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Modesty in the Service of Justice: Retrieving Tradition and Reversing the Gaze

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 March 2013

Cara Anthony
University of St. Thomas


In recent years, concern for “modesty” has become more prominent in American religious circles. Recent advocates of modest clothing for women voice important concerns, but also perpetuate problematic attitudes toward women, especially poor women and women of color. Thomas Aquinas' description of modesty corrects this error, because it includes modesty of the mind. Contemporary developments in moral theology then enable us to relate both mental and physical modesty to the cardinal virtue of justice, where modesty decenters the self and makes room for other people to flourish. Findings from social psychologists illuminate the dynamics of social power, and clarify specific ways that mental and physical modesty work under the rubric of justice. These findings suggest that men and women may face different challenges in the practice of modesty, and so Christians must attend to all types of modesty in order to adequately address the question of appropriate clothing.

Copyright © The College Theology Society 2009

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1 Peterson, Iver, “Princeton Students Who Say ‘No’ and Mean ‘Entirely No,’New York Times, April 18, 2005, page B3Google Scholar Late Edition, East Coast. The Anscombe Society weblog (, retrieved on September 3, 2009) features fifteen links to articles on modesty, all but two of which focus on women's attire.

2 Israelsen, Sara, “Modesty is Fashion Statement,” Salt Lake City Desert News, October 8, 2005, page B1Google Scholar, Morning edition.

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7 Responding to the view that provocatively dressed girls are “playing out male fantasies … without risk,” Susan Bordo writes, “22 to 29 percent of all rapes against girls occur when they are 11 and younger … The reality is that young girls are much more likely to be raped by friends and family members than by strangers and that very few men, whether strangers or acquaintances, are unaffected by a visual culture of nymphets prancing before their eyes, exuding a sexual knowledge and experience that preteens don't really have. Feminists used to call this ‘rape culture.’ We never hear that phrase anymore.” Susan Bordo, “The Empire of Images in our World of Bodies,” Chronicle of Higher Education vol. 50, issue 17, December 19, 2003, p. B6.

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11 Ibid., 134.

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21 I am indebted here to Delores Williams' analysis of “social-role surrogacy,” in which African American women have been forced and/or persuaded to accept responsibilities that properly belong to white women. See her chapter entitled “Social-Role Surrogacy: Naming Black Women's Oppression,” in Williams, Sisters.

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30 “The potential for objectification fosters habitual body monitoring, leaving women with surpluses of shame and anxiety, a shortage of peak motivational states, and scant awareness of internal bodily states. We argue that the accumulation of such experiences could, for some women, contribute to psychological disorders,” Fredrickson and Roberts, “Objectification Theory,” 186.

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