But as my daughter gets older, it makes me think about these things in a different light. Specifically, what do I want to teach her? What do I want her to learn by watching me?
So here are some of the thoughts that have been swirling around in my head:
- Modesty and Shame
I’ve read several things lately saying that when we teach young girls to “dress modestly”, we are teaching them to feel shame about their bodies.
This article being the most recent one I have read on the topic (and there are actually some good thoughts in that article too!).
The Mum in the article says, “Focusing on what is or isn’t OK for other people to see of our bodies, in my opinion, leads to shame. ”
Is that true? Does talking about how we dress affecting others really lead to shame?
I saw another story pop up on Facebook the other day about a woman who claimed to have been “body shamed” because she was asked to leave the apartment complex pool because her swimsuit might “excite the young boys”. Now, I have no comment to make about the story or the swimsuit, but what caught my attention was a comment left on Facebook where a woman said something like, “This is ridiculous. Even if she was naked, she should have been allowed to stay at the pool and it would be the responsibility of the young men to control their own thoughts.”
And I just thought, really? You really think people should be able to walk around naked if they want, and no one else is allowed to have a problem with that?
But that is the logical end point of the “everyone can wear what they want” argument!
I’m always skeptical of these “modesty standards lead to body shame” arguments because I was raised with certain standards of modesty and yet I can’t remember ever feeling like my body was shameful.
(Actually, that’s not entirely true – I remember one time when a cool boy sat next to me on the bus and I felt very ashamed of the fact that I hadn’t shaved my legs. I spent the whole (30 minute!) bus ride self-consciously hoping he wouldn’t look down at them!)
The clear message that came from my parents (in spoken and unspoken ways) was that our bodies were beautiful and good, but certain parts of them were private. There was never any teaching about our bodies being inherently dirty or shameful. And there definitely was teaching about how certain parts should be covered appropriately.
Feeling ashamed because someone sees your private parts is appropriate shame and is not the same thing as feeling ashamed of your private parts.
- Modesty for little girls
If we make modesty all about the effect on others (not leading men to stumble in their thoughts, etc.), then it makes no sense to have any standards of modesty at all for little girls. Most men are not sexually attracted to little girls, so there would be no risk of exposed flesh or even genitals “causing someone to stumble”.
Which then leads you to a situation where little girls can wear whatever they like, and it’s only when their body becomes more “womanly” that you start telling them to cover up. I can see how that would lead to shame. I can see how that change in standards would lead a girl to think that something bad or dirty was happening to her body.
You can see this in cultures where they do have different standards of modesty for pre-pubescent and post-pubescent girls. The emphasis is entirely on how they appear to men, so they arrive at: little girls’ bodies are not arousing, so they don’t need to be covered but women’s bodies are arousing so they do need to be covered.
Whereas, if we pull the focus back to questions of “what is private and needs to be covered?” and “what is appropriate to have uncovered?”, then there is no need for different standards of modesty between little girls and grown women.
(Of course, there are some practically different standards regarding the fit and shape of clothes. But theses differences also apply between women of different shapes and sizes, so it’s not a girl body vs. woman body thing. For example, certain tops may be appropriate on someone with small breasts, but not someone with large breasts.)
This is why we teach our daughter to dress in a way that is modest even at this young age. (Since we choose her clothes, at this point it is mostly behavioural things like “be careful not to show your undies when you sit in a skirt.”) Not because we’re worried someone will be aroused by her, but because we want her to learn how to dress appropriately in a way that respects the privacy of her body.
- The Desire to be Sexy
Wanting to be sexy and have our bodies look appealing is a very natural and normal thing. I also think it is the cause of many “modesty problems”.
I remember growing up it sometimes felt unfair that I had to wear slightly different things to my friends. A couple of times I remember being teased for always wearing t-shirt underneath single strap dresses.
As I grew into the teenage years and girls in my school started to wear more overtly sexualised clothing, the difference between us became even more apparent. I mean, there were a few outfits I had that I would not wear if I could go back and change things, because they were pretty revealing (does anyone remember my purple slinky pants?? Mum?). But mostly, my clothes were a lot more conservative.
Now, by the time I was a teenager – especially the late teens – Mum and Dad did much less controlling of what I could wear, and my modesty standards became my own.
But even though I dressed according to my own convictions, it was still really hard sometimes.
I remember wishing that I could look sexy and get as much attention (even some attention!) from the guys as other girls did. Sure, I didn’t want attention from all the guys, but I definitely wanted to look good and have others notice that I looked good.
One thought that helped me to cope with this sense of “missing out”, was that I used to tell myself that one day I would be married and I could be as sexy as I liked and wear all the revealing clothes I wanted to for my husband. After I turned 18 and my husband and I began dating, I even began (secretly) collecting lingerie items and saving them for marriage.
Now, as a married woman, I do get to be as sexy as I want – in the bedroom – but I still keep to my personal convictions of modesty in public.
If I’m wearing something in public because it makes me feel sexy, then that is the wrong motivation and I probably shouldn’t wear that thing. This is where I (we) need to be really honest about our motivation.
The desire to be sexy is natural, but it is for a certain time and a certain place – the time is after marriage and the place is anywhere private.
So these are the things I’ve been thinking through lately regarding modesty and our daughter. I honestly think with many of these things, a lot of the teaching is subconscious and comes about by what our kids observe.
Sure, direct teaching and training is important, but ultimately what they see in our homes and marriages will form the basis of what they think is normal.
I hope our daughter learns from living in our home that God made our bodies beautiful (in all the different ways they come). I hope she will learn that some parts of our bodies are private, just for sharing with our spouse. I hope she will learn that a wife carries herself differently around her husband compared to in public.
I hope she will learn that whether she marries or not, her body was made in God’s image and for His glory, and that everything the Christian does with their body should be in pursuit of that goal.
Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.
1 Corinthians 6:19-20