Today I wore a dress to work.
What a weird sentence. A year ago, the dress part would’ve driven me nuts. Three or four years ago, the work part would’ve. (Me? Having a job outside of the home? In a non-Christian environment? The horror.)
I’ve been reading a lot of exposé-type blog posts on the Quiverfull/ATI movement (and conservatism as a whole) lately, and a few particularly jarring posts about modesty have gotten me into a weird funk.
I never knew what kind of a niche environment I grew up in until recently. This subculture of Biblically-endorsed patriarchy. This baby mass-producing, holier-than-thou legalism. Luckily, my family wasn’t as entrenched in it as others, but it’s still affected me in ways I’m still trying to work through.
When I was twelve, my sister and I went shorts-shopping with my mom. We’d just been through training to be summer missionaries with several of the youth in my church. We needed new shorts to wear as we traveled around our city ministering to kids that summer, and I found several options, including some adorable plaid ones that went down to my knee that I couldn’t wait to wear. It wasn’t until we got home that my dad told us we’d be wearing skirts outside of the house from then on. I distinctly remember slipping the plaid shorts under a massive, layered jean skirt a few times, and enjoying their secret existence.
From the time I was twelve until sometime when I was eighteen, we wore skirts whenever we left the house (and sometimes when we didn’t, because I had a younger brother). It was a modesty thing, it was a deference thing, and it was an umbrella thing. It pointed to my father as an authority in our home – how I was honoring him by keeping my brothers in Christ from stumbling.
I was always a tomboy when I was younger. Climbing trees and playing football with my guy friends were some of my favorite activities. I soon learned that doing these things in a skirt was incredibly difficult (and, at times, less than modest). I remember riding in a go-kart with a guy friend (my best friend for most of my early teen years – but I never told anybody that). We rounded a curve and my skirt flew back, exposing the (again, adorable) plaid shorts. I was grateful to have worn them that time. Another time, on a family field trip to Charleston, we toured a battleship that had been involved in WWII. It was a windy day and I was wearing a lighter, linen skirt that day. As I climbed the stairs up to the top deck, in front of most of my family and other guests, a gust of wind flew up underneath my skirt. No shorts that time. I was mortified.
Growing up, I was taught that modesty was about not drawing attention to yourself. But then I’d go outside my small, conservative bubble and notice that we were drawing more attention to ourselves and my like-minded friends with our skirts that reached the top of our shoes and that the only skirts were cute, cut below or above the knee. I wanted that. I didn’t know why my skirts had to sweep the floor or be straight denim that reached my mid-calf. I just knew my growing curves had to be hidden.
It was probably because of this that I never made the connection between modesty and beauty. I’m not sure there was one, besides the notion that “modest is hottest.” (Tangent: What does that even mean?) I heard Bible verses that were used to teach against jewelry and short hair and makeup. Authorities in my life always said that natural beauty was best, but I never felt comfortable in my red, splotchy, acne-dotted skin and experimented with makeup for special occasions. The shapeless skirts just made me feel more fat than I already thought I was.
I never felt pretty in those skirts or dresses.
When I was eighteen, we were ever-so-slowly allowed to wear shorts and pants outside of the house again. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m the one who started this trend. I didn’t see the point in wearing a skirt solely to pick up the twins I nannied before bringing them back to their house for the afternoon. I started wearing shorts and it was such a fascinating mixture of delight and nervousness and guilt and wonder. If I needed to run an errand beforehand and wore shorts, I’d walk through the store as quickly as possible, feeling a twinge of guilt whenever I passed even a younger boy.
One day, I distinctly remember deciding to wear a skirt, mostly out of guilt that I’d bent my standards so much. I picked a shorter one with lace at the bottom and an adorable flower print. I finally felt cute in something that was in line with my standards (although I’m fairly sure a comment was made about how short it was). Some men were working at the house where I was nannying, and I spent my afternoon simultaneously trying to keep the kids from riding down their incredibly steep driveway on their bikes and holding my skirt down because wind was, again, an issue. I think that was my last time wearing a skirt to my nannying job.
After we left our church, I wore skirts for several weeks as we church-shopped. The first time I wore skinny jeans to my new church, I felt so rebellious but, at the same time, strangely enough… free.
Years of legalism and I was finally getting a taste of grace.
I kept most of my skirts, mostly because some were cute and because I felt like I should, but it took a long time to finally be able to wear them again, pairing them with boots or a cute top to make myself feel better about it. I still shied away from more full or longer skirts that made me remember those days in ways I didn’t want to.
When I got a job where the dress code was business casual, I bought my first dress since those skirt-wearing days. It stopped a few inches above my knee, was cinched at the waist, and had straps. The most important part was that it was my favorite shade of forest green. I loved it.
So today, when I wore that dress to work, you can start to understand why it was such a big deal to me. I thought very little of it – I just wanted less items of clothing to match. The green dress plus tights, a mustard cardigan, and short boots, and I was set.
It made me remember the weekend before, when I cosplayed with a friend as Anastasia and felt like an actual princess in the flowing skirt, pearl beads, and long hair (almost as long as my hair was before I cut it at the end of my skirt-wearing days – and got shunned by the girls at church). I was so hesitant to wear it at first, because it dredged up all the old memories of feeling lumpy, formless, fat, and told that my curves were something to be hidden. But when I tried on the skirt for the first time and pulled on the sleeves – before the bodice was even cut – I nearly cried. I actually felt beautiful. In a skirt. The morning of the actual event, when I put on the whole ensemble for the first time, I teared up when my friend pinned the crown on my head. For the first time, I actually felt the connection between wearing a dress and feeling absolutely gorgeous.
And it was incredible.
It took four long, painful years to get past these memories and such a poisoning frame of mind, but I’m finally well on my way to freedom. I’m so much better off. I don’t regret any of the decisions I or my parents made, but I’m so glad I’m past those days.
All this to say, something I’ve learned is that your convictions shouldn’t be the result of guilt or fear. Do what you do out of your love for Christ. Period.