Beyond the Fig Leaf

Elizabeth Hanna Pham

Whenever I say the word modesty it sticks to the roof of my mouth like peanut butter.

It’s a perfectly fine word and it’s not it’s own fault that it has become cliché.  But for whatever reason, its use inevitably hearkens to thoughts of ankle-length khaki skirts and stiff, shapeless button-downs.  For a girl who likes to wear things that look beautiful on her beautiful body, modesty sounds like pretty unappealing.

Now, there have been some good efforts made to make modesty a positive thing and to eliminate the type of reaction that so many of us have to it.  There are stores that have devoted themselves to making modest and fashionable clothes.  And though some have achieved this, unless you were way fashionable before you started preaching, you’re not likely to be taken seriously.  The modest and fashionable stance too often says you can have it all and still be modest!  And while it is true that you can be fashionable and modest, you can’t be modest and have all the convenient advantages that come with being immodest.  And I don’t think we’re helping anybody by telling them otherwise.

The truth is – modesty is difficult.  And it will always be difficult.  It sucks when you want to buy the string bikini but you don’t and then you feel dumb at the pool party.  It sucks when you want to wear the shorter skirt but you can’t because you know you shouldn’t.  It sucks when you go back inside to change because you know better than that and you know that someone you love will tell you that you know better than that if you don’t tell yourself.

And why does it suck?  Well, because I don’t think we were meant to cover up. They certainly didn’t cover up in the Garden of Eden.  The body is a beautiful thing.  And a beautiful thing should be seen and adored.  I know and have heard all this stuff about covering up because you’re beautiful but that hasn’t ever really made sense to me.  We don’t cover up anything else because it’s beautiful.  Sure you would be careful with it and cherish it but there are few things you cover up because they are beautiful or because they are sacred.

No.  We don’t cover up because we’re beautiful.  We cover up because we’re screwed up and we don’t know how to properly deal with something so beautiful.  And we’re likely to screw up the beautiful if we don’t cover it up.

I know that sounds pessimistic.  But I honestly believe that it’s the truth and that we won’t understand how to dress in a way that it is good for us until we admit the truth.  We are prone to do bad things—good things too—but bad things.  And in the wrong context, the beautiful body is tempting.  In the wrong context, the beautiful body can be misused.  And though a misused body at the time makes us feel like we have it all, it actually leads us to lose so much of what we had in the first place.

In the end, nobody “has it all.”  The modest girl is eventually respected and given the choices that usually go along with modesty she probably ends up happier down the road. But she missed out on things.  She missed out on some fun and she missed out on the thrill that comes with promiscuity.  We can’t deny that she missed out on this.  We can’t deny that Sandy from Grease gained something when she switched out her innocent dress for the black leather pants.  She probably did have more fun.  And I don’t think it does any good to pretend like she didn’t.

And yet, Grease is a tragedy.  Fun did come along with the black leather pants. But so, so, so much more was lost.  For the first time, Sandy was misused. What was so pristine while hidden, became marred when finally exposed.  What Danny so badly wanted to see, shattered the minute she stripped off the veil.  It’s not that she couldn’t have ever done so.  But just that it was the wrong time in an imperfect world.  By trying to show Sandy to everyone, Sandy lost everything that everyone wanted to see in the first place.

In the end, although modesty comes with its fair share of feeling awkward and stupid and lame and ugly, modesty is worth it.  In the end, our world is not Eden.  Our world is not perfect.  And so nobody ever is going to have it all.  The best we can do is protect what we do have.  It takes a whole lot of patience to protect something beautiful.  It’s like covering up a painting in a museum.  It feels so paradoxical and ridiculous at times.  And the last thing you want to hear is about how freeing it is and how much you respect yourself once you do it.  Because a lot of the time it doesn’t feel freeing.  It feels stifling. A lot of the time you may respect yourself, but you also feel unattractive.  A lot of the time, for a lot of people, modesty feels like a weight on your shoulders.  Especially when everyone else seems to have nothing covering their shoulders… or stomachs, or legs.

But the cool thing about weights is that they make us stronger.  And the higher we hold them, the prouder and taller we stand, the stronger we get. In an imperfect world, we’re all weak.  And so it’s going to hurt to get stronger.  But strength is such a wonderful thing!  It is the strong person who later looks back and is thankful for the weight that was placed upon him.  It is the strong person who one day will look back and not regret all of the things he “didn’t have” because he has something better now.  Modesty hurts now because the beautiful isn’t meant to be covered.  But better the beautiful be covered in order to keep it beautiful than disclose everything and allow it to be tainted. Perhaps one day we will reach a place where we are not imperfect.  Perhaps one day we will not need to worry about being responsible for tempting other people towards something bad, or tempting ourselves towards something bad. I hope we get there.  But until then, we have to protect the beautiful.  We have to protect the men who belong to other women.  We have to protect the men who belong to us.  We have to protect each other from the tendency towards jealousy and vanity.  And we have to protect ourselves.  The body is beautiful and it’s so fulfilling to adorn it and to show it off.  And so I think modesty will always be a word that sticks to the roof of my mouth.  But eventually I have to, along with my pride, swallow it, and be thankful for the nagging in the depths of my heart and thankful for the weight on my shoulders, for these things have saved me from myself, and have brought me to places and people that cherish me and eventually to a husband who adores me in a way that far surpasses whatever thrill I could have gotten otherwise.

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