Guest Post: Modesty and the Middle Class
Jenna balances motherhood, photography, and blogging while dreaming big dreams in a high rise in Chicago. She’s looking forward to a move to the Bay Area this fall, with plans to eat as many locally grown avocadoes as humanly possible.
I have only very recently come to loathe the word modesty. Previously I considered it a badge of honor, and felt proud that I was doing it “right”. I thought a little bit about my intentions, but mostly I kept my shoulders covered and constantly tugged my pencil skirts down toward my knees (which was difficult to do while simultaneously patting myself on the back).
Blogging opened me up to a world of alternative viewpoints, and I realized that my friends wearing strapless dresses didn’t seem so bad, and my perception of modesty was altered. Modesty for me might be about cap sleeves and kept promises, but the goal for everyone should be self-respect. A modest woman dresses with self-respect, and self-respect looks different on everyone.
I am in the midst of yet another shift in my thinking that takes the idea of self-respect and expands on it.
When the Occupy Wall Street protests were going on my husband pointed out that although we might not be part of the 1% in America, we are part of the 1% when you look at the entire world. Maybe even the 1% of the 1%. I live each day of my life profoundly grateful and often overwhelmed by this. I have never wanted for food, medicine, clothing, or shelter. I not only have my needs met at all times, but almost always my wants as well. This means I shop often, use clothing as a weight loss motivator, and buy new dresses when I already have half-a-dozen in my closet. Somehow I always need another pair of jeans.
I cannot seem to nail down what modesty means for a woman like myself, spending my days without thinking twice about the necessities in life. Can I get excited about the polka dot dress from Nordstrom that my mom gave me for Christmas? And is it automatically vain to post an outfit I wore on my personal blog? Can I pine for the perfect pair of black peep-toe platform heels when I already have half a dozen black heels in my closet (and several more in the “to donate” pile)?
Of course I know deep down that the answer to these questions is something profound like “Modesty is a highly individualized product of self-respect and self-restraint” but I keep getting bogged down in the practicalities of the issue. How do I achieve modesty throughout all areas of my life?
A good starting point for me has been expressing gratitude for what I already have in my closet. The phrase “I don’t have anything to wear” should never cross my lips, because I have plenty. I’m also working hard to avoid placing importance on the name of the designer who created what I’m wearing. I think it is okay for me to care about color, fit, and the way things make me feel when I wear them, but I shouldn’t like something just because so-and-so has their name on the label. One of my favorite and most frequently worn dresses is from Walmart! Sometimes when I receive compliments on that dress I think to myself “This old thing? It’s just from Walmart,” and I know the same thought would never cross my mind if I had paid full price for it at J. Crew. I don’t want to be that person.
This doesn’t mean I’m not going to get new things, as I have no intention of living my life as an ascetic. I have two new dresses from my parents hanging in my closet that are birthday gifts, and I just sent my husband an email with the link to a dress that I wanted him to get me for my 27th birthday celebration. When it comes to my wardrobe though, I want to be prudent about how full I let it get, and work hard to remember to be grateful for all the beautiful things I’ve received and been able to buy.
Later this year we’re going to move to San Francisco, which means we are thinking about housing again. We’ve decided that renting still makes the most sense for us, and though I won’t find a rental for a few months because of the market in the particular area I have started hunting and daydreaming about where we might live. We’ve set a budget that feels appropriate, but I constantly find myself drifting toward the houses with expansive skylights and huge windows and more bedrooms than we need. What I’m daydreaming about isn’t modest because it’s moved past the point of addressing our needs. We’ve set our priorities (a backyard and at least 3 bedrooms, safe neighborhood and good commute) and I have to constantly remind myself that we are likely never going to move “down” in terms of housing and lifestyle (barring being forced to do so for financial reasons) and so it’s important that we remain modest in our housing choice. Once we have 3 bedrooms, I’m going to always feel like I need 3, and I’ll likely spend my time hoping for 4. If we live in a 4 bedroom place and find that we need to downgrade to 3 again… I’m going to feel pretty deprived (I realize unnecessarily, but recognizing that doesn’t make it less likely to happen in my brain unfortunately).
I do not write this post intending anyone reading to spend time thinking about how *other people* aren’t being modest. There is nothing productive that comes from such reflection. The debate about what type of lifestyle is “okay” is going to be never-ending (if I make $1,000,000/year and give away half, have I given enough? Is that when I get to have my Prada bag and Loboutins guilt-free?) And we just don’t know enough to understand how some people are able to experience the things they do. Maybe their travels are the result of credit card schemes, maybe your friend’s mani/pedi routine is the only time she spends money on herself, maybe the designer dress is a gift from grandma that is worn out of respect and gratitude. No two people are ever going to have the same definition regarding what constitutes modesty in regards to clothing, cars, food, travel, housing, and so forth.
If we’re going to be talking about modesty with girls like myself, girls with closets overflowing with clothing, items that may at times never have their tags removed before being relocated to the donation pile, we need to be talking about not only self-respect, but vanity and over-consumption. Modesty isn’t about shoulders and kneecaps, it’s found in the reasoning behind the choices we make. There is no right or wrong answer, no magic formula for correctly categorizing wants and needs in neat little compartments that everyone else will agree with. Each of us must be willing to ask some tough questions, look straight into the mirror and say “I know the reasons for my choices and I know they are true to who I want to be.”
Until I master that, I’m going to keep working on the last commandment of the Big 10. I can’t seem to stop coveting the new pair of heels my mom picked up at Nordstrom Rack last week.