For some time, I have struggled with a proper understanding of modesty. Should I only wear loose clothing that does not show my shape? Should I avoid wearing make-up? Should I always wear skirts that fall below the knee and shirts that cover the elbows? There was even a time when I wanted to wear hijab, but I always felt like it was too much modesty even if I didn’t understand why and what ‘too much modesty’ means exactly.
After much deliberation, I think I understand Catholic modesty better.
Catholics understand that we are naturally drawn to beauty because beauty is good. A beautiful piece of music is good, a beautiful dress is good, and a beautiful human body is good.
Indeed, a healthy and toned human body is beautiful. I’m sure most people would rather look at an athlete’s body than an obese person’s body. Likewise, a clear-skinned and radiant woman’s face is beautiful. I am sure most people would rather look at a clear complexion than a pimply or dull one. Unfortunately, the Devil can twist these images of beauty and make them into sources of sin. The way the Devil does this is very subtle, and usually it involves the sin of vanity and lust. An athlete can become vain because of his beautiful body, and the observer of that body can use it to fuel his lust.
That said, of course it is possible to feel lust for another person even if the other does not deliberately encourage it. Anyone who knows how a naked human body looks like can imagine what a modestly clothed person might look like underneath, but this is a different problem which cannot be solved by modesty. After all, even a completely wrapped woman can encourage lust if her observers imagine her body underneath her clothes, and the same can be said about her voice and presence.
How do we deal with such tendencies?
We must not deliberately be the causes of sin for one another. Doing so would mean we don’t love others, for how can we stand being the cause of our loved one’s failures? Still, we must also be responsible for our own sins and sinful tendencies. The world will always fling harm and temptations towards our path.
Is it a sin to be attractive, to make yourself beautiful? Is it a sin to look at attractive people? We might as well call beauty a curse and sprinkle acid on every pretty face, or else blind ourselves.
But the avoidance of temptations, while necessary sometimes, is not the same as virtue. The Catholic way is, I think, very logical. It helps us understand what everything’s purpose is and to respect that purpose. If everything that comes from God is good, then beauty is good, and the human instinct to be attracted to attractive people is good; but they can lead us to corruption if their purposes are not understood.