One of my favourite Bloggers, Incongruous Circumspection wrote a post about modesty, inspired by yet another blogger, Darcy’s Heart-Stirrings (post here). Both of the posts brought back memories, good and bad, so I want to join in and talk about my experience too.
When I was a small girl, I loved dresses and skirts in every form. I didn’t mind the strange, old-fashioned prints they had. They were flowy, wavy, girlish, and I felt like a princess, strolling through a kingdom in which I was the only girl wearing pretty clothes. When the sun was shining, I would go out and spin spin spin to hear the dress flow, quietly, giggling.
But this changed even before I hit puberty. I was able to do ANYTHING in a skirt as a small girl, but the realisation that many things like climbing trees looked terribly immodest hit me like a bus – and BAM, my beautiful, flowy skirt was my prison.
At a certain age, sometimes 8, sometimes 10, sometimes 12, girls start being really picky about what they wear, developing their own tastes and styles. I wasn’t allowed to do that. My mother bought our clothes without asking for much of an opinion. The dresses WE liked weren’t good enough. My mom would pick out dresses with huge flowers on them. One of my person highlights of terror is the fact that they had those HUGE collars. I dreaded them. I looked ridiculous in them. One time, my mom held out one of these to me at a shop, and I begged “Mom! Please! Not one with collar! I’ll look like a sailor!” Mom lovingly ignored my concerns and when I tried it on, she made sure to point out many times how beautiful I looked and how the collar perfectly accented my tiny shoulders.
Whenever I went outside, I envied the girls in normal clothes. Many of those were beautiful, too. I wished so badly to find a certain pattern or a certain cut I had seen on the worldly girls at the thrift store, only to find myself standing there trying on burlap sacks with huge collars once again.
As I grew older, I learned to ignore the fact that I looked ridiculous most of the time. I learned to overhear the giggles and whispers. And I found a way to work my way around the worst dresses. My secret were denim skirts. Out of all the modest “fashion” you can buy at thrift stores, the denim skirts are the prettiest. You look somewhat fashionable, and many people wear denim skirts, so you don’t look like a parrot among chicken. I reasoned this to my parents as “Denim is so sturdy and lasts for years! I can do harder, dirtier work without having to worry!” It worked, but nevertheless, denim wasn’t nice to wear on those humid, hot summer days.
I had accepted my fate as the girl with the denim skirts. I still envied, almost hated the normal girls, but I was somewhat at peace with how my denim skirts and shirts looked. When we went to home school conventions, I saw those girls at my age, 16, 17, still wearing those ugly old flower dresses with the huge collars. I so pitied them. I gave my ego a boost: There were girls who wore much uglier stuff. I looked at myself and thought “Those denim skirts aren’T that bad!”. I knew I wasn’t supposed to feel proud, but I did. I was proud to look a bit less like I was part of their freak show which was supposed to show all those terrible people of the world how it’s done. I felt like, if someone approached us and asked about the ugly dresses, I could say “I’m not that bad! I’m ok looking! I’m not a Victorian era freak!”
A thing that really bugged me was my body. In the movement, there is this very weird reception of female shapes. Most importantly, you need to hide it as well as you can. I know of girls with rather large breasts who just couldn’t hide them. No matter how many huge shirts and jumpers were layered, you’d still be able to see their very feminine shapes. I was on the other side of the fence: I’m a very skinny girl with next to no femininity about my body. I don’t have those big sexy hips and I don’t have those admired big breasts either. While I prefer the term “petite” to describe my body, many others found a better expression: They called me the fish bone.
I know many girls in the movement really hate their bodies and torture themselves in multiple ways, I had a natural gift of eating whatever I wanted and not putting on weight. My bones just show on many places, particularly my neck and collar-bone. On one side, this came in handy as I never had to be afraid to look too sexy, because you really have to put an effort into looking sexy with this body shape, on the other hand, people didn’t consider me female enough. And the clothes I wore didn’t help. I looked like a little girl and on bad days, I felt like I looked more like a boy. You’re not supposed to look boyish, so while others considered certain shirts too tight to be modest, they were just right for me.
Whenever I saw worldly girls with my body shape, I admired how feminine they could look. I never felt like I was that… feminine! Standing next to them, I felt childish, undeveloped, unattractive, in short, I felt like the fish bone everybody said I was. I envied the girls with feminine bodies, while they envied me for not having to worry about big breasts and looking immodest. It’s such a crazy system that nobody can be who she wants to be, that nobody is allowed to feel good about their bodies because there are always something sinful to pick on.
After I left, I rethought the system of modesty. And after I moved to Europe, my standards have shifted – had to shift.
You have to imagine that I now live in a country where public nudity is not an offence. This means that when you go to a lake, there WILL be women topless. That’s fine, that’s allowed. Sometimes, people will ask the ones sitting next to them if they mind full nudity. Usually, nobody minds and you’ll see fully naked people. And you know what, nobody cares. Nobody stares. Nobody is offended.
I came from a mindset where everything below the collar-bone was a big no-no, and was thrown into a culture where a naked body is old news. When I was at the lake a few days ago, I was wearing my swim-dress which I didn’t take off the entire time. Kathy and I went to get an ice cream and had to stand in line with a huge pack of hungry kids. They jumped around, loud and nervous and full of happiness. I stepped back a bit when one was jumping like crazy, and my elbow touched something… soft. I turned around just to see a topless woman behind me and I can only guess I touched her breast. I was humiliated and I don’t even really know why. She smiled and said sorry, and so did I, trying to conceal just how embarrassed I felt. But it didn’t seem to be a big deal because she just went on chattering with her friend.
Sometimes, I feel very embarrassed for how open people are about their bodies and nudity here. Breastfeeding women don’t cover up when they feed in public. People go swimming topless. At clothing shops, people try on stuff just right in front of the shelf, not even going to a changing room sometimes. And nobody bothers. It’s really hard to wrap my mind around this, and not act weird.
Oversexualized? I’m not sure. It doesn’t have any sexual connotations to them. It’s how people are. It’s natural.
Nobody stares at the topless woman. If they stare, they rather stare at me. When I go into the water only knee-deep and splash my arms with water, not taking off my knee-length dress simply because I’m not at that point yet. I’m the weirdo, not the naked old 80-year-old lady and her equally naked husband, walking around holding hands. And somehow, that makes me laugh just a little.