We were dressed in Dickensian garb for this caroling gig, but we did our best to be unobtrusive as we made small talk. We’d been wearing these costumes for the better part December, so it didn’t seem odd to me that he was in top hat and tails, and I imagine he found my enormous floor length outfit unremarkable.
A man came up to talk to us while we were sitting there, and though we were both eager to relax on our break we indulged his questions about our clothing. Earnestly, this stranger told me how great it was for a woman to be dressed so modestly, referencing his religious tradition while he marveled at the length of my skirt.
“Actually, I find modest dress very attractive,” he explained. “It leaves more to the imagination.”
Somehow, in his enthusiasm for the virtue of modesty, he had forgotten that it is considered impolite to imply that one is imagining another person’s naked body under their clothes.
With that, the baritone and I decided it was time to end our break and find the rest of the quartet.
The idea that a woman can be held responsible for a man’s prurience is ridiculous, a truth that was demonstrated in that mall the week before Christmas.
I have standards for the way that I dress, and they are different for different situations. I give thought to what my clothes express about how I value what I do, and how they might affect my interactions.
These standards come from inside me. They are about how I want to be in the world.
I didn’t grow up in a religious environment that put me in the crosshairs of the modesty police, but I have heard plenty of stories from people who did. The message seems muddy. There’s an ever shifting goal post for how to be perfectly modest, but there is one element of clarity: the burden of controlling men’s desire falls on women. Women’s dress is about manipulating men’s behavior and earning men’s regard.
But sometimes you wear a long, ridiculous skirt and someone still makes inappropriate comments to you. I refuse to take the blame for even this mild episode of harassment.
My modesty comes from my own standards, not anyone else’s, and remembering this reminds me that most of my morality is the same way. Much of it was shaped by my family, my religious tradition, and my environment, and I respect the wisdom of those who came before me. The many standards that I learned from others have been confirmed by my own experience, prayer, and consideration of what it means to be a daughter of God living in a beloved world. I feel confident that the choices I make are guided by my own compass, not the dictums of others.
To arrive at this state is not easy. I shouldn’t even call it an arrival, since the world and I both change with every passing second. But this tricky, shifting world of determining my own moral code is so much more rewarding than living a life of thou-shalt-nots without finding the reason why I shall or shalt not in my own heart.
I often think that those who work with young people are either too lazy or too scared to help them discover this inner compass. Teaching discernment is much more challenging that teaching the commandments, and often we don’t trust youth to learn this skill. Rather than have them descend into iniquity because of the warped moral compass we fear might exist, we bludgeon them with rules.
There’s a place for the rules, and they serve us for a while, the goal is to determine our own “why” and write the law on our hearts.
For myself and for others, I have to trust the Spirit to guide the growing consciences of all those who dare to explore their own hearts. Such exploration has guided me and consoled me, and I wouldn’t want to deny it to anyone. It’s what gives me the confidence to make decisions boldly, to walk away when someone is talking to me a way I don’t like, and to take the blame for my own sins, and only my own.