Relative modesty


We know that the Catechism teaches that modesty is, at least to a degree, determind by the time and place. What is modest in North America may be very immodest in Saudi Arabia - let alone a different time period. My question is what or who gaugues these relative standards of modesty? It seems to me it is a subjective judgment of prudence - not an objective standard. Yet when I read threads here on modesty the standards are often painted objectively. For example, on many threads I have seen it stated that women should wear skirts that at least go to the knee. This comes across as almost an objective truth, and often in the same post you will see references regarding imitating Our Lady’s modesty. Now of course if a woman were a skirt that showed the needs or the calves in first century Israel, she would likely be stoned to death - such would not be deemed modest at all. Likewise even today in some Muslim countries. Not covering her hear in public or showing even her lower arms would have been a grave immodest display in Our Lady’s time as well. So who has determined this to be an appropriate standard? Does it vary somewhat between the US and Canada? Between the US and Spain? etc


You got it. It’s just a culturally-accepted standard that a significant amount of people have agreed on. It carries no official weight whatsoever, it’s just a guideline we throw out for western people who want guidance. I do think being covered to the knees is a pretty decent guideline, since I’ve heard several men say they’re tempted by thighs. I also don’t think that breaking it automatically means one has committed a sin.

The actual standard for modesty is whatever is unlikely to tempt others, keeps what should remain hidden hidden, and is in keeping with our dignity as human beings- and that, my friend, is a line we can really only guess at.


While some on these forums might make modesty seem more objective than it is, there are just as many who make it seem more subjective than it is. Just “going with the culture” is never the way to sainthood (which we are all called to). As Catholics, we are meant to be a sign of contradiction to the society we live in. Our culture is very immodest, very sexual, and encourages women to dress in very immodest ways. These styles are even promoted as “sexy” which might as well be synonymous with “immodest.” Mother Church, in her wisdom, doesn’t provide exact standards of how long a hemline must be to be modest and there is indeed some variation with time and place, but it is a logical leap too far to reduce modest dress to, as one commenter put it " just a culturally-accepted standard that a significant amount of people have agreed on." If the clothing is meant to cause arousal of members of the opposite sex or if it is likely to do so, it is immodest. And yes, dressing immodestly is a sin. We are, despite the claims of Cain, our brother’s keepers, to knowingly cause sin in another Christian is itself sinful. Jesus Himself confirms this, "“It is inevitable that temptations to sin will come, but how terrible it will be for the person through whom they come!” (Lk 17:1).




I think I should clarify that the culture I’m referring to is conservative Christian culture in America. It’s true that we shouldn’t follow the secular culture, but our standards are still partially determined by our own Christian subculture. The reason we draw the line at knees and not ankles these days is really just that lots of other people draw the line there, and it seems to work.


Try coming on holidays to England and Ireland, you have women who wear these skimpy tops with little or nothing to keep them up, there busts are almost hanging out, and they wear these skimpy shorts, absolutely nothing is left to the imagination, they seem to think its cute and sexy to wear “less is best” put out by the Rock Stars that they seem to adore.

No wonder ( as I read on this Forum so many times) that guys have problems with lust etc, I feel very sorry for the guys they don’t stand a chance immodesty by dress is everywhere, look at the bikini’s a bit of clothing at the front that is it, again “less is best” , I don’t see guys going around in super tight, small hugging shorts on the street, where I do see women dressed this way, stomachs showing, busts showing, super small, super tight shorts, what chance does a guy have, as a woman I am ashamed at how other women dress, there is a middle road between that and the Hijab.

A practising Catholic should dress modest and smart, everyone tells me I am very smart and a lot of my friends ask me for fashion advice , you can look good as a woman with everything covered, nice colours, nice clothes, jewellery, hair and make up well done, I have even got guys trying to chat me up at a bus stop, visiting a friend in Hospital, at the local Pub (even though I don’t drink- only soft drinks which is a personal choice) even been followed home twice which was creepy to say the least) and when I go dancing get plenty of asks and for a date also. I would hate to think what sort of guy is attracted to the “stripper” look not a good one , there are enough problems without bringing this sort of attention on yourself. Thanks, but no thanks.


The Gospel is not about percentage of shrouded human skin.

To an extent, modesty will always be relative, which is not to say it is subjective. Heights and speeds, even purchasing power, are relative quantities, which does not make them subjective.



But your answer isn’t complete. As per my example, what you and traditional minded Catholics in general in the 21st century Western World consider modest would have brought women the death penalty had they lived in Israel with Our Lord and Lady in the 1st century…showing arms, ankles, not covering one’s head…I understand what you’re saying, but the most modest “traditional Catholic” styles of contemporary North Americans would cause grave scandal in other contexts. So it seems to me that time and place makes a great deal of difference, not “some” variation. It is extremely misleading to suggest that what traditional, modest Catholic women in the Western world wear today is even remotely similar to what would have been considered modest 2000 years ago. Showing one’s hair? Showing one’s ankles? That would have been unheard of. These are major differences in standards of modesty, not minor ones as you imply. According to the cultural perceptions of conservative Arabs in Saudi Arabia, for example, a woman who shows so much as her face is a cause of grave scandal and indecency. These are not minor variations. We are talking night and day. I agree that the *principle * of modesty is always binding, but the particular application seems to vary immensely based on the time and place. My Aunt Rhonda, when working in the Middle East, was harassed by men for her scandalous indecency - showing her bare hair. This would have been true for contemporary women of Our Lady as well…yet even the most traditionally minded modern Western Catholics have no problem displaying their bare hair to the world.


While some may say that there are, there are no clear-cut hard-fast rules of what is modest and what is not. Showing one’s ankles may be immodest in some cultures, but not in others. What I personally use as a guideline for what I am wearing in terms of modesty is, I ask myself if I would wear it in front of the Blessed Virgin. How would I feel if she showed up at my doorstep and saw me in this way? Would I excuse myself to get a sweater to cover up? Would I tug at my skirt to make it seem longer? Or would I welcome her with a smile and sit down for an awesome visit?

I know that is deeply subjective, but it works well for me. :slight_smile:



True. Within certain broad limits, there’s a lot that’s permissible.

A bare midriff for women is an everyday sight where I live, and it’s part of formal attire for weddings. :slight_smile:

While I’m the first to decry overtly immodest dressing, I don’t think we need to turn into Muslims either. :wink:


Modesty is a virtue that isn’t really possible to accurately quantify. It’s a peculiarly secular notion that anything that’s real has to be empirically measurable. Don’t yield to their values. As believers, we can easily recognize the reality of something not quantifiable on a scale, microscope or a petri dish. Modesty is one of those things.

A modest person simply dresses in a manner that honestly conveys something about themselves that they want others to recognize. We DO all want to look our best and there is nothing wrong with that if it’s based on a humble recognition that we’re all in this communal life together and that there is no need to assert superiority over others.

Immodesty is a game of one-upsmanship that races to the bottom (downsmanship?) in a desperate attempt to get attention, regardless of reason. When you think about it, it really makes no sense. Why WOULD you want people to think that your six pack or your D cups are the most interesting part of your identity? But it seems some people act that way. Beats me why…

But then I suppose I might have a modesty problem. I spend WAY too much time trying to demonstrate how smart I am on internet forums…


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