What comprises modesty and shame?

I have been involved in an on line study of the Catholic catechism–one lesson a day–throughout this Year of Faith. Our subject yesterday concerned modesty and SHAME, and how both men and women have obvious responsibilities in this area. The text pointed out that shame is a natural human response of conscience when a human being either violates his or her own God given conscience— for instance by inappropriate dress–or when someone else violates another person’s “space” and/or dignity. Obviously, another form of shame would occur if for instance, our personal life or personal sins were exposed to the world–but for the sake of the discussion yesterday, we were limiting our discussion of “shame” to its application toward nudity or improper and sexually explicit dress.

Anyway, I began thinking about it again today and had a thought that it’s now too late to discuss on the other site, but that I felt might be interesting to explore here.

According to the text yesterday, the following is true: Our consciences are given to us by God and everyone has one regardless of where they are born, what religion they practice or even if they practice no religion at all. Before Adam and Eve committed original sin, they also had no sense of shame in nudity and walked naked in the Garden of Eden. Once they sinned however, their consciences and sense of shame were awakened (or however you want to say it) by God–and when they heard God call out to them, they immediately tried to cover themselves and their “private parts” with leaves, feeling shame that they were to be found naked. Thus, shame is that feeling we get when we realize that we have done something or are having something done to us, or are exposing ourselves in such a way that it lessons our human dignity in the eyes of God and/or our fellow man. One example used in the other forum having to do with dress was for instance, if a woman is showering and a repairman somehow walked in on her. Her natural response would be shame and to cover herself quickly. According to the aplogetics on this other discussion group, all people inherently have the same feeling–some maybe even more intense than others such as in some muslim cultures where even to have a man visualize a woman’s face or head would embarrass the woman. But shame supposedly exists in all cultures and populations and in all human beings as one of the results of original sin. Are you with me so far?

I agreed with this whole heartedly, but then today began to think about some cultures such as in some of the tribes in Africa–where both the men and women–and certainly most children of both sexes appear together in public either nude or nearly so and don’t seem to feel any shame at their nakedness! National Geographic magazine used to be sort of a joke among my peers as a young girl because we always accused the boys of looking through them not for homework but to see all the naked native women! LOL! In does bring up a valid point though. In very basic and primitive cultures-cultures much like it probably was when God first created man–they don’t seem to have the same natural feelings of modesty or shame in nakedness that supposedly are a natural result of our conscience being awakened by original sin. Where did this feeling of shame that is supposed to be inherent in all mankind go and why? Or another way of asking the question would be, why did these primitive cultures apparently not develop shame in the first place?

How would we explain the fact that all mankind is born with original sin–but yet some members of mankind don’t seem to feel any shame at being naked? I’m not in any way condemning these beautiful, innocent indiginous people–I’m just curious since these people were impacted by original sin the same as the rest of us but how if everyone supposedly has this natural sense of modesty and shame–due to original sin-- it only seems that more developed civilizations experience shame in public nakedness? What do all you smart people out there think?:slight_smile:

Modern Catholic Dictionary:

MODESTY. The virtue that moderates all the internal and external movements and appearance of a person according to his or her endowments, possessions, and station in life. Four virtues are commonly included under modesty: humility, studiousness, and two kinds of external modesty, namely in dress and general behavior.

Humility is the ground of modesty in that it curbs the inordinate desire for personal excellence and inclines one to recognize his or her own worth in its true light. Studiousness moderates the desire and pursuit of truth in accordance with faith and right reason. Its contrary vices are curiosity, which is an excessive desire for knowledge, and negligence, which is remissness in acquiring the knowledge that should be had for one’s age and position in life. Modesty in dress and bodily adornments inclines a person to avoid not only whatever is offensive to others but whatever is not necessary. Modesty in bodily behavior directs a person to observe proper decorum in bodily movements, according to the dictum of St. Augustine, “In all your movements let nothing be evident that would offend the eyes of another.” (Etym. Latin modestia, moderation, modesty.)

There is no simple black and white answer to your question. It depends on a lot of factors.

I think you can be modest without a stitch of clothing, and immodest although completely covered. I think many times, we get hung up on modesty and limit the idea to dress - oh, well, cover your shoulders/knees/elbows/etc. - rather than look to the spirit of modesty.

Shame is very much a cultural construct. In our Western Euopean and Judeo-Christian minds we associate much shame with nakedness and sexuality. Cultures where little clothing is worn for climate reasons undoubtedly have other cultural constructs that trigger “shame” – for example a man doing “woman’s work.” In Roman times both sexes shared co-ed latrines without shame; such an idea would be repellant to us today. In my Catholic high school in the 1960’s, boys had gang showers we used without a second thought, but in the girls’ locker room, each girl had a private shower booth and changing area, the cultural norm being that this kind of physical modesty was appropriate for females but not part of male culture.

Shame is a societal construct, no more nor less.

There is no inherent shame in being nude, as we are born nude. We have to learn shame.


Most of the indigenes people you mentioned, not all but most, are from climates that allow a person to be naked or nearly naked most of the year. The Sahara Desert is an exception but the windstorms make covering up a necessity.

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