Thanks for joining this Lenten discussion! I'll be posting weekly thoughts by Catholic women and men who have something to share on modesty: what it is, how it's lived out, why it's important to them. I don't agree completely with all of these people, and I don't expect you to either; but I do want to open up a conversation. To make it easier, I've turned off the Capcha (you know, those horrible little letters and numbers you have to type to post a comment), so share your thoughts freely.
Now please welcome Shannon Fossett with the second article in our modesty series!
I clearly remember the day I was called into the office to discuss my attire. I sat across a table and listened to a woman tell me that there had been complaints about a pair of my pants, suggesting they were too tight. I stared at the woman in disbelief and asked “You mean my maternity pants?” At sixteen weeks pregnant with my second child, I was drudging through that awkward in-between phase; I looked more like I had just returned from an all-you-can-eat buffet than glowing with new life. My tailored suits were getting tight and uncomfortable, but since I’m petite (and was suffering from the kind of intense morning sickness that is cured only by childbirth), I was too small for most maternity styles. The pants in question had more stretch than I'd normally wear, but they were far from leggings. Having worn them throughout my first pregnancy, I hadn’t thought they were problematic.
The woman I was meeting with was both slightly sheepish and defensive. She quickly retreated and explained that while I usually dressed very modestly, the day in question I had not worn a long blazer or sweater, and perhaps the complaints were because people could “see your bum.” I was completely aghast- who in their right mind would take the trouble to complain about my exhausted, sick, and pregnant bum?
I left the office humiliated and angry. I was also shaken, for I have always taken pride in the way I comport myself. I love clothes, and shoes in particular- so much that I wear heels into the delivery room. Mindful of the fact that most of my co-workers are priests, I am careful to select modest and professional outfits. I was shocked that anyone would think I was immodest, and blown away that such a complaint would come during a pregnancy. I fired off an email complaining that my co-workers should display a little sensitivity during a time when a woman’s body changes so rapidly. It’s hard to maintain a wardrobe when clothes that are loose one week strain to contain you the next.
Modesty is a funny thing. As women, I believe we are called to respect others and to avoid leading them to sin. When I began my studies in canon law, I was the only female in my class. I learned much about the way men - priests in particular - view women. In my undergraduate days I thought it was perfectly acceptable to go to class dressed in ripped-up jeans, flip flops, and a tee shirt proclaiming my admiration for the Rolling Stones. Slowly I began to see how much my clothing and the way I carried myself conveyed to others. By the end of my first semester, I was taking care to dress in a way that (I hoped) expressed the respect I had for my classmates and professors. I was especially conscious of the fact that dressing modestly was a way of honoring my celibate classmates.
Once I graduated, I tried to carry these lessons into my professional life. I believe I do this well, for the most part. The compliment on modesty I hold most dear came from a nun who told me: “It’s so refreshing to see a young woman dressed so stylishly and looking lovely while also so modestly.” However, in my workplace, I also see that sometimes there is a tendency to think that modesty requires wearing clothing that don’t even hint at acknowledging the female body. I have met other devout Catholics who opine that pencil skirts, despite being tailored and falling past the knee, are “too sexy.” I also find there to be a double standard; there are women in the office who struggle with their weight, and frequently wear pants so tight that their panty lines are visible; however, no one complains with respect to their feelings.
Modestly is a virtue that requires a fine balance. Being immodest can certainly lead others to sin, and is usually rooted in vanity or insecurity. But taking modesty too far is also dangerous and leads to shame and depreciation of the body as sinful. Both extremes, I think, result in the objectification of women. Both extremes distort true feminine beauty. I believe that the people who complained about my maternity pants probably looked at my body the same way when I was in loose pants and a long blazer. This does not mean that I am eschewing my responsibility to dress modestly, but it also means that I, nor any other woman, should not be dressing in fear of judgment.
Shannon Fossett, JCL lives in Old Orchard Beach with her blues/rock-musician husband, Jack. She has a two year old daughter, Annabelle, a ten month old daughter, Celeste, and is ready for more whenever God is. She serves the Catholic faithful of Maine as a canon lawyer in the Diocese of Portland, and can frequently be found in her office with a baby on her lap, her fourth mug of coffee in one hand, and the Code of Canon Law in the other.
* * * * * * * *
Read the first article in our series: Kate Madore's Choosing Beauty