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Modesty: Who’s Responsible?

Some recent events in the news have highlighted just how difficult it is to affirm modesty as a virtue worth instilling.  In one particular instance [1], a public school principal took a stance for modesty, and may end up in court as a result.  The principal refused admittance to two girls attending their high school prom who were deemed to be inappropriately dressed, a policy for which was outlined in a letter sent home to parents prior to the event.  The remarkable aspect of the story is that the girls’ mothers were outraged by the principal’s stand on principle, rather than concerned about how their daughters’ choice of attire might reflect on their character or reputation, or affect those around them.

As the prom dresses of spring morph into the bikinis of summer and families head to the beaches, it seems timely to comment on this issue of modesty of dress as the standards of what passes for ‘style’ become ever increasingly indiscreet.  In previous essays (TG2 [2], FCC [3]) I argued for increased respect for the primacy of parents’ rights in determining how and when their child might be confronted with, or burdened by, knowledge of sexual material, and advocated for support from society in this undertaking.  But as noted above, not all parents see the issue in a similar manner, and some not only accede to, but actively support, their adolescents dressing in a manner that scandalizes other parents.  Other parent’s jobs become increasingly complicated when a wholesome tradition like the annual beach vacation mimics running a voyeuristic gauntlet rivaled only by the grocery store checkout line, which at least can be minimized if not avoided entirely. 

But where should the responsibility for modesty lay? With the boy, the girl, or the parents?

Tempting Girls or Dirty Old Men?

Although the issue is not entirely gender specific, it does generally run in one direction. The argument for uninhibited fashion is that the woman should not have to bear the responsibility for the inability of the male to control his roving eyes. While from a psychological perspective this has the semblance of a reasonable setting of boundaries, in that one should not ordinarily take responsibility for the behavior of others, in another way it seems to be hopelessly naïve.…By way of comparison, each of us should be able to walk through the streets of downtown at night without fear, but, we know better. 

Whether we see the issue through the lens of “Puritanical” standards, females dressing provocatively, or males “sexualizing everything,” the heart of the matter is something larger: what will best help adolescents and young adults, who are struggling with what it means to be a man or woman, to live a respectable, virtuous life, and prepare for a flourishing future?  Just or not, the scantily-clad woman is more likely to be seen and valued, by both men and women, in a base physical sense than is a woman modestly dressed.   Setting aside the indignity to her person to which the female in this instance is opening herself, adolescents and young adults are in a developmental phase of forming and improving their character strengths, not living them out reliably with constancy.  Young males are, hopefully, in the process of striving for chastity and custody of the eyes, and young females are, hopefully, striving for honor and protecting their bodies as a singular gift for their future spouse.  But, they both need help.

Ultimately, yes, young men are in fact responsible for themselves and for the choices that shape their character.  But, in that they are young, like so many other things, they cannot yet do it alone.  They need the help of parents.  They need the help of girls and women.  They need the help of a community, which calls forth the cooperative support from our neighbors (and fellow parents) not to raise the level of difficulty unnecessarily, nor increase the temptation that one might say is naturally a part of a young man’s discovery of the beauty of the fairer sex. 


At the risk of parodying the “it takes a village” mantra, it does seem that tackling this issue will take a community effort to some degree. While parents bear the brunt of educating and ensuring their own children’s formation regarding appropriate dress and managing of sexual expression, we are all in this together. Inasmuch as my choice about what is acceptable will inevitably become a public event when my child attends school, prom, or any such event with your child, I have a responsibility to think broadly. 

Accepting indiscretions as just a part of “adolescent rebellion” and ignoring the issue will not advance the battle to re-establish a society with standards that support healthy growth and development; parents must take the lead in setting the standard and sticking to it.  As a society, we know there are innumerable adolescents who are struggling with the virtues of chastity or modesty.  Consider parental boundary-setting an act of charity if need be; an act which reduces the potential objectification of girls, and the distraction of boys; an act which prepares young ground for a richer love. 

The adolescents of today are the husbands and wives, mothers and fathers of tomorrow.  For them to be successful in such roles, they must be capable of growing beyond the eros of human sensuality to a deeper, more sacrificial love.  It is only in an environment where the virtues of modesty and chastity are taught, practiced and widely observed, that such growth is possible.

Human Sexuality
As the prom dresses of spring morph into the bikinis of summer and families head to the beaches, it seems timely to comment on this issue of modesty of dress as the standards of what passes for ‘style’ become ever increasingly indiscreet.