Girls, Let’s Talk About Modesty

Girls, Let’s Talk About Modesty August 7, 2019

Dear Girls,

Can we have an honest conversation about something that might be a little awkward? It’s not about sex . . . at least directly. But it is about boys and sex and what they think when they see girls, and all the images that swirl around in their brains. It’s an especially important conversation because, as I was scrolling through social media the other day, I couldn’t help but feel a burden for you when I saw picture after picture from a recent school dance—and there was one common factor in all of them.

Girls wearing short, short (short, short, short!) skirts and dresses. As in “don’t bother trying to pick up anything on the floor if you drop it” kind of outfits.

Oh, girls, I know you might not want to hear this. And I can understand why your first gut reaction may be to think, “I can wear whatever I want and it’s no one’s business but my own.” I used to think that, too. But I need to let you in on a few discoveries I made when I interviewed thousands of men and teenage boys for my books For Women Only and For Young Women Only. And I think the results might surprise you a little (or possibly A LOT!)

Ready or not, here they are:

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  • Cynthia

    I hope you don’t mind a non-Christian commenting on this.

    I live in an extremely multicultural area, and am familiar with not just Christian but also Orthodox Jewish and Muslim approaches to modesty. For a number of years, starting at age 17, I was taught about modesty and encouraged to adopt it. It was explained as presenting myself in a certain way, to encourage the focus to be on my personality and not my body. To a certain extent, because I work in a fairly conservative industry and because I spend some time in religious settings where modest dress is expected, I do dress fairly modesty esp. in these settings. [I’ll also note that the idea of what modesty requires seems to vary wildly and it isn’t intuitive. For example, Orthodox Jewish women and some Christian women will only wear skirts, but during a recent trip to India, we noticed that pants were considered more appropriate and dresses were worn with loose leggings underneath.]

    Your post, though, touched upon reasons for modesty that I hadn’t been taught by religious outreach groups, but which explained some paradoxes I had noticed and experienced. For years, I wondered why an approach that was supposed to encourage men to respect women and see them as more than their bodies sometimes seemed to be producing men who seemed to hate the sight of women or react violently to an image of a woman or her presence, in ways that more secular men did not. So, I thank you for being frank about the reasons behind modesty, but at the same time I feel that I need to explain why I find it troubling.

    Eventually, after many, many years, I discovered that the reasons weren’t actually about promote a general respect for women, or preventing sexual assault, or preventing physical intimacy outside of marriage, or any of the other misconceptions I had. Instead, it was about the fact that men were not permitted to engage in self-gratification or lustful thoughts. Since this was such a difficult thing to avoid, and since these religious men were being taught that these were big sins, the men were feeling almost a constant sense of shame for sinning and constant pressure. Since these feelings were so uncomfortable, it wasn’t a stretch for some to shift to blaming girls and women for being a source of temptation and making them sin, and to take out their frustrations on them or which to eliminate their presence altogether. Figuring this out was a lightbulb moment for me.

    So, here’s what I’ve noticed. Among more secular men who haven’t been taught that these things are sinful and who have just been taught to focus on correct actions toward others (eg. not engaging in sexual assault or harassment), men and women can walk around in summer wearing bathing suits (at a beach or pool) or tank tops and shorts, and everybody is fine. If men are having thoughts, they figure out how to keep them to themselves. By contrast, in some religious areas, I’ve seen men who wanted to remove any pictures of adult women. I once had a man scream in my direction (because he wouldn’t talk to me directly) for a solid 10 minutes while men husband and brother went to a religious site and I stayed behind near the men’s entrance while wearing shorts and t-shirt in the summer. Far from modesty being a tool to encourage men to see beyond my body, this mindset seems to train them to see women as nothing but a body and source of temptation.

    So….as the mother of a 15-year-old boy, I am teaching him to treat all girls and women with respect, regardless of what they are wearing. He knows all about consent and avoiding doing anything to make someone else uncomfortable. Since he is also somewhat religious, I told him that if he followed any other rules that are really challenging and hard to follow – that’s on him. If he wants to take on religious rules, he can’t expect to control the world and make demands on others just to make it easier for him for avoid the temptation to break those rules.