When I was in junior high at a conservative Christian school, we occasionally had surprise dress checks to make sure that everyone* was obeying the dress code. I remember the first dress check of 8th grade. I didn’t think anything of it, since the dress code regarding skirt length was pretty close to what I was permitted to wear at home. I remember exactly what I was wearing-a black dress that flared at the bottom, and a shirt over the top part, which I often did to convert it to a skirt. So imagine my surprise when, while lined up with the other girls from 8th grade homeroom, the two teachers measuring my hemline (now that I think about it, seems odd that it took 2 teachers to do a dress check) declared that it was ¾ of an inch too short. Yep, you read that correctly: they had a RULER. To measure skirt lengths. Because apparently it was imperative to measure the minute possibility of indecency.
It made sense that the dress had gotten a bit short; I was, after all, a growing adolescent girl. There wasn’t much of a fuss; I didn’t get lectured or anything like that. I received the penalty for violating dress code, which was 10 demerits. I should point out that I was a pretty quite and mild-mannered student who rarely got in trouble and had never gotten demerits before. But I wasn’t really upset, just perplexed. I’d worn that dress a dozen times; in fact the teachers that carried out the dress check had seen me in that dress multiple times.
[Incidentally, my mother wasn’t upset about the demerits so much as the fact that she had to drive 30 minutes to bring me another skirt that met dress code.)
As an adult when I think back to that day, it makes even less sense than it did when I was 13. If I had showed up in a mini skirt and leather bustier, I would have been in trouble as soon as I walked through the door for violating dress code by not wearing a skirt that went to my knees, and wearing a top without sleeves. That would have been an OBVIOUS violation. So why was a dress they had seen me in before all of a sudden immodest, simply because they happened to have a ruler on hand? The day of that dress check I learned 2 things:
1) the line between modest and immodest was apparently ¾ of an inch
2) my school felt it was perfectly acceptable to punish a student for the simple act of growing taller
Whenever I hear modesty debates, my mind goes back to that dress check in eighth grade, and how a ruler determined my decency.
I recently hosted a Twitter chat about modesty culture and the kinds of clothing considered modest and immodest for many Christians growing up. The chat was inspired by the recent (and puzzling) trend of conservative Christian bloggers holding up yoga pants as a symbol of immodesty because of how form-fitting they are, accentuating a woman’s rear end; and many of said [male] bloggers BESEECHING women to please only wear these scandalous pants in the privacy of their own homes. (Seriously, google yoga pants and modesty). It occurred to me that this fixation on a specific pair of pants was no different than my middle school teachers fixating on less than an inch of fabric on a 13 year old girl. It’s not about the fabric, or the yoga pants but a need to cling to an antiquated idea of decency.
I think that’s really what modesty culture boils down to: fixating on pieces of fabric. To give another example: I worked at a Christian camp that only allowed sleeveless tops that didn’t have spaghetti straps. Again, the difference of less than an inch of fabric determines that one top is decent, and the other is not.
When you look at modesty as simply an argument over pieces of fabric, it seems kinda silly, doesn’t it?
* everyone = girls