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“Ask a Priest: Can What I Wear Be an Occasion of Sin for Others?”
Q: Hello! I would like some advice concerning a conflict I face. I am a teenage Catholic girl and I enjoy participating in sports (running and swimming specifically). To me, sports are a way to make new friends, become more confident in my body, and reduce the amount of stress I have from school and other things. Being able to be confident about myself is important, I think, so that I can achieve the goals I’ve set and love myself. However, participating in sports does not only bring confidence, it also brings pride over my appearance and increases my desire to dress immodestly. Since I’m not embarrassed by the way I look, I want to be able to enjoy it. I see other girls wearing skimpy clothes, getting attention from boys, and admiration from other girls. It’s not that I even want to dress that way, I just want to be “normal” and dress like everyone else, wear shorts, tank tops, dresses that come to the middle of my thighs. But I know that dressing that way is hurtful to others spiritually. It’s just so hard to see other people wearing whatever they want and knowing that I shouldn’t dress that way. What should I do and to what extent is my clothing choice responsible for causing other people to sin? -K.T.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: It is good to see that you have a spiritual sensitivity about the way you dress and your concern about being an occasion of sin for other people. This shows that the Holy Spirit is working in your heart and forming you to be a woman who can give a strong witness to your faith.
It is good that you are confident about yourself and not ashamed of your body. God gives women a special beauty, and through these daughters his glory shines in the world. Part of the beauty of women radiates in their body, but a deep part of it radiates in the mystery of a woman. Put another way, a woman’s beauty is both physical and spiritual.
When a woman shows too much of the physical, there is a danger that others, especially men, see her more as a collection of body parts. But a woman doesn’t want to be seen as simply a body; she wants to be loved and respected as a person. As a person she is a mystery, and she wants others to always appreciate that dimension of her.
The Bible brings out this distinction between external and inner beauty: “Your adornment should not be an external one: braiding the hair, wearing gold jewelry, or dressing in fine clothes, but rather the hidden character of the heart, expressed in the imperishable beauty of a gentle and calm disposition, which is precious in the sight of God” (1 Peter 3:3-4).
A few analogies might help. The most sacred place in a church is the tabernacle, where Our Lord is present in the Blessed Sacrament. Some churches still have the custom of having a veil in front of the tabernacle. Why? Because it adds to the mystery of what resides behind the tabernacle doors.
Or think of a wedding. The bride is often a model of physical beauty, yet she comes to the sanctuary veiled. Why? Because it adds to her mystery, it is her way of showing that she will reveal herself in a special way to her husband at the time they exchange vows.
Or think of something more mundane, like a movie trailer. The trailer shows only a few scenes from an upcoming movie; it might whet our appetite to see the whole movie. If it showed the whole movie, we wouldn’t bother returning to the theater.
So it is with women. A woman who dresses modestly, who hides something of herself, has a better chance of attracting people to her as a person. Modesty, in a sense, encourages others to want to know us at a deeper level, not as a collection of nice body parts.
Women will want to take this into consideration in their dealings with men. Because of physiological factors, men react differently to visual images and stimulation. Images and immodest dress can trigger chemical reactions in men. Women can knowingly or unknowingly trigger these kinds of reactions, but there can be a heavy price to pay. The cost can be the loss of respect of men, and this can lead to all kinds of nasty consequences.
Ask yourself this: What kind of young men do you want to attract? Those who will see you first and foremost as a person to be respected? Or as a body to be exploited for their own pleasure?
A woman’s choice of clothes can certainly be an occasion of sin for others, so it is something she will want to consider seriously. Shorts, tank tops, and short skirts won’t bring out the best in men; indeed, skimpy clothes could feed the fires of impurity. And more than a few women have discovered that their immodest dressing can boomerang in an unpleasant way.
It isn’t easy to live according to these deeper and more fulfilling truths when everyone around us doesn’t seem to consider them. But as followers of Christ, we are called to be influencers of others, more than being influenced by others. Surely some of the other young women you know will notice your commitment to a deeper and longer-lasting value of feminine beauty, and they will begin to ask you about it, and to follow your example.
For further reading you might check out two websites: Made in His Image and Chastity Project. You might also be interested in the philosophy behind the Pure Fashion movement, which seeks to combine modesty and beauty in a dynamic way.
In the meantime keep up your prayer life and cultivate a devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, our Mother most pure.
My guess is that modesty in dress will make you even more attractive to everyone who meets you. Count on my prayers that you always use your femininity to give glory to God.