I remember the first time I heard the word “modesty”. I was eight. We were all gathered together on a Wednesday night, listening to Joe LaQuiere talk. We were dressed up somewhat nicely, because it was our version of church, and I was wearing a dress. The adults were sitting on the couch, and the kids were sitting on kitchen chairs or sprawled on the floor. I remember I was lying on my back, propped up on a pillow, listening to Mr. LaQuiere and thinking that he was the most godly man I’d ever meet! I was more than a little in awe of him. He commanded attention and respect with his voice and his self-proclaimed exclusive knowledge of How We Ought to Live. Out of nowhere, he turned to me and asked if he could use me as an object lesson. I was completely thrilled to be noticed, because I was so quiet and shy that I was used to people forgetting I was even there. I shyly agreed. He turned to one of his older sons (the dark-eyed one all the girls had secret crushes on), and asked him, “What color are her panties?” His son looked, and said they were blue. I was mortified. Worse than mortified. Humiliated. I was already painfully shy, and shrunk from public attention. To be put on display in front of everyone I knew–all of them snickering at me–it was the worst thing I had ever felt. I wanted the floor to swallow me. Mr. LaQuiere proceeded to say that the reason he and his son, and now everyone, knew what color my panties were, was because I was displaying them by how I was lying. Modesty – that was it. I was lacking modesty, and it was worth the small price of one little girl’s feelings to bring it to the attention of his flock. From now on, we needed to be careful about what we were wearing, and how we were sitting, standing, or lying down in our clothes. No one wanted to make the fatal mistake I did, and open themselves to the same ridicule. That was my introduction to modesty.
Modesty: it’s the topic near and dear to many a home-schooled heart. No one was concerned about the “braiding of hair” or “the adornment of jewels” that Paul actually talks about (we all wore our hair french-braided most of the time, or at least, all the girls who had long enough hair did: be still, my envious heart!). But everyone was very concerned about the feminine figure, and especially with the question of whether or not the girls nearing puberty were “showing” inappropriately through their turtlenecks and jean jumpers. Mr. LaQuiere had seen some evidence of this, and had stern discussions with the parents of the offending girls, who passed the scolding on to their embarrassed daughters. Our mothers were worried. Was it time for “those” conversations and the mandating of bras? Whispered reprimands were given, and sometimes girls were sent in disgrace to grab a sweater. Some of the older girls were banned from wearing turtlenecks altogether. I was a little bit jealous of them. No one would ban me from wearing a turtleneck. At least they had something to hide! Puberty and budding little-girl breasts also brought up the issue of hugging, and all girls, whether they had “bumps” to hide or not, were strictly ordered to avoid giving any hugs that could result in their chests brushing the other person. Most of us chose to avoid hugging altogether, rather than engage in obligatory, awkward, arms-length hugs with anyone.
This was so foreign to what my life was like before I met the LaQuieres. In earlier times, I would wake up, scurry to grab some clean play-clothes, and head out to play. I couldn’t have cared less what I was wearing while I was playing, as long as it didn’t get in my way. I had a favorite outfit: my yellow-and-pink shorts with little cherries on them, and a pink t-shirt with ruffled sleeves. They matched my white tennis shoes with the hot pink laces that I wore proudly criss-crossed around my ankles three times (they were really long laces!). My sense of fashion may have left something to be desired, but hey, I was only eight! When it was cold, I wore long pants and sweaters. When it was hot, I wore shorts. When we played in the sprinkler, I wore a bathing suit with little yellow ducks on it. Dresses were reserved for Sundays and church, and holidays. I spent my days practicing cartwheels and climbing trees, so it seemed logical that I’d end up in pants most of the time. Those days were now over.
The new attire was to be modest and gender-specific. It was an abomination to the Lord for girls to look like boys, or boys to look like girls, we were told. From now on, girls were to wear dresses, all the time (unless very special circumstances warranted pants for the sake of modesty). Of course you could ride a bike and roller-blade in a dress, if you really found it necessary to engage in those activities. Why couldn’t you? As for climbing trees, that wasn’t really lady-like anyway. Did I want boys to try to look up my dress? Well then. Maybe I should find something better to do with my time. Swimsuits became a hot topic. A serious discussion was held by the grown-ups, led by Joe LaQuiere, who pointedly said that wearing swimsuits was essentially parading around in your underwear in public. When did that become appropriate? Goodbye swimsuit with the little yellow ducks on it. Hello, big oversize t-shirts and knee-length shorts! I found my new swim clothes to be annoying and hampering. How was I supposed to learn to stand on my hands underwater when I was constantly being chided by my mom for letting my huge t-shirt float up in the water, letting people catch apparently-tantalizing glimpses of my one-piece swimsuit underneath? This was too much for my practical 8-year-old self, and I tried, mostly in vain, to argue my way out of wearing at least the huge t-shirts, pleading their impracticality. When we were swimming by ourselves at home, I sometimes even won my case!
Later on, swimming became even more restricted. Mixed-gender swimming was strongly frowned upon, if not outright prohibited. We avoided beaches and swimming in public places more and more. Public pools became off-limits, because they wouldn’t allow girls to wear shorts and shirts over a swimsuit (which for some bizarre reason they insisted on classifying as “clothing”, not appropriate pool attire).
Even dresses were not modest enough by themselves. The more crafty of the mothers sewed dreadful lacy white “culottes” for all the girls, so that if we were so immodest as to allow a glimpse of something, that something would only be old-fashioned grandma shorts, which hopefully wouldn’t turn anybody on. The other creative solution to the problem of female modesty was to buy all our clothes in women’s sizes, thereby ensuring that they would be at least three sizes too big. Thus the dangers of accidentally displaying a curve or bit of skin was averted, causing all mothers to heave a collective sigh of relief. They had done their jobs. Of course, this meant necklines that were far too big or low for most of us, which required the extra step of sewing custom inserts into all the dresses. But that was a small price to pay for the moral safety of their offspring! When I look back at pictures of myself during this stage, I was invariably wearing long flowery dresses that hung off me like a scarecrow, complete with big lace collars and huge shoulderpads that stuck out 4 inches further than my shoulders. I actually liked the shoulderpads, because they gave me a sort of shape, which was more than nature let me have. I looked like an inverted triangle, but it was a real, recognizable shape, and I was pleased about it!
When I was 12, I was wearing dresses and sometimes (only at home, shh!) jeans that were a women’s size 6. Today, seventeen years later, and a few sizes bigger, I can’t fit into anything larger than a women’s size 2. Usually I can’t even fit into women’s sizes at all, and have to shop in the Junior section. Yes, it’s a little embarrassing, but nothing could make me go back to the days when I wore flowering tents with linebacker-shoulderpads!