Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Modesty Panel: Growing up in the Christian Homeschooling Subculture

This week, a group of bra bloggers - all of us with various viewpoints and backgrounds - are sharing our perspectives on the subject of modesty in the series The Modesty Panel. The topic of "modesty" is one of those interesting but tough to write about subjects, and one that the group of us all wanted to write about "someday". Well, "someday" is this week!

Be sure to check out the posts of the other participating bloggers (links will be updated as they're posted):

My own particular background is not something that I've shared much about on my blog, but I feel it's necessary to give some brief insight so my post has some context.

I was homeschooled growing up, and my family was a part of a larger homeschool community. The homeschooling community is made up of a wide variety of various groups with different beliefs, but Evangelical Christian, Fundamentalist, Quiverfull, and/or Patriarchal families* made up a large portion of the community that we interacted with. Though my own family was not necessarily or particularly part of one subset or another, I was heavily exposed to many of the teachings of these and various other subsets. One of the big topics/teachings/subjects in the community I was part of - especially as I was in my teenage years - was that of Modesty (I capitalize it purposefully in this post). There were reams of books and articles written and talks given on the subject, as well as on related topics like Purity and Dating/Courtship.

Embarrassed, I crossed my arms over my breasts, hoping to hide them. Despite the fact that I was wearing a ugly, minimizing sports bra under my shirt and had tried to dress Modestly, I felt somehow "immodest" and exposed as the group of girls, boasting waist-length hair, long-sleeved button-down shirts, and ankle-length skirts, passed by. Did my split-ends, jeans, and t-shirt somehow make me less spiritual than they, these daughters of the leaders in the community?

The carefully-approved Summer camps and gatherings that I was allowed to go to featured long lists (sometimes pages) of what "approved attire" for the attending youth was. The vast majority of the items applied to females. There was an array of gymnastics and self-criticism for us to perform before an item of clothing could be deemed Modest that bordered on the ridiculous:  Raise your arms! Does a hint of midriff show? Immodest! Stretch your arms to your side - does your middle finger go past the bottom of your shorts? Immodest! Bend forward - does any hint of cleavage or part of your back show? Immodest! Crouch down - does your back show? Immodest! Does "too much of your female form" show, distracting from your face? Immodest! Wearing too much makeup? Immodest! Spaghetti straps/tank tops? Immodest!

This would've been considered a pretty scandalous outfit... on me, anyway.

Periodically, I would read recommended articles that urged girls to "examine their hearts and motives" for what they were wearing, and to purge their closets of anything that might "cause your brothers to stumble". I wasn't allowed to own anything like tank-tops or short-shorts, but I anxiously mulled over my t-shirts and jeans. Were they, perhaps, too tight? They were certainly not tighter than what "everyone else" wore... but, as was pointed out to me, "everyone else" didn't have a chest that needed to be minimized. My pants were mostly baggy thrift-store jeans, but I wondered if I would be seen as more "feminine" and godly if I switched to wearing skirts.

When I was in high school, a popular site among homeschooled-teens launched the Modesty Survey. In a nutshell, this was a survey that asked boys and men to rate a list of certain statements, such as "Jeans are immodest", from "Strongly disagree" to "Strongly agree". Many of the teenage boys I knew took this survey. Upon reading it, we girls would be able to take our cues as to what we should and should not wear, do, or say (this post goes into more detail on the Modesty Survey)! Finally, I thought, this will give us insight into what not to wear in order to Not Tempt Men and Cause Them to Stumble!

And then I read that, apparently, it was Immodest to leave your jacket partially unzipped, fix your bra strap if it slipped, wear shorts that are shorter than "mid thigh" or skirts that come above the knee, stand a certain waystretch, or bend over. It dawned on me later that the survey was basically asking a horde of horny male teenagers (along with, creepily, a handful of men aged 40+) about what turned them on (Spoiler alert: everything), and then telling the teenage girls that it was all their fault for the way they dressed (not to mention the admonition that girls who were "more attractive" or "curvy" needed to be the Most Modest of All). That's... pretty useless.

Another, perhaps more sinister way of thinking illustrated in this survey and throughout the Modesty Culture was the common thought that women who don't dress Modestly are not deserving of respect. I saw and heard references to this in many forms constantly throughout my 12 years of being part of the homeschool subculture. The belief that men had the final say in what women should or should not wear. References to pointing out and shaming women who were "dressed immodestly" or "calling unwanted attention to themselves". The thought that "women who dressed immodestly must have a low self-image". The teaching that females were "defrauding" men by dressing in such a way that men deemed immodest. As a teen, I was terrified lest I be put into one of these categories - and become an object of righteous ridicule and shame.

Teenage me dressed for a dance/ball (swathed in enough fabric to mostly conceal my shape - we were allowed to wear sleeveless dresses for balls). You're welcome.

So, what's my point in sharing all of this background? All these teachings of Modesty did little but infuse guilt, shame, and self-doubt into my life. No matter how hard I tried, I felt I was never going to be as Modest as the girls who always wore ankle-length skirts. I would never be as Feminine as the women who never cut their hair. I would never be as Pure as the girls who were better able to conceal their figures. I believe that part of the depression, self-hatred, and body image issues that I experienced during that time stemmed from the warped sense I had of my body due to the teachings imposed by the Modesty Doctrine (Patheos author Sierra has a very relevant and thought-provoking article on the subject).

This blog, and interacting with the blogging community as a whole, has, in a big way, been a healing journey for me. I can talk about the issues that I once was so ashamed of, and not fear being shamed and shut down. I can delight in the fact that I've found clothes that fit and flatter me, and not be ashamed that they do so. I can wear my hair short and be proud of it. I can recognize and celebrate, with freedom, that ALL body types are great and beautiful and don't have to be hidden away, minimized, or told they're wrong.

What's my personal view on modesty (uncapitalized) today? Honestly, it's something I try not to think about too much. I'm one of those types of people that tend to way overthink things, and I don't think the way that people dress is one of those subjects that deserves a huge amount of debate and thought and time devoted to it - not for me, not any more. Stated in simple fashion, I figure that as long as I'm being reasonably respectful of others in the way I dress (and this can mean different things for different situations and cultures), and as long as I'm seeking to have my heart right with God, I'm being modest.

What are your thoughts on modesty (or Modesty)? How has your background affected your views today?

*I provided links to articles that discuss these various terms, for those unfamiliar (or even those who think they are familiar). Some of these terms have very negative connotations for certain people and/or in the media, but not all groups define these terms in the same way.


  1. Literally moved me to tears. Your conclusion is beautiful. Personally, it's very easy for me to get caught up legalism because rules seem so much easier to follow than "seeking to have my heart right with God". I also find legalism to be a way of trying to keep tight control over everything. Your post reminds me that that's that's exhaustingly impossible.

    (By the way, my niece who's living with me grew up homeschooled in a Christian family, but I've only recently heard of these movements that you've mentioned.)

  2. This is such a great article. I see nothing wrong with choosing those types of beliefs about modesty for yourself, but when you're raised in it and end up with all of the guilt, shame, self-hatred etc., I think it is absolutely heartbreaking and pretty much qualifies as emotional abuse. I'm so sorry you had to go through that, but am also so glad that you've been able to find this community and let go of so many of those negative emotions!

  3. When I attended a private Catholic school, we had similar dress requirements both for our uniforms and for school field trips when we could wear regular clothes, even nail polish was not considered appropriate. Religious overtones can definitely leave an impression on how we view ourselves and how we view modesty. I think it's important that as we get older we identify for ourselves how we feel and what gives us confidence. It seems like you are doing this now, and I'm glad that the blosophere has helped you heal. *hugs*

  4. My mother used to abide by these rules with me, she is very religious. Frankly, she's not drastically different now :-p

    There was an array of gymnastics and self-criticism for us to perform before an item of clothing could be deemed Modest that bordered on the ridiculous: Raise your arms! Does a hint of midriff show? Immodest! Stretch your arms to your side - does your middle finger go past the bottom of your shorts? Immodest! Bend forward - does any hint of cleavage or part of your back show? Immodest! Crouch down - does your back show? Immodest! Does "too much of your female form" show, distracting from your face? Immodest! Wearing too much makeup? Immodest! Spaghetti straps/tank tops? Immodest!

  5. Thank you so much for this post, it was a fantastic read, really food for thought. I do not myself share a background like yours, but some people close to me do, so I will share this with them too.

  6. I grow up in a different culture than yours. Only very short skirts or very deep V neck tops were forbidden to me, as well as clothes that didn't show enough skin or shape, because "it is not feminine" so it was bad to wear them. It was not a good thing to attire sexual attention, I had to be pretty but not sexy (not just because I was too young, adult women in my family and neighbourghood think sexy is "bad")
    But like you, a pression comes from my male classmates (and also "old" men in the street), that were "distracted" by every feminine body all the time, so I ended to move like a robot to be modest enough to not attire sexual attention. Quite ridiculus today when I think about it, but I still have the "robot movements" when I am inconfortable, afraid to seduce someone I don't want, afraid to be "too sexy" just because I live in a young woman body.

  7. I lived in that subculture as an adult woman for just over 2 years with my husband and 3 small children. I was usually the odd woman out. They couldn't actually ask me to leave the group because I was wearing pants or shorts or v-neck shirts but many of them just flat refused to talk to me or prayed for my wickedness. I wish I was kidding. I've always been one for fashion. I like to have fun with it. I was religiously but not to a weird and conservative extreme so how I landed in that subculture is still weird and puzzling to me. I'm glad I got out. It was very much cult-like. Now I write my own blog and if I want to show some cleavage I do.

  8. This sounds so similar to what I have just come out of. Except it was even more extreme. Very similar to Amish. Thank you for writing this!

  9. I have come very close to the situations you describe and although for me it was an experience as an adult, I can very much relate to what you express here and I agree with your conclusion.

  10. I know I've shared some comments with you privately already, but I just wanted to thank you again for posting a piece that gives me a chance to hear the perspective of someone coming from such an opposite background to my own - one that I wouldn't normally be exposed to at all. It really adds to the discussion.

  11. I am Italian and raised Catholic, went to Catholic school with the uniforms.
    That said, I was raised in a very open minded(Hippie) family, so even in grade school my clothing was form fitting. Im very busty and wore tanks, halter tops and tube tops. I was taught that nothing is wrong with the female body.

    I don't go to the Catholic church now , except with family occasionally.
    I go to a different church, but my Pastors and attendees are free. We don't have clothing rules. My Pastor has a tatt of his three daughters names on his arm, and his middle daughter has a tatt that goes from the top of her back all the way down to her tailbone.
    I have been piercing since I was 12.

    I have known a lot of ladies in the above churches, or with those mindsets/ beliefs. In a public setting where we might be in a room together( store, etc), I dress the way I dress.
    But if invited to their church or in a setting of their own,if I'm invited I would dress more conservative out of respect for them.


  12. Having attended a parochial Catholic school until College it seemed natural and normal to be judgmental about the girls who didn't subscribe to the modesty taught to those who attended our school. Since then I must admit it is still part of me and to a greater or lesser degree these norms in dressing still remain a big part of me. My view of modesty has changed a great deal but recognize that I still worry way too much as to how my choice of dress impacts the men around me. I dress for myself and I don't wear a school uniform anymore, but it seems that in some ways I always will.

  13. Thank you for writing this. <3

  14. This is a horrifying account. To me, this type of treatment borders on abuse. I'm glad you have been able to get away from all of that.

  15. I've been in catholic school since Kindergarten, now in Catholic high school. My parents are really conservative, and despite my views on Modesty as being just another way the women are overly sexualized I go through all those ordeals you spoke of. I tend to break the rules and get in trouble for what I wear on those few days we are not in uniform. Once I wore the exact same thing as another girl I know but I got in trouble, simply because I'm chestier and a tiny tiny bit of cleavage was showing. It's hard to be a free thinker with your own definition of modesty. Because I'm really into fashion, I can piece together amazing outfits in a store and look nice but I never buy them since I know I'll be forced to return it later anyways.
    No one ever tells a guy to cover up his legs because they're distracting. No one tells a guy that he looks like a whore when his shoulders aren't covered.