My love-hate relationship with modesty

I grew up in a home that took modesty seriously. I remember wearing only dresses almost my entire childhood. As a child I loved it for the most part. I loved the swishy feeling of the skirts around my legs. I loved how pretty and ruffly my clothes were.

Sometimes it was annoying to be in a skirt when trying to play soccer or doing outdoor chores. I never liked the way my modest dress/bathing suit moved shapelessly around my body instead of sticking to me in the water, I remember having to pin the bathing suit to my shorts to prevent it from slipping over my head. And sometimes we got lots of questions about what we were wearing and why, and then got labeled as religious fanatics.

But I figured it was all for a good cause, God wanted us to be modest.

Then I hit adolescence. It was awkward from the start. Suddenly my skirts weren’t long enough anymore, ruffles looked silly on my new body, and worst of all, I got breasts. By the time I was 12 I was a bigger cup size than my Mom. I remember bra shopping with my Mom, she brought me bra after bra and none fit. Finally she called in the dark squat lady attendant to “fit” my bra size and discovered I was no longer the A cup that Mom had thought, I was now a C cup at the ripe old age of 15.

Breasts brought a whole new problem to dressing modestly. Button down shirts gaped and had to be pinned, almost any shirt showed some cleavage, so I graduated to mock-neck shirts and turtlenecks only. Everything had to be fairly loose or it could show my figure and that would be tempting to men and cause them to sin.

I remember hearing one of my moms friends say that I was too large breasted to be modest without wearing some sort of vest over my shirt, even baggy fitted shirts weren’t modest enough for me. So I wore vests. I wore jumpers. I wore thicker materials. I wore square cut shirts and shirts that made me look even shorter and wider than I was.

I was the only larger girl in my family and I was very self-conscience of my body. I wished that I could be smaller and thinner, I would be able to hide my body so much easier if I wasn’t cursed with an hourglass shape. Because of the way I dressed, I looked much much older than I was. At 16 it was common for me to get mistaken as the mother of all my siblings. I remember feeling rather bitter that anyone thought I looked old enough to be the mom of 8 children.

I was allowed to get my ears pierced at 16, but I stuck mostly with small stud earring’s. Anything else would draw attention, and that would not be modest. Makeup was not allowed until I was 18, and my first attempts were not very encouraging. So I rarely tried to work with it. I struggled with my weight throughout my teens, fluctuating between 15-60 pounds over my “ideal weight” depending on what diet I was on.

While engaged I took a trip with my Fiance and soon to be In-laws. After a day at the beach I had badly burned shoulders and to avoid the friction of material against the burns I wore a tank top (I had for layering under clothes) for the drive home. When I arrived home I was scolded for wearing something that would be such a temptation to my Fiance and being such a bad example to my siblings.

As an independent adult, I have branched out a bit.

On our honeymoon I was wearing a shorter skirt when my new husband wanted to go out to the store, I told him that I should go change and he laughed and said that what I was wearing was fine. So we went to K-mart. I was so nervous. Convinced that every single man would be staring at me tempted to sin, and every single woman would laugh at how the short dumpy fat girl thought she could pull off that look. I was stunned when I didn’t notice a single person look my way.

You could probably catch a glimpse of cleavage now and then since I don’t wear turtlenecks anymore, they make my short neck look even shorter, and I’ve always hated the way they feel. My clothes are a little more fitted now,  not skin tight, but they do show that I have a waist. I wear jeans and slacks, and when I swim I wear a tankini top and a pair of swim shorts.

On the one hand, I am grateful that I was taught about modesty. I was taught to respect privacy. That my body was my own and not to be shared. And that I shouldn’t want to attract the wrong kind of attention.

On the other hand, I think that my family went a bit overboard. I always felt dowdy, fat and ashamed of the way my body was made. I got unwanted attention from people making fun of the way I was dressed. I feel as though I gave an inaccurate impression of “how you must dress if you are a Christian.”

I am becoming more comfortable with my body, and the way I am built. But to this day I have a hard time feeling beautiful in a skirt. I think others look great in skirts, I love the idea of wearing skirts, but when I put one on, I feel all the old insecurities flooding back. I love the idea of wearing brighter colors, but after trying on the blue or pink shirts, I usually decide that I would just look silly and go back to my old reliable green, gray or black.

I don’t see myself as a beautiful woman, but I don’t want my daughters growing up hearing their Mom hate her body. So I am trying to change the way I see myself, and realize that its OK to get my hair cut, or wear makeup or jewelry. I have learned to ignore the “ideal weight” charts and simply try to eat well and exercise. I hope to get to the point that I enjoy what I wear and the way I look. I want my daughters to respect their bodies and be modest in the way they dress, but I want to guard against extremes.

How do you approach modesty in a healthy way?

  • Me In Life

    I am like you and try to keep a modest mind, without going overboard. I do the usual bend tests when getting dressed. If you can see anything in the front or back, layer. I freight over patterns and such when it comes to shirts, instead I usually buy solids that can be layered for casual or dressier. I always add jewelery. Personally, I am much more comfortable in a chunky bracelet and bigger earrings than a necklace. It sounds like you have a good thing going!!

  • Molly

    I think you make a good distinction that whats modest on one person can be plain unflatering on another. I'm short, petite and very small chested- while I don't where things really low cut, and love have a tank top on underneath to keep from flashing anything I don't want to. I know I can get away with some things that others can't. I can wear tighter clothes while still being modest in my mind because baggy things make me look squat and dumpy.
    But if I wear something that really flatters a peice of my body I know that I'm not doing it for anyone other than myself or my husband. If a pair of pants really flatters my backside I wear them knowing that I'm not wearing them to get attention from anyone else but because they look good and I take pride in my appearance. Of course I approach my wardrobe by hoping to get to "classy and fashionable" rather than "trendy and cheap".

    I think sometimes people forget that attitude also shapes how modest a person is. If you aren't wearing something a little tighter or shorter with the attitude of gaining more attention than most likely no one is going to notice or really care. Of course I also don't believe that if a male friend/co-worker notices me and what I'm wearing and says "You look nice today" that I have "tempted him to sin" especially since I make it a point to let people know that while I like to look nice that I am more than that.

    Balance is a good way to keep your clothes modest. I can wear my skinny jeans, but I also have a tunic style shirt or sweater on that covers my backside. If I wear a tighter/more fitted shirt I wear my looser jeans or a skirt. A slightly shorter skirt always gets leggings or tights.

  • Kacie

    My… some of that is quite extreme! It's a shame that you were constantly more worried about your body than comfortable in it, and I've very glad you're able to analyze it and realize you want things to be different.

  • Rae

    Thank you for posting about this! I actually have a draft post sitting in my folder which I originally titled "growing up modest and getting over it." It has been re-named since I do not want to be inflammatory, but people do need to know the reality of families that freak out over modesty. It hurts women.

    The largest help for me has been my husband. He is both chaste and appreciative of beauty, so he has helped me to become even more comfortable with the fact that I have a woman's body and that being modest does not mean hiding that.

  • That Married Couple

    It seems like it's difficult to avoid extremes in (im)modesty. It sounds to me like you're actively searching to find the right balance, and that will ultimately be the most important way you can model modesty to your daughters. I also hope you can get to the point where you do actually enjoy getting dressed – sometimes a little girlish delight in what you've put on is so nice!

  • Maurisa

    Wow, this is a very interesting and insightful post! I've always been very modest in comparison to the rest of the world, but this seems a bit too extreme–more like wearing a burka! Very interesting. Thank you for sharing.

  • Young Mom

    Molly- Very true on the attitude part. But I think it can also be over-emphasized. As a teen I was so afraid of doing anything that might come across as flirtatious.

    Rae- My hubby has been a huge help for me in the same way!

    Married Couple- Growing up I didn't wear anything to take delight in, and now I just feel awkward in them. I am getting better at it though, and I hope to continue doing so.

    Maurisa- You should check out some of the evangelical modesty websites out there, they really are describing Burka's. Maybe I will link a few in a future post.

  • shadowspring

    A tip from one large breasted woman to another- a V neck will make your chest look smaller, not larger.

    A high neckline- like a mock turtle or turtle neck- gives you one huge giant Uniboob that looks much larger than you actually are. The reason that adding the vests gave you a more "modest" appearance was the addition of the V neck, breaking up the one giant shelf running across your chest into two smaller visual units.

    You can get the same modesty with a V-neck tee shirt, without all the bulk and heat of layering a turtle neck and a vest. Try it next time you go shopping! Take a v-neck tee and a scoop neck tee into the dressing room and try them both on. You will be so grateful to find you can be modest with only one layer!

    Another tip: clothes that fit are actually more modest than baggy clothes. Baggy clothes make you take up more space, make more noise walking, and make you stand out from the crowd. Everyone notices. If you want to blend in and not draw undue attention to yourself, wear clothes that fit. Sounds like you already experienced this in your shopping trip in a smaller skirt, but it is a real phenomenon. Works the same for everyone.

  • David

    Modesty is an attitude, not a style of dress.

    I am a guy, and I am NOT a religious person, and never have been.

    Now that that is out of the way, I have never understood the idea that the human body, which is supposed to be Gods greatest creation, is somehow disgusting, and should be hidden from view.

    Worrying about someone getting a flash of cleavage if you bend over the freezer cabinet in the supermarket has always struck me as a form of false modesty, rather than true modesty. Being overly concerned about never allowing an accidental glimpse, and taking such pains to ensure it never happens, even to the extent of dressing in a manner that virtually ensures that you are physically uncomfortable, strikes me as a form of such excessive pride in yourself as to appear sanctimonious and very self-righteous. I do not find these traits to be attractive in a person.

    True modesty, to me, is less concerned with covering the body from view at all times, and more with not being what is now called an 'attention whore'. To be truly modest is to not try to be the centre of attention all the time, but to share the limelight with everyone. If you get your turn now and then, a modest person should know how to handle it, which can be hard, and then hand it off to someone else, politely. You have probably earned your time in the spotlight, so enjoy it for a little while, but then move on.

    The oft-repeated idea that a man can be inflamed to lust by such an accidental peek should not be your problem, it is his and he needs to own it. His response is not your crime. The idea that you can't wear something you find comfortable, be it a tank-top or a mini skirt or a pair of skin-tight jeans, because you might lead a man into temptation is so wrong to me that I do not know how to put it politely. My temptation or lust is mine, not yours, and I need to control myself and deal with it. If I can't do that, I should be locked up for life or put down, because I am a danger to you and every other woman on this planet, and I have no excuse.

    The biblical reasoning behind this, and this goes for the Muslim dress-codes as well, is rooted in patriarchy and patriarchial control. The Book was written by men and for men, women were always second-class citizens, only marginally more important than the family cow or goat (and sometimes not even that) and therefore needed to be controlled in the same way. This is one of my major sticking points with the Judeo-Christian religions. They preach that all MEN were created equal and ignore the other half of the population without whom we would not be here.

    If you look at all the many different cultures the world over, it is only those that historically have a judaic religion that have this sort of body taboo. The rest wear clothes for warmth, decoration, or protection, but also manage to retain true modesty.

    To get the idea of true modesty, I think one only has to visit a nudist club or resort. (Stay with me here, please). After the first five minutes of your first visit, no-one notices what you aren't wearing, if they ever did, and you stop noticing what they have failed to put on this morning. People are people, we are as much the same as we are different. Some of us are lighter, darker, bigger, smaller, taller, shorter, but we are all the same. We have the same hopes and fears, and the same wants and needs. We also have the same bodies, and if you have seen one, you have seen them all. They are all beautiful, not for what they look like, but for who is wearing them.

  • TrueToddlerTales

    I have probably 15 camis in my closet that allow me to wear a v-neck (or other low cut top) that flatters my shape and de-emphasizes my very large chest. As long as the undershirt covers everything properly it doesn't matter how low the outer layer goes. Layers are your friend!

  • Dina

    Thank you for this amazing blog. It's funny, I come from a totally different background yet relate so much. I am trying to figure out how to approach modesty in a healthy way while practicing my faith (which requires modesty much stricter than what even Evangelical or Quiverfull Christians practice). And I'm trying to re-learn modesty after growing up in a home where my mom's face was veiled (similar to one of the pics you posted – she could show only her eyes) as a way to subjugate her. I wrote a post a while back about the shame I feel sometimes when I see Muslim women and they are dressed more modestly than I am and I wonder if I should be dressed more like my mother (btw, we are not Muslim! I was raised in what I guess you'd call an extremist Jewish "cult")

  • Samantha S

    As a G cup, I don't have a lot of modest options and if it's hot, modesty goes out the window–I have a problem sweating and therefore overheating. Health comes first. I generally wear modified 40s and 50s clothing that I sew myself. I like my body, it grew my daughter, and I love my breasts, they nourished her, but I also am drawn to clothing from when ladies were concidered ladies.

  • Anonymous

    I have to agree with David, we should dress to make ourselves comfortable and to look the best we can, males need to be able to control themselves and "their lusts", if they can't, then something needs to be done about THEM! Just over 100 years ago, a woman couldn't "flash" her ANKLES without being labeled immodest. Hopefully, we've grown past that as a people.

    I am an odd mix of sizes, what typically fits my waist/hips makes me look like I'm wearing my mother's clothes and what fits my bust doesn't always fit my waist/hips. I've found that the easiest thing to do is to make my dresses and be on the conservative side with choosing tops (V-necks look better, seem to make me "smaller") and choose a bottom that fits (no matter what the size number says). I've never "flaunted" my cleavage, but I will try to emphasize it to draw attention towards my face. While my breasts may be large, I really haven't caught anyone (male or female) staring at them. In fact, people typically believe that they're smaller than they are (like the rest of me). But, then, even at my most "scandalous", I'm only showing an inch or two of shadowed cleavage. Cuz my bra will show if I try to show any more. And I don't like to wear skirts or shorts that end above the knee because I have very ample thighs.

    Honestly, if a young/teen-age girl's got her breasts covered and has clothing covering from mid-way between her waist & hips to mid-thigh, and won't flash her panties if she bends over at the waist, she's probably modestly attired. There's a happy medium between what you grew up with and what "popular fashion" dictates. :)