The Modesty Myth; Four Reasons I am no Longer Modest.
She wrote that she wished she felt as beautiful, elegant and respected in her new modern clothes as she did in her former cape dress. She is a friend on her own journey recovering from conservative Christianity and a well known church denomination (where being separate from the world is foundational doctrine) and what she wrote grabbed me.
I could not relate to her wistfulness, but I was intrigued.
I had not previously worn a cape dress, but I had been raised deep in modesty culture and was not allowed to wear pants, t shirts (they could cling), ear rings, make up, heels, and the list goes on.
It isn’t easy being a thirteen year old at age thirty; experiencing those teen years that you are supposed to experiment with your clothes, your hair, and make up, learning to appropriately and comfortably dress your body. For many of my friends raised in modesty culture this process happens much later in life when we are living on our own, and often becomes even more acute after having the first baby or two, since we have to really make a change in what works for our now very womanly shaped bodies. In the past couple years I’ve worn things in an attempt to update my look that have later made me cringe, but I refuse to beat myself up for being brave enough to try.
I am not alone in my struggle. It is a topic modesty culture women talk about a lot.
We talk about discovering how to find clothes that work with our body’s shape, without being ashamed of our assets. We talk about discovering our own sense of personal style; what kind of clothes make our hearts sing? What colors do we love? (in many ministries and churches, certain colors are either required or forbidden) What image feels like an extension of who we are? And perhaps most difficult of all for women raised in cultures of dresses and skirts where the only difference between what we wear for gardening and a wedding is how long we’ve owned the dress and perhaps cleaner shoes; we talk about how to distinguish between formal and casual.
But even though wading through the issues of style, shape, trends, preference, and body image is hard enough for the most woman today, adding a past that taught body shame as God’s gift to ‘godly women’ means these discussions truly rock both our core identity and faith.
I have found that there are four different ways modesty culture damages.
1) Modesty culture creates body shame.
Instead of celebrating our transition to womanhood, modesty culture offers newly blossomed girls one primary focus; your body is something you must learn to overcome; your body is the ultimate distraction and threat, even to your personal and every straight man’s holiness.
I have yet to talk to a girl raised in modesty culture who was encouraged to proudly own her body’s attractive qualities. Long lean, round curves, petite lines, thick, lovely ample, strong, luscious; these were not positive descriptions that even occurred to us. Our bodies were not something to embrace, but to manage, to endure.
Beyond the struggles of self image that this kind of thinking creates, its effect on our physical health is real.
You aren’t likely to take good care of something that is a threat to your holiness.
Loving the legs, arms, stomach, breasts and butt we have is foundational to nourishing and strengthening the whole of us, instead of trying to punish them into careful obscurity.
In modesty culture it is considered sinful pride and a waste for much thought or effort to be put into appearance. We were told we were to focus on developing our ‘inner beauty’ which was supposed to ideally ‘shine through’ or overcome our physical selves.
It is a very schizophrenic way to think; let yourself shine, be beautiful; but not the outside very real physical parts of you that you can see and touch, just the internal, vague spirit of who you are, well, at least the part of your spirit that is meek and sweet.
In my experience girls raised in modesty culture do a lot of smiling and serving in order to let their ‘inner beauty shine’ even though like their bodies they have learned to carefully conceal who they are with a carefully constructed image of conformity.
Coming to love and flaunt my insanely thick, curly wild hair that was never going to lie down demurely and be a quiet or unobtrusive took me years but was the start of being ok with who I am internally in spirit, a bit wild, passionate, and untamable.
2) Modesty culture is based in assumption and inappropriate responsibility.
My friend wrote how she missed being treated with ‘respect’ by men in public. I knew what she was talking about, although I had never interpreted it as respect.
I remembered. In modest dress men my age or younger next to me at the soda fountain would usually avoid eye contact and hurry away, but it didn’t mean I wasn’t noticed. Usually it was older men who would smile and try to chat while I stood in line at a checkout, and then would hurry to get the door. I never had to carry anything when I was in modest dress; there were always offers of help.
I was raised to be judgmental of the girl in halter top and shorts who all the guys in the store would instinctively notice. I was raised to see her as luring them with her body, ‘making’ them look and have feelings beyond their control. Without even addressing the issue of an individual’s responsibility for his or her own ‘feelings’, my very first realization was basic.
It was something I knew from the attention that (often) older men gave me in my modest clothes. Guess what. Some guys notice the girl in a halter top with tan lines and booty shorts, and some notice the girl in a long skirt, demure smile, and appearance of innocent purity.
At some point early on it clicked in my mind that we were being raised to view sexual attraction within a very narrow range; while some guys (and gals) get turned on by the perception of sexual availability, some are turned on by the perception of eternal innocence and impressionability.
After one particular creepy conversation with a much older man as a teen I remember struggling with the irony that my ‘modest’ attire seemed to make me more of a target for those who were attracted to the appearance of naive innocence.
It was at that point that I realized how ridiculous it was to believe that my choice of clothes could ensure that everyone around me had right thoughts. I also realized how insidious it was to suggest that half the world population was responsible for the other half; essentially making me responsible for mankind’s sexuality.
In essence modesty culture suggests that we are not simply people, equal and wholly human, a person to be liked or disliked as a whole, capable and responsible, who have a sexual aspect of our being, but we are simply something men want, and that we must be careful not to encourage their animal instincts.
Boys raised in modesty culture were taught to ‘shift their eyes’ away from women who showed too much, to avoid deliberately being/staying in the presence of an immodest woman. Some churches encouraged the girls in the family to ask her father and brothers if what she was wearing was ‘to revealing’ which reinforced the idea that the girls were nothing more than breasts and butts that even a male family member could/should scrutinize.
3) Modesty culture destroys identity and creates complete objectification.
“I feel like people knew who I was and what I believed”. My friend was lamenting that her change of clothes changed how she believed she was perceived. No longer did her clothes speak for her in the same way.
‘Yes, but isn’t that lovely?” I asked, surprised. “Now there are no superficial barriers! They have to ask!”
The very foundation of modesty culture is the belief in judging others based on appearance.
Wearing the specifically prescribed clothes provide quick easy identification of who you are and what you stand for; no personal introduction necessary.
No one needs to get to know you, to ask your opinion, to even care if you have one; at a glance they can make a sweeping judgment about what you believe, and your role in society; which for modest women is clearly limited and pre-defined. Grocery shopping, raising children, serving the community and cleaning house is what can be reasonably expected from a modest woman in her place.
Conformist clothes can provide a sense of belonging, it is clear you are a part of an established social and religious circle and everyone knows it.
For my friend and others I know still in that culture this feels safe, and comforting. I felt like it was a straight-jacket for my soul. However, for both of us leaving this sense of identity, no matter our previous feelings has proven to be difficult.
My friend misses the simple, uncomplicated and straight forward appearance of her former life; her outside reflected a simple, well organized internal system of belief, while now her appearance matches her internal growth (somewhat awkward, still in process, and slowly expanding).
I remember relishing the freedom I felt wearing the most average, mundane clothing possible which meant I could walk into a public place and NOT be noticed, not judged, not ‘put in my place’ with a glance. I craved the chance to be seen as a person that would take time to get to know, to be granted gracious anonymity of faith, free of stereotyped perceptions. I could finally be seen as a person, instead of part of a whole.
However despite my eagerness, the reality of the perception of others and assumed identity proved hard to shake.
I remember in past years mid-transition feeling conflict at the oddest moments. I remember the first few times I was in public dressed entirely unnoticeably in the most average pair of loose jeans and t-shirt and walking by women I didn’t know dressed like I used to, and realizing that they did not make eye contact and smile or nod as they would have; the silent acknowledgement that exists between those of like; I had become invisible. I was like the rest.
I remember the confusion, and even the unexplainable hurt. They didn’t know me, they didn’t know who I was; they had no idea that I WAS them; that at the time my beliefs were still nearly the same as theirs, wrapped in a different package; as far as they were concerned I was the ‘other’, lost, unknowing, and in need of change. I was being dismissed at a glance.
It was the first time I had experienced what I was told were righteous, ‘loving’ perceptions used against me and it felt like anything but righteousness or love.
As much as it hurt I realized that judgment and acceptance are mutually exclusive. I couldn’t control their judgments’ of me and my walk with God any more than I could control someone lusting after me, and that was ok; that wasn’t my job, nor the job of my denim skirt or trendy skinny jeans.
Modesty culture teaches you that your appearance is a vital part of your ‘witness’, which basically means your level of holiness and commitment. In a culture rooted in the belief that your clothes tell everyone around you everything you needed to know, there really isn’t an option other than to believe that a girl in a short skirt is ‘asking’ for sexual attention/abuse or a girl in a long skirt is ‘demonstrating’ her holiness. The thought of a mini skirt missionary or long skirt Pharisee destroys the whole premise.
After all, if what we wear doesn’t matter; how will we know who loves God more?
Without my clothes, makeup and hair doing the talking for me, I realized I would have to find a way to express my faith through words, through relationships. To people who actually cared what I thought and bothered to ask. It was both overwhelming and exhilarating.
4) Modesty culture is inescapably rooted in status.
Despite what the modesty culture suggests through its dogma, it definitely isn’t men who are most conscious of what women are wearing; it is other women.
Any woman can tell you that the moment she walks into a room she is simultaneously being observed and is simultaneously observing every other woman present and we are judging ourselves against the standard we see. We see, we know. It is instantaneous and unconscious. We know who has the shortest (longest) skirt, the most cleavage, the tinniest waist, the biggest smile, the nicest hair.
In a modest conscious culture, there is constant awareness and obsession. Hemlines, necklines, and darts are noticed and critiqued within 1/8 of inches; the thickness of fabric, even the texture; each detail matters. It is a value system just as real, just as ruthless and just as cruel as the most fashion forward and label obsessed circles, but with higher stakes since the currency isn’t just a woman’s financial ability, but her standing with God.
I doubt there is a young girl raised in modesty culture who hasn’t had the soul destroying experience of having an older woman pull her aside to criticize her already limited choice of clothes as ‘inappropriate’. One that comes to mind for me is being at a public event and walking down a flight of stairs wearing for the first time a long, flowing button down jumper. (Because I am tall, length was ALWAYS an issue, and I couldn’t believe I had found a dress so long at the thrift store that came to my ankles.)
It was a rare moment where I actually felt pretty and confident, until I reached the bottom of the stairs and was pulled aside by an older woman who pointed out that the buttons on my dress ended about 18 inches above the bottom of the floor which was ‘quite a distraction’ and hurried me to a bathroom where she pulled out safety pins to save me from causing others to sin.
I was crushed. My smile was gone; how could I have been so careless? I never wore that dress again.
Now I know that nothing is as beautiful as a confident woman, and that even my baggy dress or pulled back frizzy hair couldn’t hide my young, innocent loveliness in that rare moment of confidence; beauty that was seen as a threat, and something to be quickly suppressed.
The dark side of modesty culture is that if a woman really believes that the men in her life are truly susceptible to natural attraction to other woman with limited or no culpability, other women are her biggest threat.
Find a woman who believes her husband’s wandering eye is the responsibility of poorly dressed women and you will find the loudest and most vocal supporter of other women’s modesty. Put that woman around attractive young girls and women with sincere hearts and insecurity and watch carnage of the soul begin. There is no shame storm equal to that created by an insecure woman.
The modesty myth promises a world of purity.
The modesty myth says that my choices determine yours. The modesty myth suggests that my worth and value depend on YOUR perception of me. That somehow my clothes and your eternal soul are connected.
The modesty myth teaches me that my body is inherently shameful, should be covered and that it is my job to protect you from yourself.
Modesty teaches me that I am my body. When I am young, beautiful, and shaped just right, I have to be careful to hide it because that is what men cannot help but want. What does that say about my body when I am older and my body has changed?
Modesty teaches me that I should be treated with honor, respect, and value based on the clothes I wear. What does this say about how I see and treat others?
Modesty teaches that a woman’s choice in clothes can tell you everything you really need to know about that woman; her interests, her beliefs, her past, her future without ever speaking to her. What this mean I assume about those around me?
Modesty teaches appearance is the most important representation of who I am; it eliminates the need for our spirits and souls to connect, to see, or to know others for who they really are. Modesty allows me to carefully avoid ever really being seen or known.
It’s why I am no longer modest. I have chosen to be seen. I have chosen to see others.
It is terrifying. It is freeing.
We are beautiful.
This Present Mom,