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I’m going to ask some questions I don’t have the answers to: Where does one draw the line between modesty and shame? Who decides what is appropriate attire? How does a piece of apparel evolve from indecent to provocative to fashionable to ordinary? Does it just take time? Is it an inevitable progression? In the timeline of clothing, does scandalous inevitably becoming commonplace or stylish?
I live in New York City. Very few things are universally taboo here. The hotter it gets, the greater the number of body parts going public. Summer is a season during which the clothes get thinner and shorter and smaller—some even disappear altogether.
To be honest, I don’t know how to feel about it. I grew up with very clear and insistent instructions on what to wear and what not to show. Underwear was meant to be just that. It was to be treated like classified information—for my eyes only. I heard clothing commandments from the older women in my life: Thou shalt not allow bra straps to slip into view. Honor thy body and modesty by wearing a slip with unlined skirts and dresses. Thou shalt only wear shorts and skirts longer than your hanging arms can reach. Remember that after Labor Day, white shoes, purses, skirts, and pants are wholly inappropriate.
Everywhere I look now, however, I see those commandments getting broken. It’s been confusing—disorienting. Some of the rules I happily unlearnt and relinquished. Others felt unbreakable—important. For instance, I wear a lot of skirts, but I don’t own any slips. However, by popular standards, I suppose I lean towards modesty. I like to keep my private parts private and my intimate attire inconspicuous. They’re top secret, and only my husband and I have the clearance the see them.
Some of what I choose to wear is rooted in personal preference, and some is fueled by insecurity. On the personal preference side, I don’t find being naked liberating. I like the sensation of wearing clothing. Even if I could delete all my inhibitions, I wouldn’t enjoy being nude. I don’t believe there’s anything about the bare body that’s shameful. I just think living naked would be uncomfortable and impractical—potentially dangerous even.
However, I can’t blame all of my internalized clothing commandments on standards of modesty. There are parts of my body I hide (or hid once) because of shame or self-consciousness, not piety. It wasn’t until I was in college that I felt comfortable in a tank top. I was embarrassed by my veiny, muscular arms—too masculine, I thought. I still prefer to wear board shorts with my bathing suit. It’s partly because I refuse to put a razor, molten wax, or laser near my bikini area, but it’s also because I don’t really like the way my naked upper thighs look.
Then there are the gray areas for me—where what to wear comes from indeterminate measures of shame and modesty. For example, I don’t often show my stomach. You won’t catch me in a bikini. But I can’t tell if I’m embarrassed to bare my belly, or if it just feels like something that should remain concealed. Similarly, while I would never tell anyone to hide her breasts, I don’t like showing cleavage. That’s primarily a personal and aesthetic preference, but perhaps there are also some latent insecurities left over from puberty, a season in which I felt ambushed by the rapid expansion of my chest.
Most of my clothing choices are made in my subconscious. These habits come from rules I internalized so long ago and deeply, I can’t tell where they originally came from. Now, as I try to parse out why I wear what I do when I do, the motivations aren’t always clear. And context matters, of course. I’m comfortable wearing completely different things in private, running errands, going to church, and on the volleyball court. The line, especially for women, between what we hide out of modesty and what we cover out of shame or insecurity is constantly moving—at least for me.
I see women walking the streets of New York in shorts that are so short I can see the cheeks of their buttocks. At first I thought it was a mistake. I thought perhaps they lived alone and only saw themselves in the mirror from the front. I wondered if I should tell someone that her butt was hanging beyond the margins of her hem. It took a while for it to occur to me that this look was intended. (Actually, I’m still not convinced.)
And who am I to judge? Things I consider appropriate, others would find offensive. The hemline has been rising throughout history. Ankles used to be on the cusp of indecency, then knees. Now women wear skirts so short I don’t comprehend how the fabric could possibly accommodate sitting.
Many of us wear sleeveless, even strapless, shirts and dresses without a second thought to weddings and work. But you don’t have to travel back in time, just to certain countries or places of worship, to find that shoulder coverings are required.
The other day, rushed, I left the house in a pair of shorts I normally only wear at home. I wasn’t comfortable. My long legs felt over-exposed. I asked my husband if my shorts were too short. And that got me thinking: What does too short even mean? Too short for what? Who is measuring? Was I afraid of being indecent or judged? Was I worried that the shorts were simply unflattering or too provocative? And that’s what prompted me to explore the dynamics between my modesty versus my shame.
I don’t want to tell other people how to dress. (Actually, I do, I just know that I shouldn’t.) When I see someone sporting something I wouldn’t wear myself, whether it’s unflattering (in my opinion) or too revealing or suggestive (in my opinion), I usually think the same things. First I wonder how that woman/man sees herself/himself. Then I feel both judgmental and jealous. I judge the immodesty, but I’m also jealous of the confidence.
Based on what I’m seeing, I think this generation of teenagers and young adults is less body conscious. They wear crop tops whether their stomachs are svelte, paunchy, or muscular. They will wear shorts that are so short, they seem hem-defying—cellulite be damned! They will wear shirts and dresses that show every contour, ripple, bone, or bulge in their bodies. They proudly display not just their bra straps, but sometimes the majority of their bras. And part of me thinks, “Good for them!” Your body is nothing to be ashamed of. Don’t get trapped on the hamster wheel of attaining the “perfect physique” or thinking that only certain bodies should wear certain things. Be perfectly content with the body you have. Wear what fits you, and “fits” is however you define it. You’re not obligated to conform to anyone else’s aesthetic.
I can champion those who are comfortable enough in their own skin to wear whatever they want. I also believe that maintaining one’s modesty has value. And just as I am trying not to judge those who are comfortable exposing more than I am, I won’t apologize for revealing less. I won’t be shamed for dressing with discretion.
There is a difference, however, between modesty and shame. Modesty is nothing to be embarrassed of. It is rooted in standards, not insecurity. Hopefully you are keeping things covered with confidence and not because you think that part of your body is unworthy of going public—just best kept private.
As I make decisions about what to wear each day, I don’t know exactly where to draw the line between my shame and modesty. I don’t know who gets to decide how much of the body is decent or appropriate for public viewing. But, at least in my opinion, it’s not about being taller or thinner or curvier or more muscular or policing who can wear what. It’s about embracing the body you have, and dressing it however you want.