Tuesday, May 20, 2008

What Does "Modest" Mean?

When I was pregnant with my first child, I chose not to find out the baby’s sex, and was secretly convinced I was having a boy. I think I wanted a girl first, but didn’t want to get my hopes up. At the same time, I remember thinking that some things would be a lot simpler with a boy.

For example, the idea of modesty. For a boy: “Don’t go outside in your underwear. Or stick your hand down your pants in public.” Done!

For a girl—it’s not so simple. Especially not in my mind. I was raised with a rigid idea of modesty, which was slightly different across our denomination, but basically, we wore skirts or dresses below the knee—no pants or shorts; sleeveless tops or necklines below the collarbone were forbidden. It was restrictive, but the guidelines were easy to follow: either it was acceptable or it wasn’t; there weren’t any gray areas. I got very good at assessing what would fit the rules. When I first got married, Justin would point out clothes he thought would look good on me, and I’d say, “That’s too low-cut” or “If it were two inches longer” without even trying it on.

I always thought it was pretty silly. If someone gets lustful over my upper arms or my kneecap, they are the ones with the problem, not me. So when things started changing in our church and in our family, I was happy to change, too. Guess what? Pants are more modest when you’re doing almost anything that involves small children. And strange men have not started hitting on me due to the (admittedly awe-inspiring) sight of my blindingly white arms.

Yet my daughter is growing up in a world where arms aren’t the only skin showing. Oh no. Girls are showing things that in my day, we wouldn’t have shown in a bathing suit (which also wasn't allowed in the company of boys.) I've already had to explain that Miss Pink will not be the owner of a Bratz doll. “Why not?” she asked innocently; to her, they’re pretty. They appeal to little girls, who like glitter and fake fur and leopard print and high heels and don’t understand the implications of cropped tops and ultra-low-rise jeans.

Here was my first test at explaining the modesty principle. “Because…” I paused. I couldn’t say, “Because clothes like that will make boys want to have sex with you. More than they already will, of course.” I said, “Because they wear inappropriate clothes. That means they show parts of their bodies that they should keep covered up.”

“Like their stomachs?”

“Right. And they wear too much makeup for young girls.” She knows I won’t let her wear my makeup (other than lip gloss). I’ve told her it’s because she doesn’t need it; the makeup is to make my skin look like hers.

“Okay.” She hasn’t asked for a Bratz doll since. She accepted my rules just like I accepted the rule that made my mother hire someone to turn a pair of overalls into a jumper. That was just the way it was, at five years old.

But it won’t always be this way. She will want to know what our boundaries are so she can push against them. I know this. This topic just came up with one of my friends and two other mothers whose oldest daughters are around 10. When my friend said she couldn’t stand Bratz, they just smiled in a way that meant, Oh these delusional women who think they can set unrealistic rules. One of them said, “You have to pick your battles.” And the other one said, “Or you’ll be fighting all the time.”

I thought about it and I could see their point—I guess. Apparently because they didn’t make a big deal about Bratz, their daughters got tired of playing with them within a year and the dolls went into the next garage sale. I could understand that when parents make a big ol’ honkin’ deal over something, the kids are more likely to push for it. I also knew what would have happened in my childhood home if I had continued to push for something I wanted that my parents had said no to: I wouldn’t have gotten it. And I would have lost some other privileges for continuing to argue and demand. That’s because in our house, my parents did pick their battles, and when they picked one, they were going to win it. Period.

I believe we do have to choose our battles—I just think we, and not our kids, need to be the ones choosing them. And for me, modesty is a pretty important battle. I know I've got to swim upstream—about 95% of American popular culture will be telling my daughter that she should wear this and look like this in order to attract this kind of attention, and if she doesn’t end up pregnant or infected with a sexually transmitted disease, she may be the proud owner of an eating disorder in order to fit into the “sexy” clothes.

I really want Miss Pink to like herself—body, mind, and spirit. I want her to respect herself enough that she doesn’t feel she has to take her clothes off to get guys’ attention. That she knows she is precious and valuable and any guy who wants her had better work his butt off proving he’s worthy (or her daddy will have to have a little “conversation” with him.) I don’t want her to think her inherent worth lies in the extent to which she can conform to the plastic-surgery-enhanced “ideal” woman she will see pictures of everywhere.

Sure, I want her to look cute and fashionable. I don’t want her to feel like a total dork, the way I used to whenever I wore my long denim skirts around non-Pentecostal people. I’ll make an effort to let her express herself through her looks. I’m just saying now that I’m not giving up my right to set boundaries for my kids just because I don’t want to listen to them whining.

Someday, I believe she’ll thank me. Because even though my parents didn’t let me dress exactly like my peers, they did instill in me a healthy self-respect and a sense of what true modesty is, and now I am grateful.


  1. Wow wow wow. I come from a similarly conservative background, including ultra-modest dress and no-nonsense parents. Though I have loosened up considerably as I've found real freedom from man-made standards that equate certain clothing with holiness, of course I bring a lot of that philosophy into my marriage and parenting. I have finally quit expecting my husband to make my clothing decisions for me (I kept waiting for him to nix outfits for being too tight, low-cut, etc., but he never ever has taken the opportunity). In parenting, though, it's much more difficult- especially since I tend to take a hard line (like you said, expecting to choose the battles, and win them), an attitude he finds completely foreign. I definitely think it's easier when you can start at the beginning with an infant, shaping ideas as you go, rather than step in, as I have, when the child is half grown, does not see you as much of an influence much less an authority, and has worn bikinis to the pool since she was a tot. So, I pretty much keep (most of) my ideas to myself and hope for the day that I can start from scratch. :-P

  2. First of all, the fact hat you are even putting serious though into this is half the battle. I happen to agree with you on the Bratz. I don't have a daughter, but if I did, she wouldn't be playing with them. For me, the image is WAY to mature. Why would a 5 year old play "going to prom" and then to "the hot tub".

    I tend to be one of the more conservative's moms around here, and although sometimes I have to say No and explain, in the end, I feel he will really appreciate it. Its even more important for a girl, as the images they see daily are well, disturbing.

    Those parents who choose not to battle have surrendered. Nothing good can come of a parent who has given up and given in.

  3. This is a battle I'm willing to fight. My 5 yr old knows there will be no Bratz dolls and for the same reasons you said.

    I've spent years doing the same with my 17 yr old step daughter. I've been mothering her since she was seven. At first we gave her the same reasons you have given you child. When she got older we were able to say, "You cannot wear clothing like that because you will cause unpure thoughts and lust in your Christian brothers."

    One of our major problems is my stepdaughter's mother. We have custody and for good reason. She sees her mother for a few hours each Saturday and in those few hours she belittles our beliefs and rules. She has bought my stepdaughter three inch heeled boots, revealing tops and short shorts. My step daughter is 5 feet tall, 115 lbs, green eyes and a D cup- very cute. Her mother tells her to "use" that to her advantage. Thankfully my girl has sense and strong faith.

    We have a few clothing rules. No low cut, skirts to mid thigh at least, nothing tight and no slutty shoes. Other than that we let her make the clothing decisions. She wears funky colors and patterns that I would never wear and think are hideous but they are MODEST so she can wear them all she wants. She also has a very high sense of self worth because we have told her she is more than a body. She has value.

    Hopefully we can do the same with our two younger girls.

    Keep doing what you are doing. It is important.

  4. This is such a pressing issue for us mommies with girls (and with boys). My girls are NOT allowed to have anything Bratz and that was established early on, but it just gets thrown at us from all directions. Now we're having to make judgement calls with Barbie and Hannah Montana and with summer coming...bathing suits. I have issue with a seven year old wearing a string bikini...call me crazy. However, I'm finding not alot of other moms out there do. As my girls get older, it's more and more of a battle.

    I shudder to think of when they're teenagers. I'm seriously worried about it.

  5. Oh my, this battle is such a battle and it's (unfortunately) not just about us as parents making smart choices. It's a fine balancing act of what's out there and what we show and what we discuss CONSTANTLY. I daresay, your daughter will be fine. Talk, talk, talk. In they end they'll come around. They might not always make the best choices...I think back on a few of my own. Sometimes it just takes time.

  6. I absolutely applaud you for having the awareness for Miss Pink. My parents sound similar to yours. Which is to say GAH!