By: Amber Chinnapper

 

Purity requires modesty… and guides how one looks at others and behaves towards them in conformity with the dignity of persons and their solidarity (CCC, 2521).

 

As a young woman living in the world’s most modern and secular era, I have many times pondered and questioned various dress styles. We live in a time when any clothing style is promoted as a means of self-expression, no matter how shocking or strange. One just needs to look at the outfit choices displayed by various celebrities to realise how liberal one’s clothing (or the lack thereof) can be. But that’s the extreme. What about us ordinary folk who may not want to shock but rather express ourselves in a ‘go-with-the-general-flow’ kind of way? I few years ago I found myself questioning my dress sense and how I presented myself as someone who aspires to whole-heartedly practise my Catholic Faith.

I was brought up with a basic understanding of what was ‘inappropriate’ to wear and why. I knew that I needed to respect my body as well as try not to distract people in sexual ways, especially at Mass. However, my vision of this dress sense was one of the extremes, such as the mini-skirt, crop-top and platforms combo. Obviously that outfit was a no-go for Mass, but on certain occasions I was allowed to wear something not too different. I’ve always been told that I have a healthy young figure and that I should flaunt it when I can. So for most of my teens, and partly as a young adult, I showed a decent amount of skin without thinking it wrong. I found it quite liberating and exhilarating: hot pants, tight tees, snug little dresses on occasion etc etc. These items are the norm today, and I felt accepted and comfortable wearing them. Nonetheless, I won’t deny feeling a bit over-exposed and uncomfortable when I felt eyes lingering on me. But I decided to hush my conscience in those moments because no one prompted me to reconsider my self-presentation. Until one day in Medjugorje…

Whilst on my pilgrimage in Medjugorje my perspectives were revolutionised in a single moment. About to arrive at lunch after a long sunny walk with two friends, a middle-aged woman walked up to me and seemed to scold me with her tone of voice (speaking a foreign language) and hand gestures. She pointed at my tight, short-sleeved white top, through which my white bra was visible. I felt quite bewildered and after she departed I turned questioningly and concerned to my nun friend. She gently translated that the lady felt my top was too tight, too small and too see-through. I felt horribly offended for had never thought of it in that way. A few moments later, and still offended, another friend then gently pulled me aside to give me exactly the same information (just with less scold)! I took in what she said, and processed it over and over on my return walk. No longer was dress code an outdated, luke-warm concern. Although I’d been offended and even slightly defensive, it became something I sincerely wanted to understand in God’s and the Church’s perspective.

I became troubled with the prospect of sinning through my clothing choices, by enticing men to think impure sexual thoughts. Slipping into that kind of sin can happen to the best of us. And I felt I would do anything to help prevent such and to avoid being responsible for it. How was I, as a lay Catholic woman, to dress in this modern age? How was I to simultaneously embrace my femininity as one of God’s most beautiful and marvellous creations, without viewing my body it as something negative?

Not long after the incident, I acted upon my discomfort. I went to confession with a truly wonderful Irish priest. We must have spent nearly 30 minutes in the confessional together and I asked as many questions as I needed and received thorough answers. The insight and advice he shared with me gave me tremendous peace. My spiritual understanding of the topic just clicked into place. This is the perspective and, I believe, wisdom which I gained from that deeply spiritual and liberating encounter:

So many people argue that impure lustful thoughts on the part of others is entirely their fault. The common perspective is that a woman may dress in whatever way she pleases and that she is not responsible for the outcome and consequences of her choice of self-presentation. What I have come to realise is that this belief was for me, one founded on self-centeredness and lack of responsibility and respect for my neighbour. The choice to evoke an admiration of beauty and the choice to evoke lust are two different things. The next question issuing from this point is, what if I am unaware of the fact that I have dressed in a way which can cause men to sin? The realization that struck me is, MAKE yourself aware. CHOOSE to be aware. When dressing, I ask myself, is this appropriate and pure? I SEEK advice and insight. I can’t simply reside in an abandonment of responsibility.

The wise priest also drew my attention to the impact and significance of my state of mind. He did so through his answer to one of my questions: in the case of going to the beach, should I not wear a costume and either not enjoy a swim in the sea or resort to swimming in my clothes? I have occasionally seen women swimming in full attire, ankles to neck. Was I to do the same? His answered me wisely and with practical consideration of the different circumstance: if I go to the beach in a costume or bikini with the intention of parading and drawing attention to my body, this opens myself to my and others’ sin. However, if I wear a costume owing to the intention of swimming and because I am conforming to the norms of beach attire, this is different ciscumstances. In this frame of mind my intentions are not impure and my actions will follow suit.

In short, I have finally found the joy which comes with the realisation that feminine beauty and appeal does not lie in the sexual objectification of ourselves, but rather in the respect and admiration of our sexual being. As men, both lay and religious, have their responsibility in controlling their thoughts, so do I as women have the responsibility in helping them to do so. Female beauty, a true gift from Our Lord, may be admired in all its forms, at appropriate and God-intended times and places.

‘Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed by this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.’

– Romans 12:1-2


About the AuthorProfile Amber

Amber Chinnapper

Many times I have felt born in the wrong era. But God destined me for this one, so here I am! I am a woman who has learning to embrace and enjoy her many facets. I am artitsic, wild, traditional, and I feel deeply about the essence and truth of our individual beings. I am inspired by Mary the Mother of Jesus; classic literature and poetry; the vintage and the simple; Native American wisdom and connections to God and His creation. I need to spend time in nature and open spaces, and although I have recently moved to New Zealand, I love South Africa, my home soil. I have an inner yearning to create and to embrace health and fitness. Family life is incredibly important to me.