As the modesty wars rage on, I watch mostly passively from the sidelines. I have an innate sense of what I feel is appropriate for Zuzu to wear and a decent sense for myself, and since those are the only two bodies under my purview, I let the rest go (unless asked by someone).
But I am in charge of the high school youth outreach at my parish, and that means I work with a lot of teenage girls in a variety of situations - Mass, weekend trips, service opportunities, and because we are on the coast, beach days. I have given talks before on chastity and modesty, but it never really seems to sink in for most of them. So for any parish event, I send out rules: shorts/skirts must touch your knees, no bare bellys, etc. and for water activities, one pieces only. This seems the responsible thing to do and lately, I have had to send out more reminders as our weather gets even hotter and the fashions become more microscopic.
But as we go into the third week of summer, I'm realizing something: my teen girls, usually so involved and dependable, are disappearing. My beach days are usually just my family and a few friends, with me fielding texts from normally sun-loving teen girls giving half-hearted excuses about why they can't come. As they disappear from water events, they're slowly not even coming to the other events I could count on them for - Bible studies, movie nights. I have been scratching my head wondering "Why aren't they coming to events they suggested we have??"
Just about a month ago I had a conversation with two sisters in my program that I'm very close to; they were telling me they didn't own one pieces, and I suggested they go buy them. "But they're all grandma suits!" they complained. I scoffed and pulled up Nordstroms website, eager to show them the vast array of cute, sporty, or retro one pieces that proliferate our modern market. As we scanned through a variety of cute options, I realized suddenly how expensive they all were. While some of these kids have parents who would buy them a $50+ swimsuit, most do not - most of them I'm helping find work, for pity's sakes. Why would I think they could go out and spend $30, $60, $100 on a swimsuit that will set them at odds with their peers, when they already have one they like?
I realized that the message I was sending when I made modest attire a requirement for average activities - not Mass, but daily events they could do with any group - is that I care more about what they're wearing than I do about spending time with them. Relational ministry, which is what we practice, is the idea that we must care about teens in all aspects of their lives: attend their sports games, remember their birthdays, encourage them academically, get to know their families. I am not sending the message that I care about them, when all my invites come with conditions and wardrobe requirements: I am putting up barriers to knowing me and being more involved with the parish ministry that is geared towards them.
Really, at the heart of this, I am putting the trappings of conversion ahead of the actual conversions of their hearts. What I want is for them to appear to care about modesty, more than I want them to internalize the idea that they are precious and beloved of God, someone of infinite value and worth. Yes, I think it's possible that some of them might experience greater freedom in dressing modestly and therefore, might begin to have a change of heart. But it seems that for most of them, if they can't be accepted for who they are right now - even the parts I might not approve of - they're willing to stay clear of me (and the parish) entirely.
Do I want my teens to be modest? Absolutely. I also want them to be honest, chaste, humble, kind, selfless and on and on. But Christ doesn't make any virtue a required prerequisite to be in His presence, so I shouldn't make modesty the prerequisite to be in mine.