For whatever reason, modesty has become something of an “issue” for conservative Christians (and Catholics in particular) lately. But there’s a problem with the way that it is often discussed. Modesty isn’t about “covering up” or other sorts of clothing rules.
Rather, modesty is the virtue of not drawing undue attention to oneself. You may have noticed that this definition doesn’t say anything about clothing at all. That’s because the virtue of modesty is both less restrictive and more demanding than the arbitrary standards people like to impose.
The virtue of modesty should radiate from one’s entire life, not just one’s dress. And it isn’t just for women. Honestly, I think that in our culture men need a bigger dose of it in order to avoid becoming self-aggrandizing jerks. Our speech should be modest. Our conduct should be modest. And yes, our clothing should be modest. But modesty and “covering up” are quite distinct.
Modesty in speech. When we talk to others are we always playing up our intelligence or accomplishments? Are we emphasizing the things we excel in, but turning a blind eye to our failures and foibles? That is immodesty.
Modesty in conduct. Do we always have to be the life of the party or the center of attention? Are we ostentatious with our possessions, using them to indicate that we are part of the hip crowd? That is immodesty.
Modesty in dress. Do we always have to be the best dressed person in the room? Do we dress to show off our best “assets” in order to make sure every eye is on us? Or do we make sure that no one ever sees a wrist or ankle of ours, even at a beach party? That is immodesty.
Modesty isn’t about fending off the temptations of others. It is about defeating our own temptation to focus on ourselves and seek the praise and approval of others, whether for our bodies or our apparent holiness.
What is more appropriate to modesty than the avoidance of praise or ostentation? It is clear that the Son, our teacher, has enjoined us to seek privacy when we pray, in order to promote modesty.
– Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermon on the Song of Songs #86
I said earlier that modesty is both less restrictive and more demanding than mere “covering up.” Perhaps now you can see why. It regards rules for dress as guidelines that may or may not be helpful in a given context, but it regards seeking the praise and approval of others as a very dangerous thing.
In the sermon on the mount, Jesus directs us from outward actions like adultery to the inward attitudes of the heart, because that is the root of sin. And our immodesty needs to be cut out at the root, not just papered over by praying on street corners.