Modesty: Does it have a place in choosing a swimsuit?

As we prepare to venture to the pool or the beach, we are faced with inevitable decisions about swimwear. Some of us dread the scenario because we think we’re being judged on the amount of skin we decide to expose. Some of us don’t want to put on a swimsuit at all because we don’t like how our bodies look. And then there’s the matter of finding a swimsuit that matches our style. With so many factors involved, what should we think about as we decide what kind of swimsuit to wear?

I grew up in a community that was strict about dress and “modesty.” I believe there were two motives behind being forced to cover up anything that revealed I was female: First, those enforcing the rules were concerned that if I revealed a certain amount of skin, it would send the wrong message about who I was, my actions, or my intentions. The second purpose was to refrain from attracting unwanted attention or becoming a source of temptation for the males I encountered. I’ve found that this type of rhetoric tends to focus on the negative: “Don’t do this so bad things won’t happen.” But this can teach us that our bodies are bad and need to be covered up. This line of thinking, especially when we’re young, plants a seed that can grow into an unhealthy view of our bodies.

Choosing Comfort and Confidence

Because I was raised in such a strict modesty mentality while also having an interest in fashion, trends, and beauty, it was hard to find clothes that fit all of the criteria I cared about. I wanted clothing I felt confident in and that presented me to others in the way I wanted by expressing my style and personality in a way that flattered my body. Clothing also had to have enough coverage so I could feel comfortable in it. This led me to study apparel design in college, and eventually start and design a line of women’s swimwear to fill this gap.

When I’m designing a new style, I walk through every step of wearing a swimsuit:

How will I feel putting this on? Is it comfortable? What will happen when I bend over, swim, run, or lay down to sunbathe? How will I feel when I wear this around my mom, or brother? Or a priest? Or the guy I’m interested in? Or my 13-year-old niece? Or the creepy guy across the pool?

The main litmus test is, “Do I feel comfortable and do I feel confident?” I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to wear anything that isn’t comfortable.

Recently, I was at a wedding reception wearing a dress that was slightly too tight and a bra that dug into my sternum. I spent the end of the night counting the minutes until I’d be able to free myself from the bondage of ill-fitting clothes. On the flip side, I get a slight high and spring in my step when I think I look good, that my clothes flatter my body and figure. I feel confident, and so I’m able to show up as my best self to those around me. My hope with my designs is that every woman has options she can feel comfortable and confident in.

While the attitudes surrounding modesty that I grew up around were not helpful to me in navigating these decisions, the true meaning of modesty provides better guidance. By evaluating our context and intentions in light of the deeper meaning of modesty, our decisions about swimwear can be rooted in freedom, rather than fear or shame.

Context is Everything

As I’ve grown older, I have come to a deeper understanding of what modesty means. I would define modesty as thoughtfully deciding how much we reveal of ourselves to others based on the context we’re in.

You could wear lingerie with your spouse, which would be totally appropriate. However, wearing lingerie on your first blind date would be revealing too much of yourself to that man, in that context. That man on the first date does not yet deserve to see your body in all its beauty. The action is objectively the same – wearing lingerie – but because of the respective relationships with the men in either context, the best kind of clothing is different.

Going back to swimwear, St. John Paul II explained that before we “pass moral judgment on a particular form of dress we have to start from the particular functions which they serve.” He continued to say that, “When a person uses such a form of dress in accordance with its objective function we cannot claim to see anything immodest in it, even if it involves partial nudity. Whereas the use of the costume outside its proper context is immodest and is inevitably felt to be so. For example, there is nothing immodest about the use of a bathing costume at a bathing place, but to wear it in the street or while out for a walk is contrary to the dictates of modesty.”

As he says, there is nothing wrong with wearing a bathing suit that is functional in the context in which you are wearing it. Plus, any woman who has tried to use the restroom in a soaking wet one-piece knows that sometimes having a separate top and bottom is more practical.

At the same time, we should thoughtfully examine our reasons for choosing to wear a particular swimsuit.

Good Intentions

Our intentions matter when we decide which swimsuit to wear. We can ask ourselves questions like:

What is my purpose in choosing to wear this swimsuit? Is it for function? Is it so I can look my best? So I can feel my best? So I can show up as my best self to those around me? Am I trying to look sexy for the men around me? Am I hoping others might feel jealous? Am I ashamed of my body? Am I being overly concerned and therefore wanting to cover up more than is necessary in this context?

Ultimately, it is only us, in conversation with God, who can answer these questions.

The line of teaching that says, “Our bodies can lead to bad things, so we need to hide them,” can lead to us being too hard on our bodies and not viewing them with respect. I’ve spoken to many women who don’t like being seen in a swimsuit because they don’t like how they look or they end up comparing themselves to others.

Instead of bowing to the pressure of judgment, shame, and societal beauty standards, let's remember that our bodies are a part of God's creation, which He called “very good.”He didn't say our bodies are very good only if they have perfectly toned abs, if they haven't been through trauma, or only if they’re wearing the latest trend. He “looked at everything He had made, and found it very good.”

This piece was originally written for FemCatholic

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