Making Sense of Modesty (2)

In the first article in this series we looked at modesty from the perspective of the dynamics of sexual attraction. Here we leave aside the question of sexual attraction to look more generally at women's aspiration to be beautiful.

Lessons from History

Is there anything wrong with a woman trying to make herself look more attractive?

Nowadays most people would probably wonder why anyone would even ask that question. Yet there is a history that explains why some people might. In the Bible there are plenty of warnings against vanity and of adorning oneself so as to attract attention. In some other cultures too women who dressed to attract attention were looked down upon.

Something which we now take completely for granted - lipstick - was originally considered to be only for women of low reputation. In that case it is easy enough to imagine the cause. Something like lipstick would have been rare and expensive, and only those women who used it 'professionally' could likely afford it. But the rich could also. In a culture such as that in which the Bible was written both the rich and city dwellers lived under some opprobrium from the more austere standards of the nomadic peoples.

The kind of injunctions against vanity found in the Bible were commonly directed against the rich who were the only ones able to live lives of luxury and decadence.

Add to that the natural inclination to react against new-fangled things such as lipstick and makeup.

Such things became 'tarred with the same brush' and sometimes came under condemnation, as handy symbols for the kind of thing that was wrong with the rich.

Distinguishing Appearance and Reality

As time goes on, the material things that symbolise something can come to have a different meaning. Lipstick and makeup no longer have the meaning they had back then. They are widely available means that women use to enhance their attractiveness. But sometimes people have difficulty disentangling the symbol and the reality, so that opprobrium can be attributed unfairly.

In such a way the notion of 'vanity' came to be thought of as any attempt by a woman to use artifice to make herself look more attractive.

And this leads on to the notion that there is something wrong with wanting to be more attractive. Such a judgement is too undiscriminating.

A woman might indeed be vain about her appearance, but in what does such vanity consist? It is not in the simple desire to appear beautiful. It is in an attitude of presumption that seeks disproportionate attention at the expense of others. She seeks power through her beauty and sees it, not as a gift, but as her own possession, which she can use as she sees fit.

A Question of Balance

Once you affirm the desire to be attractive as something good, you also have to approve means of adornment that are suitable. You cannot fall back to a position of blanket condemnation, but must use discernment. This means identifying the principles by which a balance can be found.

Those who seek a simplistic measure are tempted to identify the desire to be more attractive as being in itself the source of the problem.

It's true that if you abandon that desire then you no longer have to try and discern appropriate means from inappropriate means. You gain the moral clarity of a single principle, yet it is a mistaken principle, and one that inhibits a legitimate development.

The actual principle is to see one's beauty as a gift entrusted to you for the sake of others. Artifice and adornment then are means of enhancing this gift. The task of discernment then becomes more interior. It is not just about the means, but about the genuineness of one's intentions.

Just as the process of cultivation uses artifice to enhance outer beauty, so this calls for a more interior growth in discernment and a progressive purification of motives. The outer expression then can become the catalyst for interior refinement.

Going to Extremes

In what has been said so far we can identify two ways in which people can go to extremes.

The first occurs when you formulate a rule based on the principle that vanity consists in the desire to be more attractive.

If this really is the moral rule then women would be forbidden from doing anything that might make them attractive. At best they could simply be 'natural', eschewing any adornment but not having to hide or downplay such beauty as they might have.

However, once you adopt that underlying principle, pressure is also likely to arise to begin hiding such beauty as you do have. Since the most conscientious are usually looking for ways to be more virtuous, it's an easy step to conclude that actively downplaying your beauty, and hiding it would be more virtuous than simply leaving it be. This also happens for reasons such as envy, since some women are naturally more beautiful than others, so why should they gain an advantage? If everyone covers up then not only do they all avoid vanity but they also remove causes of envy.

The second extreme occurs when you formulate a rule based on a right to be attractive.

This goes to the opposite extreme and abolishes the concept of vanity altogether. Since there is nothing inherently wrong with a woman's desire to be attractive, what principle could there be that placed limits on it? Why could any means not be used?

However, once you adopt that underlying principle, there is no principle that would limit competition between women. And having rejected the notion of vanity, why not use the power of beauty to get you what you want? Since men can often give women what they want women can use their sexual attractiveness as they see fit to attract men.

A Modest Beauty

We began by affirming women's desire to be beautiful. Then we identified two ways in which this can get out of balance. Then how an imbalance can become an extreme. So we end up with two results that defy common sense.

The first extreme eventually leads to women being completely covered up, and the second to their being completely uncovered.

So even though we didn't begin with any focus on women's sexual attractiveness, we end up with two extremes related to it.

In the process we have affirmed a legitimate desire of women to enhance their beauty, and that in order for that desire to be realised a balance must be struck. This involves the exterior balance of suitable means, and the interior balance of a modest attitude.

Modesty not only respects men's sensibilities, it also preserves solidarity among women.

This clarifies the core meaning of modesty. Whereas vanity is self-centred, modesty is other-centred.


Let us conclude with a Bible quote:

Do not let your adornment be external—the braiding of hair and the wearing of gold jewellery, or the clothing you wear— but let your adornment be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious. (1 Peter 3: 3-4)

This should not be interpreted as forbidding external adornment as such, but as emphasising the priority of one's inner disposition. It has the sense: "Do not let your [most important] adornment be external ... but let your [most important] adornment be the hidden person of the heart".  If you get that right the other things will find the right balance. It cautions against giving too much attention to externals because this easily upsets the balance.