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.