My modesty education began around the fifth grade. From church and Bible study, to a Christian school system and a Christian household, the way that I chose to dress was of constant concern. I was given books on modesty containing rules to lives by when shopping and tips on how to detect immodesty in products made by Secret Keeper Girl, and suchlike companies.
I tried to adhere to the basic tenants of modest dress: no unnecessary skin showing, no short shorts or skirts, and no spaghetti straps or tube tops. Since my school required a uniform, I didn’t find many issues with this. But then in 7th grade, it happened. My boobs came in. Quicker and with more volume than my peers’ breasts. Add that to the fact that I had just begun public school that required no uniform, and my didn’t spend a lot on clothing, and I was in for a struggle.
Comments on my appearance were typically some variation of, “Pull up your shirt,” “Hide your cleavage,” or “It’s too low.” Yet critiques on my body and how I chose to dress it were hardly beneficial to the fragile self-image of my teenage self. And I was not walking around in crop tops and bikinis either. Looking back, I dressed perfectly fine, however that wasn’t the opinion of the adults around me. My curvy figure — the one that I could not help myself from having — automatically labelled me as sinful. I was being guilted for something that I couldn’t change. I was being held to an impossible standard of modesty — one that my body simply could not comply with.
High School clothing shopping became a battle ground between me and my mother. Screaming match after screaming match, I could never understand why this “modesty code” angered me so. Was it just the rebellion my parents swore was the reason for my resistance? I should probably explain something before I continue: I am still religious. In fact, I am deeply religious, just not ridiculously religious.
Here was the mentality I grew up with: the world is a meat market and I am a steak. It was my fault if men were giving me looks and I was sinning by giving them something to look at. My body was a sinful commodity, a temple that needed a velvet curtain to cover the entire parameter. My body was a source of sinful temptation and showing too much was a reflection of my sinful intent. Sin. Sin. Sin. My body was sin.
I was ashamed of my figure — something I later learned that’s typical of modesty-centered education. Women are responsible for men’s sin; and since my body is responsible for the way a man looks at me, then shame on me for making him sin. But if both women and men are in the reflection of God, why must only we (women) take effort to cover ourselves while men can parade around as they like? Why must we compensate for a “sin” of the other sex?
The modesty movement is merely an extension of the societal sexualization of women. How is covering up oneself to prevent a male from “sinning” any different from dressing to attract men? Both are centered on the male. I remember asking my mother, “If there were no men in the world, could women walk around in bras?” She thought about it and answered yes. So why is it that men can walk around topless, yet women cannot? Women are inherently sexualized and, apparently, responsible for accommodating for that sexualization.
We live in a world defined by appearance. Yes, it is good to know that how you are perceived is important. However, the self-shame I grew up with due to a figure that I couldn’t change was not necessary. This modesty indoctrination was based on the way that men perceived me, not the way that I perceived myself. It tried to teach me that I was defined by the gaze of the other.