23.2.10

Modesty Protects? Since when?

His name was Dennis, he was schizophrenic. He was sleeping in the makeshift room in our basement that my dad set up so he would have a place to bring people who needed somewhere to stay and a helping hand. He stayed with us all that summer. My mom didn't like having him there, though my father overruled her. For some reason, unlike the many other people who came through our house, her gut told her that having him there was a bad idea.

She watched him diligently, especially around us kids. She warned and cautioned and kept guard.

Every night when she sent us to get ready for bed, Dennis went outside for his smoke break.

I was 12, maybe 13 already that summer. I remember that my body was changing, my breasts were forming, my hips were starting to curve. I remember taking a few moments every night as I got ready for bed to look at myself in the mirror, to explore, to run my hands over my changing body, trying to familiarize myself with it.

Every so often in the mirror I would catch a glimpse of a shadow falling across the curtains of my ground level window. At first I thought nothing of it. A few times I checked to see if someone was there, but I never saw anyone. The girlie lacy curtains covered almost the whole window, except a small gap in the center.

One night at the end of summer I saw a shadow again and ran over to investigate. There was Dennis leering down at me, peeping through the crack in my curtains.

Hot shame flooded me as I realized how many times he must have sat there and seen me, naked in front of my mirror over the past several months. I felt violated and exposed, but most of all ashamed. I realize, as an adult, that I had no reason to feel shame, I had done nothing wrong. But my adolescent self internalized and owned that shame and it followed me for years.

(Dennis by the way was gone that night after I told my parents, though he stayed at the church we went to for many years and at some point jumped off of a bridge during a time without his medication. The last I saw him he was an angry paraplegic.)

That moment was the beginning of my quest to be invisible. I tried all sorts of things to avoid being seen; baggy clothes, slouching, gaining weight at some points, sitting at the back, in corners, and avoiding direct gazes wherever possible. I couldn't go to sleep while anyone else in the house was awake. I couldn't sleep with the lights on ever, because someone might see me while I wasn't able to protect myself. It messed me up is what I'm saying. I spent years in hiding.

("Don't cry", I keep telling myself, "don't cry. It's over, it's gone, it's old news." I thought I could write this dispassionately, but the sobs keep welling up and forcing themselves out of my throat tonight. I walk away and sit in a dark bathroom, tissue pressed against my face willing the tears to stop, and failing. "It's not that big a deal, it could have been way worse, imagine how those who endure worse feel." But that just sends me into another fit of sobbing. But I'm still typing because it's important.)

In the days before we were engaged the most difficult thing for me was to not hide or deflect when Aaron looked straight at me. Sitting across from each other at a restaurant was torture because he would not. stop. looking. at me and smiling. I had to resist the urge to crawl under the table to hide from his eyes.

I'm happy to say that thanks to him and knowing that I can trust him I can now sleep with the lights on, in trains, and while he's watching me. Though sometimes those old habits of waiting until the house is silent before going to sleep die hard. It's since I married him that I retired my sport bra and started wearing body conscious clothing that actually flattered instead of hid me. It's since him that I learned to stand up straight and not to fear that people may look at me admiringly, I even shed the insulating pounds I'd been hiding behind. It's because of the healing I have had that I can accept with humor that I may turn a head or two, though I don't go out of my way to do it, and I don't wear what most people would deem inappropriate.

A while ago I came across this post here about modesty. It's the usual "we have to protect our daughters by teaching them to dress modestly, by keeping them from watching shows that encourage them to behave in slutty ways, etc." There are a ton of comments all jumping on the bandwagon and agreeing wholeheartedly. I dunno. I think I understand where they are coming from but frankly, I think a lot of it is a bunch of horseshit.

According to that kind of logic, burqas are the ultimate protection of a woman's virtue and innocence. I mean, if our daughters are never seen, they will never encounter lust, violence, rape, disrespect, or anything of that sort right? So I looked it up. I read here that 1 in 6 women in the US will be sexually assaulted in her life. Let's compare that to... Pakistan where they wear burqas, and 1 in 3 women have been sexually assaulted. But how can we tell for sure since if she speaks up she's likely to be put in jail since she needs the testimony of 4 Muslim men of good standing who saw it happen plus the confession of her attacker to get a conviction. Obviously modesty is doing a good job of protecting the daughters of Pakistan. Then I found a first person account from a woman who lives in Pakistan, wears a Burqa everyday, and has been assaulted many times by the men where she lives. Modesty, definitely the way to protect our daughters from the attacks of men. It's working so well there, don't you think?

Yes, girls and women should use common sense when they dress. Revealing clothes are likely to lead to a reaction that they probably don't want. We want them to dress in such a way that allows the people around them to see who they are; their personality, their intelligence, and not just their cup size. But to equate teaching them how to dress appropriately with protecting them? I don't think so.

I was one of the most modestly dressed kids you can imagine, short of prairie dresses in floral prints. Dressing appropriately didn't protect me from lecherous voyeurs. I didn't watch TV at all, we didn't have one. That didn't save me from years of shame and guilt over something that wasn't my fault.

Do you know what I think? I think making a big deal about modesty and silly, meaningless, things like whether or not the straps are spaghetti or wide teaches our daughters shame. I think that teaching them that they are responsible for whether or not men leer at them is setting them up to feel shame for the rest of their lives.

My daughters are beautiful. I know I'm biased of course, but they are. I've had talent agents slip their business cards into my hands on train platforms. Agents with full portfolios who want to represent them in commercials. I've watched grown men whistle and stare hard and exclaim without malice or even creepiness, "She is going to be hot when she grows up!"

Men will be looking at my daughters their entire lives. You can bet I'll be super vigilant. Aaron and I will protect them in every way we know how to do. We may finally let them date when they're 30. But I can't protect them from eyes. There will always be eyes.

I can tell you one thing, I'm sure as heck not going to cover them in burqas and make them feel as though it's their fault that people are looking at them. I will teach them common sense. I'm going to make sure their skirts aren't too short and their underwear is on, because they could care less right now. But I'm going to treat their beauty as the gift it is, a blessing to enjoy, but not to get wrapped up in. A simple fact about how God made them. A fact that their husbands will no doubt enjoy when the time comes.

I'm going to teach them that the looks, the stares, the comments are simply because people all need to respond to beauty, some are just too broken to know the right response, and it's not their fault, it's not even bad, and it never will be their fault that God gave them beauty that moves people to look, to appreciate and to enjoy. But not to try to own or to claim. It's theirs and they are free to live unashamed in spite of it.

17 comments:

  1. *Applauds*
    Thank you for being so brave to share this. You are right in what you say. Our girls should dress appropriately because parts of their bodies are private and special, not to prevent inexcusable behaviour from others.

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  2. This was a fascinating post - thank you so much for sharing your heart. I think you are on to something here.

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  3. I will teach my daughter modesty in hopes that other women are teaching their daughters modesty; not to protect our daughters, but to protect our sons.

    I fear daily for the eyes of my boys, constantly assaulted by half-bared breasts and legs longer than they are. I fear that while they struggle to guard their hearts, the girls in their lives will be wittingly or unwittingly putting a stumbling block before them.

    That's why I will teach my daughter modesty.

    Your story took courage to share. I am so glad that God brought a man into your life who gave you grace to trust. God bless.

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  4. Togetherforgood-I get it, I do. I think. But there again I worry about making our sons think that it's the women around them who are responsible for what happens in their head, the thoughts they have.

    Going back to the burqas example, Saudi Arabia doesn't allow a burqa clad woman to stand in a window within sight of the male workers in a bank because she might distract them or tempt them to evil thoughts. How much more ridiculous can you get?

    I'm not convinced that any level of modesty is good enough for the male mind. Though I do understand the struggle some have with how omen dress. The question though is, exactly how much does a woman need to cover up for a man not to struggle? Because it seems that there is no point at which it is enough.

    Wouldn't it be better to teach them how to deal with accept and control their reactions to the way women will continue to dress in the culture they are growing up in?

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  5. {vigorously nodding head in agreement}

    I want to teach my daughter modesty out of respect for herself. I want her to know that she is beautifully and wonderfully made. And I want to not only appreciate her outer beauty but to work hard to cultivate the inner beauty as well and be more concerned about letting that be seen.

    All very well said, Carrien!

    Also, I had an experience when I was probably about 11 where a man who was doing some work on our home saw me in the shower. I had gone into the bathroom to take a shower not realizing that we was doing work just outside the bathroom window. I turned my head and saw him, immediately left the bathroom, got dressed and tried, as best as possible to avoid him the rest of his time at our house. A few days later, when the job was completed, my parents (whom I had not confided in) invited him to stay for dinner that evening. Every time I looked his way, he was staring at me. It was creepy and disgusting but mostly I was mad at myself for not paying attention and knowing he was out there. Unwanted attention is difficult to deal with, I can totally understand that.

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  6. You are a wise and articulate woman. And a strong one, to work through something so difficult, in favor of grace and healing. Thank you for sharing, and for spending time thinking through the hows and whys of your parenting choices and goals. And then writing them down so I can read them and think through my choices as well. I appreciate that more than I can put into words.

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  7. Very well said, and I agree with it all.

    I do have "rules" for how my daughter dresses - she must be modest and she has that drilled in her head. No two piece bathing suits - however those two piece suits that meet in the middle are fine.

    But my definition of modesty might be different than others (like the post you linked to). She can wear skirts - but they must reach to her knees. She's allowed in jeans, sweats, etc - dresses with spegetti straps are fine. The idea I've developed in her is beauty with class. An old phrase that was used when asked how close to you dance to your partner was: close enough to let him know you're a woman, but far enough away to let him know you're a lady.

    I'd say the same for dressing - dress so people know you're a woman (or girl) but also know that you're a lady.

    "wow, she's pretty" should be uttered when proclaiming beauty - not the amount of skin exposed.

    Sorry if I rambled...

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  8. This is such a great post. I could not possibly agree with you more. Thank you so much.

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  9. I was 14 when my grandmother told me that if a man lusted after me in his heart, it was MY sin. I was wearing knee-length (totally out of fashion) shorts at the time. She made me go and change.

    I thought she was nuts, but 30 years later, I still hear her voice at times.

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  10. Our very beautiful daugher (of course) is now 12. And developing very maturely in comparison to many of her peers. One thing that has struck me is the joy she receives in seeing how God is changing her from girl to woman. She likes to see her curves, the way her long legs fold under her, the way a shirt now fits in a way it never did before. And while we are absolutely teaching her about modesty, as we believe the Lord is calling for, we also want to teach her about the delight our bodies are created for. To teach our sons and daughters that we were made in His image, so should have no shame, but that these bodies are also to be protected, and saved for the appropriate times, is a tough task indeed. God is an artist, and He made us wonderfully pleasant to look at. It is awesome to watch her grow into her adult body, and see how she appreciates it. But is frightening that others, the wrong others, may notice. But in an effort to protect, we don't want to kill all the God-given joys she should have. What a balance.

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  11. I loved this post. Loved it.

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  12. Carrien, I'm sorry I'm just now getting back to respond. :)

    I do agree that in the end, the responsibility lies with the boys/men. And I will do my best to teach my sons to guard their hearts, to think pure thoughts, to turn their eyes away from a woman who is dressed in a way that causes their thoughts to stray. I will teach them to respect women, to make eye contact and not just stare at their bodies.

    But so much of how people respect you is tied up in how you respect yourself. And I think that most of the time, women who respect themselves don't feel the need to flaunt their skin. You can dress attractively and without looking like you're Amish while still keeping stuff covered up.

    I am sure I'm not even really articulating what I think. And I'm sure that as my children get older I will have to rethink all of these things as they challenge me. They always do. :)

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  13. I have had a similar experience. At 20 years old I was riding on the train in Chicago. Without going into details, I was sexual accosted by a man who said that I was "hot" and he couldn't help himself. That said, it was winter in Chicago and I was wearing an oversized parka with a hood, hat, gloves and scarf. I was sitting on the train and had a bookbag on my lap and huge snow boots on. Honestly, the only part of me that was showing were my eyes, which were diverted and did not once look at anyone, let alone this man.
    I was released from my constant fear and dread when I took classes in self defense from Impact.
    I agree, however, with togetherforgood. I am teaching my son that it is his responsibility to avert his eyes from inappropriately clothed (or unclothed) women and girls.
    And I want my girls to dress modestly so that they will experience less of the temptation to value their beauty and the power it can wield over men.

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  14. Togetherforgood-I agree with you and Paisley, there are good reasons to girls to dress modestly, however we define that, for their own good, for the sake of their own self-image and their respect for themselves, as well as the point of not getting too wrapped up in their own appearance which is a silly thing to spend a lot of time focusing on.

    A facebook friend also commented that she spent a lot of time as a teenager dressing slutty to get attention and that that was likely just as damaging to her and her self esteem as dealing with unwanted, and uninvited attention.

    I think the about perfect time for a girl/woman to discover and enjoy the power her body has to attract men is right around the time that she marries one. :)

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  15. allisonwonderland-I forgot to tell you how much I loved your comment. Joy and delight and innocence. You captured it so well.

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  16. Carrien, Thank you for this post, as it deals with the common issue of modesty, but presented from a realistic point of view. I guess you could say I'm pretty, but I was a tomboy as a little girl and never noticed until I got older. My body changed early on ( I got my period at 11) and I by the time I was in 8th grade I was receiving quite a bit of male attention.My stepfather was constantly on me to dress modestly (which I did) and would verbally abuse me throughout my high school years. He would make me feel as if I was controlling and even inviting male attention, even going so far as to call me slut and Jezebel. My self esteem suffered tremendously and I was always trying to find ways to "cover up". Now, at 25, I am finally learning how to dress properly,wearing clothes that fit, instead of 1 or 2 sizes too big. Now, I feel better than ever about myself. Plus my husband is loving it! So yes, I think women should be conscience of how they dress, but we should embrace the bodies we have and not be ashamed. God did make us this way after all!

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  17. You know what, you're right.

    Dressing modestly will not necessarily protect our daughters, but to say it is horse ---- is going to the extreme. The fact is, immodest dress does lead to more attention - this is just a fact. Another fact remains however...no matter how you dress or how you act, wickedness is still out there with wicked people obliging. My goal with my post was simply to encourage mothers to what we can to protect our children - not as a guarantee, but as being intentional and engaged (which you sound like you are with your daughter).

    As an addendum, I just want to say that modesty is WAY more then protection. As you stated yourself, we want people to see beyond the skin - I'm with you!

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