Thursday, December 23, 2010

A Modest Maid...

"A modest maid, decked with a blush of honor,
Whose feet do tread green paths of youth and love;
The wonder of all eyes that look upon her,
Sacred on earth, designed a saint above." - Spenser

Ok, the poem isn't really all that important to me, but I've been thinking about modesty a lot this week.

Two reasons this issue is on my mind. 1) Yesterday I heard a radio blog about a US convent that is getting lots of young nuns. It had interviews with several acolytes, and it was just really cool to hear these women dedicating their lives to Christ. The convent has the nuns wear a traditional white robe, and they mentioned that they want to stand out, to send that message that they are brides of Christ.

2) I've been reading a lot of essays students have written about their international travel experiences. Apparently, one group went to a country in Africa last summer, and I was struck by how many of the girls' essays mentioned clothing and how it affected their perceptions. The female members of the party were instructed to wear modest clothing, as the standards of modesty were much higher than here. At least two and probably closer to five of the girls mentioned how dressing differently made them feel... and I wasn't expecting their reactions.
"I was surprised by how much happier and more confident I felt."
"I kept noticing my face and my smile in store windows."

These two things really made me think about my own experience with clothing. Modesty wasn't just a halfway standard in my parent's house. When I was a teenager, Mom and Dad both were pretty adamant about no tummies showing, no cleavage, plenty of coverage - and I hated it. I thought they were outdated, I thought everything was fine, why were they making such a big deal, obviously I wasn't a party-goer, etc. At the same time, their strictness must have stuck, because I've been told by several guys that I dressed (and dress) very modestly.
(I actually had a friend tell me once that I needed to dress in more revealing clothing because I was 'repressing' myself and my sexuality. Not so!)

And now I really appreciate those standards. In many ways, I feel like the modest standard of dress imposed by my parents protected me from a lot of negative attention, and made me focus on myself as a person. Because I 'looked' modest, looking back I think that guys also tended to treat me more respectfully. Obviously I don't want to generalize - it wasn't a magic bullet to figuring out relationships or developing good self-confidence, and I had plenty of issues. All I'm saying is that, looking back on not so long ago, I feel like that was one way that my parents protected me from jerks without even being there, at an age when hormones make everything difficult for people of all genders.

After reading/hearing these things, I really question the societal norm for women's clothing in the US. At an age when we are being told that we are empowered females who can do anything we put our minds to, why are we also being shown/told (by media and stores) that we should display our bodies as much as possible? I see a disconnect between telling a woman that she should be confident in herself and who she is, but sending a not-so-subliminal message that to be 'confident' means to dress herself as a sex object, and allow herself to be seen as that, and only that, if the viewer so chooses. Is that not the very embodiment of a lack of confidence?

This is a bit disorganized. Basically, I just feel like somehow American society has turned women's lib on its head by destroying all standards of modesty. Are we making women feel that they have to dress a certain way to be confident and attractive? I just think it seems an awful lot like a warning bell that so many of the college-aged women who took that international trip felt a sudden being able to dress more modestly.

I had a Muslim coworker at one of my workplaces, and I really respected her for choosing to wear hijabi. Her very appearance said "I am set aside. I am different. I am not to be used, but loved and appreciated for who I am." No one is perfect, and I'm not arguing that everyone needs to have a particular standard of dress. But, like it or not, we are judged by our outward appearance, and I think many Christian communities struggle to keep sight of teaching teenagers that women can and should be confident in themselves, and confident to portray themselves as followers of Christ.

Anyway, I guess this ends with a question. Are Americans, as a society, pressuring women (Christian and secular) to dress and view themselves as sex objects only, or is the international trip an isolated incident?

1 comment:

Jennifer said...

Well said. At different points in my life I have tried to be immodest, but the whole racy, sexy thing just made me feel self-conscious. Like I was trying too hard perhaps.

I agree with your point about the disconnect. It's almost like some women want to have their cake and eat it too -- they want to call attention to their sexuality, but don't want to be judged by it.

And there's also the fact that I'm just not the glamour type:) perhaps if had legs that went on forever and looked like Angelina Jolie I would be singing a different tune. Sour grapes maybe? :)