Teenage Modesty and the BeautifulDOUGLAS MCMANAMAN
A battle always ensues whenever I remind my students that they have a responsibility for the way they dress.
tend to agree that to show up to a funeral wearing sweat pants, running shoes,
and a Nike T-shirt is insensitive and thoughtless, as it would be to wear similar
attire to a wedding.
But if we admit this, then we accept
the principle that our attire expresses an interior disposition. Obviously
I am not terribly grieved over the death of the person whose funeral I choose
to attend in jogging apparel, and I am not particularly concerned that the grieving
relatives may get precisely that impression.
But it is more difficult
to get young people to acknowledge a responsibility to dress "appropriately" everyday,
on holidays and weekends, especially school "civies" days. There just isn't
any agreement on what counts as inappropriate and what does not. It is true
that what is appropriate is somewhat relative and flexible. So let me attempt
to offer some principles that are not so relative, so as to more easily determine
whether current trends are consistent with the virtue of modesty.
of apparel is reasonable restraint in our choice of clothing. It is a part
of temperance, which is the virtue by which we moderate the pleasures of touch
according to reason. And since virtue is a mark of excellence,
temperance is principally about those pleasures that excel, that is, the most intense pleasures.
It turns out that the most intense pleasures are associated with those activities
ordered to the preservation of individual human life and the species as a whole.
These, of course, are eating and drinking (individual), and sexual activity (species).
The teenage years are always difficult, but I think being a teenager
is more difficult today than it was for me on account of the overall culture in
which teenagers are forced to grow up. Let me explain. Hedonism is
the philosophical school of thought that regards the pursuit of pleasure and the
minimization of discomfort as the principal purpose and sole meaning of human
life. One could always find individuals throughout history who were devotees
of hedonism within a larger non hedonistic culture. But today, the culture
itself is hedonistic. Consequently, no longer can teenagers rely on the
current culture to teach and impart even the basic outline of what constitutes
noble character, or the basic principles of morality. And temperance is
regarded as pointless in a hedonistic culture. Why moderate the greatest
pleasures, especially sexual pleasure, when pleasure is what life is primarily
about? Human existence has become a quest for the perfect orgasm and everything
conducive to that end, so why concern yourself with moderation? Such a notion
can only appear arbitrary and archaic.
But for us, human life
is not a quest for the perfect orgasm, but a quest for the perfect good, which
is God Himself. From this angle, life is a quest for something higher and
larger than the self, not lower, and pleasure is lower and smaller than the self.
The institution of marriage, the common good, and God Himself, however, are larger.
Human sexuality, if it it to be fully human and even fully satisfying, must be
taken up and elevated to serve this higher purpose. This is done when sex
becomes expressive of a marriage and the generosity that institutes a family.
The reason we see less and less modesty today — or more and more immodesty
— on commercials, advertising, and prime-time television is that more and
more people today are simply intemperate, or to be more specific, unchaste, and
since attire expresses an interior disposition, it should come as no surprise
that immodesty of attire has become somewhat the norm. If a person is unrestrained
within, she will be unrestrained without. The sexually promiscuous will
dress the part. So too, the emotionally insecure girl who has a need to
be desired by men will dress in a way that will turn their gaze towards her.
The teenage girl who is neither sexually promiscuous nor so emotionally
insecure as to need to be the object of male desire, will not want her attire
to express a disposition to the contrary. As students are wont to say with
respect to all that adorns them, "This is who I am." And so, as the saying
goes, "If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, we have at least to consider
the possibility that we have a small aquatic bird of the family anatidae on our
hands." Similarly, if one looks, walks and sounds like a tart, ...
But if this is not what she is and there is no interior impurity that corresponds
to her immodest apparel, a girl ought to correct her manner of dress, speaking,
and the particular way she carries herself in order that they become more honest
and a more accurate expression of who she is.
It is hard to convince
young girls that there is nothing beautiful about immodest attire. It manifests
emotional and psychological immaturity, and speaks of an inordinate preoccupation
with the self. Aquinas points out that "the beauty of the body consists
in a man having his bodily limbs well proportioned, together with a certain clarity
of color. In like manner spiritual beauty consists in a man's conduct or actions
being well proportioned in respect of the spiritual clarity of reason."
The virtue of modesty involves restraint in the way one dresses in order to reflect
the moderation and restraint that is interior and identical to the virtue of temperance.
Temperance is beautiful because it amounts to a moderate and well proportioned
love of self. So too is modesty. Egoism, on the contrary, is always
Finally, those who dress immodestly will attract the attention
of a certain kind of person. What you have to ask yourself is whom it is
you wish to attract: those with eyes for real beauty? Or, those in the majority
who have eyes only for the erotic? A modestly dressed woman is not attractive
to the sordid gaze of the intemperate man, and an immodestly dressed woman is
not attractive to the morally beautiful. Virtue does not demand that you
dress like the spinster aunt from Moose Jaw, but if your bellybutton is showing,
or if your shorts are cut so short so as to expose a portion of your buttocks,
or if your pants are so tight that you have trouble walking and your chest looks
like fruit tightly wrapped in cellophane, you may find yourself dating someone
who will be a source of constant headache and frustration down the road, in short,
a loser. There are plenty of them around today. If you haven't noticed,
our culture has become very adept at producing them large scale.
Douglas. "Teenage Modesty and the Beautiful." (September 2004).
with permission of Douglas McManaman.
McManaman is a high school religion teacher with the York Catholic District School
Board in Ontario. He is currently teaching at Father Michael McGivney Catholic
Academy in Markham, Ontario and maintains a web site, A
Catholic Philosophy and Theology Resource Page, in support of his students.
He studied Philosophy at St. Jerome's College in Waterloo, and Theology at the
University of Montreal. Mr. McManaman is the former President of the Canadian
Chapter of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars.
Copyright © 2004 Douglas