by Kari Turner, guest contributor
Rather than a reaction from feeling ashamed about your body, or a way of virtue-signaling the opposite sex, modesty is a virtue all its own, and a way of life. "Is this immodest?" my college roommate would ask me, holding up whatever tank top she could stand to wear in the early fall semester heat. She and I had grown up in the same area of greater Los Angeles but had each been raised very differently: she in a conservative, nondenominational church, and I by liberal parents who had abandoned the religious traditions of their youth. By the time that I got to college, I was wrestling with deep questions of my own and with a burning desire to explore the Catholic heritage of my father's side of the family. However, my roommate's preoccupation with "modesty" perplexed me. Until that point, my own careful clothing choices had been driven primarily by self-consciousness over my body, rather than by my burgeoning faith. So I was never sure how to answer my roommate, though at least once I managed, "I...I think it covers everything it's supposed to!"
After several of these exchanges, however, I was left wondering, "Am I covering everything I'm supposed to?" This grew from wonder to worry as I sat in on co-ed Bible studies where men openly discussed how a woman's bare shoulders could drive them to distraction, and as I learned more about the traditions within the Catholic faith that I longed to, and eventually did, join. I developed a romanticized view of a modest and chaste Catholic woman, lifting the hem of her long dress to genuflect and bowing her veiled head to pray. At some point in RCIA (Roman Catholic Initiation for Adults), one of my teachers commented that part of why veiling had been deemphasized at Vatican II was because women would try to outdo each other with their fancy mantillas. This represented the very opposite of modesty, indeed, and not unlike, my Southern husband-to-be would tell me later, the way that women in the Protestant churches that he had attended would gossip and compare clothes!
Through growing up in Southern California where short shorts, and even shorter sleeves, seem the norm all year long, I eventually dismissed the image in my mind as one that I could never hope to emulate. I counted myself modest enough for ditching shorts and miniskirts in favor of my jeans. If I occasionally paired those with a halter top, well, I had earned my right to ‘bare’ arms!
In time I decided that what I did with my body mattered instead of the way that I dressed or how I looked. I managed to stay out of the kind of trouble I knew that college girls could get into. I avoided dating, telling myself that I was saving myself for ‘the One,’ but just acting out my feeling, and fear, of being ‘less than’. I became, by default rather than by design, the chaste Catholic woman who I had hoped to be, and if my visions of sweeping elegantly but modestly into Mass never came true, then at least I still made it to Mass every week, sometimes even every day. I told myself that attending mass regularly counted for something even if how I looked on the outside never matched how I felt on the inside. Still, as I moved out into the world and began to deal with the complexities of making a living, I put my romantic visions on hold.
When I met my husband, who fell in love with me for being the chaste Catholic woman who I was striving to be, I realized the great depth and necessity of modesty. Both smart and caring people with a sincere commitment to spirituality and faith, he and I have managed our careers well despite having less than the world’s definition of lavish success. As I accepted his ‘modest proposal’ (pun intended!), I began to think for the first time about what it means to live, not just to dress, modestly.
Photo credit: Visible Transitions Janet Caliri
I have learned that even if our means are modest, the Lord’s providence is not. As a Catholic wife and mother of two daughters, I am growing at last into the vision of modesty that I was given early in my faith life. I know now that a body that does good works can and should be clothed to reflect them and that a mind focused on the things of God cares little for the things of this world.
Kari Turner is a freelance writer and disability advocate from Los Angeles. She and her husband are raising their family in California's high desert. In her spare time (of which she's had little since her daughters were born!) she blogs about disability, spirituality, parenting, and faith at http://writingthetao.blogspot.com. Follow her on Facebook: www.facebook.com/kari.l.pope.