Truthfully I never thought that what I once believed to be a black and white issue such as modesty would become such an inflammatory topic. I grew up wearing certain clothes that would be defined as “modest” never second-guessing what — or who — defined them as modest and have mostly grown up “normal”. I wouldn’t say that I blindly followed; it would be more that I never thought about it. I am sure my schools had dress codes… if they did I know they certainly did not outlaw the crimping irons or neon colors of the 80s and 90s. Sadly.
Moving into the workplace, I had no issue with the expectation to wear what was considered “corporate attire”. I was in front office reception and so it made sense to wear business clothes, just as when I began teaching it made sense to wear professional attire.
However, now that I am a parent, specifically a mother of a daughter, I have become far more aware of the expectations and burdens placed on our young women now. Today, girls and young women are responsible for not only their actions but for the actions of every person they meet as well. Regardless of age, females are told that their bodies are to blame for even the thoughts that come into the heads of people who see them. This is all in the name of modesty and I call bullshit.
Some young girls begin developing breasts as early as 7 years old. How do we explain to these young girls that their shirts are too low-cut without them asking why? And then, how do we explain why without telling them their shirts are too low-cut because “people” (specifically men) can see their newly developing breasts? We can all anticipate the question that comes next, right? “Why would men be looking there?”
Cue the deer in the headlights look.
Yes, please tell me how you will explain to these young and innocent girls why men would be looking down their shirts. While I agree there will be perverts who will sneak looks down these innocent girls’ shirts, I can also assume that the majority of men will not do so. And if they happen to see a young girl’s shirt gape open, they will not become sexually aroused. Why? Because they are little girls. So the real situation here is not that we want to protect our little girls from the millions of pedophiles that apparently roam en masse on the streets, but impose our version of reality onto them — which is “Hey, little girl, men are pigs and they look down shirts to see boobs and they don’t care who you are, how old you are, as long as you give them the chance they are going to look.” In other words, we are telling little girls it is their fault that men can’t control their basest desires.
Wow. Really? That’s what we want to tell them? So when I’m told my 3 year old girl shouldn’t wear a bikini because it encourages men to look at pornography, then it’s my little girl’s fault that men objectify women. And all this time I thought it was the men who chose to click on the images.
Recently, there have been many news stories regarding dress code violations and high school formal dances. Before I continue, I want to clearly state that I firmly believe it is important for students to follow policy and protocol when it has been explicitly stated and pointed out to them with plenty of time in advance. This is what helps teach students to become good young adults in the world at large. All of us have to follow rules within a system.
However, perhaps it is time to rethink the concept of dress code and modesty altogether. Perhaps it’s not the concept of a dress code that is the problem as it is imposing one culture’s concept of modesty onto another’s. And frankly, it is time to rethink what modesty even means.
In 1868, there were specific skirt lengths that were considered acceptable at certain ages for young girls. We don’t have this “luxury” anymore as far as knowing exactly what to do or wear. At 37 years old I know by instinct that when I pull what I think is a shirt off of a rack only to discover it is a dress, I probably shouldn’t wear it. Ever. How did I learn this instinct? I learned it by experience. Where did I get this experience? From life’s opportunities. (None of which included wearing a dress that could be mistaken for a shirt.)
If an average person were to look up the definition of “modesty”, a reference to appearance is rarely mentioned first. This is primarily why I am adamant in believing it is time to completely reframe this entire conversation. If this average person were to actually look up this definition, the first reference will almost always have to do with being free from conceit, vanity, or being unassuming in one’s abilities, being moderate, or a lack of pretentiousness. Don’t forget that because this next thing will blow your mind:
In 2014, the national average spent on proms rose 5% to $1,139. $1,139 on one dance. According to this survey, single parents spent, on average, double than married parents. Explain to me, please, why we are more worried about strapless dresses than we are about teaching our kids that it is okay to spend the equivalent of a mortgage payment? If the argument is truly about modesty, than the issue would not be about hem length or cleavage. It would be about expense and the spectacle that these high school formal dances have become. Anything else is disingenuous.
Historically, proms were heavily chaperoned and held only for the senior class in order to “help develop social skills and etiquette” they were “quite plain” and “students would wear their church clothes” (PromWorks). There is still a great deal of merit in helping students prepare social skills and learning how to dress for certain social occasions. Just as I have learned what to wear and when through various opportunities, students need to have opportunities as well. Instead of focusing so much attention on a dress code that is specific only to a school environment or a prom environment, why not change the type of occasion to one that is more conducive to real life application.
Realistically, how many formal events will students grow up attending? Better question, how many formal events will students grow up to attend and realize they never learned how to dress appropriately for a formal event?
For example, how does a person know how to dress for a funeral? By going to a funeral. How does a person know how to dress for an afternoon tea? By attending one.
Hopefully, students won’t need to attend a funeral but they might need to attend an afternoon tea at some point and know how to conduct themselves at one. Why must proms or homecomings always be formal, and why must they always be at night?
Instad of insisting on a dress code filled with Do-Nots for an occasion that is impractical for its historic purpose with expectations on modesty decided by cultural standards rather than actual defined ones, why not have an occasion that is, for example, defined as “semi-formal” and than give students a list of Do’s:
- Do’s For Young Women:
- Wear knee-length (cocktail) dresses
- “A Little Black Dress”
- Dress slacks/dressy skirt with “dressy” nice blouse
- Low heels/low soles
- Do’s For Young Men:
- Suit and tie (light or dark color)
- Dress pants with collared shirt and jacket
- Dressy shoes
And then, here’s a kicker, actually teach students in a homeroom or equivalent when they might need to know when to wear semi-formal attire, such as certain weddings, work parties, holiday parties (depending on the time of day) and so forth. Teach them how to socialize, how to mingle, the art of small talk.
Why place so much emphasis on young women covering their bodies so as to prevent salacious thoughts of others when we can use this important time of young men and women’s lives to actually teach them what is appropriate. Not because it is modest. Not because it is moral. But because it is teaching them how to be adults who are able to function in the real world without spending thousands of dollars.
I would have had so much more use for a couple pairs of dressy slacks or cocktail dress after I graduated high school than formal prom dresses that I never wore again. Even if I could fit in them. My guess is that most young women would too.
Well, really, what did she expect? She should have known better than to have photographs taken in the first place. She was asking for trouble the moment the door was closed and she started taking of her clothes. Anyone with half a brain would have been able to know what would have happened next. Everybody always says that everything will be kept a secret and nobody else will see, but seriously. Only an idiot or someone who is far too comfortable being naked in front of strangers would fall for that, right?
Isn’t this was everyone thinks when a woman tells them she just went in for a consultation with a cosmetic surgeon? Surely this is the first thing that goes through someone’s mind when she excitedly tells about possibly having something “done”, how the procedure will take place, the recovery, and of course the vital “before” pictures to compare with the “after”. I have had these conversations with girlfriends and nobody has ever condemned anyone over photographs. Not even when one friend’s surgeon had his computer network security compromised and patient information, including photographs, were stolen. We consoled her, hugged her, and assured her that everything would work out okay. And for the most part it has.
When a recent news story broke regarding celebrities having their personal nude photographs leaked online (one news story can be found here on the Chicago Tribune) my Facebook was flooding with wagging fingers, “Don’t these girls [yes, girls] know better than to take nude pictures of themselves in the first place?!” another one, “I’ve got some advice to keep your pictures from being stolen: Don’t take them!” My favorite? “If you’re going to take nudes than you’re asking for them to be stolen.”
Ah, yes. There it is. She’s asking for it. Of course she is.
Of course a woman would be asking for a stranger to walk into her private space, go through her personal belongings with the sole purpose of finding something to violate her in the most intimate of ways, and than use that viciously humiliate her in public. Wouldn’t all women want that? And is it not true that the most violating and demeaning way for a woman to be preyed upon is her body and sexuality? After all, a woman’s sexuality might as well be the final frontier of the modern age when it comes to breaking down barriers and putting a woman firmly in her place.
If a woman is too successful in her job than she must have slept her way to the top. If a waitress earns more tips it’s because she flirts with the men at the table. If a woman earns a promotion it’s because she slept with the boss. Short skirts and low-top blouses will earn discounts and perks, right? There couldn’t possibly be any other reason for a woman to have any kind of financial, educational, social, or other advantage over a man unless it is tied to her body and sexuality. If she has sex than she is a whore, if she doesn’t have sex she is a prude or cold fish. If she drinks than of course she is a lush but if she doesn’t than she might as well be a teetotaler.
Women have no expectation to privacy, then. When they are asking for invasion than all doors are open for perusal, judgment and scorn. We are buffets for public censure, that is after all who feel like it have gotten off from whatever it is they’re into. If you’re a woman in Texas, you are no longer legally protected if someone secretly takes an up-skirt photograph without your knowledge. Of course, women should know better than to wear skirts anyway, right? Why on earth should women be wearing skirts when someone could just walk along and photograph their undersides? Obviously they are asking for that to happen. If only women wore pants all the time than men and other perverts wouldn’t succumb to their baser instincts. In Massachusetts, for that matter, Peeping Toms can peep to their hearts’ desire as long as women are at least partially clothed. And really, women are asking to be watched while they dress if they have windows in their homes anyway.
I was scolded heavily yesterday for saying my comparison of the celebrity nude leak and rape culture/victim blaming. Ironically, the person (a man, obviously) said that it was insulting to rape victims because it cheapens the impact of the crime. Since I don’t wear my rape survivor status like a merit badge, he didn’t realize how foolish he sounded by implying I was insulting myself.
This is the pernicious nature of rape culture. An excellent definition of rape culture can be found Transforming a Rape Culture by Emille Buchwald, Martha Roth and Pamela R. Fletcher:A rape culture is a complex of beliefs that encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent. In a rape culture, women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm.
It condones emotional terrorism against women, which would include a constant threat of releasing private and sexual images of the women themselves. It doesn’t matter if these women took these photographs for their own purposes or in exchanges with partners as sexting. They are consenting adults and they have not broken any crimes. That bears repeating. These women have not broken any crimes. The hackers who not only hacked the images and then projected them onto the internet, however, did break the law. Why is it, then, that the women are who carry the brunt of the shame? Ironically, a hacker who worked with Anonymous in the Steubenville rape case is facing 10 years in prison whereas the rapists themselves were only sentenced to one-two years.
Because they are women, that’s why. And they are women who were expressing their sexuality. And why shouldn’t they? Are they not as entitled to their sexuality as the men who expect them to be sexy?
Oh, but what about choices and consequences? this man berated me with. It’s not victim shaming if he is merely pointing out that some choices carry heavier consequences, especially if the choices are risky ones.
And isn’t that true, for example, if a person were to drink and drive. If a person were to imbibe, a definite choice to be sure, and then to drive, it can not be denied this is a risky choice that carries with it an even heavier consequence. However, a person who drinks doesn’t generally set about with the purpose to drink with an expectation of privacy and an expectation that her drinking will be kept private on her own private property and then drive.
Taking nude photographs, then, is more or less a low risk one. Or should be. They are taken on a personal device, saved on a personal device, and shared with personally selected individuals. The only consequences would be those forced upon you.
This is primarily the problem and why rape culture is pervasive. The victim shaming and threats become so natural that such “common sense” wisdom seems so reasonable. Only it isn’t. Finger wagging does not remedy the startling fact that 61% of rapes go unreported. Clearly, there is something going wrong in our communities when the first response is “They should have known better” and not “Who would do something like that to these women?”“Rape culture is people objecting to the detritus of the rape culture being called oversensitive, rather than people who perpetuate the rape culture being regarded as not sensitive enough.
“Rape culture is the myriad ways in which rape is tacitly and overtly abetted and encouraged having saturated every corner of our culture so thoroughly that people can’t easily wrap their heads around what the rape culture actually is.” (Melissa McEwan, Rape Culture 101)
When people, like this man, say they “don’t care to be painted with the same broad brush” and patronizingly offer that I am “entitled to [my opinion]” while adamantly telling me all the ways that I am wrong, rape culture continues to entrench itself. And whether he wants to be painted with it or not, he holds the brush.
It had been a long day as was evidenced by the strained looks on mothers’ faces around me and the chorus of fussing children trailing behind them. My own child was adding to the cacophony, amazing me in her ability to harmonize with her people in the key of whine. I generally avoid the grocery store in the late afternoon for this very reason; energy is depleted by then and patience has long since dissipated. Why on earth would I try to entrap a child in a shopping cart and expect peaceful solidarity? My three year old walked into the grocery store that door and had the grace to warn me, “I’m sorry, Mama, but I just might need to be a little wild.”
And truthfully, she was. She ran up and down aisles, grabbed items to toss them into our cart and generally had a fabulous time. Every once in a while, when I could see she was about to interfere with someone’s experience, I would curtail her behavior and be met with some short term fussiness. Soon after she would zoom off again. I didn’t mind; it wasn’t a full shopping trip. I was only grabbing a few items I needed to make dinner for a neighbor that night. I nudged her towards the front and into line, carefully explaining why we were buying potatoes and not onions (for the tenth time). I was vaguely aware of another mother behind us dragging a child behind her while another little boy clomped along in cowboy boots. The cowboy was priming for a fit; I could see it. The mother was fluent in No and the boy wasn’t bilingual it seemed because he was talking to her the same way a lot of people do when met with someone who can’t speak the language: loudly. He wasn’t shouting or yelling, just loud, and his mom was about two marbles left to lost. Finally, those two marbles went spinning away because she spun around and shouted “Stop talking to me! Just be quiet!” I stood there, stunned, watching as she turned around and walked away, not noticing if he followed or not. He slowly began to tip-toe along in his cowboy boots, less up in his giddy, and little tears rolling down his cheeks.
It hurt my heart. I don’t know anything about this woman or her life or her situation. I only know this one brief snapshot and I didn’t like it. The cashier told me my total and I wrote out my check (because I still use those) and I said, “I’d be tiptoeing too if she were my mom.” The cashier took my check and said as wisely as a 16 year old boy can, “I can only imagine how difficult that kid can be after a whole day with him.” I looked up at this kid and then down at mine who at that moment was reorganizing all their packages of gum and wondered at what he said. Finally I said, “That’s not difficult, that’s normal. Adults are difficult.”
The truth is, I envy babies, toddlers, and even little children. Their emotions and passions haven’t been squelched by societal norms yet in spite of all what their parents have done to them. Who hasn’t wanted to throw a fit in a long line at the market or a tantrum when hearing their flight has been delayed (again) at the airport? To be perfectly honest, I know people who make me want to spit up every time I see them or at least burst out crying. For some reason adults have a tiresome need to reign in emotions along with behavior when teaching children how to be agreeable, and while I am all for raising a polite and pleasant generation, I think it’s tragic to only have glasses full of tepid rather than hot or cold water.
This is not an indictment on parenthood. Parents, all parents, question what the right thing to do is and the right time, all of the time. If anything, this is a hope to give ourselves permission to lighten up. All children will fuss because it’s normal, and wouldn’t it be nice if we just let them fuss? Wouldn’t it be nicer if we let ourselves fuss? It’s okay if my little girl rearranges the chewing gum. It’s just gum. And anyone who gets uptight over her rearranging gum needs to consider why gum is so damn important to be stressed out over. As a mother, I have more important things to worry about than people who get bent out of shape over kids pulling fits when they aren’t harming anyone. (I’m talking to you, fictional Pie Man.) As a mother, I would be much more relieved if someone were to say, “Hey, can I help you with something?” That’d be cool.
The reality is, kids are the normal ones and adults aren’t. Adults are the people who make life far more complicated that what it needs to be. Kids just play and sleep, really. They eat what they like, throw what they don’t like, and cry when they’re tiredmadsadconfusedhotcold or for no reason at all. They laugh with their whole entire bodies, sleep with their whole souls, love with their entire natures, and they even vomit with the entire force of physics and quite possibly with something supernatural. Unfortunately, they grow up to master all the Don’ts which breaks my heart.
If only adults could shuffle along in cowboy boots, speaking loudly just because we feel like it’s a 12-inch voice day, not an 8-inch voice day, and tell people “I don’t have to share my toys with you if I don’t want to, my Mama said.”
Even better, I’d like to just put a sign on my door that says, “I’m sorry. I just have to be a little wild today.”
Grief is a strange thing. It ebbs and flows as if it were the tide being pulled by a moon that seems to reflect only on the past. There is a constant struggle between a shore that wants to be wrapped in the water’s constant presence and the water that longs to be free to the horizon.
I found out about his death over Labor Day Weekend. In between Facebook updates about BBQ’s and yard work I saw one on my timeline that was a reminder to treasure friends because they won’t always be around. Soon after photographs were being posted and I recognized him, my dear friend from high school. His mischievous eyes and smile, the look that said he was probably mocking someone in his head and would tell me later. I scrolled through photograph after photograph, smiling with him and replayed old conversations in my mind, catching his voice in the dream catcher I keep in my heart so as to never lose it. He was gone. Only he isn’t.
Peculiarly enough, my 20th high school reunion will be held at the end of this month and I am not going. I haven’t attended any reunions and don’t plan on attending any of them. However, my friend’s death gave me pause. We are all almost 40 years old — an age we all thought, I am sure, was horrifically old on that day in June when we were given our fake diplomas. Nobody dies younger than 40. Only they do.
Most of us are familiar with the grief cycle, the five stages identified neat and tidy in textbooks and webpages for the grieving the check off once completed.
- Monday: Do the laundry, balance the checkbook and complete the denial stage.
- Tuesday: Clean the bathrooms, sew buttons, be angry.
- Wednesday: Grocery shop, post office, bargain.
- Thursday: Leave things unfinished, depressed.
- Friday: Get hair done, go to lunch with friends, acceptance.
It must be so gratifying to see everything checked off and be done. To no longer be sad or cry, to not feel confused or grief, or guilty because there is no time to even ugly mourn the way you want to because time won’t stop they way you think it should. Why does the sun insist on rising every damn day when you want to stay in bed and cry? Why do I have to continue cooking dinner, drive my kids where they need to go, be a mother, and brush my hair when all I want to do is shove ashes all over my face and rip my clothes, fall to my knees and weep?“I hear this guy tells the same inspirational get off your ass story at each assembly he does, and the people in the story never age…” Chris tells me. “Huh, really? Do you think that makes it less inspirational or more fake?” I ask. “Oh, I don’t know. I think it’s probably still inspirational if you’re into that shit. But I think he should at least make the people grow up to make it more authentic.” And we laughed and laughed as we walked into the gym.
I was crying in a parking lot when I remembered that conversation. We were sophomores and cynical but respectful during the assembly. It was corny and I remember there being some kind of song about rainbows and a kid being stuck in a tree. I laughed again as I thought about it and wondered if there were kids somewhere in America still listening to the same rainbow song and the same inspirational story with kids who never age.
I suppose this is what is the truth about grief. People grow up and that is what makes it more authentic. Grown ups don’t have the ability to fit authentic feelings in neat bulleted lists to check off when completed; grief is messy and time-consuming, it’s complicated and confusing. It’s unique to every day and to every person. I won’t be able to fit it in to a schedule between soccer games and tumbling classes.
It will ebb and it will flow, smothering the shore at times while flowing freely out to the horizon at others. Its tide will come with a moon that reflects on an ache inside me. An ache that remains but will always shine. The water there is endless, as it should be, in the silent distance.
Rape is not something that my family is comfortable with, but then is there anyone who would ever say they were? My mother was sincerely invested in my overprotection throughout my entire life, even so far as not allowing me to participate in extracurricular activities or ever walking to a friend’s home who only lived two houses away from my home unless she watched me until I turned up my friend’s walkway. Without a doubt, my safety would be ensured when I transferred to the university as a junior and lived with my sister — not the dorms (which were not coed anyway).
I should have been safe. At 19 years old I was raped and I have never been the same even though I didn’t know it at the time. Memory is a strange thing and it wrapped me in its own sort of overprotective blanket so that I didn’t have to look out at the monster in my mind. Years later it was time for me to come out from under my blanket fort and understand where I fit in this strange community of survivor and victim. And that is perhaps what is the most frustrating about who I am is not always knowing who I am. There are days when I still feel victimized and others when I feel the strength of having survived.
Who I am now is who I am supposed to be, and there is some sort of intuitive flame inside me that tells me it is because of the passport I carry between Victim and Survivor. Clearly, I am not grateful for the experience — in no way am I glad I have PTSD or an anxiety disorder or the agoraphobia. At the same time, I do know that much of my resiliency and fighting spirit comes from having travelled through hell so many times.
I am able to discuss what happened to me with almost anybody except for most of my family, primarily my parents. I don’t find this hurtful as much as I see it as unfortunate as they are choosing to ignore an enormous piece to the puzzle of what has created me. Whenever they don’t understand why I struggle with certain parts of my mental health they aren’t able to connect the dots. Likewise, when I triumph in other ways they don’t see “the big deal”. My father is only able to understand in that he also suffers from depression and anxiety while my mother only is able to remind me that she always told me to never do A, B, and C. (If I had followed her instructions, of course, I never would have been raped.)
For a long while I thought it was best to just not talk about the very things that made my parents uncomfortable. If they were uncomfortable that means everyone would be uncomfortable, right? Surely they were the litmus test of what was socially acceptable. Only they weren’t. I am the keeper of the gate and as such I hold the key to what truth I feel is necessary to reveal.
It has been an evolutionary process in what stories I choose to share, but I no longer allow the worry of who I could have been haunt me. I can’t. That person doesn’t exist and I can’t mourn who never was. I can only celebrate who is.