Each of us has memories of our past that we can remember like they were yesterday. They are moments in time that we recall with clarity. These memories stick out above the rest because they encapsulate strong feelings or pivotal moments.
From my own store of memories is one in which the feeling was strong, but only after I grew up did I realize that my interpretation of it was completely displaced. Before I explain my memory, allow me to set the stage.
It was summertime in Dearborn, MI during the 70’s. A big part of it was going with friends to Camp Dearborn; a park established for Dearborn residents only. It was a 40-minute drive to Milford where a Dearborn driver’s license was required to enter the park with a beach and lake for swimming, another small paddleboat lake, a canteen, and a picnic and camping area. With our cars, FM radios and bikinis, we jumped into our oh-so-grown-up world promoted to us during our wanna-be teen years through Beach Boy music and the Gidget TV series. We had arrived. Oh yeah, we were cool and lovin’ it!
Those were the years of tanning oils and baking under the hot sun in a quest for the best tan. Bikinis were small (we feared those dreaded tan lines) and sunscreen had not been invented yet, not that we would have used it. Skin cancer was not on our teen radar screen. Neither was modesty. Part of the whole experience was the bikinis, halter-tops, short-shorts and hip huggers. We girls would not have been caught dead in a one-piece swimsuit. I’d seen a rack of Speedo one-piece suits at the department store, but those were for girls on swim teams, not for the beach.
That brings us to the department store where my memory takes place. If we weren’t at the beach, a next favorite activity was shopping. (Boy, am I sounding shallow, or what?) Being summer and being cool, we girls all wore our halter-tops and hip hugging, shorts. After looking at jewelry with my two friends, we rounded the corner and instantly stopped dead in our tracks. There was a fully dressed nun from our high school. Egads! We suddenly felt naked. This was a Dominican nun in full habit; veil and all. Since the three of us girls all attended St. Alphonsus high school with this nun, she would recognize us all and disapprove. Luckily, the nun was looking down at something in the case (must have been the watches because it couldn’t have been the hoop earrings.)
The three of us, quickly, silently and simultaneously tiptoed off in the opposite direction. Without a word passing between us, we all instinctively reacted in union, wanting to get away from the nun as soon as possible. Without that nun before us, we were bold and brassy. But enter the nun and everything changed. We became self-conscious girls who feared disapproval from a symbol of Catholic virtue and modesty.
At the time, I interpreted this whole scene as a reflection on the nun. Teens are experts at putting an adolescent spin on things. Rather than question ourselves, we laughed it off as the nun’s problem. Nuns were prudes. Of course she would disapprove because she would never understand what it meant to be cool. In reality, she completely understood. She understood what it meant to be holy and live every moment in the presence of God. She understood that Our Blessed Mother was our role model of virtue. That nun surely understood the sacredness of our bodies that house the eternal soul. And we girls were not dressed for the part.
Moral Compass Askew
The reader may be wondering: Where were the parents? We all had them and they were sending us to a Catholic school. And it’s not like we changed our clothes (or lack thereof) after we left the house. In truth, there were a few mothers who resisted our un-dress to different degrees. I knew of one girl who was not allowed to dress this way. Marianne was the only girl at school who did not roll up her uniform skirt above her knees, ready to pull it down at a moment’s notice when our principal Sr. Agnes Charles happened to walk by. (I guess the other teachers were blind or mute so they let us girls get away with it.) Marianne was the lone nerd. That’s what we thought. I’m not aware of anyone who was outright mean, but I sure did not want to be like her. Too bad for me. I remember a lunch lady in 8th grade telling a group of us that the boys would respect Marianne. I paid this comment no heed. Respect her? I thought. They aren’t even going to look at her.
Oh but for my ignorance the light should have gone on with that thought. Is that was it was all about, getting boys to look at us rather than get to know us? Years later, listening to Jason Everett speak on modesty before a high school group, he told the girls that if they advertised their bodies as a way of getting boys, that would be what attracted them. Later, when the girls complained that their boyfriends only seemed interested in their bodies it would be ironic, since that’s how they got the boys to begin with. If a girl is showing off her body, no one is going to notice her pretty eyes and nice personality.
Many years ago, my husband and I worked as group home parents for delinquent teenage boys. Living with these boys, I saw the world through the eyes of teenage boys. It hit me how wrong it was for girls to display too much of their body for public viewing; that it was not a respectful kind of attention. I understood clearly that girls flaunting their bodies garnered attention but not respect.
Many serious Catholic women of today, were once silly, poorly dressed teenagers, who now teach their girls a better way. Still, the fact is, that some mothers let their daughters dress immodestly—even at Catholic schools. In some cases, the mothers do not thoroughly understand what is at stake when buying their daughter a clothing item that shows more than it covers.
Without realizing it, many adults even promote immodesty: “I used to dress that way too,” or “She has such a cute little figure, she might as well enjoy it while it lasts.” We often don’t think past the surface of fashion.
Some may think it’s a stretch, but I believe that once we as a society accepted contraception it brought forth an acceptance of immodestly also. The Pill issued in the sexual revolution and women began dressing in sexually provocative ways at the same time. Coincidence? I think not. Keep in mind that Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae, on July 25, 1968, and the encyclical that rejected the use of contraception as anti-life and anti-women. He also argued that "the man" will lose respect for "the woman" and "no longer (care) for her physical and psychological equilibrium" and will come to "the point of considering her as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment and no longer as his respected and beloved companion.” In line with that era of rebellion, many parents disregarded this teaching, thus looking to themselves and the world rather than the Church for leadership.
This may seem like a change of subject but it’s not. Many Catholic parents were rebelling in their own way during these years so the moral compass that once led the way, was askew. It is no stretch to say contraception ushered in the sexual revolution, which corrupted the gift of sexuality intended for couples united in matrimony. Once sexual relations became merely recreational, it’s no surprise that the women were more apt to dress in sexually provocative fashions.
Raise Our Girls Well
My own girls, ages fourteen and seventeen, are very aware that our bodies are sacred and should not be overexposed and thus far they choose to dress accordingly. I realize that it’s important that they receive a very strong counter-culture message when it comes to how girls should conduct themselves.
I think we all understand a girl’s heart to fit in and look nice but we must shape it into a divine calling for girls—being of a higher class because their soul gives them the image and likeness of God. Girls must understand what it means to have dignity and dress not just for the world but ultimately for Jesus Christ.
By lifting up the dignity of girls it becomes an attractive virtue in which to aspire. Instead of coming across as prudish, lessons on saints and the Catholic perspective on inner beauty can ignite a desire to attain both holiness and beauty. I think so often we feel like it’s an either/or deal; that the two cannot coincide.
The core message we must give to our girls is that by protecting modesty, inner beauty shines through rather than becoming cheapened with overexposure. “Modesty protects the intimate center of the person. It means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden.” CCC# 2521
As parents, we need to help our girls to discern between worldly pressures that lead fashion astray and what truly accentuates their God-given qualities. We can present modesty in a glorious light, making it desirable for our daughters to protect their dignity and cherish their femininity. Pope John Paul used the term “the feminine genius: to describe the gift women have to give of themselves with love. He elevated women for their contribution throughout history to families, society and culture. JPII understood that women who followed God were very powerful, indeed. Many girls have been misled into thinking that their power lies in their ability to attract male attention with their bodies. If they can see that this is not real power but merely allowing themselves to be viewed as objects of lust, then they will be less likely to fall prey to immodest fashions. Such a perspective will be a gift not only to our daughters, but to our sons as well.
“Woman has a genius all her own, which is vitally essential to both society and the Church…[She] is endowed with a particular capacity for accepting the human being in his concrete form. Even this singular feature, which prepares her for motherhood, not only physically but also emotionally and spiritually, is inherent in the plan of God who entrusted the human being to woman in an altogether special way.-- Pope John Paul II, Angelus Reflection, July 23, 1995
Copyright 2011 Patti Maguire Armstron
About the Author
Patti Maguire Armstrong is the mother of 10, and has a B.A. in social work and M.A. in public administration. Her newest book is Holy Hacks: Everyday Ways to Live Your Faith & Get to Heaven. Others include Big Hearted: Inspiring Stories from Everyday Families and the Amazing Grace Series. Follow her at @PattiArmstrong and read her blog at PattiMaguireArmstrong.com.