A Good Heart: Let’s Ban "Modesty"

The weather is starting to warm up (obviously) and so the fellow Mommy Bloggers are out in full force with their advice on clothing modesty: focusing almost entirely on girls, and denouncing things like bikinis, short shorts, and makeup, while describing the merits of shorts under dresses, bermuda shorts, and bonnets! (kidding)

I’m left with a sort of ambivalence about all of this because while I really do believe in modesty, I also believe in bodily confidence (and staying cool in the heat), and often those things don’t go together. I’ve been working on a way to change how I personally see the term “modesty” and my expectations about how my daughter should be dressing and I think that can be changed by focusing on these two things:

1-Changing Our Definitions

I don’t like criticizing my parent’s parenting because I almost all parents really try to make the best decisions they can based on the best information they know, but I always loathed my mom’s focus on dressing modestly. It wasn’t because I wanted to dress like everyone else or anything like that but because I didn’t feel like I embodied the word “modest.” When I heard that word I would think of a demure, pleasant, placid, self-deprecating type person, which I was not. I was outgoing, crazy, and like rough aggressive sports. Not to say I was never girly, because I was…I love watching Jane Austen movies, idolized long hair, cried when my short hair made a woman call me a “sir,” and couldn’t get enough of soft stuffed animals. But still, I did not embody the kind of person we typically think of when we hear the word “modest.”

Therefore, when my mom would insist on my dressing modestly I would feel like it was an attack on who I was as a person. When she would glare at me and tell me to keep my legs together I would furrow my brow and “sit like a boy” every time she wasn’t looking.

And this is exactly the problem with words like “modesty,” which have so much baggage and character definition attached to them. I felt like I wasn’t the type of person who would embody the word “modest,” so I must then be the opposite of modest. I felt a determination to dress provocatively as a assertion of who I was….even though I’m not a provocative person either! Our culture loves dichotomies and when you’re figuring yourself out it’s so easy to come to the conclusion that “I’m not this, so I must be this…” And that kind of thinking can become really ingrained into who you actually are. Because I knew I was not the kind of person for whom it was easy to behave in a traditionally modest way, I began to believe that I was inherently a provocative person. We should call this the Miley Cyrus Conundrum: Behaving overly sexual because it is the only alternative to being completely pure.
When we grow up we realize this is not true, but it’s necessary for us to help children realize this earlier, especially since sense of identity is established somewhere between the ages of 8 and 16.

I began to see this thinking even in my young daughter, who, like me, loves boyish and un-girly things (although she can also be pretty girly when she wants), and she would constantly insist that she wanted to be a boy, although, like me, she cried when her short hair and boyish clothes would actually get her mistaken for a boy. It took a lot of convincing to get her to believe that she could be a girl and still do and like boyish things.

So when focusing on getting your children to behave in a modest way, I strongly believe that we just need to completely get rid of that word. I suggest as an alternative “temperance.” It is being moderate and self-restraint. Isn’t this after all what we’re wanting our children to be when we describe them as being modest? Modest is being temperant with your body…not throwing it out there to be oogled, not enducing provocation, restraining yourself in a normative way. Anyone can be temperant with what they have…it does not carry the heavy characterization that modesty does. Being temperant is an extenuation of having a good heart.

2- Stop Worrying About Other People

The reasoning behind so many people’s obsession with their daughter’s acting modestly seems to really be centered on not provoking people of the male variety. There is a lot wrong with that assumption but since there is a plethora of great gender studies on that topic (slut-shaming and victim blaming for instance), I’m not going to even bother.
What I do have a problem with is implied sexualization of children. I realize that everyone, even small children, are sexual beings, but there is a different between a sexual being and a sexualized being. One defines their own sexuality, the other has it imposed.

So the reason I really hate the emphasis on covering up girl’s bodies, specifically little girls, is because

a) It implies there is something that needs to be hidden, ie. that there is something sexually provocative about their child body. (This is why I always say I’d rather my daughter wear just swim bottoms with no top than wear a bikini top…It may cover her chest but it also implies that there is something there which needs to be covered, which at least while she’s young, I don’t think there is.)
b) It assumes that adults (specifically men) will not be able to resist themselves.

Both are…to say the least…distrurbing.

Imagine a world in which all men are seen as overly sexualized predetors who are not able to control themselves (hint: it’s a world we live in).

Imagine a time when your daughter goes out with some friends, including boys, wearing a low-cut shirt and you admonish her because “I can’t believe you would wear that, you know they were just staring at your chest the entire time.” “No they weren’t, they’re just friends.” “No, trust me, they were!”

Imagine that you  chide your daughter for wearing a short skirt at a family function.

What is she supposed to grow up thinking about men? If your emphasis is constantly on, “we dress this way because it’s inappropriate for you to look like that around men,” how does that skew her view of her friends, her uncles, her brothers, her father? How will that define her future relationships when there is one thing that ALL MEN want it from her? How will she use her body when she begins to want attention and romantic relationships from boys? What will her expectations be for her role in a relationship?

The point is, bodily temperance is not something you do because your sexuality needs to be hidden. In fact, it is just the opposite. It is something you do because it allows people to view you as yourself. Just as it’s still hard for people to take Matthew McConaughey seriously because he spent so much time with his shirt off, I want my children to grow up behaving modestly because they don’t feel like they need to be sexual to get attention.
Which is why I have no hard lines for How to Dress With Modesty. With every piece of clothing the question should be, “Will people be able to see me, the real me, when I wear this?” This is the kind of thing most adults do everyday, whether it’s someone who has a very eccentric style to match their eccentric personality, or a lady with a big chest who knows she can’t even wear v-necks in the office because she wants people to take her seriously, or Matthew McConaughey finally wearing a shirt and jacket when he attended the Oscars.

I hope my message to them will always be to have your outside reflect your inside; That when you have a good heart, a heart after God’s, the clothes you wear wont be following an arbitrary rule based on ideals of pure womanhood or manhood, but worn to show people the kind of person you are. That means standards of modesty will be different for every person and it is up to us parents to help guide our children to having a sense of integrity, of temperance, and of confidence.

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