As we flipped through some pictures from my recent trip, my mom couldn’t resist making a little jab: “Oh, you’re wearing your slip!” She was commenting on my white cotton summer dress with thin straps and short hemline. Though she said it jokingly, I knew what she was thinking — that my dress was inappropriate by her standards. Hearing her say that made me absolutely furious because my mother and I have fought about clothes for years.
I was raised to believe that modesty is of paramount importance for girls, that to show any more skin than is necessary is considered immodest and, therefore, sinful. Why? Because of the message being sent to the opposite sex. I would be seen as wanting the wrong kind of attention and my parents felt that women are already objectified sexually far too much in our society today. The solution (I’m guessing with mischievous bitterness) was to make me as sexually unappealing as possible, and presto – problem solved!
Tank tops were strictly off-limits, as were any shorts shorter than mid-thigh. Skirts had to be knee-length, and absolutely no bikinis, or even two-pieces. My parents also went beyond the modesty rule to insist that clothes fit their notion of what is appropriate for each social setting. I was forbidden from wearing jeans in public for years, because my mother thought them “too casual.” Church required skirts or dresses at all times. When, after years of family civil war, I was allowed to wear jeans, they couldn’t be tight for fear of showing too many curves.
As a result, I always stuck out like a sore thumb in a crowd of cool teenagers. I was that weird homeschooler in flowing hippie skirts that I inwardly despised but pretended to love in order to seem confident in my ‘unique personal style.’ I was a kid who couldn’t even buy her own trendy clothes because I wouldn’t be allowed to wear them anyways. I know what it’s like to have dress clothes on when every other kid has jeans, and I really hate that feeling.
I do get where my parents were coming from. Young girls should feel empowered by qualities other than their bodies, but the traditional definition of “modesty” (read: covering up all unnecessary skin) I find to be an obsessive pursuit of denying a woman’s natural sexuality. As my parents’ definition of immodest clothing stretched beyond the obviously promiscuous, skanky outfits to include most all mainstream brand names and typical teen styles (as idiotic as they may seem to adults), I was left with hardly any options, a stifled appetite for fashion, and growing resentment. As for combatting a society that is becoming more and more casual, I agree with them that people should ditch the sweats and dress up more, but at fifteen I didn’t want to fight that battle with my own body as a protest mannequin.
Now, as an independent adult, I’ve had a few years to solidify my own sense of style and to mull over the unarticulated questions that tortured me as a teenager:
If so-called ‘immodest’ clothing sends a wrong message to men, at what point does it cease to be the girl’s responsibility to cover herself up and become the man’s to get a hold of his lust?
Should a girl hide behind outfits that make her feel ugly and undesirable simply because she fears a man might picture having sex with her?
If girls are indoctrinated with the belief that all men are out to objectify them, how is that conducive to raising girls who are confident in their looks, their relationships, and their sexuality?
What a repressive and depressive way to live. I prefer to accept that we are sexual beings by nature, and feeling sexual attraction is not only normal but also healthy. Knowing how to handle it and being aware of the impact of clothing are the more important conversations to have, not trying to deny the existence of sexual attraction. For normal, healthy teens who are not out to prove themselves through the objectification of their bodies, feeling attractive in one’s clothes is absolutely crucial, and that’s the rule I apply to myself today. If my mom thinks my white dress looks like a slip, so be it, but I feel damn good every time I wear that dress, so I’ll keep wearing it for years to come.
(P.S. Yes, my mom knows about this post.)