“Why not?” they would question, eyebrows raised in curiosity and bewilderment. In a world that is founded on showcasing the beauty of femininity, it was unheard of to find a pageant girl who didn’t participate in the swimwear competition. As a former beauty queen, I made a conscious decision to never participate in swimwear competitions because I wanted to be known for my intelligence, integrity and compassion rather than my body shape.
I did not make this decision in an effort to be “modest;” I wanted people to see more than my body and know that my body does not define me. Furthermore, I believe that there is more to modesty than meets the eye.
In today’s culture so much of our identity is wrapped up in our body, our sexuality and the way we choose to dress. How we dress is an expression of who we are. Sometimes people will (wrongly) place labels and make assumptions on the character traits of others based on how we choose to dress. In response, dress codes and imposed standards of modesty are often made out of fear and an attempt to avoid harsh judgment or, in some cases, sexual immorality.
While modesty certainly can be a good thing, I believe that the freedom to express oneself through fashion belongs to each person and it takes a level of maturity to discern how it is best for you to dress. Your body is precious and your soul is sacred; there must be a level of respect that you present yourself with when you choose to dress. You are made for more than looking pretty, so what do you want your clothes to say about you?
Yet the truth is that the standard of modesty looks different for everyone and is different in every culture. Although fashion is a choice, there must always be a balance between personal freedom and respect. While you are free to express yourself through your clothes, your body is not a commodity to showcase and display.
This is where dress codes and modesty standards can get tricky. When we take away a girl’s choice by imposing dress code standards upon her, we are telling her that her body is not her own and that she needs to frame her identity within the power of the male gaze. We are saying that it is more important for her to cover up and “protect” boys from being distracted by girl’s bodies than it is for boys to stop lusting after girl’s bodies.
Quite honestly, it is far easier to tell young women to cover up than it is to teach young men to respectfully interact with and view women. Forcing girls to cover up while not addressing deeper issues of misogyny, objectification and rape culture is a serious problem. Furthermore, the sexism and commodification of women’s bodies throughout the media is rampant. We need to take back beauty and show the world that we are more than just pretty.
Ultimately modesty needs to be about respect, not fear. Respect for ourselves and others are what we ought to be striving for rather than policing standards of modesty.
Finally, I believe that the greatest expression of femininity is to see the holistic beauty of a woman: mind, body and soul. We are more than our sexuality, we are more than our bodies and we are more than the labels that others may place upon us. There are no two women who are the same. Each woman is uniquely gifted with talent, intelligence, strength and compassion to bless the world. If we consciously choose to focus on valuing ourselves and respecting others then, I believe, modesty will no longer be an issue.