Via First Things, Sharon Hodde Miller argues that appeals to modesty that are based on depicting women’s bodies as objects of temptation to be scrupulously hidden are shameful to women:
Second, we must affirm the value of the female body. The value or meaning of a woman’s body is not the reason for modesty. Women’s bodies are not inherently distracting or tempting. On the contrary, women’s bodies glorify God. Dare I say that a woman’s breasts, hips, bottom, and lips all proclaim the glory of the Lord! Each womanly part honors Him. He created the female body, and it is good.
Finally, language about modesty should focus not on hiding the female body but on understanding the body’s created role. Immodesty is not the improper exposure of the body per se, but the improper orientation of the body. Men and women are urged to pursue a modesty by which our glory is minimized and God’s is maximized. The body, the spirit and the mind all have a created role that is inherently God-centered. When we make ourselves central instead of God, we display the height of immodesty.
This actually occurred to me just yesterday. For years I considered myself an evangelical Christian, when theologically I was probably Gnostic. Sacramental teaching encourages the idea – which is somehow anathema to many evangelicals – that the world is a good place, and that the body is a good body. (I’ll have more to say about this in an upcoming post). If that’s the case, then by extension sex is a Good Thing. And sex in itself isn’t inherently bad, although there are ways of engaging in sex which can be hurtful to the souls and the bodies of the people involved. As Christians, we need to move away from a morality that says, “Women, your bodies are alarmingly attractive” (which is more of a radical Islamist approach), and towards a morality more in line with the Song of Songs: “Thou art altogether lovely,” etc.
So. Modesty in itself is not an inherent good. Nothing in itself is inherently, automatically good or evil; there are only positive and negative substances. Catholic teaching has consistently proclaimed that the basis for a positive sexuality is unconditional giving of self. If you’re not giving yourself to another, if you’re solely absorbed in – shall we say – stealing the neighbor’s peaches – that’s bad. And you’re probably operating out of a wounded and disordered spirit. But please, let’s refrain from implicitly blaming the women themselves by teaching them to be ashamed of how they look.