When I talk about modesty and how I had to dress in my childhood, I am talking about my experience only. Although the church I grew up in promoted modesty as an ideal, they did not demand a certain dress code or style of clothing. What I grew up with stemmed from the far stricter beliefs of my mother, enhanced by various books and tracts on the subject.
My mother did not grow up fundie. I was probably about three or four when she decided that shorts were inappropriate attire—and she took my shorts away. I remember being upset about it: a feeling that would return many times over the years.
Women with short hair were considered to be sinning against God, based on 1 Corinthians 11:14-15. My hair grew to just past my rear end, and I was hella proud of it, even though I had crazy split ends. I could braid that hair, pin it up, make two buns like Leia (not that I really knew who Leia was). Turns out I actually look a lot better with short, styled, colored hair, now that I’m a practicing witch and can wear my hair however I want. But at the time, my long hair gave a little boost to my self-confidence, because it was a symbol of “godliness.”
In my pre-teen and early teen years, I definitely wore frumpers. My mom and sisters did too. We made a lot of our own frumperlicious clothing, and I am grateful to my mom for teaching me how to sew, even if I wouldn’t be caught dead in a frumper again.
Because skirts and dresses tend to fly up when playing, my mother made us “bloomers” to wear underneath. These instruments of Satan were white cotton knee-length drawers, elasticized at the waist and around the legs so they would stay in place. They weren’t visible under our long dresses. We wore regular underwear under the bloomers. Y’all, this getup was So. Fucking. Hot. in the summer. I distinctly remember trying to peel the sweat-soaked cotton down my legs so I could use the bathroom. I eventually quit wearing bloomers, I think around 12 or so when I was expected to act more like a lady and stop roughhousing quite as much.
I remember being very upset when my mother told me I needed to be more careful about what I was wearing because I was starting to “develop.” I had breast buds, and instead of a bra I was given a camisole. Camisoles do nothing to conceal nipples, they just make you even warmer in hot weather. (If it sounds like I was overheated a lot of the time, I was. We didn’t live in a house with central A/C until I was about sixteen, and I grew up in the Midwest. Even if we had A/C, we couldn’t have afforded to keep it at a comfortable temperature).
To this day I struggle with feeling exposed if there is any nipple pokage through my shirt. And, pardon the TMI, some people have nipples that are not easy to cover! But I had no idea how to choose a decent bra. I think I was 21 before I got measured at Victoria’s Secret.
I almost forgot about swimwear! We wore modest swimwear from a pattern by Lilies of the Field, who still sell the same type of swimsuit that we had back in the day, if you want to look it up. Every summer we’d pick out a new swim fabric from the store and make a suit. Two pieces: biker shorts to the knee, and a bodice with skirt over that. I think bodice is the right word, but it sounds far sexier than the reality. When I was younger, the bodice was a tank-top style; when I got older, cap sleeves were added, plus a “bib” of the same fabric in the front to cover the breasts. There was absolutely no fucking support under there for the boobies, though. It was all about covering, not supporting.
I didn’t really like being “feminine” as it was defined by the standards of my fundie religion. I still, even though I occasionally dress up and look pretty, prefer a very loose, casual, comfortable style of clothing. Androgynous looks delight me as well. I appreciate what might be considered my more masculine traits: deep voice, angular body, small boobs, muscular shoulders. I don’t wear makeup. When I was pregnant, I was very uncomfortable with my suddenly curvalicious body. It didn’t match my ideal of myself.
What I’m trying to say is that I was not a good person to try to put into a model of femininity based on 1950s stereotypes. I followed the rules for a long time, but eventually I snapped.
I decided to wear pants. I could not find any real, genuine, Biblical reason not to do so, and I wanted very much to look like a regular person and not be questioned about my odd clothing. Once I made that decision, I refused to turn back. I was undeterred by threats of hellfire and by the screaming matches that ensued on my actions. This is why I think the Duggar girls may have actually taken a big step by wearing pants. Because, at least in my family, it was a big step. My mother, bless her heart, was horrified. I had finally shattered my “good girl” image, and all the steps I had taken towards freedom before that were as nothing compared to the day that I put on “that which pertaineth unto a man.”
We compromised somewhat, after a while; I wore skirts in the house. I changed more times than I remember at work, at community college, in the car. My sisters, as they grew up, did the same. All this talk of modesty, but we couldn’t change clothes in the privacy of our home. We were changing clothes in bathroom stalls. This modesty stuff is bullshit. It’s not about protecting women: it’s about having the final fucking word. I’m suddenly so angry I can’t see straight.
There were other things to be aware of if I wanted to be dressed modestly. No tank tops, because men might be turned on by the area below your arms. No low necks, defined as being able to see into your shirt if you bent over. No short skirts (above the knee was short). No strapless, naturally. No backless, or low in the back. Nothing thin enough that it might show the outline of your body if you stood against the light. No bra straps showing at the edges of your neck opening. Nothing tight enough to reveal that you had a figure of any kind. Red clothing was frowned upon as being a harlot’s color.
I think contrasting buttons were okay though. Suck on that, Steve Maxwell! But pretty much, I grew up looking like I was wearing flour sacks. I got tired of people asking if I was Amish or Pentecostal. When I said I was Reformed Presbyterian they just looked puzzled. It was impossible to explain the convoluted rules in my family.
I was the first girl in my family to break the modesty rules. By the time my youngest sister left home, the rules had been relaxed to the point that even my mother was wearing pants fairly often. She says she was legalistic about dresses.
I hope sometime to be able to visit a nudist colony. I want to see what it’s like to lay aside clothing entirely as something unnecessary. Since that would be frowned upon in my current city, I wear what I feel like wearing. Tank tops in summer because I get frickin’ hot. Yes, you can see the tops of my boobs when I bend over, and I don’t give a shit. I almost never wear a long skirt; it brings up bad memories. I wear jeans that actually fit me instead of frumpers two sizes too big.
I’m afraid that my still-smoldering anger at my mother is seeping through in this post. She would be most upset if she knew that I’m talking about these issues with strangers on the internet, but this is my story. This is what happened to me. I was hurt by fundamentalism, and I want to talk about it. My parents are still absolutely fundamentalist Christians, and because of that they can only acknowledge my hurt in a very limited way. I’m not writing this as revenge—I don’t expect them to read this, and I’ve kept their names private—but as my way of grappling with the lifestyle and beliefs that formed me.
Apologies for the length of this post. I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of the modesty mindset!