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Modesty isn’t about fashion police or awkward dress codes

It would be so much cooler if this story took place in say, Saks Fifth Avenue or even the Gap, but it is with a touch of chagrin that I admit I was shopping for some new tops at Target a few weeks ago.

Approaching the fitting rooms with a shirt to try, the associate greeted me with, “Honey, I should just tell you, that’s a dress, not a shirt.”

I gasped. I thought I was hip enough to the current trends to recognize the difference. Thinking I could attempt it as a shirt anyway, I tried the piece on and realized, based on the cut, that it was in fact a dress. Barely. Hello, summer.

As a youth minister, I love summer. Weeks of camps and conferences afford a lot of uninterrupted time with kids without the distractions of school, sports and the general drama they are caught up in all year — even though it means countless nights on an air mattress and waking up to “Uh, Miss Alison, I used your hair drier to dry my feet.” True story. What does that even mean?

The kids benefit tremendously from immersion in a Catholic environment where virtue is upheld as the norm. While this usually means fun things like Bible trivia, dodgeball and dancing to “Trading My Sorrows,” summer inevitably includes the awkward moment when a girl walks out of her cabin wearing the dress I vetoed from Target, a top that’s way too low or shorts that are way too short.

All the adult women in the room look from her to the reaction of the teen boys, and then at each other and mouth, “Not me. I did ‘the talk’ last time.”

Why do we have to say something? Are we squelching youthful independence by not letting teens dress themselves?

Tactfully addressing specific outfits is not a conversation I enjoy having, and I’m sure it’s not one that parents relish either.

However, camp cabins, fitting rooms and the closet are all important classrooms for the virtue of modesty.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that virtue is “a habitual and firm disposition to do the good” (#1803). The word habitual is the clue that apart from faith, hope and love, which are “infused by God” (#1813), acquiring virtue requires effort, discipline and instruction.

While we have had a natural inclination to wear clothes, ever since Adam and Eve sported fig leaves, situations like the dress I encountered at Target are so common that we need to give youth, especially girls, guidance so they can be respected, and build good friendships and relationships based on who they are, not what they look like.

The catechism even goes so far as to say that “teaching modesty to children and adolescents means awakening in them respect for the human person” (#2524).

In his March 18, 1982, address — which would later become the theology of the body — Pope John Paul II explained, “Purity is the glory of the human body before God. It is God’s glory in the human body, through which masculinity and femininity are manifested.”

The virtue of modesty is not an awkward dress code meant to cause shame or bring out the fashion police. Rather, it is recognizing the goodness of the human body, and that men and women are created differently.

We need to keep these differences in mind to critically discern the latest styles, and to act and dress in a way that encourages holiness for all.

Alison Griswold is the youth director at St. Francis by the Sea Church on Hilton Head Island. She writes the column “Team Catholic” for The Miscellany.






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