Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Modesty and the Assumptions that We Make...

This morning's post and a subsequent comment box comment, inspired this post, because there were quite a few points and I wanted to address each one more fully.  The comment touched on quite a few assumptions that are made in our culture and that was why I thought it deserved it's own response.  The comment is in blue italics:  

"I don't think it has to do with shame with oneself for not wearing similar attire or being as holy at all. I know that orthodox Jewish women often wear sheitels and the men kippas or Borsalinos in observance of their faith, and I don't think that devotion elicits the same kind of eye-rolling. I don't think anyone scoffs at the dark skirts and white bonnets of the Amish either, but rather, respects that those are very important parts of their identity, faith and culture. No one gets mad when they see a nun in her habit, or a priest in his clerical collar. They are supposed to wear those things because of their position in life."

I wish that this were true.  But the fact is, people of faith are harassed when they express their faith in an outward way.  That's true whether a person is muslim, jewish or christian.  I've had people make fun of the Amish here on my blog (that did not go over well).  Quite a few people do assume that I'm jewish (it's the snoods!) and let me say, that doesn't make them act in a way that is warm and fuzzy towards me.  

And I desperately wish that people were all kind and sweet to nuns in habits and priests in their collars.  But let's be honest.  That simply isn't the case in our world.  Nuns and priests are meet with open hostility by many in our country.  It's horrible.  It's disgusting.  But it most definitely exists.  No, a "uniform" of sorts doesn't exempt many from contempt in our world, whether it's required or chosen.

 "When Catholic lay women wear certain, obvious, attire in an effort to be more holy it is seen as an attempt to one-up everyone else who is dressing normally and as a sort of extremism, which people naturally dislike. Our faith does not require or suggest a certain type of attire, aside from the goal being to dress appropriately for a given situation. If you want to dress in skirts and cover your head, you know that is totally fine - it's your body and your wardrobe! You obviously get to dress in the style you prefer. If you're wearing these items as some type of modern-day hair-shirt as a way to punish yourself, I'm not sure that's very healthy for a busy young mom. If you're doing it out of a desire to attract attention, irritate people, seem pious, make a statement, etc. - then that seems prideful and needs to be examined."

That first sentence makes a huge assumption about a person's motivation when dressing. It goes on to say that "it's fine" but the surrounding sentences make that seem less than correct.  The comment basically says, you can dress how you want, but... and then give a long list of assumptions that presuppose reasons that I've never actually come across in reality.  

You see, over the years I've gone over this subject over and over again, because modesty in our world is something that many Catholic women struggle with.  It's not easy to find modest clothes in our culture, and as a result it comes up... frequently.  I have yet to ever hear a woman say that they dressed in a certain way because they wanted people to think that they were holier than everyone else.

I've heard women worry that others would take their modest dress and twist it in that way, but, over the past five years, I've never heard it as an actual reason that was given for covering up a bit more than is common in our day and age.  

I have heard plenty of sensible, compassionate reasons:  I've heard women say that they try to dress modestly because they care about the souls of their brothers in Christ and they don't want to lead those brothers into sin.  Sure, we're responsible for ourselves, but lots of women don't want to make it more difficult for the men around them to stay free from lust.  And that's one major reason for thinking about what you're wearing.  Is that common in our culture?  Not at all.  Is it compassionate and loving.  Absolutely.  

Many women cover their heads because they feel a gentle tugging at their hearts that is difficult to ignore.  They want to show their reverence to God, present at Mass and so this beautiful custom has been revived.  It is a reminder of whose presence we have come into.  

And yet I can't help but think that it's sad that I've also heard, so often, from women who are afraid of the reactions that they'll encounter if they follow that gentle tugging and cover their heads.  No, I've never heard a woman say she was dressing modestly because she wanted to be seen as more holy, but I have heard women say they're afraid that that is how they'll be perceived. 

" I think the thing is, your attire has nothing to do with being Catholic. It has to do with you and your preferences. And if you told people, "I just really like the way I look in these clothes. I like wearing skirts and covering my hair" - I don't think anyone would care at all. It's when you bring Catholicism into the picture that other Catholics get buggy, because the attire and the faith have nothing to do with one another (unlike a priest's collar, which does.)"

After more than a year of wearing skirts I can honestly say that, unfortunately, there are people who are going to trouble themselves with the appearances of others no matter what.  You see, I don't go around shouting "I'm Catholic!  I'm Catholic!" when I'm shopping at Joann's.  My mastercard doesn't have a crucifix or a Blessed Virgin Mary on it.  That checker wasn't contemptuous because I was Catholic.  And I wasn't wearing a headcovering at the time... so her rudeness was brought on by the fact that I was pregnant and a knee length skirt, and the fact, that when asked, I said I sewed snoods.  

I would have to guess that it had more to do with the fact that I fit a traditional model of femininity that quite a few modern day feminists despise.  I can be whatever I want to be, except what I have chosen.  

 I think that it's odd and a little bit sad, that there is such a questioning of the motives of other Catholic women, when it comes to dress.  Don't very basic manners tell us that this whole thing is ridiculous.  Why should I have to explain to anyone that:  "I just like to wear this!"  I've come up with my system of dressing modestly that takes in what flatters my figure, what works for me as a mother, what's comfortable and that meets my personal standards of coverage.  Who would think that I should have to explain that to "other Catholics" so that they wouldn't automatically assume some sinister, prideful motive?  Have we lost our sense of boundaries so much that we assume we are entitled to such information when we see another woman at Mass?

I don't go around questioning the motives of other women who wear pants.  There are plenty of modest pairs of pants out there.  I just figure, they liked those pants for that day and that's that.  Maybe they don't like skirts.  That's okay.  I'm not sure why my wardrobe then, would be an appropriate launching point for discussing possible sinful motives of our sister's in Christ (because let's face it, pride is a big one).  Why would you see a woman, dressed in skirts and a headcovering, and suggest that it was a "hairshirt" to "get attention" and "look holy."  That's hardly charitable.  It's hardly kind.  

I don't even assume that a scantily clad woman is dressing in a certain way for a certain reason, because, I used to dress like that and honestly, I didn't give it much thought.  It was what I saw in magazines and stores.  It was what my friends wore.  The attention seemed fun.  And my thoughts didn't go much beyond that.  

I think the least we can do is give other Christian women that same benefit of the doubt when we see them clad in a manner that is different from our own.  Let's not assume the worst in their motives.  

And let's not assume that blending in with everyone else, even other Catholics, should be our ultimate goal ("Well you don't have to!" isn't exactly a wonderful launching point when striving for sainthood...).  Because if we live for Christ, we are going to stand out.  We're going to set the world on fire.  And the world isn't going to love us for it.  But that shouldn't be our goal, should it?  

I haven't heard many stories of saints that toed the line.  I haven't heard of many saints that looked exactly like everyone else.  And while I know I have a long, long way to go towards sainthood, I know I don't want to let being like every other person, be the thing that stands in the way of my heavenly goal.  


  1. I don't even have to read your original post to know that this could have been written by me!! I love that line,

    "I would have to guess that it had more to do with the fact that I fit a traditional model of femininity that quite a few modern day feminists despise."

    Wow, have I run into that many times!

    I have often wondered the same thing about how bold some women are about the way I dress (yes, I wear skirts). I would never think to ask someone why they wear pants every day, or why they chose that outfit. I don't assume everyone wearing immodest clothing is a hooker, either. I just plain don't think about it. I get up in the morning, put my outfit on for the day and don't give it any other thought. Isn't that what most people do? If the pants wearing person does that, why wouldn't I???
    This is a topic that always gets a good debate going so bravo for tackling it! Stay strong and God Bless.

  2. Thank you! Thank you! This is a wonderful blog post. Again, thank you and God bless you!

  3. Hip hip hurrah for femininity!!!!! :) I think your view on Catholic dress is wonderful and would give you the biggest hug if I could.

  4. "I can be anything I want, except what I have chosen." Yeah, unfortunately, that seems to be about the size of it. We are free to be anything we want, as long as what we want to be isn't what feminism "freed" us from. ~eyeroll~ Drives me crazy.

  5. Ok this comment has nothing to do with your post. I love your style. I think I've already told you this but,I absolutely love your plaid skirt picture. I think I remember you saying something about wearing it in Jerusalem. You inspired me to buy that style of skirt for the winter.

  6. Well said Cam. I'm one of those Catholic women who doesn't cover as much as I'd like because I'm scared of the comments. I suffer from anxiety and social phobia so the last thing I want to do is draw attention to myself! Yet that is the very thing I know some people are going to throw at me, and it's truly sad that reactions from Christians are just as inappropriate as reactions from non-Christians.

    The biggest support I have for covering is actual from some Muslim acquaintances - and from their experiences I can definitely vouch that been modest is difficult no matter your religion!

  7. I can't believe the way Americans feel they have the right to comment on how someone is dressed. I've worn dresses only for 9 years now. I've never had anyone make a derogatory remark to me. I think it's the difference between the US and Canada. We mind our own business better :) I sometimes get asked if I'm Mennonite, but usually comments are about how nice it is to see me and my daughter actually dressed like ladies.

  8. As soon as that commenter wrote "your attire has nothing to do with being Catholic" she showed her ignorance and lack of formation.

    I don't know if she's noticed, but what we do with our bodies really affects what happens to our souls - because we're physical creatures. It affects the way we think and behave. That's why tried to go completely naked - because he wanted to literally own nothing and to remind himself of that. Talk about a statement!! And he wasn't the great "St. Francis" then, but just some rich kid who was turning into a religious fanatic...

    We need to dress the way God calls us to, and we all hear God's call differently. There are some universal rules, but beyond that, we have this ability to be beautifully diverse. This commenter obviously has missed the intelligent thought boat when she wrote "the attire and the faith have nothing to do with one another."

    No. That's dualism! We smacked that heresy down a while ago. What we do with our body matters. Our clothing has a lot to do with our faith. Luckily, we have a beautiful variety in Catholicism, but that doesn't mean that any of us are free from discerning whether we are being holy in outward appearance.

  9. Hi Cam! You know, this is interesting, because I think this defensiveness we see from people about style of dress comes out in so many other ways these days. Political issues, moral issues of all kinds: anybody who disagrees with their stance is seen as a threat. On some days I literally cannot read my Facebook news feed because there is so much nastiness in there, and the people making the posts (friends of mine!) are clearly assuming that everyone they know is going to agree with them. What educated, reasonable person wouldn't agree with them, right?!

    I'm a person that if I see or hear a person that via their actions or words is disagreeing with a deeply held belief of mine, I don't confront them (unless really, really provoked, it takes a lot!). But yet sometimes someone will go out of their way to pick a fight. And unfortunately, if we engage them, it usually leads only to a negative outcome for all parties.

    Anyway, I also don't see why we need to ascribe uncharitable motives to women who dress differently from us. I take issue with the other commenters statement about "everybody else who is dressing normally," as if wearing longer skirts and a pretty headcovering is completely abnormal. I don't think that's fair at all.

  10. This is not just a woman's issue. It's sad but Fr. John Riccardo had to write in his weekly message to his parish that they needed to take more care how they dress for mass --- no short skirts, cutoffs, muscle-man tees, or jeans. He reminded them of something that Fr. Groeschel always used to say: "You don't dress for mass like you're going to the beach!"

    He HAD to remind them, and I'm glad he did.

  11. Amen! And beautiful comments!


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