It Wasn’t About Modest Attire

It Wasn’t About Modest Attire February 10, 2022

The first time I was touched in a sexual way, I was eight. A loathsome boy named Wesley at the Catholic school liked to tease me that we were a couple. I despised him. I tried to avoid him, but there wasn’t anywhere to hide in the classroom. If I ran out of the classroom I’d be punished. One afternoon during arts and crafts, Wesley strolled by my desk and gave me a wet kiss on the cheek. The other children made gagging noises, and Wesley got his name written on the board in disgrace.

Later that year, a boy and girl from my cluster of desks waited until the teacher walked out of the room. I don’t think teachers ever leave children unsupervised nowadays, but in the early 90s at this Catholic school it was perfectly normal for a teacher to leave the class unattended and wander down to the principal’s office to use the copy machine. When the teacher was gone, they told me “show us your underwear or we’ll tell Mrs. Smith you did something bad and you’ll get into trouble.” And I did, because I was scared of getting in trouble with the teacher.

Both of those times, I was wearing my modest brown plaid uniform jumper that went to the knee, with a long Oxford blouse, thick socks and sensible shoes.

After the underpants incident, I wore modest uniform gym shorts under my modest uniform jumper as well, but it didn’t help. The next time that boy and girl made that threat, they made me take the shorts off.

The first time I was criticized for what I was wearing, I was nine. I was going to a classmate’s birthday party at DZ in the fashionable little girl clothing of the day: neon-colored leggings and a matching top that wasn’t very long in the back. My father sized up my outfit, turned to my mother and asked “If she were older, would she be allowed to wear something like that?” I didn’t know what he meant. I didn’t have any concept that legs and rear ends were sexual. I don’t think I had a concept of “sexual” at all. I just knew that leggings were cool, and I was excited to go to DZ.

And nothing bad happened to me at DZ. No one bothered me because I was in leggings. I enjoyed the party. I got a bag of party favors with candy buttons and a candy necklace to take home; I ate the candy off the string around my neck in the back of the mini van. It was a good day.

The first time I got criticized for a bathing suit, it was that same year or very close to it. I was swimming in my grandfather’s pool with my siblings. I got out of the pool to do a cannonball jump into the deep end, and my mother told me I wasn’t to get out of the pool again without putting my shorts back on. I jumped back into the pool obediently, but a moment later I forgot her instructions. I got out again to get a Popsicle from the bath house freezer. My mother took me aside and sternly warned me that I wasn’t to walk around in that bathing suit. She would get me a new one this week. She hadn’t realized how much I’d grown; the suit was too high-cut to be modest for my developing legs.

Nothing bad happened to me that day, or at least, nothing worse than my mother embarrassing me. I ate my popsicle and got back in the pool and had fun until dark.

A year or two later, when the emotionally abusive bully of a gym teacher at another Catholic school made me stand on my head in gym class without warning me to tuck my shirt in first, the entire fourth grade got an accidental striptease. I was in a long t-shirt, knee-length loose shorts and white sneakers with rainbow laces.

“I saw your boobies,” teased one of the girls later in the locker room, but she hadn’t. I didn’t have breasts at all at that age.

By the time I did start to get breasts, we were homeschooled, in a stuffy conservative homeschool group. I wore modest skirts and jumpers at daily Mass, but I always wore jeans or jean shorts underneath so I could strip the hated fussy clothes off and go play. And nothing happened to me– not in my modest jumpers, and not in my jeans and shorts.

And then I grew up.

When I got raped, I was in my own bed, wearing frumpy pajamas, weighing over two hundred pounds, nine months pregnant, and having contractions.

A few years after that, on a sweltering summer afternoon, I went downtown to bring some bottled water to the homeless at the Friendship Room. I was in capris and a tank top because it was so hot. I carried the bottled water from the bus stop for three blocks through a seedy part of town, and nothing happened to me. Nothing at all. If people noticed me at all, they just said “hello.”

After I dropped off the water, I wanted to go into the nearby church and pray, but the church had a dress code. Shoulders had to be covered and no shorts were allowed, not even the long kind. So I went to the thrift shop and spent a dollar on a long skirt and a blouse with three-quarter length sleeves. I put them on in the church social hall bathroom, and I went into the chapel to pray. I walked back to the bus stop in my new modest outfit.

A man was waiting at the stop.

“You are BEAUTIFUL!” said the man, and I didn’t like it.

He started ranting about how pretty my hair and outfit were. And then he invited me down to his house, and described the kind of sex parties he liked in embarrassing terms. I stammered that I was married and he started instructing me on how to flirt with my husband, in further embarrassing terms. I was afraid of what the man would do if I tried to stop him from harassing or if I ran away. There was nowhere to run to. I had no way to defend myself if he decided to do more than talk.  So I just stood there smiling and nodding, wishing the bus would come. When it did come, he got on the bus in front, so I went all the way to the back. He was still there when we got to my stop, and I didn’t want him to follow me to my house, so I rode all the way to a different stop and caught another bus home.

And nothing that happened to me is unusual. None of the things that were said to me were unusual. That’s how clothing and being a girl and a woman in our culture works. There are certain things you get shamed for, certain things you get warned about, and certain things that often happen anyway no matter what you wear.

Yesterday on social media, some Christian pastor tweeted some hackneyed adage about how women had to keep their attire modest to stop their brothers from sinning.

Personally, I’ve come to a different conclusion.

If someone wants to sin, the victim’s attire has nothing to do with it. It doesn’t matter if they’re in shorts and a tank top or pajamas or a plaid skirt or naked. It doesn’t even matter if they’re old enough to have breasts. The thing that causes people to sin, is when people choose sin.

The victim doesn’t choose the sin. That’s not how sin works.

It’s never been about the attire.



Image via pixabay

Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.
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