Outerwear or Underwear?
Here’s a curious thing. A couple years ago I started noticing that women had done away with their skirts, and were walking around in public wearing nothing but tights (which I had always thought of as undergarments) below the waist. This seemed to me to create certain problems in regard to feminine modesty, but few others seemed to find it remarkable.
|A Young Lady wearing "Yoga Pants" and a magazine ( uscatholic.org)|
I was soon made to understand that when tights were promoted from underwear to outerwear they earned the right to be called “yoga pants”, and that no one but a few stuffy old geezers had any objections. I had almost despaired of anybody in the Catholic world even posing the question of whether women in public places really ought to be displaying the contours of their bodies in quite such exacting detail when I came across an article called “Yoga Pants And Catholic Social Teaching”, authored by Stephen Schneck, Director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America. “Ah”, I thought, “no doubt Dr. Schneck will address the dehumanizing effects of fashions that present women as sex objects, or the importance Catholic tradition places on modesty and mutual respect between the sexes, or perhaps even the importance of purity.”
The Bait and Switch
Well, no. Dr. Schneck mentions the trendy, form-hugging women’s wear only as a hook to draw readers to a brief discussion on the role of the economic marketplace in Catholic Social teaching. The result is a missed opportunity, and a disservice to both topics. He says:
How many millions of us have purchased yoga pants or baseball hats with flat brims? No doubt some of us do yoga and play baseball and need the appropriate uniform, but something else is going on here. Where did our desire to make those purchases come from? . . . the marketplace that is fashion . . .
Catholic social teaching says nothing about yoga pants or baseball caps. But the church does say something about market forces . . . Traditional church teachings have some issues with markets.
And off he goes. First of all, while it’s true the words “yoga pants” never appear in any magisterial documents, I think one can make the case that the Church never the less has rather a lot to say on the topic, as we shall see below. But first, a word or two about Dr. Schneck’s primary target, the role of markets in the Church’s Social Teaching, which is more relevant to the topic of modesty than it may at first sound. Catholic teaching on economics is a very complex topic, and it’s hard to do it justice in a short article (and I speak as one who has tried, for instance in my post “Pope Francis Is Not A Communist . . . He’s A Catholic”). Dr. Schneck does do a good job of summarizing the negative side of the Church’s teaching. He points out that markets function outside of our control. He refers to Pope Francis’s comment that they “have no human face”, and can have destructive consequences, especially for “those people who live on the margins of society.”
The Dignity of the Human Person
|Papal teaching emphasizes the dignity of the human person (Reuters)|
Any technical solution which science claims to offer will be powerless to solve the serious problems of our world if humanity loses its compass, if we lose sight of the great motivations which make it possible for us to live in harmony, to make sacrifices and to treat others well. Believers themselves must constantly feel challenged to live in a way consonant with their faith and not to contradict it by their actions. (Laudato Si’ 200, my bold type)
Ironically, in yoga pants Schneck introduces a perfect vehicle to illustrate the dynamic among market forces, morality, and personal choices, but he drops it as soon as he starts drawing close to his proper target. By speaking of yoga pants so dismissively, he suggests that this is one instance in which we can comfortably let the market choose for us. He reinforces this impression with his breezy closing: “My best thinking happens, coincidentally, as I walk, with my baseball cap worn the old-fashioned way. If yoga pants do the trick for you, go for it.” I think he is mistaken. I think that yoga pants are a perfect example of how the market can override our better judgment. In this case, our desire to be fashionable, or our fear of seeming prudish, can lead us to ignore the virtue of modesty.
The Virtue That Dare Not Speak Its Name
Modesty is a very unfashionable concept today. Even Dr. Schneck’s sly suggestion that there just might be an objection to yoga pants, which he introduces only to swat it away as a non-issue, elicits numerous indignant comments such as “Oh, come on, it’s only yoga pants!” And it’s true that this particular style of dress (or near-undress), in and of itself, does not spell the doom of Western Civilization. At the same time, there are serious reasons well-grounded in Catholic teaching and tradition to criticize this form-fitting fashion. More than that, the widespread acceptance of yoga pants makes them an excellent example of the sort of groupthink whose deleterious effects Dr. Schneck decries in economic markets.
So is there or isn’t there a Catholic teaching on yoga pants? Well, we must concede that the term “yoga pants” does not appear in any magisterial document, but a great deal has been said over the centuries about purity and modesty. Below are excerpts from the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s lengthy summation of this voluminous body of teaching (bold italics mine):
2518 The sixth beatitude proclaims, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." "Pure in heart" refers to those who have attuned their intellects and wills to the demands of God's holiness, chiefly in three areas: charity; chastity or sexual rectitude; love of truth and orthodoxy of faith. There is a connection between purity of heart, of body, and of faith . . .
2519 The "pure in heart" are promised that they will see God face to face and be like him. Purity of heart is the precondition of the vision of God. Even now it enables us to see according to God, to accept others as "neighbors"; it lets us perceive the human body - ours and our neighbor's - as a temple of the Holy Spirit, a manifestation of divine beauty.
II. THE BATTLE FOR PURITY
2520 Baptism confers on its recipient the grace of purification from all sins. But the baptized must continue to struggle against concupiscence of the flesh and disordered desires . . .
2521 Purity requires modesty, an integral part of temperance. Modesty protects the intimate center of the person. It means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden. It is ordered to chastity to whose sensitivity it bears witness. It guides how one looks at others and behaves toward them in conformity with the dignity of persons and their solidarity.
|Feminine, attractive, and modest: Tia Alese Wong in her "Modest Church Look"|
2522 Modesty protects the mystery of persons and their love . . . Modesty is decency. It inspires one's choice of clothing. It keeps silence or reserve where there is evident risk of unhealthy curiosity. It is discreet.
2523 There is a modesty of the feelings as well as of the body. It protests, for example, against the voyeuristic explorations of the human body in certain advertisements, or against the solicitations of certain media that go too far in the exhibition of intimate things. Modesty inspires a way of life which makes it possible to resist the allurements of fashion and the pressures of prevailing ideologies.
2524 . . . Teaching modesty to children and adolescents means awakening in them respect for the human person.
2525 Christian purity requires a purification of the social climate. It requires of the communications media that their presentations show concern for respect and restraint. Purity of heart brings freedom from widespread eroticism . . .
So, when we are judging a fashion or manner of dress (again, yoga pants are just an example) from a genuinely Catholic Christian perspective, we need to ask ourselves: does it discourage or encourage “voyeuristic explorations of the human body”? Does it bring “freedom from widespread eroticism” or instead ensnare the wearer (and potentially observers) in that eroticism by encouraging "unhealthy curiosity"? Does it promote “the dignity of persons” and “respect for the human person”?
The Eyes Have It
Former beauty queen and television newscaster Colleen Hammond has written extensively on the subject of modesty in women’s dress. In her book Dressing with Dignity, Hammond shares the results of studies done by advertisers in the 1960’s and 70’s, when “pants became common attire for women and girls for school, work and even church.” The data held some interesting conclusions:
Advertising agencies quickly prepared marketing research to find out the reaction of men to a woman wearing pants. Do you know what they found? Using newly developed technology, they tracked the path that a man’s eyes take when looking at woman in pants. They found that when a man looked at a woman in pants from the back, he looked directly at her bottom. When he looked at a woman wearing pants from the front, advertisers found that his eyes dropped directly to a woman’s most private and intimate area. Not to her face! Not to her chest! (Dressing With Dignity, 49)
That sounds an awful lot like “voyeuristic explorations of the human body” to me. And these studies were done on women wearing ordinary pants. Consider how much more profound the effect when women are appearing in public (and, yes, even in church) wearing pants that are little better than a coat of paint over their bottom and “most private and intimate area.”
Enter The Gladiatrix
Speaking of paint . . . well, let’s just say that it’s getting harder to separate the literal from the metaphorical these days. In other words, we now come to the curious case of one Ronda Rousey. Miss Rousey has achieved fame as a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter. That is to say, she makes her living beating the daylights out of other women for the amusement of the (mostly male) crowd. And she’s good at it, or was. She was the first female MMA champion, and went undefeated until last November, when she lost a match to a young woman named Holly Holm. She didn’t just lose: she was knocked out by a kick to her face that put her out of commission for a long time. As an article on People.com explained several weeks after the fight:
The stitches in her lip still dissolving, and a few of her teeth still unstable from Holm's fight-ending kick to the face, Rousey admits to ESPN The Magazine in its "Ideas of the Year" issue, on newsstands Friday: "It might be three to six months before I can eat an apple, let alone take an impact."
Even now, almost a year later, it doesn’t look like Miss Rousey will be able to return to her chosen profession anytime soon, certainly not until 2017 at the earliest.
|Ronda Rousey, clothed and out of the arena|
This raises some interesting questions. Was Miss Rousey clothed, or was she naked? It’s true that her painted “suit” covered quite a bit more of her body than the scanty bikinis that the swimsuit models usually wear, and from the right angle it looks like she’s wearing a fairly unremarkable one-piece bathing suit. On the other hand, how many of us wouldn’t object if our wife or daughter (or mother!) proposed going out in public wearing nothing but a coat of paint? I suspect that most of us would insist that she cover her body with some actual fabric.
What Goes Around Comes Around
Which brings us back to the topic of yoga pants. How much more cover is provided, really, by the thin spandex-like fabric of yoga pants than by Miss Rousey’s body paint? It’s a question that we ought to take seriously. “Oh, come on, it’s only yoga pants!” I know, I know, yoga pants are not going to End The World As We Know It, but they are an example of just how well (or poorly) we are respecting the human person these days, particularly when that person is a woman. Consider that not only are we sending our women out in public wearing “pants” that are barely distinguishable from a coat of paint: we are watching them knock each other’s teeth out for our entertainment; we had a Republican presidential debate before the New Hampshire primary in which not one of the candidates who was asked about it raised an objection to drafting our daughters and sisters into the armed forces; those same armed forces themselves have just changed long-standing policy that kept women out of combat specialties such as the infantry, which means many more women sent directly into the maw of war. And we wonder why violence against women continues to be a problem.
Our Lord tells us: "He who is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and he who is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much” (Luke 16:10). Likewise, those who are disrespectful in small things will be disrespectful in large ones as well. The little things matter. I’m not telling anybody what to wear, but I am suggesting that we who call ourselves Catholic should take the teaching of our Church seriously (teaching which, not surprisingly, tends to respond to common sense, not fashion). Our choices need to be guided by a conscience formed by Christ’s precepts, and He has appointed the Church as the preserver and teacher of those precepts. We have also been promised that obeying God will make us happy: “For I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil” (Jeremiah 29.11). So, look around you: would you rather see the women in your life treated like the Blessed Mother, or like Ronda Rousey?