“The meaning of all creation is the imitation and glorification of God, the inconceivably glorious and holy One.” — Dietrich von Hildebrand 

Puberty, Bikinis, and Bermuda Shorts 

When I was a little girl, I was painfully self-conscious of my parents’ (seemingly) staunch modesty standards. I would feel bizarrely out of place when I showed up at the pool, clad in my skirted swimsuit surrounded by tween bikini wearers. The contrast seemed insane. I might as well be swimming in a winter coat. 

When my mom would take me shopping, she’d pick out the nice, long Bermuda shorts. My pants were never tight. My skirts were never short. My swimwear never revealed midriff. In other words, I was the weird kid. At least, that’s how it seemed in my head at times. I have to admit, when I see pictures of my pubescent self, I realize that my Mom actually had a wonderful concept of style and my clothes were genuinely pretty and, well, modest. But the modest element is what made me feel like a misfit; that’s where I secretly struggled. 

I was home-schooled and bikinis were taboo. The best way I could comprehend it was, no one understands; they all think I am a weirdo

I needed a way to handle my feelings of insecurity. Thankfully, my parents were advocates for not worrying about what others think. I can’t recall how many times, they kindly reminded me that what matters is what God thinks and not others. My Dad would always add, “You’ll never know what anyone really thinks, so why bother worrying about in the first place?”  

These kind reminders enabled me to turn those embarrassing moments by the pool into acts of prayer. 

“Be Not Afraid” was my saving Bible verse. It helped me recognize my insecurities stemmed from fear: the fear of being judged for not conforming with the standards of the world. I would close my eyes and ask for guidance, “God, help me not to feel dumb and help me remember that you are with me and that I do this for you…even if it makes me feel like a weirdo. Help me to know you understand, and that it is okay.”

Candidly, as silly as they might sound, those prayers of deliverance worked tremendously. They filled me up with a certain confidence. A sense of calm would come over me, and I’d remember it’s okay if I don’t blend in with the rest of the kids. I felt liberated from the chains of humiliation and free to enjoy the day again. 

As I grew in confidence, my embarrassed fashion adventures diminished, I started to realize I was not the only one who struggled in those years. In fact, it seemed like many young women also bemoaned the days of Bermuda shorts. 

“I was just so scarred from it,” women would say, half amused and half annoyed. “It made me think that modesty was just about measurements. It made me so ashamed of myself. Like, I wasn’t allowed to love my body because it was bad and had to be covered.”

It seemed like many young women were wandering around with an embittered outlook towards modesty. “Forget the modesty-rule book,” often became their mantra. 

Sadly, it’s as if no one told them that modesty is not about condemning the body, but preserving and safeguarding our dignity. 

The Dignity of the Human Person is Beyond Our Reckoning: Reclaiming Modesty

As I grew, I started to hear more and more women describe modesty as being limiting.  

“It just doesn’t fully grasp or convey the intense beauty of the female person.” Instead, it has been argued that “modesty takes away from our ability to express ourselves and showcase our connection to the divine. As a result, we must stop worrying about whether our shorts are long enough (aka modesty), and rather dress beautifully and be free to express ourselves.” 

This ideology has become a fairly popular Catholic Instagram take, but it’s time we pump the brakes on it. Because even if it possesses some truth, it does so in a way that is confusing and misleading. 

Modesty is not limiting.  

The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us: 

Purity requires modesty, an integral part of temperance. Modesty protects the intimate center of the person. It means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden. It is ordered to chastity to whose sensitivity it bears witness. It guides how one looks at others and behaves toward them in conformity with the dignity of persons and their solidarity. – CCC 2521

Our internal dignity should be made manifest through the external. Modesty veils us so we can be viewed as persons, not parts. In doing so, it reveals our God-given dignity. It reveals the beauty of our internal soul. 

It is crucial to note that modesty is concerned with preserving the integrity of the human person by preserving our dignity. Saying that modesty is limiting, is saying that there is something lacking in the truth and goodness of the human person, which is false.

Embracing modesty means embracing who we are, which is much deeper and more profound than self-expression. Instead of revealing a part of us, we showcase the beauty of our personhood. A beauty that Fulton Sheen describes as being “beyond our reckoning.” The way we dress should be worthy of who we are. 

Instead of trying to unearth reasons to “move on from modesty;” it’s time we acknowledged that perhaps our restricting understanding of modesty is not a problem with the virtue of modesty, but rather a failure of ours to comprehend what modesty is.

Dress to Communicate, Not Self-Express

Society speaks through the clothing it wears. Through its clothing it reveals its secret aspirations and uses it, at least in part, to build or destroy its future. — Pius XII

God gave us a powerful tool in the ability to speak. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, language is the tool used to communicate truth. Therefore, lying is abusing the tool. Other abuses would be gossip, vulgar or irreverent speech, and self-indulgent diatribes. Language is an external, and externals are governed by modesty. Our language should communicate truth and goodness, and in doing so it reveals who we are: individuals made in the image and likeness of God. Why? Because when we communicate truth and allow our speech to be governed by modesty, we not only glorify God but we also ensure that our language is worthy of who we are as God’s little ones: dignified and modest. 

In many ways, dress is similar to language. We can dress to simply self-express, placing our uniqueness and sense of style at the center of our ensemble or we can dress to communicate.  

Regardless of what our intent is, what we choose to wear, or not wear, does say something. 

It is important to consciously communicate truth and God’s beauty in the way we dress. In doing so, our attitude is not so much concerned with our own vanity, but rather revealing the dignity and beauty that God etched into our souls.

Modesty reveals who we are. Not just our legs or cleavage or midriff; not our sultry Instagram poses, but who we are. Which is anything but restricting since we are beautiful women of God, who are so much more than the sum of parts, and possess a dignity that no one can rob us of. 

When we dress to communicate God’s glory, we recognize that real beauty comes from God. This beauty is limitless and endless. When we aim to glorify God through dress, we partake in this beauty. 

When we dress solely to express “ourselves,” we place ourselves at the center, believing that we should be able to dress how we please because it is about satisfying our own egos. It is turned inward — glorifying our own vanity and incapable of bearing fruit. 

On the other hand, when we choose modesty, we choose to communicate something good and wonderful. Modesty partakes in the eternal because it is of God— it is a fruit of the Holy Spirit— and the things of God are rich and timeless. 

Man is a Body-Soul Composite

It is true, as Aquinas says, “my soul is not myself.” Yet, as Fulton Sheen points out, “the soul is the actuating principle of the body.” This union makes the person. We come to know the physical world and acquire knowledge through the body. We have a body “because our intellect is too weak.”

As such, the internal is made manifest through the external – through the tangible. The holier we become, the more womanly we become. The more virtuous a soul, the more beautiful the person.

The way we dress and carry ourselves should not be an ostentatious means to disguise interior decay. Nor should it be a crass exploitation that goes against our inherent dignity and value given to us by God.

Things that are sacred and mysterious are veiled to rightly indicate their immense value, goodness, and beauty. As women, we have no need to grimace when we hear the virtue modesty discussed, for modesty blesses the body. Modesty allows the interior beauty to radiate forth from the body. Modesty denotes beauty, immense value, and goodness. 

Modesty is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, and enables us to reveal truth and beauty as opposed to being confined to the corroding glittering of the world.  

Modesty is beautiful because it is truthful; it safeguards and cherishes the incomparable value and sacredness of your personhood. Don’t turn away from it; reclaim it.

By Ann Burns

Ann H. Burns is a graduate of Christendom College, as well as the founder of The Feminine Project, a Catholic organization dedicated to restoring authentic femininity through faith, friendship, and cultivating the mind. She currently lives in Pennsylvania with her wonderful husband Ed. You can find out more about the Feminine Project at feminineproject.com or join their community at community.feminineproject.com where women can connect virtually and in person, build community, partake in classes, attend fun events, all while exploring and promoting our true God-given femininity.

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