A Modest Proposal


Modest: Observing conventional proprieties in behavior, speech and dress


So says my Webster dictionary. But what in the world does it mean? In today’s world exactly what are the conventional proprieties? I believe a hat is necessary if you are a lady invited to join Queen Elizabeth for a garden party at Buckingham Palace, but few of us make that list. We are more likely to spend time at the supermarket and office than at royal teas. And while we may know that going to a corporate job interview in a mini skirt and a low-cut blouse will keep us unemployed, we probably associate that fact with presenting a business-like appearance rather than an old-fashioned word like modesty.


In a poignant article in June’s Oprah Magazine, author Krista Bremer discusses how unsettling it was when, at the age of nine, her daughter, Aliya, chose to wear the headscarf common to Krista’s husband’s Moslem heritage. She had assumed that a bi-cultural marriage would bring interesting customs and exotic foods into her life. Never had she contemplated that her born and bred in America child would opt for going to school in Moslem attire.


The author only dips a toe into recognizing that associating with Islam has more far-reaching implication than choice of dress. Instead she focuses on her own teenage forays into the world of bikinis and her internal discomfort at that young age when she simultaneously enjoyed and felt disturbed by the attention that exposing her body brought her. Even while she is embarrassed by Aliya’s chosen dress she is drawn to admire the way her pre-teen is defining herself as more than just a physical body.


A number of years ago, a young Catholic girl in the Northwest wrote a letter to Nordstrom’s explaining that she and her friends were unable to shop in their teenage boutique because the styles were too immodest. Executives at the store responded by asking her to join their teenage fashion board and even hosting a “modest clothing” show. In my own community, observant Jewish women and girls accept that during certain shopping seasons there will be nothing that meets the standards we prefer to follow. And a Protestant friend complained to me that while she and her husband attempt to establish certain modesty guidelines for their daughter, it is difficult to do so when a youth leader at their church dresses in a manner that they forbid their daughter to emulate.


A modern world view may reject the notion of conventional proprieties and scorn ideas like female modesty as old-fashioned and patriarchal. I think the opposite is true. When a woman shows cleavage she might as well acknowledge that her chest will be the focus of men’s attention. If she wants them to concentrate on her brilliant mind, sparkling wit and developed spirit, she would do well to avoid that distraction. Nothing short of redesigning the human body will change that. We handicap our teenage girls terribly by pretending that how they dress is solely a matter of comfort and personal choice.


Krista Bremer’s discovery that developing one’s soul and inner being is easier when not exposing too much flesh is true. It is unfortunate that she never knew that modesty is embraced by many in the modern world; the idea is not limited or original to Islam. It was a great loss to women in our society when treating one’s body with respect and dignity ceased to be conventional propriety.

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