A number of Canadian tourists are currently languishing in Malaysia, and may be criminally charged. Their crime? Standing nude for photos on the top of a sacred mountain. According to the Malaysian authorities, the gods of the mountain were angered, causing an ensuing 5.1 magnitude earthquake which killed a score of people.
Hmm. I don’t believe in gods of mountains, but I do believe in God. I am not sure whether He would cause an earthquake based on the foolish and immodest behaviour of some Canadian tourists, but the Malaysians have a right to be offended at buffoonish Canadians stripping naked for the world to see on a site that, at least to them, is sacred.
Modesty is a much maligned virtue in our world. A couple of weeks ago, teenaged high school student Alexi Halket was asked to ‘put more clothing on’ when she showed up in the attire pictured. As far as modern dress goes, there is far more ‘exposure’ out there, but I guess the school took offense at the midriff exposure and the bra-like appearance of the top. Normally, this would not be news, as many young girls also would like to show the beauty of their bodies, but this became a sort of cause celebre about uniforms and imposed dress standards in our public education system.
The school has a rather vague dress policy, in line with most of its other education, one may presume:
“The school should be a great learning and working environment for all. So that we can all feel comfortable in our school/work environment, clothing must be respectful – it shouldn’t be too revealing or display inappropriate language. Students may be asked to change or cover up if their clothing is deemed inappropriate by the school administration.
What is ‘deemed inappropriate’ is a rather sliding scale. I think back to the year 1991, which seems like aeons ago, when another young woman, nineteen year-old Guelph university student Gwen Jacobs, won a court case for her, and every other woman, in Ontario the right to go topless in public. I have never seen a woman go publicly topless in Ontario, so, if the fairer sex is exercising their legal right, I am not sure where or when; not that I really want to know, mind you, but my suspicion is that the natural tendency to modesty, more ingrained in women than men, precludes just about all of them from baring their bodies to the glare of the, shall we say, less-fair sex.
Saint Thomas describes modesty as a subset of the cardinal virtue of temperance, which controls our desire for the pleasurable good (and, conversely, our aversion for unpleasant things). Since sex is pleasant, in fact one of the most pleasurable sensations, and, since nudity is a prelude to sex, we delight in the nude body. But such delight is only proper when one is supposed to have sex with the other, and that only occurs in marriage, which, as John Paul II describes in his Theology of the Body, justifies and sanctifies the natural shame and humility of nudity.
Yet modesty is about much more than sex and nudity. As its name implies, modesty is the virtue by which we find the right ‘mode’ in all of our activities, what is ‘fitting’ for each circumstance, how we eat, study, read, walk, talk, look, drive, and decorate our homes. It is rather sad that in our myopic and hyper-sexualized world we have restricted modesty to clothing.
Modesty may be described as the ‘hedge around the Torah’, the safeguard, for the more important and universal virtue of temperance. We control our eating by eating decorously, with a knife and fork, taking bite-sized chunks and chewing them well, as our mothers hopefully taught us, rather than shoveling fistfuls of food into our gorges as fast as our hands can move.
Modesty in what we read also helps us absorb what we take in, so that we are able to learn what we should (the virtue of studiosity), and not learn what we should not (the vice of curiosity).
And, yes, controlling our eyes, where and how we look at others, what is still called ‘custody of the eyes’, helps us to control our often-uncontrolled sexual desires.
And so we return to clothing. We cover up that which should be covered not only to protect us from the cold and elements, but also to protect our own and other’s disordered desires. The debate over what should (and should not) be covered will continue until the end of time, but I think we can agree upon certain broad strokes. Full nudity is ruled out, except in certain restricted circumstances (marital situations, showering, medical exams and so on).
After that, we should cover up what have traditionally been called the erogenous zones, in particular the sexual organs. Every society and culture has some degree of modesty in these areas. Even the Canucks on the mountain cupped their hands over their ‘privates’, and natural modesty prevented even these ha-ha party-loving Canadians from going the full-full-Monty.
In general, we don’t just cover up our privates, like some European skimpo bathing costumes. We also ensure a degree of modesty over the rest of our bodies, again, not just for the sake of ourselves, but primarily for others. What the modern world has forgotten is the deep wound of ‘original sin’. Whatever name one gives to this condition, it is obvious that our passions are not fully under the control of our reason. The flesh rebels against the spirit , and our sexual desires in particular have to be strictly dominated, or, as we see so often around us, they will dominate us.
Miss Halket, in line with countless other young women, claims that there should not be a dress code, that she should be allowed to wear whatever feels comfortable, and it is not her fault if others (read: boys) ‘sexualize’ her body. Well, it is not the boys who have sexualized her body, for her body is already ‘sexualized’ by its very nature. It is what we mean by being male and female, man and woman. Although disordered in our current state, our sexuality and the powerful attraction between the sexes are good and holy, but like every good thing, they can, and have, become warped and misused.
To display, indeed even flaunt, one’s body to the sight of others is to invite such warping and misuse, if not explicit, at least implicitly and internally. I am rather amazed at the blatant hypocrisy: Out of one side of their mouth, our modern educators claim that we cannot, and even should not, control our sexual desires. Hence the need for pornographic sex-ed, condoms and birth control pills. Yet, here they are saying that the boys must be as chaste as mediaeval Irish monks by the sight of a young woman in halter-top-yoga-pants sitting beside them in class, with various cleavages on full display.
Just to be clear: The converse also holds, that the boys must be modest as well, but we all know that modesty is not the same in men and women, and the sexes respond to immodesty and nudity in different ways. That is why there is no debate over boys and halter-tops; but there may be over boys and saggy jeans. But the principle still applies.
Of course, there is the flip-side of immodesty, in revealing too little, as in the body-bag-burkas of certain strains of Islam, or in a different way, the modern obsession with wearing sunglasses to cover one’s eyes, even during intimate conversation. There are some things, not least our faces and eyes, that we should reveal. But too-little-modesty is not the main problem, at least in our culture, or at least, as Mark Steyn is wont to lament, until the Mullahs take over.
In the end, however, modesty is not really about dress, but about one’s interior state. In other words, modesty is a virtue, not a type of clothing. Do we even still want to keep hidden and veiled what should remain such? How should we dress, or not dress, as various occasions demand? What is the role of custom, and of law, in all of this? The debate can, and has, become quite rancorous, as even a quick glance at recent stories demonstrates. That is originally why schools (and many other institutions) imposed uniforms, so everyone could be on the same page.
Even though we’re no longer on the same page anymore, nor even the same book, we should at least ask these questions, and frame some sort of answers, so that we can all get along without giving offense, to each other, to God or to the Malaysians.
June 9, 2015