I think these are the main points I try and will try to teach my daughters.
1. THERE ARE NO ABSOLUTES in dress standards. “God” does not care how you dress. And dress is all relative. If you were born an aborigine in 18th century aboriginia… you’d go around in a loincloth showing your boobs and butt and no one would care. And neither would “god”, or the gods. In some polinesian cultures it was worse to show your lets than your chest (even for a woman). Modesty is a social construct, but the sex drive is NOT, and the two are inseparable in ways I’ll talk about in a minute.
Culture dictates dress standards. And those cultural standards can be a bit chauvinistic, because men typically make the rules. It may not be right, but its the world we live in. Deal with it. Feel free to challenge it if you feel you need to–but understand the implications of it. Many standards, however, come from a place of good intent. Learn to see the motivation behind the standards of different aspects of modesty culture.
2. DRESS IS A FORM OF COMMUNICATION. The way you dress says something, just as if you wore a sign on your shirt or forehead. The problem is that WHAT IT COMMUNICATES IS OFTEN AMBIGUOUS. If you walk down the street in a miniskirt and stickers on your nipples, many guys are going to think you are TRYING to communicate something like “I’m sexually available, please make advances on me”. In fact they are going to think that anytime you push the envelope of what socially “acceptable”. What they think is NOT YOUR FAULT. But it is something your going to have to deal with, so be smart about it. If a boy gets a tattoo on his forehead that says DTF, he’s sending a message. And whether he meant to communicate “Dare To Fly” or “Down To F#&%” might not matter as much as what OTHERS THINK HE’S TRYING TO COMMUNICATE. So he’s going to have to deal with that in the work place, and social arena and all parts of his life. This is no different with your clothing. Understand what different types of apparel communicate to men and other girls and make sure that’s the message you want to send.
What you wear to church or school or the swimming pool communicates something different to all the people who look at you. (Just like the type of house you live in or car you drive or bumper stickers & shirt slogans you sport). Become savvy to what you are communicating by your apparel and take responsibility for it. But at the same time you are only responsible to a certain extent–and that extent is dictated by society as a whole NOT BY SOME FRINGE ASPECT of society. Some will tell you that “you are NOT responsible for other people’s thoughts”. Others will tell you “You ARE LARGELY responsible for other people’s thoughts”. Both of these are extreme stances of a complex situation. The truth is, society at large makes the rules for what’s “normal” and you as a youth must learn what is “normal” or mainstream and then decide whether you want to push the envelope of those norms or be conservative in keeping those norms. I hope you’ll consult with me to get a feel for what’s mainstream in our social circle and be sure that you are communicating intelligently within those bounds.
But I hope you internalize this ONE takeaway. Boys are biologically programmed to interpret the way you push the envelope of dress standards to equate with your sexual availability. Just like a courting bird that ruffles her feathers or a cat in heat that walks past potential sex partners with their tail in the air, when you expose more of your body than is normal for the situation, boys will see it as an invitation to hit on you and explore your sexual availability. Be ready for it. And be firm in helping them know your intentions.
3. CLOTHING SHOULD PRIMARILY BE A TOOL. A BODY SHOULD NOT. Use clothing wisely, use it selflessly. It can keep you warm or cool you off. But you can also use clothing to gain power over others. You can use your body to gain power over others. You can use it as an object just as you would use other objects which equate to power. Power in social status, Power in sexuality, Power in relationships. Attractive bodies can be powerful. And you can use that power selfishly or unselfishly. I hope you try and use the way you dress to polarize toward selflessness. The more selfless you are, the easier your relationships are going to be to maintain.
Try to use your body, and the clothes you display it in, to serve others (within limits). Relationships that are based on power plays have a greater change of ending poorly and painfully. You need to realize how many people out there USE OTHERS BODIES to explore and validate their own power and social status. In other words, if they see a really ‘attractive’ person, they will try and get that person to like them (or have sex with them) in order to prove to themselves and others that they are ‘equal or better’ than that person. They often do this subconsciously. You will do it subconsciously. Once we get someone to like/love us, we prove to ourselves and others that we are ‘equal or better’ than them. If there is no other component to bind a couple together, once that goal has been ‘proven’, the relationship falls apart.
Don’t allow yourself to ever be used by selfish people. Don’t let people take advantage of you. Don’t do it yourself to others. When you are selfless in a non-equal or non-reciprocating relationship, no-one wins. When you date for power no-one wins. Pandering to a man’s selfishness simply makes him more selfish. If people see you doing this to men, they will call you a slut or gold-digger. Try to be selfless, and if you give your body in a selfless way to please someone else be sure it is building an equal relationship of give and take reciprocity.
4. Realize that a lot of what you are going to learn about “modesty” in our culture or at church is remnants of social mores dating from a less civilized time when women lived in constant fear of being raped, stalked or seduced by sexual predators. (or stolen away by the king or people of higher class, power and estate.) Other rules and social mores were created from a desire of other women to level the playing field so socially ‘attractive’ women don’t get all the attention. Standards were created to encourage attractive women to cover themselves so as to not make less “attractive” women jealous (by whatever cultural standard of beauty). In some cases women used shame as a way to deter other women from luring away their men. (such as an older woman calling a young attractive, sexily dressed co-worker of her husband’s a whore or slut and shaming her into dressing more “modestly”.)
You didn’t create these social customs, you don’t need to feel bound by them or responsible for them. But you should understand the psychology behind why they exist and navigate the ‘cultural modesty’ issue with an intelligence that is aware of the why’s and how’s behind our social and religious mores. If you ever feel tempted to shame someone because of their body, be sure to understand the fears or biases which are causing you to do it. Body shaming isn’t very productive. Don’t do it to yourself or others.
5. UNDERSTAND THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN MALE & FEAMALE SEX DRIVES. If you get on Tinder or online dating sights you’ll notice right off the bat that a huge percentage of women’s profiles say something like “no one night stands” or “not DTF” or LTR only. On the other hand essentially NO men’s profiles say this. Why? Because much like a monkey or dog, men are programmed to desire sex with almost any eligible partner. Even if they aren’t really physically, emotionally, socially or spiritually matched with that person they still desire sex with them. This is very different than the typical female who expects physical, emotional, social & spiritual compatibility before sex. This mismatch primal desires VERY often leads to a mismatch in expectations and hurt feelings. The female thinks if he’s willing to have sex with her, he must feel the same way she does about him! NOTHING COULD BE MORE WRONG! Typically, until a man is older or has an innate strong spirituality, his sexual desire is based on hormones and visual/chemical triggers. The male sex drive can be INCREDIBLY strong, and once aroused he will say/be/do many completely uncharacteristic things in order to follow that animal programming to its natural end of sex (and much of this is actually subconscious).
If you want to avoid the heartbreak that comes from believing a man is physically, emotionally, socially or spiritually matched and bonded with you, only to find out after the sexual chemicals subside that he is not, then you must go to extensive lengths to assure those physical, emotional, social and spiritual compatibilities before the hope of sex causes him to alter his behavior. You also need to realize that the hope of ‘sexual security’ and being ‘valued and cherished’ tend to be the primal drivers in the female sexual drive, and can induce the same short term changes in rational behavior in you, as his drive for sex or an attractive partner induce in him.
It is ESSENTIAL to a happy, lasting relationship that you realize early the characteristics which lead to lasting relationships and pursue THEM, instead of simply perusing your/his sexual triggers as a basis for relationships. I hope after putting some thought into what I’ve explained above you also see the danger of getting a boy to ‘like you’ by wearing clothing which consistently evokes his sex drive as a means of encouraging him to pursue you.
6. FEEL AWESOME ABOUT YOUR BODY. No matter what stage of life or shape you are in, feel awesome about your body, AND DON’T LET ANYONE MAKE YOU FEEL BAD ABOUT IT. If they do, avoid them. If you need to wear ‘modest’ clothes or even a burka to feel good about yourself, go for it. If you need to go naked to free yourself to feel good about yourself… go for it. Don’t shame others. Don’t shame yourself. But be smart. Be confident. Be considerate. Be kind to yourself and others. Think of the effects of your dress on other girls as well as guys, but if that responsibility brings you pain, then you likely need to readjust your thinking. Nothing should make you feel crappy about your body. (But at the same time, realize myself and pretty much all of us do for much of our life, so it’s pretty damn normal.)
Sons need a different lesson. Why? Because they typically don’t really give a damn about dress—but they do have to deal with other types of inadequacy (particularly height, muscle mass, wealth and social standing). And they’re not going to get a bunch of stupid “modesty” lessons in school or church which end up often distorting the important reasons behind modesty anyway.
And importantly men rarely get raped. Women do. Women rarely commit adultery with their hot young coworker who wears a muscle shirt. Men do. Modesty and purity culture have been shaped by the reality of dangers which exist in the world of sexual expression & sexual violence. We shouldn’t be a fool who pretends these realities don’t exist or that they are ONLY a social construct. Its not true. I once watched a national geographic show about some loin-cloth-only topless aborigines in Africa, where one of the attractive young ladies was talking to the translator about how she wanted to murder one of the older men in the tribe. The translator later found out she was so upset because she had been repeatedly raped by this man over the years. This problem had nothing to do “purity culture” or “being/not being responsible for other people’s thoughts”. All of that was irrelevant. The question for parents and social leaders in nearly every culture on the planet is HOW TO WE PROTECT OUR YOUNG GIRLS FROM THESE ABUSES?! Modesty is one way. Burkas are one way. Laws and rules concerning both modesty and rape are one way. Teaching young boys informed consent is one very important way. Carrying guns and mace is one way. You can decide which of those ways seems to be the most logical way to balance the risk and rewards of sexual expression. But realize this… men are driven by different sexual stimulus than women.
Tinder is the perfect place to see this through experimentation. Take a marginally attractive man or woman, with great bodies and put them on tinder–the man with his shirt off and the girl in a bikini, and see who gets more matches. The woman will get 10x the matches every time. Because contrary to what many might try and say, men are apparently, indeed more visually driven by sex appeal. On the flip side take the same people and put pictures of both the man and women in situation which display social standing, status and wealth and the exact opposite effect will manifest. Because woman appear to be generally more attracted to these things than simply masculine sex appeal.
On top of that we must add in the undebatable fact that MEN are far, far more prone to inflict sexual violence on a woman than vice versa. So why do we impose modesty on women and not men? Simple… it is to protect women. If a modesty norm, rule or lesson does not tend toward helping the goal of protecting women, it needs to be reworked. And this includes the “protection” that comes from making one girl feel horrible about her body because it cannot ever compare to the body of another girl nor does she have any chance of attracting the positive attention and social approval that comes with the body type which men tend to be physiologically drawn to like a moth to a flame. So we need to keep in mind that its not all about protecting girls from boys or predatory men. It can be about leveling the playing field among girls in general—something which carries its own ethical debate. And it can also be about helping potential mates focus on physical, emotional, social and spiritual compatibilities instead of just sexual attraction.