A Modesty Proposal

This column was the featured commentary on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum on September 10, 2007.

As the summer of 2007 drew to a close I started hearing and reading a lot about a return to modesty in women’s fashion, which, evidently, is all the rage among the back to school shopping crowd. As far as I can tell this modesty trend hasn’t yet reached my fair city, where women’s fashion still tends to favor garments designed with maximum upper body ventilation in mind; but if we are to trust the pundits and talking heads a critical mass of young women has grown weary of donning garments that expose, to complete strangers, vast expanses of skin, and have demanded alternatives to the peep-show outfits being sold at the local mall. Apparently, the fashion industry is listening.

And I, the father of two girls (aged three and five), am breathing a sigh of relief. I think.

Like most parents, I’m not eager to see my daughters leave the house dressed like Jessica Rabbit, and I really hope that neither of them ever feels pressure to dress in a way that is demeaning or inappropriate. Three cheers for modesty, but modesty is a moving target.

On the day I wrote this column, my family went on an outing to a local museum. My wife wore Capri-length cargo pants, and my daughters wore shorts. In the not too distant past such attire would have been scandalous, especially for the wife and daughters of a pastor, but in this day and age their dress was entirely appropriate.

So what is the measure of modesty? On the web one can find any number of purveyors of modest attire, and some (especially those run by Mormons) sell attractive clothes, but other modest offerings are not so nice. Surf on over to the Wholesome Wear website and you will see swimsuits in which every adolescent girl I’ve ever known would—OMG!—just like totally DIE of embarrassment.

No matter how modestly a society dresses, there will always be people whose dress pushes the envelope. In a world where modesty requires a floor-length hemline, someone will show an ankle. On a beach where everyone is wearing bathing suits from Wholesome Wear, someone is going to wear a one-piece tank suit.

Nor will the problems associated with immodest dress go away. Most of us worry that immodest clothing either will cause women to be objectified or that it will incite lust among the male population. But here’s a secret: objectification and lust reside in the minds of men and not in the clothing of women. They are alive and well among the Amish just as they thrive on the beach at Saint Tropez. (Incidentally, women objectify men and lust as well, but judging by the slovenly appearance of the general male population, this knowledge seems to have bypassed most men.)

The key to fighting objectification and lust lies in training men to respect women, to value female strength and the feminine capacity for wisdom, intelligence, humor and friendship. Until men come to understand and honor the intrinsic equality of women, no amount of wardrobe shifting will do any good.

Meanwhile, I still hope I never have to say to my daughters “you are not going out dressed like that!” But I suspect (and here is my proposal) that the key to avoiding such a confrontation lies not so much in restricting fashion choices as it does in instilling in my daughters a deep sense of self-worth and self-respect, and trusting that such esteem will manifest itself in the clothes they wear.

5 thoughts on “A Modesty Proposal

  1. Dear Ben–

    As always, I enjoyed your insights and your writing. Regarding your comment in paragraph 7 about the slovenliness of male dress, I suspect that the cause is not men’s unawareness that women objectify and lust after them. I think it’s worse than that–men are so unconcerned with what women think at all or they so little value women’s opinions that they cannot conceive that women are actually observing, evaluating, and judging how they look. There’s also the “God’s gift to women” factor–many men possess a conviction of their attractiveness that’s completely out of synch with reality. So most men, in this blissful contempt and confidence, dress to please themselves or even, much as they might deny it, to please other men. Not, unless they’re gay, to attract other men, but to get their approval–the sense that “this is the way we guys do it.”

    Anyway, I think we need more modesty for all–rooted in self-awareness more than in self-consciousness That is, in something positive rather than in something negative. Modest dress reflects an awareness of the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit, to be adorned in such a way that the structure glorifies the one who dwells within. Immodest dress reflects a consciousness of the body as something to be worshipped and glorified for itself–or as something that’s perhaps inherently shameful, so whatever we do to or with it or put on it doesn’t matter.

    Thanks again!

  2. Ben, thoughtful as always. Good luck when your pretty
    girls become teenagers! Sounds like your wife has
    made a good recovery from her recent surgery. I’m glad.

  3. Ben,

    I, for one, was thrilled when I first heard that modesty was ‘in,’ but for completely self-interested reasons. As a teacher, this new trend in fashion has made shopping for clothes appropriate for work much more convenient. I can (for the time being) shop at the trendy stores and find clothes that are both chic and appropriately cut for an educator of elementary school students.

    However, I don’t take this trend too seriously. It’s just another fad and it will only last as long as the fashion industry tells us it should. I predict skin baring vogue will be back before long. In the mean time, I’m going to do my fair share of shopping to build my work wardrobe.


  4. As the father of one who nearly bares all in her entertainment role, I plead the 5th. It is not easy to see too much of a daughter in a public light. She dances as if she were in Eden before the Fall. http://www.hotpinkfeathers.com May modesty reign in our tribe and yours. Ronn

  5. Thanks for your good thoughts and posts.

    I agree that the modesty fad is good because of the options it gives people like Anna. Teachers and other professionals need the option of dressing like grown ups, and it helps to have fashionable options. My female clergy colleagues also complain about the difficult search for wearable clothing.

    James, your remarks remind me of a line from a Van Morrison song: “All the girls walk by, dressed up for each other” and, you’re right. It’s true for men too, and I often wonder how much and to what extent fashion trends–particularly those that favor modesty–are driven by competition and/or solidarity within same sex groups. It’s almost as if some of the guys in our neighborhood (notice I’m not using the word “men” here!) have an unspoken agreement to wear sagging pants, wife beater shirts and baseball caps worn at odd angles so that no one has to feel singled out for looking silly.

    While I would differentiate between artistic expression and the cloths a person wears to the Seven Eleven, I also have had to develop thick skin for the sake of art during some of my wife’s opera performances (Anne performed in the Opera San Jose chorus during a particularly lusty era in the history of that organization).

    And speaking of Anne, Judy, thanks for mentioning her. She is, indeed, better. The surgery went without incident, and she’s been cleared by the doctor to live a normal life.



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