This isn’t a story about how modest clothes allowed me to “let myself go” and conceal a growing figure. It’s not even a story about how wearing modest clothes kept my self-esteem at rock bottom and thrust me into a too-close relationship with Ben & Jerry. It’s a story about how modesty doctrines impacted my mind, in ways that had real, negative effects on my body. Modesty was one of the reasons my defining relationship with my body became whether or not I was “fat.” Modesty was one of the engines that pushed me into a full-blown eating disorder. It’s not just a dress code: it’s a philosophy, and it’s one that destroys young women, mentally and physically.
Modesty taught me that my first priority needed to be making sure I wasn’t a “stumbling block” to men. Not being sexually attractive was the most important thing I had to consider when buying clothes, putting them on, maintaining my weight (can’t have things getting tight!), and moving around (can’t wiggle those hips, or let a little knee show). Modesty taught me that what I looked like was what mattered most of all. Not what I thought. Not how I felt. Not what I was capable of doing. Worrying about modesty, and being vigilant not to be sexy, made me even more obsessed with my looks than the women in short shorts and spray tans I was taught to hate.
Modesty taught me that I was always on display. There was no occasion in which it was acceptable to be immodest. Not the beach, not at the pool with friends, not in my own backyard (sunbathing was out because a neighbor might glance over and see me). This took my normal self-consciousness as a teenage girl and amped it up to an impossible degree. I once had a bee fly down my (acceptably loose) shirt and, in flailing around to get it out, had a family member comment that I’d just “flashed” my own grandfather. I was horrified for the rest of the week. That’s not normal. The normal order of priorities is getting dangerous animals out of your clothing first, and then worrying about making your own relatives perv on you second. Not so with the modesty doctrine. I should have let it sting me, apparently. Getting stung was the lesser risk.
Modesty was not just about dress. It was also about moving like a lady. Knees together, butt down, breasts in, arms down. It is impossible to get physically fit while adhering to ladylike movements only. You might be able to run, but only if you wear two sports bras to keep anything from jiggling inappropriately. You certainly can’t do anything with weights. In college, I had the chance to join a horseback riding team for a couple of semesters. I soon realized that staying on the horse required starting some kind of fitness regimen. In the gym, I found a couple of hip abductor/adductor machines that were handy for building the thigh strength necessary to grip the horse. The problem? I was so embarrassed that somebody might walk in front of me while I was on the machine with my legs spread that I started going to the gym the moment it opened in the morning and avoiding exercise when men were present. In this instance, modesty was literally keeping me weak. Eventually, I grew comfortable enough with my own body to exercise without worrying about other people happening to look at me. Now, I do an exercise routine that would have scandalized my old self: squats, deadlifts, and barbell rows. I have so much more energy and my mood is so much improved – plus, I can move my own furniture! But I couldn’t have got to this point without dumping the modesty doctrine. Because I couldn’t concentrate on hauling iron while worried that some perv behind me might happen to glance my way and pop his gym shorts. That’s not my job anymore. I’m not responsible for men’s souls, because I no longer think of myself as an object to be looked at and evaluated.