Thursday, October 7, 2010

Modesty, thoughts on being a "prude" and the New Feminism

I've seen lots of posts on Catholic blogs, articles and message boards on modesty. I've heard so many different views on modesty including but not limited to the following babble: "pants are immodest, skirts are fine, pants are fine if not too tight, skirts should only be below the knee, you shouldn't wear sleeveless, it's a man's problem if he can't avert his eyes, if you've got it - flaunt it, no skin two fingers below the collarbone, cleavage is fine, cleavage is the devil, breasts are for breastfeeding - get over it, no ankles, no wrists, nudity is the best option because it defies our over sexualized culture, elbows are too sexy to be seen," etc, etc.

The discussion gets extremely ridiculous.

However, all of these comments and views have one huge thing in common - they all focus on modesty in regards to clothing (or lack thereof). Although I have a loose outline for myself in dressing modestly that continually evolves over time, I'm not going to discuss that aspect at all in this post because I think people are missing the picture that how we dress is only one aspect of modesty.

 Lately, I've been getting a strong feeling of anger/embarrassment after different situations and I couldn't figure out why. I was trying to chalk it all up to pregnancy hormones, but in the end my husband cracked the code. I won't get into details, but there was a situation that ended up with me in tears, feeling angry, embarrassed and ashamed all at the same time. Originally I thought I was upset just because of something someone said to me that I thought was really inappropriate, but in then end I realized I was more mad at myself. I had said something that opened the door for the aforementioned comment. I started thinking that if I had acted and spoken like a lady, then I would have been treated as such and the person probably never would have said what they did.

I've been doing lots of reflecting and praying on being a mother lately. Chris pointed out that it made sense that I felt the way I did since I had been focusing so much on motherhood and modesty lately. (by modesty here, I mean how I present myself in general, not just dress). I've always really struggled with balance in this area. A lot of my friends know me as candid, but that doesn't mean I need to be known as crass. I think for awhile I thought this meant that I needed to be closed off, but that would be against my personality (and being "closed off" isn't a reflection of modesty either.) If my gift is to be honest and forthright about things, I can still do so modestly.

For example: I think one thing a lot of Catholics are afraid to talk about (or think that they are supposed to be afraid to talk about) is sex. And we shouldn't be afraid to talk about it...modestly. Talking specifically about what goes on behind closed doors or participating in the vulgar "street talk" about sex? No. Talking about it as a beautiful sacrament, an important component of marriage and something that can be so holy? Yes.

The following comment is not a stab at anyone in particular. I'm sure most people thought nothing of it, I'd just like to address it. Last October, many women on facebook posted their bra color without explicitly saying what it was (Their statuses would say "blue lace" and that's it.) It drove a lot of guys crazy until they cracked the code on why all of their female friends were posting colors as their statuses. It made me a little uncomfortable at the time so I didn't participate, but I had no idea why. Call me a prude. By the way, all of this was in the name of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

This October I got another message informing me of this year's little "trick" for the women of facebook: posting in your status where you put your purse when you get home by saying "I like it on the______" and naming where you normally place your purse. It is undeniably meant to imply something else. I really wanted to not be a weirdo and to think it was funny like everyone else did, but I was really taken aback and immediately thought that I was just being an old lady again. Then I had that little moment where I imagined how I would feel if I posted it. My feelings were much clearer this time - I would feel immodest.

At the same time, I completely understand why a woman would post this. I've dressed and acted immodestly before (extremely and "sort of" immodestly at different times in my life) and I understand the range of reasons from wanting to be provocative to not really understanding how I was being immodest. I also understand this isn't an extreme case of immodesty. A male friend of mine posted this as his status in response "Hey ladies I'm sure there's better ways of spreading breast cancer awareness than making sexual innuendos." He followed this by giving links to Breast Cancer Awareness organizations and a guide to doing a self-breast exam.

I don't think that people's facebook statuses need to be something explicitly, consciously "holy". I don't think being a modest woman is at all about being mild, weak or quiet. I think women are allowed to be strong and vocal pillars. However, I think the way secular feminism is trying to accomplish this is backwards. I don't think defying puritanical sexual repression by being sexual explicit is constructive. This isn't just a "religious" thing either. Aristotle wrote extensively about virtue with one of his main points being balance. As a plug for a later post, read up on the New Feminism, which I think employs this idea of balance exceptionally well. Here's a brief introduction:

"The New Feminism rejects the temptation of imitating models of 'male domination' in order to acknowledge and affirm the true genius of women in every aspect of the life of society and overcome all discrimination, violence and exploitation...[John Paul II calls] women to value their "feminine genius" as mothers and caregivers as well as their participation in politics and economics. He describes the 'feminine genius' as including empathy, interpersonal relations, emotive capacity, subjectivity, communication, intuition and personalization."

In short, being modest or virtuous in general doesn't mean being serious and prudish with no laughter in your life. Before you call someone a prude, think about this...Doesn't the word prude stem from prudent? I'm pretty sure that's a virtue, thanks. If that's your best insult, I think you're wise. Take that.


  1. Nicole,

    Well done--I am so impressed by this post. It's something I've given a lot of thought to/struggled with as well...and I'm sure almost every woman has. Thanks for posting.

    P.S. Congrats on your soon-to-be-here baby! So exciting!

    P.P.S. I'm in the CARE nursing program right now and am loving if it's ever an option you're still considering in the future, definitely hit me up for some info.

    -Rachel Gibbons

  2. I felt exactly the same way, Nicole! If that makes us prudes, then I'm happy to be a prude with you!