The mall was crowded that day in late August, and my six year-old twins were having trouble processing all the lights and sounds and smells. Anxiety came to the fore—theirs and, by experience, mine.

I took a deep breath.  “Look at my eyes,” I said. They refocused. We made it out of the mall alive and with some modest outfits to boot.

“Look at my eyes.” I used to say that far more often, back when I was parenting two young children with neurological challenges. They could get lost in stimming, or unmoored in a noisy crowd at the mall, or stuck in a groove leading straight to Meltdown Land. All I’d have to say is, “Look at my eyes,” and there was a decent chance they’d get unstuck. “Look at my eyes,” is perhaps the most useful word-gadget the Holy Spirit has placed in my parenting toolbox. It works, but I don’t know why.

What am I talking about? I do know why it works. I could be a four year-old having a “sensational” day or a grown woman looking to be loved for who she is. By looking at another person’s eyes, I am drawn outside of myself and whatever desperate desire is clamoring inside of me. In another’s eyes I find a mind-to-mind and heart-to-heart connection. I find instant humility. Instinct submits to intellect. By looking into another’s eyes, I automatically must think of some frail human besides myself.

As my twin girls got older, I knew I had to teach them how to pick outfits sensibly, but I didn’t want to teach them that their main focus was to keep people from sexualizing them. As an abuse survivor myself, the last thing I wanted to do was give them the anxiety of trying to control other people’s sexual thoughts about anything, much less about their own bodies.

Again, the Holy Spirit made it easy for me, and I’m not even sure I asked Him to. He showed me that modesty is just humility in a nice, occasion-appropriate outfit.

Why do people wear immodest outfits anyway? You can sing all you want about how it has nothing to do with wanting attention but rather “wanting to feel the breeze against my skin.” The reality is that, if you’ve got enough breeze flapping against enough skin, you’re getting attention whether you want it or not. Why? No, not because your body is so bad (or so irresistible) that you need to cover it up.

It’s just instinct, plain and simple.

The female form uncovered gets attention because for millennia that’s just how humans survived: by being nursed by it or by protecting it from the elements (with bear skins or homespun or whatever clothing people used at the time) so that future generations could be borne and nurtured. See? Instinct, survival instinct. And honestly, that last point about protecting the body goes for guys, too. A guy who went to hunt or defend his home without his heart and, um, other parts protected by something was less likely to come home and keep his kin alive.

Again, no body shame here. Not even much sexualization going on. Just simple human survival instinct.

However, God has made us to be more than our instincts, hasn’t He? We are made to seek safe, caring community. We are made to love by serving each other. That is the heart of intellect. And so I teach my children that the best thing to bring back-to-school shopping is your intellect. If I dress in a way that, like it or not, draws undue attention to my body alone and not my mind, I inadvertently send the message that it’s okay not to care about my mind.

This doesn’t just go for low cuts and high hems. This also reminds us to use the intellect to care for the body: a thoughtless, knotty ponytail is just as dehumanizing as a pair of short shorts (alas, the problem at our house as we enter the tween years isn’t prideful demands for revealing outfits but an ongoing battle against sloth). I also teach my children that if someone else chooses to dress in a way that shows a lot of skin, work to see the whole person—see the intellect rather than the instinct. In other words, no matter where your instincts tell you to look, look for that person’s eyes.

There is one exception, one time and place when a human can be naked and vulnerable in public, but that only applies to one Human, and that Human is also Divine. After all, who is utterly naked and vulnerable at Mass? Only Christ Jesus, fully present in the Eucharist, humbly asking that we cover Him with our own humanity. Would you wear white to a wedding? I sure hope not. That would take attention away from the bride. And that is why we dress modestly, especially at Mass. An intellect enlightened by faith demands it. If there’s anything I want for my children, above all it is the gift of our humble Jesus.

St. John Paul II said, “There is no dignity when the human dimension is eliminated from the person. In short, the problem with pornography is not that it shows too much of the person, but that it shows far too little.” We humans are the only species that wears clothes. Clothing can only be an element of what this saint wisely called “the human dimension.”

Humility is a gift, a gift instinct cannot grasp. Modesty is one of humility’s fruits, a fruit only intellect can enjoy. When we dress in a way that draws on intellect rather than instinct, we highlight our humanity—our own, our children’s, our whole human world’s.


Copyright 2015 by Erin McCole Cupp.
Photo by Makaipinsoa (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons