Episode 37 – The “m” word – Modesty

Reminder: Book Study after next guest interview 

The M word

Yes, that dreaded m word… dum dum!!! We don’t JUST want to talk about modesty in dress here and we’re NOT just talking to women in this episode either. We want to have a look at what modesty means as a whole and why it’s essential, good AND beautiful in all it’s forms, and we’ll talk about how we can approach friends with concerns surrounding modesty. 

In each of these:

Modesty reveals the person, and maintains reverence for that which is to remain veiled. Modesty as more than clothing – words and behaviour. Modesty is also physical.


Reveals the person, especially their thoughts. What we say is directly linked to what we’re thinking about at that time, and often helps us and others understand the way we see the world. It gives perspective and brings to light our inner world and moves it in a tangible way that can be conversed over, shared with another, where another can also contribute and alter the way we view something.
What we say and what we choose not to say then also says a lot about who we are.
Eg. Someone who chooses to engage in gossip – is saying ‘I like to talk about other people’s business’ but what they’re also not saying is ‘I’m not likely to have respect for your privacy, not someone who is likely to keep your confidence.’
This strictly isn’t the virtue of modesty, however as we’ve noted several times, all the virtues are linked. A lack of charity and justice directly affects our ability to modest in the manner that we talk about others.

Modesty in Speech

Cautious of putting others down, insults, frequent sarcasm, harsh words, critical speech and incessant arguing. Includes what we post and comment on social media. It also refers to jokes and humour. Sometimes modesty seems to go out the window in the name of humour, and truthfully, humour which does not keep good modesty, really isn’t good humour. Modesty in speech should be edifying and convey our inner world with humility for the Glory of God. Having said that, modesty also keeps veiled that which is most intimate to the person and not to be revealed to all. Eg. some depths of our spiritual lives are not meant for all to hear. OR the inner workings of a husband and wife, OR sharing their spouses heart with another is not always to be broadcasted on social media or in a social setting. It maintains reverence (not secrecy) for that which is sacred.
The same goes for any aspect of our lives. There are certain things in our lives that are only meant to be told to a particular person. For instance, the intimate details of my own struggles with sin are meant for my Spiritual Director and priest friends, not for one of my lay friends.

Non – verbal modesty

Non-Verbal – action / behaviour reveals the person – especially their heart. The thing about non-verbals is that sometimes our subconscious can be seen in our body without our minds catching on.
Eg. When we’re listening to someone talk about something over the phone that’s distressing to them, and our facial expression begins to change EVEN though the person can’t see us and we’re not deliberately choosing to change our expression. Our body is revealing something about our heart in that moment.
If someone was watching me on the phone at that point, they would be able to decipher some sense of what’s happening in the phone call by the way that I behave with my body. Maybe I put my hand on my head, or cover my mouth, or breathe deeply. My heart has been moved by some sad news my friend has shared, and the person in the room with me can tell something has disturbed me without me saying anything to them, and without them hearing what my friend is saying on the phone. That’s the power of our body language and our non-verbal cues. Behaviour speaks loudly precisely because our body has a language.
That language is meant to be gift oriented, however, the language can become self oriented quickly if we aren’t aware of the uniqueness of our bodies.

Modesty in behaviour

We can speak with perfect manners, be dressed to meet the pope and still behave provocatively. We also need to then check in on what our body language says about who I think I am, and whose presence I think I am in. Behaviour should correspond to the relationships that we’re in, AND appropriateness of time and space.

Example 1

It’s modest to sit down at a piano and play a piece of music when asked to, it’s immodest to behave as if you think you’re better than Mozart afterwards. When glory is not directed towards God an attempted redirection towards self, modesty has been missing. In this example, we’ve demonstrated a lack of understanding of the relationship that we’re in, as a child of God any gifts we possess have been given to us by God and therefore we have no reason to sing our own praises, nor to encourage another to do so.
Again this is where we see a connection with each of the virtues. Modesty is aided by humility – knowing who we truly are in relation to God.

Example 2

It is modest to show some levels of public affection towards our spouse at a park, but it would be immodest to makeout at a park EVEN within marriage. It may be appropriate behaviour, but inappropriate time and place. The inappropriate time and place actually makes the behaviour inappropriate.

Modest behaviour reveals who we believe we are and what relationship we’re in whether that of a child of God OR a follower of the world. A word about modest behaviour. I’ve been in awkward family scenarios where a couple try to make others feel uncomfortable by excessive public affection. That’s not on. It is disrespectful to others and it demonstrates a very unhealthy relationship, where someone is seen as a means to an end, rather than an end in themselves.

Dress – reveals the person

We have a choice between helping someone to see who we are. Revealing who we are as Children of God OR encouraging them to focus on a particular body part by the way that we dress (again this is NOT just for women!). The example I use to talk about modesty in workshops:
Imagine if the Mona Lisa had a giant magnifying glass in front of it.
It would create a frame that focuses our eyes into what the magnifying glass wants us to see.
It would entirely blur majority of the painting except one area.
That one area would be blown out of proportion.
The Mona Lisa painting itself doesn’t cease to be good. It’s still the original art work, a master piece, but to those who came to experience it’s magnificence, they all leave deprived. To all those who came to be amazed by the artist, they leave unable to see it’s glory.

Is modesty only for females?

I was once told that girls need to learn modesty but boys naturally know modesty, because they know what tempts them. This is an outrageously simplistic perspective which doesn’t reflect reality. Boys with dacks around their thighs. Also, it kind of presumes that women don’t experience the phenomenon of carnal attraction. Boys do need to learn modesty, particularly when we take modesty, especially in clothing. When a man walks into Church in stubbys and a singlet top, that’s immodest. When men encourage girls to dress immodestly, that isn’t just ‘lust’ — its lust born out of their own immodest dispositions. Modesty of dress is the external manifestation of the perennial truth that we are created in the image and likeness of God.
Rules and regulations of modesty. By in large hard and fast rules of modest dressing, particularly for ladies are not helpful. Sure there are basic boundaries which ought to be observed: Mini-skirts, bikinis, and underwear swimming trunks for men, etc.. However, generally speaking, a series of stringent rules isn’t helpful in communicating modesty. Firstly the practicalities of dressing mean that each person will have their own challenges in dressing modestly, secondly, rules don’t help us to inculcate modesty. They don’t address the fundamental question.

Rules aren’t a helpful teacher of why are we modest. 

  • Further, modesty by rules, fails to recognise cultural differences, and that modesty is not defined by the western sensibilities we’re accustomed to. For a great treatment on modesty I suggest C S Lewis Mere Christianity. A youtube animated version of his chapter on chastity can be found here:
  • I disagree with C S that modesty is only a social value, it is also a virtue because it extends beyond the realm of clothing. However, his position on modest dress is very sensible, and in keeping with Catholic thought. 

How do we address modesty concerns with a friend?

Are you the right person to have this conversation?

Do I know the person well enough?

Do we trust each other?

If I’m of the opposite sex, is it appropriate for me to address this? Depends on the relationship: depends on the level of trust, and the level of involvement. For instance a female friend who recognises that a male friend is immodest in behaviour or dress may want to bring this up, if the behaviour has impacted her. 

Something encouraging for men

Sensitivity of women, courage to speak up anyway, also not assume that women aren’t able to cope.

2 sides – either the level of trust has to be secure 

OR damage done has to be significant enough that the level of trust doesn’t matter – and who is responsible for the impact of the emotional response 

Is modesty a topic of conversation?

If the topic of modesty or standards, principles of speech, behaviour and dress haven’t come up in conversation in some shape or form, it can be quite jarring to jump into a conversation about appropriateness in dress with your friend. 

Close friends should have an idea of your standards for living, otherwise you could question how close of a friend they really are. These are the friends who know how you operate, the friends that read a news article and can go ‘ah, my friend would have something to say about this because they have similar values and principles’. Close friends aren’t just the ones we hang out with the most, these are the ones who know us better than the others, and who speak into our lives. 

Bring this conversation up with your close friends, send them this ep, and talk about your standards – what principles do you uphold when it comes to timeliness, to speech, behaviour and dress? Do you have principles for friendship with colleagues, what are your principles for dating? Do you hold the same standard for yourself and for others? How lenient are these? The more comfortable these conversations become, the EASIER it becomes to bring up conversations that are less comfortable because you now know what their standards are and can remind them when they speak, dress or act less than their own ideals. This is accountability, as opposed to accusation or merely pointing out flaws.  

Do you have enough trust in the friendship? Trust does not eliminate risk, but it does manage it. Sensitivity, affirm, and talk from what impact it has on you, NOT on what they are doing. Don’t accuse them of anything. 

TBG (Truth, Beauty, Goodness)

Padre: Abiding the Long Deafeat – How to evangelise like a hobbit in a disenchanted age – Conor Sweeney

Stina: P/C w Ange 

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