Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Speaking on Modesty: I Was Your Daughter

 Thanks for joining this Lenten discussion! I'll be posting weekly thoughts by Catholic women and men who have something to share on modesty: what it is, how it's lived out, why it's important to them. I don't agree completely with all of these people, and I don't expect you to either; but I do want to open up a conversation. To make it easier, I've turned off the Capcha (you know, those horrible little letters and numbers you have to type to post a comment), so share your thoughts freely.

This week we hear from my dear friend, Danuta, who writes of her response as an adult looking back on a childhood formed by one faction of the modesty debate. 

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You who teach that a woman must cover herself for the sake of her brothers’ eyes: I was your daughter. Your daughter’s friend. The girl in your home-school co-op, bent over her algebra book with her pencil behind her ear and her T-shirt tucked into her jeans and cinched down with a D-ring belt. The girl down the pew in church, the one with unstyled waist-length hair and a thrifted skirt that would have looked somewhat less out of place on a sixty-year-old, if only because it hadn’t been in fashion for twenty years, if ever.

Do I speak too strongly?

You mean well. So did my parents, who wanted more than anything to protect me—and perhaps those poor boys, who couldn’t possibly have helped lusting after their daughter’s resplendently gawky, flat-chested, acne-ridden body. Few men can resist a girl who walks with her head down and a nervous jerk to her steps. And the hearts of high school boys everywhere tighten with yearning when a girl alternates between adoring stares and an inability to raise her eyes to theirs. 

My parents did so many things right that I have endless honor for them and no bitterness. They worked hard; they sacrificed much; they could never have afforded to dress me the way I dress myself now. 

They had no internet till I was in my late teens, and very little television, and their best find for fashion advice was a used Jaclyn Smith book on style. They weren’t nearly as extreme as some of my friends’ parents; I was allowed to wear jeans and to leave my hair uncovered, and was finally more or less ordered to wear makeup.

I don’t resent that order, by the way. I’ve never stopped wearing makeup since, and I can’t express how much better I feel with it than without. It helps control and cover my acne (try Almay, Neutrogena, or Physician’s Formula, girls) and has become part of my ritual—a daily move toward artistry, health, energy, and sanity.

Back to my parents, though: they were searching. They knew the ways of the world enough to want to protect their daughter. They found a safe place: reactionary conservatism inside the home-school movement. There, they met up with the modesty conversation. It came with a long list of oughts—or rather, ought-nots. Women ought not show too much skin. Women ought not wear things very form-fitting. Women ought not dress to incite male lust, whatever that means—most of your virginal daughters have a vague and cartoonish idea at best. Women ought to protect their brothers’ eyes.
I can see the good sentiment in that.

Here’s the thing, though: my own natural modesty was bound to make sure my brothers’ eyes didn’t get a glimpse up my skirt, thank you very much. It’s true that natural modesty can be unlearned, but I was home-schooled. I had no opportunity to be immodest. I was socialized almost entirely through church, surrounded by unworldly friends, supervised by parents who would never have allowed me to own a cropped shirt or a miniskirt. My parents knew everyone I knew and approved every article of clothing I
owned. Stranger-girls who wore crop tops and minis were treated as objects of pity.

Nowadays, I occasionally enjoy being that object of pity—though I am still, by worldly standards, modest.

Maybe I would have more energy for the modesty conversation if I were raising children. Basic modesty must be taught to both boys and girls. But to be honest, I don’t like the modesty conversation as such. I don’t like the asinine tone it takes. I don’t like the way it leaves girls and women feeling defeated and unappealing. I don’t like the way it associates holiness with ugliness in the minds of the world.

I don’t dress to protect men’s eyes anymore—I don’t know what they see. I dress to look and feel beautiful, to make my husband smile, to be comfortable, to present myself appropriately and respectfully.

Which means that if I want to wear my skort and spaghetti strap tank top to work in the garden, I wear them to work in the garden. If I want to go for a walk around the neighborhood without changing first, I go for a walk around the neighborhood. If I’m going to Mass, I put on something with more thorough coverage, as that’s the respectful thing to do. If I’m going to work, I put on a shirt with a high enough neck to prevent my coworkers accidentally looking down my cleavage when they stop by my desk.

The modesty conversation will go on, not much troubled by my flinging my two cents into the pool. But for you who teach that a woman must cover herself for the sake of her brothers’ eyes: I was your daughter. And if I had a daughter, I suspect I’d spend the bulk of the relevant time teaching her how to dress comfortably, artistically, and appropriately for her chosen activities, rather than teaching her how her clothing choices affect male vision.

She should know that it’s generous to consider her brothers’ eyes—but she should also know that her brothers’ eyes are ultimately her brothers’ responsibility. And I hope she’d never be afraid to raise her own eyes to theirs and smile.

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Danuta writes regularly, plays often, and encourages friends to feel at home in her abundant garden. She lives, creates, and sips tea with her beloved husband in their home among the 'piny-wood hills' of the northwest.

If you've missed our earlier conversations:

Read Kate Madore's opening post on Modesty

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