I had a love/hate relationship with my high school. I switched from homeschool to a private school my sophomore year and it was a pretty big transition. Everybody in private school has this sort of smug, special snowflake attitude. I received an amazing education but my no-holds-barred personality did not make me any friends. On top of that, I often fell victim to the dreaded dress code. Is it out of the ordinary that I feel as if most of the issues I have originate more from that rather than being this angsty recluse with no friends? I think about it often and I'm finally having some clarity.The dress code was simple: loose-fitting khaki pants or longer-than-knee-length skirts and polo shirts with three buttons or less. I was in high school, I was trendy, I was known to bend the rules on occasion. Nothing too risqué though. Regardless, I'd get in trouble quite often. I would keep extra-baggy men's shirts in my locker because I would have to change three or four times a week. The dean of women really seemed to "have it out" for me. She would explain in not so many words that I have the kind of body that is often highly sexualized. I was leading boys to fall to lustful thoughts. I hated my body. I wanted to look like the other girls-- slender, athletic, and safe. They could wear four buttons on their polo shirt with little or no scrutiny. They weren't seen as a risk. They weren't leading young men astray. I was. I dealt with isolation and guilt. I struggled with body image and even came dangerously close to an eating disorder. But why?
Getting in trouble for a skirt being too short or a top being too tight doesn't seem like a big deal in the grand scheme of things but as a lot of you who read often know, I am a chronic over-thinker. I'll take it a step further though and note that while the immediate discipline is a "just brush it off" sort of non-issue, the motive and the pervasive pattern of thinking behind it is actually a very big issue. Most of the dress codes that I've inadvertently made myself an enemy of had been constructed with one thing in mind: "don't be a distraction for the boys." Forcing modesty by way of dress in order to stop the objectification of women's bodies is a paradox in itself. When we tell a young girl to cover up her body, we're placing a value on it. By making it something worth covering up, it is sexualized. It is fetishized. When the overarching theme of any time spent getting ready in the morning is subconsciously, "who would I be leading astray?" one begins to see her body, as this article puts it, through "the male gaze" and that we "[cast] girls as inherent sexual threats needing to be tamed." It's a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Modesty is so much more than clothes. It's an idea and a virtue. One thing that I learned going to school for art was the difference between "naked" and "nude" art. In the simplest terms possible, "naked" is when the subject is making eye contact with the viewer whereas "nude" is when the subject is looking away. It's the difference between being brazen and being meek. I personally think that so much beauty is to be found in a modest attitude of the heart and soul. I find this attitude summed up perfectly in The Greek Slave, despite the fact that she is wearing no clothes at all.
"The Slave has been taken from one of the Greek Islands by the Turks, in the time of the Greek revolution, the history of which is familiar to all. Her father and mother, and perhaps all her kindred, have been destroyed by her foes, and she alone preserved as a treasure too valuable to be thrown away. She is now among barbarian strangers, under the pressure of a full recollection of the calamitous events which have brought her to her present state; and she stands exposed to the gaze of the people she abhors, and awaits her fate with intense anxiety, tempered indeed by the support of her reliance upon the goodness of God. Gather all these afflictions together, and add to them the fortitude and resignation of a Christian, and no room will be left for shame." - Powers
Strength, grace, boldness. Modesty is not a bad word. It denotes neither weakness of personality nor lackluster blandness of dress. It is elegance. It is respect, both in the treatment of others as well as what you demand from them. It's not easy to walk the thin line between adamant and tawdry but a good place to start is by having respect for other women and not judging them for how they dress. I love Tina Fey's words in the end of Mean Girls. "You all have got to stop calling each other sluts and whores! It just makes it ok for guys to call you sluts and whores." Such a simple concept, so easily missed.
We can't change the culture overnight but we can try our best to influence those around us. Find what modesty means to you and own it. Remember that you're beautiful and worth more than you could ever know. Keep that in mind as you dress yourself and clothe yourself in confidence and grace. Once you figure that out, you'll feel so much better about yourself. I certainly did.