My family did not follow the more extreme modesty rules. My parents did not require head coverings, daily floor-length denim, or any strict uniform; they never demonized pants or department stores. My mom did buy into modesty enough to make shopping trips a stereotypical nightmare during high school. I’d want to get a V-neck blouse; she’d prefer a turtleneck. I’d want to wear jeans to church; she’d want me to wear a calf-skimming skirt. I dreamed of going gothic; she wanted me to go Victorian. Tears often ensued.
That fitting room angst wasn’t cataclysmic in itself, but it didn’t occur in a vacuum. Many of the people and institutions my family associated with touted modesty as a near-gospel truth. I understood modesty to be an absolute, a sort of ex cathedra doctrine of good Christian living. As I encountered different families’ and groups’ version of the rules, I often trusted their judgment and thus internalized their shame.
It’s hard to convey how a few detached rules that seem so obviously subjective and absurd in retrospect can harm the children instructed to follow them. You can argue about proof-texts and the male gaze and good parental intentions, and I’ll get to some of that. But I’d like to start, simply, with some of my own experiences.
I remember my first dress without sleeves. I remember my first skirt that didn’t quite cover my kneecaps when I sat down. I remember wearing those pieces of fabric, and feeling so conspicuous, and feeling that I shouldn’t be wearing them, because it’s a sin to be noticeable, because my body belonged to the community’s assessment, and because my clothing represented the state of my soul. What does a sleeveless dress say about my understanding of theology, my kindness toward others, my devotion to God? I don’t know, but modesty doctrine claims to. And so I learned a woman’s clothing is a problem.
I remember not feeling feminine enough. There were years I liked overalls, Loony Toons shirts, loose, unisex Old Navy T-shirts, and backwards hats. There were years I liked studded belts and flared jeans and a lot of black. But that didn’t match the pictures on girlhood advice book covers or in Vision Forum catalogs. That didn’t match the rules, which said being a good Christian girl meant dressing like a little pastel doll, a girly floral delight. And so I learned a woman’s style is a problem.
I remember poring over the Modesty Survey in high school. It said a majority of the Christian teenage boys questioned thought a girl just stretching her back or arms was a stumbling block. And so I learned a woman’s movement is a problem. (Read more about that Modesty Survey from Dianna E. Anderson and Shaney Irene.)
I remember at summer camp when a leader pulled all the girls aside before chapel and told us to be careful what shirts we were wearing. “Some of you are … out there,” she said, making a horrible semi-circular motion in front of her chest to indicate breasts without having to speak such a scandalous word, “and that gives boys ideas.” I didn’t have much to worry about on that front, but there were girls who had developed more than I. The counselor wasn’t even protesting us showing cleavage, since that wasn’t happening – just having boobs. Because girls need to hide their shape. Because even something as benign as a dry, crew-neck T-shirt can invite males to lust. And God help you if you’re “out there,” if you’re buxom, because you’re even more to blame for men’s thoughts and choices. And so I learned a woman’s body is a problem.
I remember talking with a friend from SoCal at my conservative Pacific Northwest university. “I’d never heard of ‘causing my brother to stumble’ before coming here!” she said. “I didn’t know I was doing that!” And I couldn’t fathom what world she came from, what hedonistic cult she grew up in that didn’t teach women their responsibility to men. She was so pretty, but she didn’t know how dangerous that was. Can you imagine? A girl growing up unafraid of her beauty, unconscious of her seductive powers. Wearing bikinis. Oh, the boys she must have left in her wake, drooling mid-fantasy. And so I learned a woman’s beauty is a problem.
I remember being at a homeschool conference, picking up a magazine at one of the vendor booths and reading a piece by a man saying he liked his wife to be covered at least from her neck to below her knees. It wasn’t because he was trying to control her, he clarified — it’s just that her clavicles could be so suggestive to other men. Her clavicles. And so I learned a woman’s very bones are a problem.
These encounters reinforced the idea that there was something inherently bad about me because of my biological sex. I look back at those memories now, and when I take away the language of should and best and holy, the message of modesty is clear: A woman’s clothes, style, movement, body, beauty, and bones are problematic.
If modesty taught me anything, it was the shame of being a woman.