Monday, July 16, 2012

On Modesty and Bikinis

This was a guest post for Elizabeth Hillgrove's "Bikini, Biki-no" series on Startling the Day. Thank you for hosting!

Coming from a (beginner's level) Theology of the Body perspective, I seek to point out the general reason and purpose of modesty, and how it fits into deciding on a swimsuit.
At times, when the topic of modesty comes up in discussion, it quickly becomes a debate over which gender bears the most responsibility. Should the most modest women walk around completely covered? Or, should the most honorable men walk around blind-folded? What about modesty for men? Should they be covered too? I think that this “responsibility debate” both dodges and underplays the real issue at hand, which is the intrinsic value of our bodies.

Our bodies are intrinsically valuable because we are human persons. The value of our bodies does not come from ourselves or from others. The value of our bodies comes from our creator, in whose own image we are made. To deny the dignity of our body is to deny God. Our dignity is directly derived from God, and without God, there is no source for human dignity.

It is appropriate to consider the proper treatment of our bodies in light of this very fact. Because our bodies have such value, Karol Wojtyla tells us, “the role of ... the means to an end determined by a different subject is contrary to the nature of a person.”(1) This means that the use of one person’s body by another for the purpose of pleasure or gain is contrary to the dignity of the person. We are told in Theology of the Body that the opposite of love is, in fact, not hate, but use. It is our responsibility not to encourage the use of our own body or that of another as a mere object. To do so is a profanation of the human body. Lust is the common name of that act of using the human body as an object.

What does it mean to use the body as an object? “Objectification” is defined ( as “to present as an object, especially of sight, touch, or other physical sense.” In this definition, the first emphasized sense is that of sight. I think one of the easiest and most clear means of presenting one's body as an object occurs in situations in which that body is scantily clad. Scant clothing automatically sexualizes the body, and invites others, people you don't even know, to use your body for pleasure. It makes the body into a tool for a purpose, a means to an end. Use is still use, even if it is visual rather than physical. Our bodies are too inherently dignified to be subjected to such a purpose.

Modesty is not about shame. It is not about being ashamed of our bodies, as if they should not be admirable. Modesty is about dignity and reverence. We are created in the image and likeness of God. Our bodies are so very admirable, that they cannot and should not be reduced to common usage as objects. When we clothe our bodies, we need to take this fact into consideration. Are we presenting our bodies in a way that conveys as well as engenders respect, or are we presenting our bodies as objects for use?

Modesty is not about whose responsibility it is to cover up or not to look. Modesty is a recognition and a declaration of one's own dignity; the sanctity of one's own body.  The holiest part of the Jewish temple was always veiled, not because of shame, but because of reverence.  Likewise with our bodies, which we cover, not by reason of shame, but by reason of reverence.  Fulton Sheen called it "reverence for the mystery" and lamented its loss in the modern world.  To present the body in a bikini may risk unveiling what should be hidden and inviting for use and profanation that which should be reverenced. 

(1) Karol Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 28.


  1. "Modesty is a recognition and a declaration of one's own dignity; the sanctity of one's own body". This is very well said. And that being said, I think we must all be careful to recognize the way in which any person is recognizing his or her dignity, and not necessarilly presume that certain clothing always means they are inviting objectification.
    Modesty can be a difficult conversation precisely for the reason that it is about an individual's belief about themselves more than it is about the "other's" belief about that person and his or her body.
    I do like your take on this... it's a good conversation to continue.

    1. Thanks Christine! To use your analogy, I'm kind of only scratching the surface here. There is plenty more to be said.
      It's also a difficult topic since the modesty of attire can also tie into appropriateness for the activity. For instance, as a bathing suit I wear a tankini with a skirt. I think it is relatively modest for swimming, and not inappropriate considering that circumstance. In no way, however, is the length of that swim skirt appropriate for going to Church or to work though.