I’m going to start by saying that dressing “modestly” is great, if that’s what makes you comfortable. Honestly, most of what I wear is considerably “modest” by most standards, but it’s for no other reason than it generally hides the parts of my body I’m not as excited about showing. Like my whole-lotta-love handles. And this isn’t a discussion of situational appropriateness. Business attire is obviously a different situation from streetwear, and unless your school has a uniform, streetwear is generally appropriate for that situation. This discussion is about streetwear.
And let’s be clear, too: this is not about shaming modesty. Again, there’s nothing wrong with dressing in a way that makes you feel comfortable.
What I want to talk about is this idea of modesty being a reflection of dignity, morality, or self-respect.
First we need to lay this foundation: modesty from one person to the next may be different. Maybe someone finds tank tops or partially bared shoulders immodest. Maybe someone considers leggings unacceptable. Maybe shorts above the knee are too risqué for some. Everyone’s idea of modesty is different.
But that creates a bit of a problem, doesn’t it? If someone else wears something you think is immodest, is she undignified? Does she lack self-respect? Do you immediately assume that she must be dressing to garner unseemly attention?
Therein lies the rub.
What is problematic about modesty culture is this element of moral superiority and othering that tends to happen. People who don’t adhere to certain (wildly variable) standards of modesty are shamed and slut-shamed for what they wear. Sometimes it’s overt, like in school dress codes that ban spaghetti straps because they’re too distracting for boys, even in kindergarten, or schools that kick a girl out of her own prom because the fathers who are supposed to be chaperones are checking her out. But sometimes incredibly subtle – sometimes it’s a state of mind developed by saying that dressing a certain way is dignified. There’s a clear insinuation that dressing any other way is undignified. It’s lesser. And you’re better than that, aren’t you?
But everyone has a different morality. Some people’s morality comes from their faith. Some people’s morality comes from reason and rationality. And as long as we can agree on certain basics (don’t kill each other, don’t take what isn’t yours, don’t cheat each other or on each other, etc.), the rest is all details. The way people dress is a detail. It’s aesthetic and when you think about it, it’s likely the shallowest criteria for moral judgment (which we shouldn’t be doing anyway, even though we do it all the time).
This is problematic. It may not seem problematic to you. “Well, that’s just what I think.” The problem is that when people do think this way, they take actions accordingly, whether in PTA meetings, while chaperoning, while teaching, while walking down the street and giving disapproving looks, while sitting on the bench as judge or jury. And this is how we create and cultivate a world wherein a woman is held responsible for the people around her. Instead of holding people accountable for their own thoughts and actions, we hold women responsible because “she dressed a certain way – she was asking for it.” “She dressed a certain way – she must not respect herself, so why should I?” “She dressed a certain way – she’s a distraction to the boys in class around her. She needs to interrupt her own education to change her clothes so the boys around her can focus on their education.”
I want you to understand that just because someone doesn’t meet a certain set of standards doesn’t mean that she lacks self-respect. Self-respect comes in so many forms, and for some women, that means listening to themselves and dressing in a way that makes them comfortable regardless of what the world says. And maybe to you that’s modesty. And maybe to the next girl, it’s wearing those high waisted shorts with a crop top and suspenders. Maybe it was hard for her to walk out the door because that’s a bold-ass choice, but you know what? She loves her body, she’s proud of it, and she’s comfortable enough to show it off because she’s busted balls at the gym to achieve it.
My self-respect is different than your self-respect. It’s inherent in the expression that it’s your own. “Self.” It’s right there. The way you respect yourself us up to you.
But what if she is just trying to get attention?
That’s not your business. We all have our own reasons for dressing the way we do. Some might dress a certain way to glorify God and uphold their faith. Some dress a certain way because it’s what’s trending right now. Some dress for comfort, some dress to show off. Whatever it is, you might never know, and you don’t even need to. What you need to know is that it’s already hard enough to step out of the door on any given day, because no matter what you wear you’ll probably face judgment for it.
“She’s wearing a burqa? She must be oppressed.” “Her top is so low-cut, she must want male attention.” “She dresses modestly, she must be a prude who doesn’t know how to have a good time.”
Or maybe she’s just proud of her faith and heritage. Maybe she just likes that designer. Maybe she’s the life of the party. You’ll never know if you judge her based on what she’s wearing. Maybe she is dressing for attention and she struggles with her self-image. Don’t make it harder on her by being judgmental. Lift her up. What makes the better person? The clothes they wear or the way they treat their fellow human beings?
My hope is that instead of making it our business to make judgment calls on one another, we’ll make it our business to be supportive of each other. We’ll make it our business to lift each other up, even if another’s decisions are different from our own. We won’t to impose our morality on others; we’ll stand up for one another when we see something questionable. If we could apply childhood wisdom, it’s as simple as stopping ourselves from judging books by their covers and teaching ourselves to appreciate them for their contents and substance.
I think it’s possible. Do you?