Monday, June 23, 2014

When Modesty Hurts Ministry

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.


  1. This is such a great and humble post. I think the point about beach attire is especially fitting...because you make a good point. Girls may not necessaily have 1-piece swimsuits and may not have the money to buy one. I always hated events that had "conditions" on dress...not that I ever dressed particularly immodestly,but I just hated HAVING to wear certain clothes, if those clothes were different than what I typically wear. It always made me feel uncomfortable and "different."

    I also always hate it when people post pictures of show examples of "cute, modest clothes" with idea of "see, you can look cute and fashionable" and the clothing is like a $70 dress or swimsuit or whatever It just strikes me as a bit insensitive or whatever. .

    1. Yeah, I think since we've entered an age where fashion choices are so myriad, it's very difficult to have a standard. Each person becomes like a mini-Supreme Court saying "I'll know modesty when I see it...." so that we're all the modesty police and it's just a bunch of sucky judging.

      YES - I feel that way about modest clothes all the time! Obviously if I were young slender wealthy socialite I could look modest all the time. But as a nursing mom on a moderate budget, no, I cannot buy all the cute modest clothes. I just can't.

  2. Thank you for this post! As a tall teenage girl, some of those modesty restrictions meant buying clothes that simply didn't fit well and never got worn anywhere else, particularly when boys had no such restrictions. With my daughter, I try to emphasize the need for sun protection and freedom of movement-- its much more fun to wear a tankini so you're not worried about your suit when you jump in the pool. The same goes for skirts and shorts. Too short and its no fun- but it takes seasons to change the girls and their shopping patterns. Bravo for welcoming kids where they are at.

    1. Yes, I know my tall girls suffer the most. It's so difficult because I know they're wearing the same 4 inch inseam my short girls are, but it looks completely different on them!
      I also really believe in rules for boys too...especially in swimwear. Rashguards are cool! Rashguards for all! And boys can certainly be immodest in their clothing choices: inappropriate wording, shorts that show their boxers, too tight shirts, etc.

      It really does take time and what's the most important is YOU - parents! I can talk to them about this for all four years of their high school life, but if their parents aren't on the same page and are willing to buy them whatever, it's usually for naught.

      Thanks for your input!

  3. Good reminder to stop judging. Especially since actively trying to dress more modestly, I sometimes find myself actually shocked at what some people wear, especially at church. I have to remind myself that when you are used to showing a lot of skin you may feel like you are dressed modestly even when others wouldn't, just because that's what you're used to.

    1. Ugh church is THE WORST. That's why I sit in the front - I can't judge anyone else, since I'm a horrible person that does that.

  4. As a former youth minister, I HEAR YA.

    You're right - this kind of counter-cultural Catholic living (of which modesty is a very public part) takes guts and conviction they're only going to get from Christ.

    So, I would say, from my experiences: give them reasons for modesty, give them tips for how to make clothes work for them (i.e., before you buy that shirt, try it on and see what happens when you bend over. Maybe it needs a tank underneath, or one of those "Cami Secret" things that wraps around your bra straps and just provides a little coverage at your neckline (i love those things). What happens to your waistline when you sit or bend? Maybe you need a belt or a different size. What happens to your hemline when you sit down or a breeze kicks up? Maybe you need leggings. Is it too tight or too thin? Can you see pantylines or bra lines? I mean really, a lot of this is how to dress well instead of looking clueless) and then leave it at that except in outrageous situations. I would give my kids a very strict dress code for Confirmation Mass, but I think that was the only event that I worried over. But I never took my kids to the beach because we'd have had to go into rival gang territory, so swimsuits, I don't know. That's the most difficult type of clothing to deal with, for all of us. If it's that bad, do you have to take them to beach? "Lead us not into temptation..."...? I don't know, you want them to have fun, but if you can't see a way around this, maybe it's the eye you have to gouge out?

    It's hard b/c : 1) they don't understand what the sight of the female body actually does to guys 2) they don't know what constitutes immodesty.

    So, maybe having a guy talk to them about it, or reading something to them from the guy's perspective would help? A place to start is, under "from the men" she has an article from a guy on the topic.

    And then just reason with them. I don't dig teen dating, but it's what's going on, so you have to work with it. I would tell the girls, "you catch the fish according to the bait you throw out" making the point that if they want a guy who views a girl as a collection of body parts for his benefit, then dressing like a skank will catch that skankfish (crude, I know, I had rough kids and we were in the teen pregnancy capital of our state). Guys looking for a nice girl will actually avoid you if you dress like that. But if you dress nice, you'll attract the kind of guy who's interested in a girl who respects herself and will respect him.

    I like how on this post you're honest about how difficult it is (nursing moms unite!). Be candid like that with them so they know it's difficult for you too and why you personally think it's worth it. Maybe your husband has something to say on the subject? Mine told me that my modest wardrobe is part of what attracted him to me in the first place.

    I'm part of a chastity movement called The Goretti Group (after St. Maria Goretti) and we're preparing half-day retreats for moms & daughters and dads & sons (single-sex) and part of what we're doing for the girls is a Modesty Fashion Contest. We'll have clothes from the clothing boutique belonging to one of our members and we'll address modesty briefly, give them tips about how to make clothes work for them, and then they'll compete to come up with ensembles for different situations we'll give them, like "Big Brother's Graduation Party" or "Homecoming Game". I hope it's useful and fun and equips them with actual tools for real life. Feel free to use this idea.

    God bless your efforts. I hope your girls come back and see how much you love them.

  5. Oh, and The Goretti Group can be found at We have chapters in San Diego, Staten Island, and in the San Francisco Bay Area.


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