Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Modesty or Shame?

I recently had the opportunity to be with 9yo Sugar and two of her friends, Zoe (so named because she reminds me of the Sesame Street character) and Girlfriend and the other girls' parents when the girls were all ready to go swimming.

Sugar and Zoe each ran around playing when in their bathing suits. They were clearly comfortable and at ease with their bodies and themselves. Girlfriend though, was clearly self-conscious. She stood around wrapped in a towel and walked with her shoulders hunched, curving her body around itself in hiding. I wondered what could cause Girlfriend to be so self-conscious, so apparently ashamed of her body, at such a young age.

I didn't have to wonder for long. Girlfriend's mother started talking to Zoe's parents about the brightly colored two-piece swimsuit that Zoe was wearing. She was very critical about how eye-catching it was - about how tight it was - about the fact that it was two pieces rather than one. She started going on and on about teaching girls modesty, about how - sure she didn't have anything much to cover up yet, and she did look cute in it - but that the girls were getting to that age where they had to learn not to put themselves on display.

I've heard this language before. I've heard people go on about how they don't think girls should wear two piece suits. How girls must learn modesty. How parents worry that all the clothes out there are two grown-up. How they don't want their daughters to think it's OK to wear provocative clothing as they get older.

To be honest, I've said some of these things myself. I've certainly lamented finding swimsuits that I find appropriate - though I totally don't understand the disdain some people have for two-piece suits. Certainly there are two-pieces that are more appropriate for a child and one pieces that are too provocative. And for me, ultimately, two-piece suits are always more practical than one-pieces. I mean, I don't know how anyone who's ever tried to wrestle a child who REALLY has to pee out of a wet one-piece, could possibly have anything against a two-piece suit.

But, listening to this mother speak about the importance of modesty, and thinking about the way I'd watched her daughter exhibit what was clearly shame, I thought, there really is a fine line between modesty and shame. I realized that as we decide what kind of images we want our girls to develop of themselves, as we struggle with what they see in the media and what clothing is available for them in stores, as we teach them about respecting their bodies - we should be careful that we don't go overboard. And I think it's not only an easy line to cross but that it can have as bad, if not worse, repercussions than not attending to this issue at all.

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