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January 16, 2014
The Secret Life of Molly
On Teaching Modesty
by Hannah Bird

Over the last few years I have noticed a trend. Lovely teenage girls have expressed tremendous amounts of self-doubt and shame regarding modesty. It isn’t that anything they are doing is immodest. It is that they never feel modest enough. Or they are concerned about their bodies developing in “immodest” ways.

I have watched this with great concern. Do we really need to make adolescence more uncomfortable for anyone?

Then a friend shared a story where she was taken aside and talked to because a family felt that her daughter’s bust was an issue for their sons. There was no claim that the girl had done anything wrong. She was not dressed inappropriately. She was wearing two shirts at the time and neither was tight or low cut. It was just that when she moved her chest did too, and it was “distracting.” And apparently, that was an ok concern to bring up.

This last story did me in. I am not opposed to modesty. I am opposed to shame. I am opposed to blame. I am definitely opposed to thinking it is acceptable to put girls on the defensive for things they cannot control.

So here is my letter to those men and boys who feel the need to supervise the modesty of the girls and women around them and women who echo their messages.

She is 13 and unaware. The backside you are watching crept up on her while she slept. She is just herself, same as she always was. But you watch and now she cannot be. Now she is a thing apart. She is To Be Viewed. She wanted To Be A Part. But your watching ruins that.

She has never dressed in anything revealing. She never even wanted to. But every time you talk about modesty you invite eyes to wander up and down those curves. Let’s make sure they are properly restrained lest you are forced to look. Look and be sure. Look still again in case you missed a lesson she needed to be taught.

She sees you seeing. She hates it. It is taking who she was going to be away one little look at a time.

She fights back. She has her ways. Her shirts get larger. She rounds her shoulders. She keeps her head down. She eats a little less. She worries about every piece of clothing. She tries to hide her light under laundry basket bushels. She is trying to disappear from your gaze.

Because it is ok to say to her, restrain the breasts you did not ask for. Conceal the hips that appeared one day when you were just trying to climb trees. But we do not say to you watch the eyes that you decide to focus

On her.

The weight of it is heavy. Her new identity as a woman and the press of your gaze — she must lift both now. She cannot forget herself and jump up and down with excitement. You will look and you cannot be asked to train your eyes but she can be responsible for breasts that came as a result of ancient DNA and the gravity that holds our world together and every thought in your head.

“There are worse problems to have,” followed by a chuckle. So clever how you stare and stare and then try to make her grateful for the looks she doesn’t want. She must appreciate your unchecked eyes following her. She is lucky to be scrutinized and appreciated. Your lust is a gift.

She has not asked for it. She hates it and you for forcing in on her. But you will make her carry it and insist she be grateful for it. Lucky her.

When you are not looking you think you will teach her. You will teach her not to be one to be looked at. You will remind her that someone is always watching. You will not remind yourself not to watch.

Your eyes are yours. Your thoughts are in your head. She did not choose how her body formed. She did not choose to be pleasing to you. But you can choose.

Let her be.

Do not teach yourself or her that her modesty will manage your want. Do not tell her that she is responsible for the stories in your head. Do not tell her to thank you for your unrelenting scrutiny. Do not excuse your careful examinations.

She is Modesty defined. Her unrestrained laugh and spontaneous excitement are not a presentation for you to consider. Immodesty is seeking to show and be seen. She has never once been immodest. She has never once asked for you to consider the length of her clothes or the way the fabric skims her curves. You elected yourself for that job.

I am her mother and I must teach her how to love herself. How can she love a body while it brings the looks she hates? How can she be herself when she has to compete with the stories you tell yourself about what she wears and what it means? How can you really see her if you never stop looking?

But mostly, if you are attending to the sway of her hips, the curve of her breasts, the length of her dress, when will you find the time to attend to your eyes? Who will manage the thoughts in your head? She cannot wear enough clothes to cover your shame. I will not allow you to make her believe that she must try.

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