person is unrestrained within, she will be unrestrained without. The sexually promiscuous will dress the part. So too, the emotionally insecure girl who has a need to be desired by men will dress in a way that will turn their gaze towards her.

The teenage girl who is neither sexually promiscuous nor so emotionally insecure as to need to be the object of male desire, will not want her attire to express a disposition to the contrary. As students are wont to say with respect to all that adorns them, "This is who I am." And so, as the saying goes, "If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, we have at least to consider the possibility that we have a small aquatic bird of the family anatidae on our hands." Similarly, if one looks, walks and sounds like a tart, ... But if this is not what she is and there is no interior impurity that corresponds to her immodest apparel, a girl ought to correct her manner of dress, speaking, and the particular way she carries herself in order that they become more honest and a more accurate expression of who she is.

It is hard to convince young girls that there is nothing beautiful about immodest attire. It manifests emotional and psychological immaturity, and speaks of an inordinate preoccupation with the self. Aquinas points out that "the beauty of the body consists in a man having his bodily limbs well proportioned, together with a certain clarity of color. In like manner spiritual beauty consists in a man's conduct or actions being well proportioned in respect of the spiritual clarity of reason." The virtue of modesty involves restraint in the way one dresses in order to reflect the moderation and restraint that is interior and identical to the virtue of temperance. Temperance is beautiful because it amounts to a moderate and well proportioned love of self. So too is modesty. Egoism, on the contrary, is always ugly.

Finally, those who dress immodestly will attract the attention of a certain kind of person. What you have to ask yourself is whom it is you wish to attract: those with eyes for real beauty? Or, those in the majority who have eyes only for the erotic? A modestly dressed woman is not attractive to the sordid gaze of the intemperate man, and an immodestly dressed woman is not attractive to the morally beautiful. Virtue does not demand that you dress like the spinster aunt from Moose Jaw, but if your bellybutton is showing, or if your shorts are cut so short so as to expose a portion of your buttocks, or if your pants are so tight that you have trouble walking and your chest looks like fruit tightly wrapped in cellophane, you may find yourself dating someone who will be a source of constant headache and frustration down the road, in short, a loser. There are plenty of them around today. If you haven't noticed, our culture has become very adept at producing them large scale.