There is an interesting parallel, obvious open reflection, between modesty and sense of self. It occurred to me on one particularly lazy Saturday as I sat on a friend’s couch and watched a “real” housewife “find” herself relearning the art of striptease (Sorry for the excessive quotation marks, but I can’t help but feel they are necessary). As her male friends looked on and handed over dollar bills, she boasted that she was finally feeling like herself again. Now, I don’t know what exactly this woman was experiencing, but it is hard to believe it was anything like an actual sense of self. For one who has not felt her soul for a long time, the external validation of her exposed body seemed an ample substitute. And just like that, I felt like I understood pop-culture.

Modesty is a pretty well-forgotten virtue. The word itself feels prudish and outdated, something to be considered for your grandmother’s sake at family gatherings. Even in a religious subculture that intends to value it, it has, to most, come to refer simply to how much fabric you have managed to put on yourself or knowing when not to mention your own accomplishments. But as I watched this sad woman complete her empty quest for self-esteem, I wondered if we had entirely forgotten the virtue of real modesty.

Between secular culture’s complete ignorance of the subject, and religious people relegating the idea to necklines and hems, we seem to have lost modesty’s true value. Some virtues are good onto themselves, but modesty is a mean to an end (or several). Though we often talk of how it protects others from lust, annoyance, or envy, we forget that one’s modesty is actually much better at protecting oneself. Modesty is, at its core, the protection of what is personal and private. This is true as much of one’s internal world as it is of one’s body. In protecting yourself through the exercise of modesty, you say, “God and I know who I am and what I am worth, and that judgment is enough.”

Modesty has the power to harbor your dreams and goals until their fruition, keeping them from death through over-exposure, bad counsel, or malice. It keeps your body protected and preserved for its proper use in family life, as well as providing you with a tangible sense that you belong only to those whom you have expressly devoted yourself to.

As I developed this idea in my mind I became convicted of how sorely and extremely we are missing it. A modest culture could support few reality TV shows, for one. There could be no Jersey Shore, where people seem to exist entirely for the amount of exposure they can conger. Books would need to be about ideas and stories again, rather than whose face is on the cover and what sordid details of their life we have yet to learn. Some clothing lines would cease to exist entirely if teenagers weren’t seeking to expose themselves, whole cable networks would no longer have programming, and celebrity magazines would have little to print—in fact, our idea of celebrity would probably have to be fundamentally changed.

At the core of this change would be an elimination of a whole lot of noise. With less of the external validation that can come from over-exposure, we might just be forced to look inward, endeavoring to see ourselves as we are before God, the actual self behind what we choose to display. And many—like the housewife-cum-stripper—would find nothing there.

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Posted by Cate MacDonald

20 Comments

  1. Wendy Shalit, author of A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue, helped me to realize that modesty is an erotic virtue.

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  2. Cate – Excellent. I’m quoting from this for a post I’m working on about modesty. Thanks for writing!

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  3. In your last paragraph you speak of external validation. We all want to be validated, and I think what your housewife was doing was being immodest in order to gain validation in the only way she knew how. That also seems generally to be why young girls overexpose themselves to young guys — they are seeking appreciation, validation, approval.

    But an alternative source for validation is the God who created us. We find general validation in his Word and in our adoption as sons and daughters at the cross. We find specific validation in prayer, through the Holy Spirit, and through the encouragement and love we experience in the church.

    So if we are being validated by God, that permits us to feel esteemed without begging for validation from external sources. It allows us to live modestly, experiencing the continual validation of our Lord as we walk in faith. Our self-esteem is built up in our relationship with God, and we feel no need to beg for validation from the world at large.

    An interesting post, Cate. You’ve given me lots to think about. Thanks.

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  4. “I don’t know what exactly this woman was experiencing, but it is hard to believe it was anything like an actual sense of self.” Truer words you won’t find on the internet.

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  5. So you sat and watched a woman strip with your friends? Was this at home or on TV? Just need some clarification.

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  6. Cate, unfortunately I know just the scene you’re referring to from DH-NJ. It turned my stomach and made me feel so sorry for her. (Besides convincing me for the umpteenth time that I would be better off not watching shows like this!) Reality television in general is a depressing showcase of desperate people. If only they would realize the warmth and comfort of God’s love.

    I think the virtue of modesty extends to garish displays of wealth, too.

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  7. Thank you for all of your thoughtful replies.

    Christopher: In what way do you understand it to be an erotic virtue (I’m not sure I know what that means)? Is it inherently so?

    Jake: I want to read your post when it’s finished.

    Charlie: Very, very true. I think that even within Christian circles, few feel such validation, which is why we have this crises on our hands.

    Cammie: Thank you!

    Mike: Yes, it was on TV, though I don’t know how much that improves the situation. I don’t have a TV at home, but my friend (and my family, for that matter) had recently gotten cable television, and I found myself fascinated by the content. It didn’t take long for it to make me so sad I wasn’t really interested anymore.

    Georgina: I remember a professor in a psychopathology class telling us that there are some mental pathologies we lock-up, some we medicate, and some we pay to watch. If the majority of reality television isn’t proof of that statement, I don’t know what is. And yes, you’re right on the wealth thing. They seem to go hand in hand on TV, at least.

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  8. A must read by @catemacdonald on modesty and self-identity: http://bit.ly/asDkEQ #fb

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

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  9. A must-read by @catemacdonald on modesty and self-identity: http://bit.ly/asDkEQ #fb

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

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  10. CATE:

    Modesty, which may be provisionally defined as an almost instinctive fear prompting to concealment and usually centering around the sexual processes, while common to both sexes is more peculiarly feminine, so that it may almost be regarded as the chief secondary sexual character of women on the psychical side. ––Havelock Ellis, 1899

    Modesty is an erotic (or sexual) virtue with two basic functions:

    * The protecting function. Modesty protects the woman’s physical vulnerability and sexual embarrassment. It protects her marital and familial aspirations. And it protects her sexuality through mystery and allure.

    * The promoting function. Modesty promotes chastity and delayed gratification––”I’m worth waiting for, and worth concealing.” It promotes eternal beauty more than temporal beauty. It promotes male obligations to treat the woman with courtesy and honor. And it promotes enduring love rather than fleeting lust.

    In short, women are a civilizing force in society and a sanctifying presence in the church.

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    1. Christopher,

      So from what you’ve written it would appear that you believe modesty to be a purely feminine virtue? Is there no type of immodest exposure that could be harmful to men (and by that I mean a man’s immodest exposure, not a woman’s)?

      I agree that there is a sexual component to modesty, but I think it is incorrect to think of it as an exclusively (or even primarily)sexual issue. There are many things in the human being that modesty and self-control protect, some of which I would consider much more essential to spiritual health than affirming that one is mysterious and worth “waiting” for.

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  11. “On Modesty and Self-Identity:” https://mereorthodoxy.com/?p=3958 #excellent

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

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  12. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Matthew Anderson, Sheena . Sheena said: "On Modesty and Self-Identity:" https://mereorthodoxy.com/?p=3958 #excellent […]

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  13. Christopher Benson August 6, 2010 at 6:34 pm

    Cate: The epigraph I used from Havelock Ellis expresses my view that modesty is “an almost instinctive fear prompting to concealment and usually centering around the sexual processes, while common to both sexes is more peculiarly feminine.” By focusing on sexual modesty I do not intend to exclude other forms of modesty. I feel it is important to differentiate the virtue of modesty from the virtue of self-control; they are not be conflated.

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  14. Gorgeous, Cate.

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  15. yes. http://bit.ly/cBwwCm

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

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  16. Great definition of modesty. The housewife-striptease example also indicates, I think, that modesty issues are a large part of the marriage relationship and its sexual component.

    Christopher, I wouldn’t trust a definition of modesty from H. Ellis… nor would I define modesty as a fear. Nor, as others have said, primarily centered around sexual processes, although said processes are a major branch.

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  17. […] MacDonald says it well: “Between secular culture’s complete ignorance of the subject, and religious people […]

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  18. […] MacDonald says it well: “Between secular culture’s complete ignorance of the subject, and religious people relegating […]

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