Why I don't make rules about modesty for my daughters

The discussion leader at our Women's Retreat was incensed. She smacked the podium, leaned into the microphone and demanded: "How? HOW can you call yourself a Christian woman if you're wearing a push-up bra?" Right. Because when you line up at the gate of Heaven? St. Peter is gonna determine your worthiness by checking to see if your bra is padded.

I don't know what it is about the topic of female modesty, but it seems to rile up even the most gentle of souls. It's sorta jarring, really, to hear someone who might speak in somnolent tones about, say, a diet high in fiber to then suddenly launch into a scathing diatribe against the perils of immodesty. Pretty soon they're making wild speculations about Western decline as indicated by female immodesty.

Before you know it, cleavage is a sign of the End Times.

I know this because I grew up around these people.

I remember sitting in a painfully awkward youth group meeting where a rather embarrassed male leader was trying to explain why a girl's visible panty line was immodest but how solving that by wearing a thong was even more immodest.

"What if no-one knows you're wearing a thong?" some brave soul dared to ask.

Our leader looked stumped for a moment. But then his wife, a truly helpful helpmeet, came to his rescue:

"Well," she proclaimed, "God knows if you're wearing a thong!"

That little phrase, God Knows If You're Wearing a Thong, was absolutely irresistible to me. It was a multi-use sort of phrase, and it came in handy for a variety of purposes.

I started scribbling secret notes to my friends that changed Bible verses into things like: Man looketh at outward appearances, but God looketh at your thong!

I scrubbed many a dirty floor and ironed many a wrinkled dress shirt as punishment for my smart mouth.

But here's the thing: the problem with rules is that they tend to beget more rules. And nothing breeds rules faster than rules for modesty. No sooner do you suggest tight shirts as immodest than someone is bound to ask: how tight is too tight? Or, how short is too short? Pretty soon you're creating complex protocol for skirt lengths, bra types and factors for determining tightness.

And, oh, did we have complex protocol. Our rules for modesty were, as far as I could tell, entirely arbitrary, subject to change and about as complicated as the Tax Code. These rules didn't just apply to the clothes we wore, but how we wore them. Everything was scrutinized: how we walked, how we sat, how we bent over, how we carried our purses.

I guess these experiences are part of the reason why I don't really make modesty rules for my daughters. Sure, I talk to my tween about dressing appropriately for various occasions--you know, like the difference between what you wear to the beach vs. what you wear to school. And since she's a dancer, she already understands the importance of comportment and gracefulness. But that's a far cry from heavy-handed moralizing.

I mean, the only thing I ever learned from rules about modesty was how to have an overly critical, harsh view of my body. My body, I felt, was always betraying me.

Modesty rules also gave me an overly critical eye about the supposed immodest dress of other women. Even as a very small girl, I was able to point out women who were dressed immodestly. I could spot a miniskirt from a mile away. (UGH! Is there anything more distasteful than a self-righteous, holier-than-thou five year old?)

Extreme modesty is inherently dehumanizing and that's precisely how it affected me. I stopped seeing people as people--but as a series of outfits: Modest or Immodest.

Nowadays, I just dress for comfort. And I pretty much let my daughter choose her own outfits. Mostly. Sometimes, though, you might hear me ask is: "Honey, don't you want to wear a jacket? You might catch a cold in that!"