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Archive for March, 2012

Modesty isn’t what I’d describe as a universal religious issue.  When modesty is being couched in religious terms, it almost always is from our more conservative members.  I think there’s the misperception by many in our culture, including in the Christian community, that calls for modesty are either a) attempts to inhibit freedom of expression b) sexism/patriarchalism c) both.

I attended a Christian school for three years.  There was a dress code for boys and for girls.  I still remember one of my male teachers telling me and the other girls in my class how we had a “responsibility” to dress modestly so as “not to cause [our] Christian brothers to sin”.  All us girls also were held back one day after an assembly and were reminded about our need to dress modestly and how it distracted the boys while they were in class.  Overall, the message about modesty was that we girls needed to dress modestly because of the boys.  That is, so often, the message about modesty that seems to come through.  Very rarely do Christians focus on the benefits of modest dress for girls and feminists seem to oppose modesty on the very basis that it so often seems to be about the boys and therefore must be something we should get over.

I prefer to dress modestly and to cover myself and I do this for several reasons.  How we dress is part of how others form perceptions, whether we prefer it or not.  It comforts me to know that I’ve mitigated, as much as I can, someone looking at me in an uncomfortable or inappropriate way.  I like to know that I portray an image of maturity and moderation.  While it’s sad that people are judged based on their dress, it is a fact.  I find that when I’m dressed modestly, it’s not simply that others take me seriously, I take myself more seriously. 

I find that in modest dress I am more comfortable with myself.  I have more confidence and am more self-assured than I would be otherwise.  Living as a girl in modern America, we are constantly assaulted by advertisements and marketers.  One cannot even walk in the mall near my town without televisions showing more advertisements.  Everyone, it seems, is telling girls who they should be, what they should wear, what they should look like.  Everyone wants a piece of who girls are.  Dressing modestly is my way of owning myself.  In this advertisement-saturated society, it is my reminder that there is something in this world that belongs solely to me and cannot be taken away.  It reminds me that I have a self, I am in control of that self, and that it is no one’s but mine. 

While women in America often look at women in the Middle East who wear burqas and hijab as oppressed and unfortunate, many women look at American women and see the same thing.  In the book Half the Sky (an excellent book, by the way) it says, “When Nick quizzed a group of female Saudi doctors and nurses in Riyadh about women’s rights they bristled.  ‘Why do foreigners always ask about clothing?’ one woman doctor asked.  ‘Why does it matter so much what we wear?  Of all the issues in the world, is that really so important?’  Another said: ‘You think we’re victims, because we cover our hair and wear modest clothing.  But we think that it’s Western women who are repressed, because they have to show their bodies—even go through surgery to change their bodies—to please men.’”  In another excellent book called Nine Parts of Desire a veiled woman said: “She felt easier dealing with men.  ‘They have to deal with my mind, not my body.’” 

While I agree that in an ideal world, it wouldn’t matter what we wore and we would be free to choose our clothes simply by self-expression, we live in a world that is more complex in that.  I am not trying to say that there is anything wrong with dressing less modestly, or that it is ever condonable when women are forced to dress modestly against their will, but I feel in America, feminists currently view modesty as selling out.  I believe that it is an option that should be respected just as much as any other choice of dress, and should be seen not as a symbol of oppression but a reclaimed tool of self-empowerment.

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