Looking Back on the Harmful Effects of Modesty Culture
by Kelsey Morgan This previous summer was the first time I didn’t worry about showing my bare shoulders, or wearing tights under a dress that was just a little too flirty despite the sweltering heat, or making sure my shirt was long enough that if I raised my arms, I didn’t accidentally reveal a tiny slip of my stomach.
It wasn’t because I lost a bunch of weight and suddenly wanted to show off more, it wasn’t because the temperatures were more excruciating than previous years, and it wasn’t because showing more skin was suddenly more fashionable. No, my newfound wardrobe liberation came after I finally, finally began doing away with the modesty-guilt I’d been taught, counselled on, had beat into me since the day I was born.
Don’t show your shoulders, don’t wear skirts above the knees, the skin of your stomach is reserved only for the man you marry someday — oh, and you should still be a virgin for him, otherwise what’s the point? He’ll just go after someone else, and rightfully so. You can only stay a virgin if you cover yourself up, because men won’t respect you if you show too much skin, they won’t see you as a daughter of God, just an object. If something happens, it’s your own fault.
While in the thick of it, I never thought it was oppressive, or controlling, or anything like that. I agreed with all of the reasons given for making girls cover themselves up. I thought it was true, that I would be worthless to any good man if I wasn’t “untouched” by anyone else. It wasn’t until I finally broke away from that that I can look back and see how damaging it is — not only to me, but to those around me.
During that time in my life, I was severely depressed — as had been my sister, and my mother, two other women in my life subjected to those same kind of expectations. Growing up, the view on mental health wasn’t the same as it’s becoming today, but even so, within the organization I was being raised, there were no resources to turn to for help.
Instead, when expressing my mental health barriers, I was told I “wasn’t praying enough,” that there was a reason for my depression, and chances are that reason was sin — and it was my own fault, and I needed to repent for whatever thing I’d done to make God punish me in such a way.
Honestly, it comes as no surprise to me that women in the sect I grew up in contribute so heavily to the current opioid epidemic. With women being told they’re the lesser of the sexes (though in less specific terms), being told their only purpose is to raise children and submit to their husbands, being told chasing after a career, an education, anything other than homemaking and child-rearing, is sinful and frowned upon by God … is it any surprise to anyone?
Maybe it’s the misery many women find in having to live this lifestyle, despite not actually wanting it or being fulfilled by it. Maybe it’s from the endless list of physical ailments that come from the sheer amount of stress women are put under to be perfect and marriage-material, despite most of those ideals only achievable by the lucky few.
At the time, every single judgment I made with my fellow girls was initially based on the way she dressed, and if it wasn’t “appropriate” enough for the standards I was forced to memorize, the relationship would stop there. No more friendship, no more acquaintances, not even so much as a polite smile if we passed each other in the halls. It was toxic.
It didn’t stop at the girls, though. Once boys caught wind of the rumors, suddenly the young lady in question became undateable, no longer marriage-material, and would likely spend her days growing old and alone, an old maid, never to fulfill her “destined” role as a mother and a wife, since really, those were her only options in order to remain good in the eyes of the Lord. She would never know the thrill of her husband going to work, making all of the money, and having to ask for some of it like a child getting a weekly allowance.
Even in this socioeconomic climate, where the wage gap is becoming more illuminated and enterprises are working to change it, it doesn’t matter in a relationship like this — the woman isn’t supposed to be out there making money or making a name for herself. Of course you’ll never hear someone in the culture state this outrightly — but it’s obvious. Modesty culture is nothing more than an expression of control. By controlling what women can and can’t wear, by warning them of the life-ruining risks they take by dressing outside of the rules, you break down their confidence. Their sense of self. Their sense of individuality and agency.
By assuring her she’ll never become a wife and mother if she dresses outside of the code, you tighten your control, and soon, you can convince her of other harmful things: a college education isn’t worth it, if you’re just going to be a stay at home mom. If you don’t have children, you aren’t a real woman, you’re not living to your fullest (and only) potential. A woman’s place is behind her husband, at his feet, submissive. Any women who thinks otherwise isn’t right with God.
Of course, not all women find it as suffocating as the rest of us, and in fact, many thrive under these standards. They flourish under them. They strive to be this perfect human: well-kept, nurturing, smart, and warm. They want nothing more than to be a stay-at-home mom who bakes treats and dinner for her husband, and to those women, of course I say, good on you. If it makes you happy, don’t let other people bring you down for it. That’s the whole point of feminism, after all — to allow women to do what they want for reasons of their own, without feeling shamed for it.
But, for the rest of us — yes, modesty culture will remain with you for the rest of your life, as it does in mine. Despite being out, being away from that lifestyle, I still feel its effects like the ripples in a pond. I’ll still put on a skirt that hangs above my knees, and hesitate, cries of immodesty going off like sirens in my head, and I’m still learning to turn those off — but when I do, when I don’t allow those voices to ruin my day, I’ve never felt more free in my entire life.
So, to the rest of my fellow women who find themselves entangled in this harmful web of control and manipulation, I have one thing to say to you: hike up yours skirts, get some sun on those legs, and shove your heels into the knees of anyone who tries to stop you. It’s much better on the other side.