We’ve had a few teasingly warm days in the last few weeks, and so my children are starting to want to be as scantily clad as possible. I’ve been horrified as I’ve shopped for summer clothes for my 5-year-old daughter–everything is spandex and mini and halter-topped and sex-kitten sandals *in size 5!* It’s awful.
On the other hand, I scandalized my visiting teacher last year, when she was kind enough to visit teach me at the beach (because it’s the only place my children can play by themselves for 15 or 20 minutes and not end up bleeding), by letting the above-mentioned daughter change her clothes on the beach without any elaborate towel-draping subterfuge.
So I’ve been thinking about the relationship between modesty and shame, and how to teach one with as little of the other as appropriate.
In Genesis, we go pretty quickly and without a lot of explanation from Satan making Adam and Eve aware of their nakedness to God clothing them with a coat of skins. Is it faithful to the text to call what Satan introduced “shame,” and what the Lord intends “modesty”? What makes them different? How does the negative, Satan-taught shame morph into the virtue of modesty?
Not surprisingly, I’m also interested in the gender angle–the scene in the Garden of Eden portrays Adam and Eve as pretty equally in need of modesty. But it seems to me that modesty has been, for many centuries now, differentially taught to and required of women. Is that a Pauline phenomenon (head covering writ large?)? Or is it earlier than that? Is it because there is some essentially alluring quality in the nature of women? [look Adam, I'm acknowledging the possibility of essential differences! :)] Or is it cultural prejudice that views women’s sexuality as more dangerous and vicious, or perhaps shameful (after all, an old term for women’s genitals was “pudendum”–that of which one is to be ashamed) than men’s, and therefore more in need of societal regulation?
How is modesty in dress related to modesty in behavior? There was a time when “modesty” meant not just decency in covering the body, but also a certain seemliness about how one lived–the opposite of conspicuous consumption. I think that this sense of the word needs to be rehabilitated, and perhaps linked to the virtue of modesty in dress. Lavishness and ostentatiousness in adorning/revealing the body seem linked to the kind of self-definition by shopping that plagues affluent moderns, both in and out of the church.
Finally, how do we navigate these questions as parents? I want my children to view their bodies as glorious, excellent, and beautiful creations, which are meant to render service, but also to give and receive pleasure. How should I appropriately teach them about what is private and why? These questions seem especially difficult in relation to my daughter, partly because of my own experience–I grew up horribly ashamed of my body, not at all because of fear of sexiness, but because I loathed my body–saw it as fat and ugly. Of course, now that I’ve had three babies and understand what fat and ugly really are, I can recognize how pathological that belief was. But I wonder a lot where it came from, and whether it was in part derived from subtle messages about the essential shamefulness of women’s bodies. I want my daughter to believe that her body is beautiful *and* I want her to cover it well! And, of course I want my sons to value modesty, and to be modest themselves. Somehow it seems less complicated for guys, but maybe that’s just because I’ve never lived in a guy’s head.
So tell me, what’s a mother to do?