Reader Question of the Week: Modesty Standards within Families

'Questions?' photo (c) 2008, Valerie Everett - license: weekend I like to post a question someone sends in and let you readers have a go at it. After the discussion in the comments last Saturday, one reader wrote in with this question:

What standards for modesty do you have inside your home? Do family members see each other getting out of the bath or shower regularly, is the bathroom door locked with a dead bolt or is it somewhere in between? What rationale did you use to come to your decision on this issue?

What standards do you use in your home and why? I think this is so important to talk about, because I do believe that too often our modesty message causes girls to be ashamed of their bodies.

A Summer Dress Code

Every Friday my syndicated column appears in a bunch of newspapers in southeastern Ontario and Saskatchewan. What is the appropriate dress code for summer? How do we bring back class?

Twenty years ago a building in Blackburn, England was scheduled to be demolished. Before the wrecking ball swung, construction workers discovered some old film reels in a metal tub. Historians took a look, and found some of the earliest footage of a street in Belfast from 1901. I spent some time watching some on it on YouTube the other day, and what really impressed me was how dressed up all the pedestrians were. Men in suits rode bicycles and horses. All the women donned dresses with their hair pulled back. People were classy.

We’re not classy anymore; we aim to be comfortable instead. In some ways it’s a good trend; I’d hate to be in long skirts with long sleeves in the middle of summer. But at the same time I feel as if we have lost a bit of a sense of community pride as we have dressed down. When we show pride in ourselves, we inject pride into the community. When we appear trashy, then the community takes a nosedive.

And so, perhaps, in the spirit of building community, we could talk about a summer dress code that could restore some decency and some class.

First, let’s talk Speedos. As a comedienne once said, there’s a very narrow window when Speedos look good on a guy, and that’s between the ages of 6 and 10. If you are not between those ages, then please cover up more. When I’m on the beach, I want to be free to scan the horizon to look at sand and water, not scan the horizon only to have to avert my eyes. Yes, I have to share the beach. But I would rather not be reminded of absolutely everything I am sharing it with.

Speaking of too little fabric, let’s turn now to bikini tops, most of which consist of less fabric than the average WonderBra. A bikini top is part of a bathing suit. You may clue in to this because they are purchased at the “bathing suit” section of a store. Thus, if one chooses to wear one, one should wear it at a place where bathing is done.  If there is no water within one hundred feet, then it’s no longer an acceptable wardrobe choice.

Here’s something else that bugs me: there is a point at which a leg is no longer a leg, but becomes a different body part.  When one is wearing shorts, this point should never be visible. Shorts should descend part way down the leg—not part way up the butt. And the bottom of shorts should be parallel to the ground; they should not be shaped like a V. A V is acceptable at the neck; it is not acceptable at the crotch.

Now guys, you’re not off the hook when it comes to shorts, either. While I don’t want them to crawl too far up, I’d also prefer that they not fall too far down. I would prefer not to know whether you choose Hanes or Fruit of the Loom; that’s for your grandma to know when she wraps your Christmas presents, not for me to know when I’m standing next to you at the mall.

Some things are just meant to be kept private. I know in this era of reality TV we like to let it all hang out, but I personally would prefer if we would stuff some back in. I think that would lead to a far friendlier community this summer, one where I do not fear having to avert my eyes.

Hot vs. Pretty

Hot vs. Pretty: Do we teach teenage girls to understand the difference?

Every Friday my syndicated column appears in a bunch of newspapers in southeastern Ontario. Here’s this week’s, which was inspired by a post I saw at Traditional Christianity on the difference between sexy and beautiful.

When my daughters were little they loved playing dress-up. They had bins of skirts and tiaras and little high-heeled plastic shoes that they would don for their own fashion shows. Though some feminists may wish to deny it, I think there is a feminine instinct to enjoy being The Beauty.

While I personally don’t go overboard—I have been known to venture to the grocery store without lipstick, and I have driven my teenage daughter to work while still in pyjamas—on the whole I try to look presentable. When I do, I feel better about myself. I feel more ready to take on the world. Put on earrings and lipstick, and I actually work harder. Appearance, whether we like it or not, does reflect how we see ourselves and how we act.

Lately, though, I fear that the idea of what is attractive and beautiful has become distorted. So let me perfectly blunt: hot and pretty are not interchangeable. Sexy and beautiful are two different things. Pretty means that you put in effort; that you show, through your appearance, that you respect yourself and you want others to know it. And just about any woman can be attractive by paying for a good haircut, applying a little makeup, and purchasing clothes that flatter her body type. Hot, on the other hand, is more like a billboard advertisement for goods that are for sale.

I’m rather distressed about this trend away from traditional beauty—which focused on respecting oneself—and towards hotness, which gives an entirely different message. So often I see teenage girls with low-cut tops and mini-skirts, and yet they have obviously put little effort into looking good anywhere else. Now, of course, suggestive clothing with a great haircut isn’t much of an improvement. But what it shows is that girls are putting effort into what they wear—but that effort is involved in flaunting body parts rather than presenting a beautiful package. It’s not about the whole; it’s just about the boobs.

I have teenage friends on Facebook who post pictures of themselves in bikinis. I have seen other young women with stringy hair and awful makeup who nonetheless have guys trailing them because they’re showing so much skin that the guys really don’t care about the hair. This seems to be especially true with girls who do not have the perfect figure. I have seen more cleavage and more revealing clothing on rather overweight girls than I have on many others. It’s as if they’re so insecure that they’ve given up on being beautiful. They think hot is all they have left. They’re wrong.

Hot, you see, is not necessarily pretty. Hot can actually be rather off-putting. Perhaps guys flock to it, but it’s only because they’re interested in the message you’re sending out: I am completely and utterly available to be your sex object. That’s not the equivalent of being beautiful. When you care for the whole package, and dress as if you respect yourself, you attract the kind of man who is interested in more than 15 minutes in a locked bathroom with you at a party.

Maybe that truly is all some girls are interested in, but I hope that many are just confused. It doesn’t matter if our culture is trying to convince you to reveal absolutely everything. Even if celebrities are doing it, copying them does not make you beautiful. It just makes you desperate and kind of pathetic. You may still attract the male species, but you attract the ones who are eager to take advantage of that kind of woman. Is that really who you want to be?

Trying to be hot means you’re dressing for others. Trying to be pretty means you’re dressing for yourself because you appreciate who you are. They’re two very different things, and we women need to think about which image we want to portray.

Now, to give a bit of perspective, though, I’ve written about the other extreme, too–the extreme which somehow equates holiness with frumpiness. So I do think there needs to be a balance in this, as in just about everything else!

If you liked this column, you’ll like my column on teenage girls, Facebook statuses, and Facebook pictures: Too Young To Be Hot.

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Modest Should Not Mean Dowdy

Modest Should Not Mean Dowdy--how Christians sometimes adopt too stringent a view of modesty

Modesty is a big “buzz” word on Christian women’s blogs.

We’re all supposed to want to be modest (which I agree with), but often the definition of modesty is something which I find completely unreasonable, and rather off-putting.

A friend of mine, whom I would consider very modest but stylish, took her pre-teen daughter to a mother-daughter event recently. Originally the daughter had been asked to model, but at the last minute they found someone else to fill in in her size, so told her they didn’t need her.

My 11-year-old friend was devastated, until she saw the actual fashion show. And then she was so appalled by the clothes that she whispered to her mother: “I’m so glad they didn’t ask me to model after all! I’d be so embarrassed if I were up there!”

Now I wasn’t at that event, so I didn’t see first hand, but apparently the clothes were layered to the nth degree and so long and bulky that they looked like sacks.

I’ve been on other women’s blogs that seem to be pushing the idea that if we’re not dressing modestly–and by that they have a very narrow definition of modest–then we’re not being Christian. And I do believe that sometimes the Christian modesty message can veer in a dangerous direction, causing women to be ashamed of their bodies.

And so I’d like to spell out my philosophy on this, just to inspire debate, and to perhaps free some of you who aren’t comfortable with this line of thinking but aren’t sure where else to go.

First, I do think modest should mean no cleavage, and no drawing attention to particular parts of the body deliberately. So no super-tight T-shirts, no low-cut shirts that look more like bikini tops, no super short skirts or shorts, and no tank tops (UPDATE: I meant to say tube tops. We here in Canada used to call tube tops tank tops, but I know tank tops are something different now. Sorry for the confusion!). I’d even be careful with sleeveless dresses. For swimming, I’d steer clear of bikinis, and even some one-pieces, and go with some flattering tankinis, which are often prettier and which often have bottoms that go down a little bit further. I find most people look better in these anyway.

But to say modesty means much more than that, I think, puts women in a bind, sounds very legalistic, and can be dishonoring to men.

For instance, I’ve seen some women say that we should only wear skirts. Really? Personally I wear skirts most of the time in the summer, because finding shorts that fit is difficult, and I love skirts. So I’m not against skirts in the least. But to say that all women should wear skirts because it’s more feminine is really strange. A nicely cut pair of jeans with a pretty blouse in my opinion is far more feminine than a shapeless denim skirt.

Similarly, to say that one can’t wear any pants that fit well because they would draw attention to one’s *ahem* behind is thus saying that we should all wear sacks. Now I certainly don’t think that we should wear tight clothes. But there is a difference between tight and clothes that simply fit. My daughter told me about a blog post she read on a popular teenage girl blog that said that if you can’t pinch your pants and find a few inches, it’s too tight. How many girls are really going to follow that?

But here’s another question: do we really want to give the impression that Christians are dowdy spoilsports, because our definition of modesty seems to say that.

As a married Christian woman, I feel that my responsibility is to dress modestly but fashionably. I want my husband to be proud of me, and if I were only wearing denim skirts with button down blouses, he would not be proud to take me out in public. I would stand out like a sore thumb. And so I go out of my way to try to wear things that are pretty and flattering but that don’t cling too much, show cleavage, or come up too high on the thigh.

I think sometimes that the Christian wives who advocate the long, shapeless skirt look with the baggy t-shirt forget something. The rationale for dressing modestly is that because men are visually stimulated, we shouldn’t dress to stimulate them. Okay so far.

But if we admit that men are visually stimulated, then don’t we also owe it to our husbands to look our best?

And how many husbands like walking around with wives who are dressed in shapeless clothes?

Now, I know many of the people who advocate wearing skirts do not wear shapeless ones, and I’m not trying to say that you’re wrong. I think longer skirts can still be fashionable, if they’re cut correctly, and you can wear lovely shaped blouses to go with them that do flatter your figure.

For instance, the True Femininity blog, written by a 21-year-old, has an “Outfit of the Day” recurring theme where she shows a modest but fashionable outfit. Here’s one from June:
Modest can still be flattering--and can still say, "I have curves!"

Lovely. But many of the “skirts only” blogs that I’ve read, and that my daughter has seen, really do advocate skirts resembling potato sacks, that look as if they were bought in thrift stores.

I don’t think that’s the image that Christians should be presenting.

Why not just look fashionable, attractive, and fun, without trying to attract attention as a sex object? Looking like you put some care into your appearance says that you respect yourself and you respect your husband.

My friend Terry, over at Breathing Grace, wrote a post recently where she said that her standard of beauty is her husband. She wears what he likes, because he’s the one that really matters, and I like that conviction. Sometimes when we think about all this “modesty” stuff, I think we do it without male input. We say we’re trying to protect men by not being tempting, but I wonder how many of the wives have ever asked their husbands honestly if they like the “sack” look, or if they would prefer that their wives be a little more attractive? I think many women get caught up in this “modesty” movement online, and in their little cliques, and they barge right ahead without asking the guys.

Finally, there’s one other thing that concerns me, and this is perhaps the largest issue. This world is in desperate need of help. All around us families are breaking up, debt is ruining people’s lives, addictions are taking over. And that’s only in the neighbourhood. On a worldwide scale, wars are being fought, persecution is rampant, and injustice abounds.

This world needs Christians to become engaged, to be good role models, and to be outspoken (in a gentle way) for what is right.

That means that we have to be people that others respect. We need to be people that others will look at and admire. And I don’t think that it’s flighty of me to say that part of that admiration will be tied in to how we look. If we show up looking like we have never cut our hair (let alone put conditioner in it) and as if we are wearing sacks, then why would people want to listen to us?

When you dress that way and present yourself in a very dowdy, throwback way, you make your world smaller.

You tend to retreat into your family or your church because that is safe, and that is where you fit in. You don’t fit into the wider world anymore.

That’s not right. We need people who will speak up and who will be role models. We need to stop shrinking. Certainly retreating is easier and less messy, but it is not what we are called to be. We are called to be “in” the world. We don’t let its values dictate ours; we don’t follow after the world’s idols. But we must still be “in” it.

We must not shrink our own world, and that is what we do when we adopt too narrow a definition of modesty–of what is acceptable clothing.

So what would I recommend? If you’re married, talk to your husband about what sort of dress he considers modest and fashionable. Take a friend with you who is fashionable and go shopping and get some clothes that actually fit. Get a nice haircut (you can go to a haircutting school if you can’t afford a salon). Treat your body as if you respect it, not as if you’re ashamed of it. And let’s stop using Christianity as an excuse to look dowdy.

Fashionable and feminine while still being modest. That, I think, is what we should be doing. And, by the way, there’s really nothing wrong with a good pair of jeans!

One Hot Mama

Every Friday my syndicated column appears in a bunch of newspapers in southeastern Ontario. Here’s this week’s! And I just want to add, it is the first time I have ever used the word “bazongas” in print. I think it works in this context, though.

Last year a friend of mine, who travels for business, bought a Bluetooth device so he could use his cell phone without touching the screen. You just stick it in your ear and tell it what you want it to do.

His wife, fixing to be a little naughty, reprogrammed his phone so that instead of being listed under “Lisa”, she was now listed under “Hot Mama”. Sounds like a good idea, except now, when my friend is in public with the Bluetooth in his ear and he wants to call home, he can’t say, “Call Lisa”. He has to say, “Call Hot Mama.” “Did you say, ‘Call Hot Mama?’”, the Bluetooth then queries. “Yes,” he replies. And then the phone begins to ring.

Once we women have been married for long past a decade and we’ve shoved out a few children, we need all the reminders we can get that we are, indeed, “hot mamas”. Nevertheless, from what I observed watching several office Christmas parties at various restaurants this year, I wonder if people misunderstand the term “hot mama”. Consider this, then, my primer for what is considered “hot”.

First, less is not more. Less is actually less. Unless you are a 23-year-old supermodel, a little mystery is a very good idea. I saw far too many 40-something women attempting to wear dresses that revealed too much cleavage and too much thigh. That is not “hot”. That is vulgar. And it’s not even attractive. After all, the reason that they are called “foundational garments” is because they are, well, foundational. Once gravity kicks in, it doesn’t kick back out just because one is wearing a skimpy dress; it works overtime. Thus, think dresses that allow foundational garments to do their duty, not dresses that just show skin. Many larger women think that if they can squeeze into something small, they will appear small. Only in your dreams, honey. If you’re large, wear something that flatters, not something that squeezes.

Second, consider the weather. I do not understand why women feel that the proper attire for parties at the dawn of a new year consists of barely enough fabric to cover the vital areas. It’s Canada, people! Let’s not deny it. The most glamorous woman I saw this Christmas was definitely post-50, but she donned a lovely long velvet gown which, while showing cleavage, also provided enough shoulder coverage to allow for that foundational garment, which let that cleavage actually look attractive. She outclassed the shivering women all around her by miles.

Third, think about how you want others to perceive you. If you’ve spent the last two years trying to get the four young men you supervise to treat you with respect, and then you show up at a Christmas party wearing something that is blaring “stare at my bazongas”, do you really think you’re giving the right message? Just because you’re at a party does not mean that you should break down all social barriers. Why not instead adopt a little class? Wear a dress that allows you to show your figure to best advantage, while still leaving enough mystery to keep the co-workers looking up to you as royalty, rather than looking down on you as trash.

Being “hot” does not require one to dress like a tramp or to catch hypothermia in the middle of winter. If you’re single and searching, you’ll attract class better by looking like class. And if you already have a beloved, he’s the one who needs to know what’s under those office clothes, not everyone you work with. Now that this lesson is over, I think I’ll put on a good foundational garment and go reprogram my husband’s phone.

Note: I know there are other things to consider here–like more of a plea for modesty as a whole. But when you only have 600 words, and I’ve done columns on modesty before, I thought a different tack was needed. So please don’t take offense if you think I didn’t make enough of a case for modesty! I’m word limited.

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Figuring Out What Clothing is Modest

'Vintage Buttercream Eyelet Sweater & Boho Wrap Skirt' photo (c) 2011, jessjamesjake vintage - license: that posting has been light, but I’m on vacation this week!

And as I’ve been here, we’ve learned something very important. My oldest daughter fits my clothes.

And we’ve been clothes shopping a lot, which has opened up a whole other realm of problems.

Becca hasn’t bought very much, because she’s on a clothing allowance. She has budgeted herself a certain amount to spend while we’re here, and she wants to look around and make sure what she’s getting is attractive; affordable; and unique. No sense bringing something home that she could buy there just as easily!

But down here in Hawaii everything is about boobs. You know what I mean: the deep V’s, the boobs outlined, etc. etc. I know that’s the fashion right now, but I’m not comfortable with it.

I don’t mind deep V’s if they’re paired with a modest camisole, which is how she always wears them. Absolutely no cleavage is my motto. But I’m also uncomfortable with shirts, dresses and bathing suits that don’t just plunge in the middle; they also plunge at the sides. If you have a wide band of fabric over the shoulder, and the dress goes nicely under the arms, you can still wear a bra and camisole. But if the dress comes down at the sides, too, so that you’re seeing the side of the you-know-whats, I don’t think that’s right.

Becca listens to me and agrees with me on the whole, but even some of the things that are pretty and modest by comparison I’m still not sure I’m comfortable with. When we were teens fashions weren’t close fitting, but now everything is. All curves are revealed.

She looks great, but I just don’t know. So tell me, all of you who have gone through this or have opinions, how do you decide what to buy for your children? What do you think is modest?

I often ask my husband, since he knows what teenage boys think, and if he says it’s okay, I go with him. But I’d still like some better guidelines. Anyone want to offer some?