April 2, 2005 | I was recently reflecting on what it was that made me so interested in modesty over the past few years. To know me you would know that there were quite a few years in which I could be categorized as a "hoochi mama." "Hoochi mama" is a term I picked up from my little brother who uses it to refer to girls who dress a bit on the skimpy side. As a teenager I never had a figure that I was terribly comfortable with, but in my early twenties I finally had a body that I was willing to show off, and accordingly, did. Then I had a wake-up call.

I was talking with a male friend who on a beautiful May day confessed how much he dreaded Spring. "How on earth could you not love Spring?" I asked. He replied that as a woman I could not understand what it was like to be a man who, after months of winter's imposed modesty, was suddenly bombarded with so much female flesh! This was no ordinary guy but rather a nice Catholic boy who made every effort not to objectify women. "I have to spend all of Spring and Summer with my eyes on the concrete. It's horrible!" he told me. Sitting there in my micro mini skirt and noticing for the first time how his eyes darted from mine to the pavement, I felt terrible. All that time I had thought that being "liberated" meant that I could wear whatever I wanted when it really meant that I was being inconsiderate to those around me. My turn to modesty had begun.

I now resolved to change. But, I found, that can often be difficult. Despite being a "hoochi mama," I was still one of the more reserved women that I knew. Was that enough? Were there not some kind of guidelines for decent dress that I could simply follow? Growing up in a Catholic girl's school, we had to wear skirts that were long enough so that when Mrs. Moses ordered us to kneel, our hems would brush the floor. Now that was a rule, clear and simple. But there were no such rules now. Besides, it was virtually impossible at the time to find a skirt that came anywhere near that length! So in contemplating its practical applications, I found I had to further contemplate a philosophical understanding of modesty.

I began to realize that in my "hoochi mama" days, instead of showing off my cool new figure, I was actually degrading it by making it so easily accessible to any viewer. Despite some of the protests of my friends, I began to realize that modesty is not about sexual shame or a negative attitude toward the body; instead it is very much pro-body and pro-woman. Who knew?

Another thing I learned was that the word modesty, in its origin, simply means "to moderate." When St. Thomas Aquinas deals with modesty in the Summa Theologiae he links it to the virtue of prudence. Between moderation and prudence, we can thus understand better how to deal with modesty in this day and age where there are so few guidelines concerning dress. To me, applying moderation to this concept means that on the sliding scale of today's fashions the modest girl will land somewhere in between the prude and the exhibitionist.

But there is a small problem with this handy ruler. To be somewhere in the middle of the sliding scale of today's fashions can still be pretty, well, hoochi mama! In fact, that is where I already was when I started this journey. And like I said, I was one of the more conservatively dressed girls I knew.

Further contemplation led me to see that this immodesty in our culture, was only the tip of the iceberg. This was not just a fashion issue, but a much deeper problem with our current age.

When women of the sixties and seventies were encouraged to take on a more male nature, they abandoned and, in some cases, suppressed the beauty of female nature. By nature I don't mean the body per se, but rather what is greatest about women: things like compassion, fidelity, warmth, and a capacity to nurture. But today we are to suppress all these virtues, and be feminine in body only.

The Demi Moore character in the movie "Disclosure" is a great example of this new model, a creature with the heart and head of a man but the body of a woman, which she is glad to use.

I think that understanding and cultivating these lost feminine virtues can help us in our quest to act and dress better. Like most virtues, modesty has to be informed by other, greater virtues or we run the risk of going overboard—or slipping back into our hoochi mama days. Yes, dressing differently is a good start in reacquiring other beautiful and necessary feminine qualities.

But this cuts both ways. In order to be modest, we need to work on a few of those other virtues at the same time. This is what was so interesting to me about the encounter with my cement-staring friend. My immodesty was not just about me but about a lack of consideration for him and other men—at least, for the men who were trying to be good and not look at women as objects. If I had been honest with myself, I would have realized that by dressing the way I did, I was hoping to have all men fall in love with me—and then they couldn't have me! What kind of game was that? But the more I tried to become virtuous in other parts of my life (being honest with others and myself, caring for others first and cultivating my mind) the easier it was to practice modesty and with little effort.

But the greatest reward for making these changes has been something I least expected: happiness. And since this is a "confession," I have to admit that the greatest by-product of that happiness has been to win the heart of a wonderful man. Had I met him in my "hoochi mama" days, he too would have been too busy staring at the cement to notice and fall in love with me.

Alexandra Ryan Foley grew up in Boston where she received a BA in English and Art History from Boston University. She is currently a stay-at-home mother of three living in Central, Texas, and also the author of Cheap Dates of Boston: More Fun for Less Money.

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