By now, unless you've been fruitlessly clicking Facebook all day and have thus not had time to see any news, you've heard about the Great Sesame Street Dustup of 2010, in which singer (I use the term loosely) Katy Perry recorded a video with the Muppet monster Elmo (winner of the coveted title "Muppet Most Likely to Annoy to Death Anyone Unfortunate Enough to be Stranded on a Desert Island with Him")--only to have the video posted on Youtube and then nixed by Sesame Street, because Ms. Perry was channeling her inner Tinkerbell in the wardrobe department and forgot that Peter Pan's friend is both a cartoon and flat as a pancake, whereas Ms. Perry's rather ample cleavage jiggled all over the place around the absurdly tiny triangles at the top of her bustier (which was probably being held on by toupee tape, or else by superglue, because it certainly wasn't being held on by either gravity or the rules of sufficient coverage, let alone the see-through mesh above it).
Parents were, not unreasonably, outraged that Sesame Street would be all but flashing their toddlers--though, ironically of course, many of these same parents will probably be buying Ms. Perry's music (if she's still around) for their eight-year-olds in a few years on the grounds that you can't say no to a preteen music consumer, which is the only reason Miley Cyrus ever got anywhere. Still, at least parents are still willing to protect their infants from nearly-nude bosoms, even--or perhaps especially--on Sesame Street.
Leaving aside some of the many questions this whole incident raises (e.g., should skanky pop stars be on Sesame Street in the first place, is the whole idea of Children's Television a dangerous oxymoron or a necessary aid to maternal sanity, is Elmo the last remnant of a secret Communist plot to brainwash American children into believing that "fatally annoying" and "adorable" are somehow synonymous, etc.) I find myself pondering that whole "slacks on women are eeeeevillll!" debate that went on all over the Internet last week--because one of the side-effects of insisting that modesty means "women, don't wear trousers!" is that people are less likely to pay attention when you explain that modesty means not revealing publicly that which should be concealed, such as the upper half of Katy Perry's body.
In fact, the word "monster" in English comes from a Latin word--not one meaning "fatally annoying puppet-creature," but one meaning, at least in part, "to show or point out." And the word "modesty" comes from "modestia," which means, among other things, "propriety" and "moderation or restraint."
Looking at the Catechism's discussion of modesty, as well as the roots of English words discussed above, I think we can form a few basic principles. Modesty is:
--not revealing (monstrare) that which should be concealed;
--not offending others (modestia) by impropriety--that is, deliberately being shocking or provoking in dress or action; and
--adhering to the prevailing cultural standards, when they do not conflict with the first or second principle.
A garment like the one worn by Ms. Perry in the video reveals what should not be revealed--that is, a too-large section of her cleavage including all but the central area of her breasts. Other garments that are too revealing would include short-shorts, tops which are cut too low or too skimpily, skin-tight garments, or anything whose purpose is to be revealing.
What about impropriety of dress? We live in a fairly casual time, but there are still things that are shocking or provocative. Tee shirts with obscene slogans are one example; these are another--and in addition to being shocking/provoking they turn the young women wearing them into walking advertisements, which objectifies them to a degree that is unacceptable to a Christian.
Prevailing cultural standards can be the hardest aspect to consider--our culture doesn't really have any standards any more, and is rapidly becoming a sort of negation of culture as it folds in on itself under the weight of its own decadence. But just because we see a great deal of immodesty in clothing accepted in our secular world doesn't mean as Christians we should adopt it for ourselves--the first two rules are still necessary to think about.
Here's the thing: I don't think too many serious Christians out there disagree with this in principle. In practice, though, we're stuck buying clothing in the kind of world where styles like Perry's hang all over the junior's and women's departments, and where grown women are reduced to begging manufacturers to stop making such cleavage-baring dresses and tops and start selling clothes that a career woman, mom, or anybody aside from a pop star or streetwalker might actually wear. I think it's ridiculous and frustrating that women have started needing to wear what used to be an undergarment (the "cami") and letting it be seen as an outer garment--because it beats the alternative. I think that teen boys have it pretty hard, too, since a lot of manufacturers think they want their pants to be sliding off of their rear ends, and have adjusted waist sizes and lengths accordingly.
But that doesn't mean that we ought to give up, as the parents protesting Perry pointed out today. The innate sense that modesty is an important cultural value, something especially important when we're talking about revealing private aspects of the adult body to young children, remains even in our secular culture. As Christians, we can do what it takes to make sure that our clothing is not "monstrous"--that is, that it doesn't reveal what should be hidden.
And we'll do a whole lot better job of that if we're not worrying about this or that fringe group condemning women for wearing slacks. There are, as the Perry video demonstrates excruciatingly well, better aspects of modesty to be concerned about.