my issue with a modesty-obsessed upbringing

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.

The offending photograph of me in my, ahem, dress.

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.

Can you feel the modesty?

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.) 


5 thoughts on “my issue with a modesty-obsessed upbringing

  1. I feel ya. Only difference: my mom was ultra-girly. She dressed me till high school in every imaginable shade of pink and purple, flowers and lace; the more dressy and feminine the better. Then when I hit high school a disastrous thing happened…I went grunge! Boys shirts, baggy pants and clunky shoes. Worst of all, I grew out my bangs. I know, the horror! Her usual comment, “You look like a boy.” Eventually, I started toning it down a bit, but my staple t-shirt and jeans has kinda stuck. So when my darling daughter was born she didn’t wear an ounce of pink, her first dress was when she was just over 1 (which my mother put on), and we didn’t buy her a dress till a family wedding we had to attend when she was 18 months. But she started to express an interest in what she wore at 3. Now, as long as its weather appropriate and covering her bits, I don’t care what she wears. She’s her own person and personally I love seeing the outfits she comes up with. I want her to feel comfortable with expressing herself. The other side of this coin, my son having long hair. You wouldn’t believe the grief we get over it…but that’s another post entirely…

    1. I can imagine how horrible that must have been, getting squeezed into a style that you hate and there’s nothing you can do about it. On the other hand, I have to admit that picturing you in girly clothes is actually quite amusing 🙂 I’m glad you’ve found your style. I still feel like I’m searching for mine.
      As for people’s opinions on your son’s long hair, who cares!! It never ceases to amaze me the opinions that people feel they’re entitled to when it comes to child-raising. Your kids are adorable.

      1. Should I mention the perming, teasing and primping my mother liked to do to me and my sister?…lol. I look back through family photos and giggle and shake my head. I like to think ones personal style is always evolving…I loved your white summer dress. It goes very well with your skin tone and gorgeous hair. You looked lovely:)
        My boy doesn’t care he has long hair and when someone mentions a hair cut he says , “No thank you.” It’s all I can do not to stick my tongue out at them and say, ne ner ne ner ne nerrrrr!
        Your boys are pretty cute too:)

  2. I agree that your parents might have gone a bit over the top with their modesty rules, considering the day and age we live in. On the other hand, you have to wonder what is wrong with some parents for letting their kids wear some of the clothing out there lately. Teenaged girls are often vulnerable (and pretty proud of themselves) when they’re first discovering that they can get a man’s attention. When you combine the thrill-seeking nature of youth with sexual naievety there can be disastrous consequences… life-changing, emotionally-scarring consequences. It’s a parent’s job to help girls learn to embrace their sexuality without becoming a product of it. Given some of the messages our society is sending these girls through the media, that’s got to be a difficult job. I can’t say I blame your parents for erring on the side of caution.

    1. I agree with you that some parents seem to be completely absent from clothing-related decisions, and that stuns me. Letting one’s daughter out of the house looking completely inappropriate while she’s too young to understand (or handle) the consequences is NOT okay. My gripe is more with the fact that modesty seemed to go hand-in-hand with ‘unfashionable’ and ‘untrendy.’ A teen can be dressed conservatively while still feeling cool, but that’s a fine line that a parent needs to understand and help with. And when covering up skin becomes the most important rule, beyond the circumstances, i.e. no tankini at the beach even though everyone else has bikinis on, it starts to create resentment. But then, who knows how I’ll respond if someday I have a daughter of my own!!! I may be eating my own words…

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