Maureen Pratt

Off-the-shoulder tops. Short skirts. Sheer, glittery dresses. Clothing for women? Nope. These items were in the girls department of a store I passed by one wintry day. I couldn’t help but wonder: Does modesty matter anymore? And if not, what does this mean?

By modesty, I don’t mean “put a bag over your head.” I’m thinking more about the way we dress, and, for parents, the way children are allowed to dress. Clothing reflects deeper values and a sense of dignity. It also affects the way we feel and act.

The way we dress signals to others how we want to be treated at home, in social settings or at work. I think about the next generation and wonder how they’ll handle an increasingly challenging and sexualized world, even if they are brought up with a solid foundation of faith.

I’m particularly interested in matters of modesty because so much of my life, going from doctors’ appointments to medical tests and back again, requires me to suspend some degree of modesty.

I have to wear skimpy gowns, for example, or have to describe in graphic detail symptoms in order to give a complete picture of my health to many male doctors. It’s hard to keep your dignity when you feel, at times, like a lab experiment.

Yet, for all the challenge of maintaining dignity, I’ve found it is possible to preserve a core of self-respect. It’s important because it sets in motion how others react toward us and how we behave toward others in certain situations.

One of the pieces of advice that stuck with me after I landed my first professional job was, “Dress for the job you’d like to have.” It was hard to follow this suggestion when my salary was hardly that of the “job I’d like to have.” I soon discovered it made sense. Employers, and others too, will see in our appearance clues that point to our character and aspirations.

Arriving at work looking as if you’re ready for a night on the town is hardly a way to convey, “I’m happy to be here, working.” Dressing provocatively sends a highly sexualized signal that moves your interactions with others far outside the professional.

How we dress also affects how we behave. Think about how you move, act and speak if you’re wearing sweatpants and a T-shirt, or jeans and boots, as opposed to a dress or even a plain blouse and skirt. Think of how you approach meetings at work or Mass on Sunday, especially if you look as if you’ve just rolled out of bed.

In a society that increasingly has no boundaries between dignity and base instinct, modesty and “letting it all go,” we, people of faith, need to act and appear with respect for self and others, even if it seems daunting.

These challenges will not fade, but probably increase. We can see that by looking at what’s in stores and in the media.

Future generations will need all the help they can get, beginning with a willingness to reflect on the grace, beauty and strength that comes from being a beloved child of God.