The White Dress and Modesty: Mahalath’s Story
HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Mahalath” is a pseudonym. Also by Mahalath on HA: “Paper Swords.”
I once owned a dress that was made of white lace and thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.
I don’t know how it ended up in my possession, but I remember trying it on near the bathroom mirror. No frills, no fluffy skirt, and it actually fit my body. While I admired myself in the mirror, however, I kept one hand on the door and both ears straining for the slightest noise. The dress had wide straps and a skirt that ended above my knees, so of course it was “immodest”. I could never wear it. So I put it in my dresser, way in the back, for “someday”. Someday, when I could wear what I wanted, I would take it out again and go for a smoothie. I would laugh and feel pretty.
I never got to wear that dress.
My parents snooped through my stuff one day and found it. In order to escape punishment for keeping such immodest apparel, I said that I was saving it for sewing scraps. I had to keep my face still and bite my tongue as they cut my dream dress apart, saying they’d feel better if they gave me a head start.
I don’t recall a time in my parent’s house when I could feel pretty without the risk of shame.
Everything had to have sleeves, cover the knees, and not show any cleavage. It couldn’t fit you properly, because it might show off your body. (I wore a size too big for years because my mother refused to let me wear the right size.) White shirts might show your bra, v-necks invited boys, and heaven forbid I go swimming in a swimsuit without a skirt!
The term “dress” meant a Victorian-era type garment with a wide collar, sash, and buttons down the front. They were obtained from Goodwill and Salvation Army in varying degrees of atrociousness. I fit right in with Samantha, my American girl doll, right down to the lacy white socks. (A huge victory came at age nine, when I destroyed all my lacy socks and refused to wear new ones.)
Makeup was a battle that was fought and lost. The little makeup that was permitted was frequently inspected and deemed “too much”. The only acceptable amount was just enough so that it didn’t look like we wore any at all. I gave up, and consequently know nothing about makeup. My little sister, however, cared a great deal. Even though my parents somewhat relaxed their rules with her, she still can’t get ready for church without some remark about how she “cakes it on”.
When bags of used clothing would arrive for our perusal, my sister and I would grab the most risky of them all (Shorts above the knees? A shirt cut to fit a girl? A cute mini dress?) We’d try them on, helping each other with straps and zippers, admiring how good we looked in them. But there was a certain sense of doom that accompanied this private fashion show, and we gave each other looks of sympathy as we marched out to be inspected. Rather, rejected, as the criticism began. How could we think that was appropriate? You should have known better than to try that on. What would God think of what we were wearing? That needs more “up top”, this makes people look at your bottom, that is “painted on”.
As the door slammed behind us, the air ringing with the edict to put on something else, two young girls cried and rubbed each other’s backs in sympathy.
“But,” we’d whisper, “I look pretty.”
They wondered why I had self-esteem issues afterwards. Seriously.
My father asked me once how I couldn’t like myself after all of this. Because, daddy, you and mum have spent my whole life telling me it was wrong to feel like a girl. Be pretty, but not too pretty, or you may as well be a prostitute. So many other girls have grown up this way, being ashamed of their femininity while “femininity” and traditional gender roles are being crammed down their throats. It’s a contradiction at best, a tragedy at worst, that as the children of the modesty culture grow up they are forced to decide whether or not they want to be accepted by their families or themselves.
It was hard for me to think about dresses for a long time. To me, “dress” meant an ugly hand-me-down that looked like it belonged in a history museum, not on a modern girl’s body. It as a momentous occasion when I went shopping for my very first dress and fell in love with being a girl, not a piece of meat that had to be covered to prevent flies from getting too close.
I never really appreciated what it meant to be female when I lived at home. It was as if having curves was sinful, that hiding what I was born with was the only atonement. At times, I remember expressing hatred for my gender because we had to go through so much to keep men from “stumbling”. But how I dress is my decision, and if someone has a problem with it, male or female, it’s their problem.
I have had to relearn what it is to be pretty, and I’m still not done learning.
I still wear a lot of jeans and T-shirts, but the jeans and T-shirts fit now. I’m trying to get in touch with my feminine side, and it’s kind of great. Who I am is not and will never be a reflection of some set of rules for modesty, but what makes me feel good. And I do feel good.
I visited my home a couple of weeks ago for the first time since I moved away. I walked out of the storage room they’d thrown my bed into, ready for Sunday church in a dress I had bought myself. It was a gray mini dress from Forever 21, a v-neck that was simple in design and very slimming. I wore leggings underneath, and had spent time before I emerged adjusting so the skirt didn’t hike up and the neckline didn’t sink low. The first thing my mother said was, “I thought you were getting dressed for church.” I confirmed that I was dressed, and she began to criticize. I was wearing a shirt, not a dress. Didn’t I know how immoral it was to wear leggings? “Tell her!” she exclaimed to my silent father. His contribution was a quiet remark of how it showed my shoulders. Shoulders? Seriously? Of course, hordes of men were waiting at the front door of the church to lust at my bare shoulders!
I ended up not wearing the dress, to avoid conflict. She literally begged me to let her wash my mud-stained jeans instead. When she brought them up to me, freshly laundered, she asked why I had even thought about wearing my dress in the first place. I looked her square in the eye and said, “I love this dress because it makes me feel like a girl. It makes me feel pretty.” And she had nothing to say.
I’m still looking for a dress like the one I lost, white and lacy and feminine.
Someday I’ll find it, and I’ll wear it with pride.