A while back–maybe a year or two ago–my daughter came home with a new complaint about Primary: they were forcing her to sing songs about “touching private parts.” I asked her what on earth she was talking about, and it turned out that the offending song was “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.” Get it? Because your shoulders are supposed to be covered–that makes them private. Okay, so we had a little talk about the difference between shoulder-type parts and actually-private parts. And here my troubles began.
As a teen and young adult, I wore many a tank top. I also wore miniskirts, though in my defense, I didn’t usually wear tank tops and miniskirts together. I also wore a strapless dress to my prom. My excuse is that it was the ’80s, and the only formal wear you could buy off the rack was either strapless or had these enormous sleeves that resembled hot air balloons. Oh, how I hated those poofy sleeves. I still hate the poofy sleeves, and I’ve noticed that they haven’t exactly made a comeback yet, so I figure that just proves how hideous they were. Good grief, even bell-bottoms had a comeback, briefly. So yeah, when it came time to choose the lesser of two evils, I chose strapless. I still think I made the right choice.
Oh, if I had it to do over again, I’d probably be more creative. In my ideal past, I would have learned to sew properly and I would have made my own prom dress, appropriately modest with sleeves that didn’t draw attention to themselves or threaten to make you take flight if you had to, say, wave to someone. As a grown woman I’m really not a huge fan of the strapless gown; I think there are many more flattering styles out there, and I’m not exactly displaying my prom pictures anywhere my daughter can see them and start wondering why it was okay for Mom to
sew sow her immodest oats while she’s condemned to a lifetime of full shoulder coverage, fashion and weather-appropriateness be damned. I think that in general, shoulder-covering is good, because modesty is good, and mandatory shoulder-covering just makes modesty that much simpler. If you’re going to the trouble to cover your shoulders, chances are you’re covering the other (actually-private) stuff by default. Yes, I’m officially happy with the shoulder-covering rule. Now.
So the rule in our house is that Barbies have to be modestly dressed. This rule has been in effect since the first child in our house to get a Barbie–my son, who was four at the time–changed his doll’s outfit and exclaimed, “Hey–bosoms!” These days it’s my daughter who has the Barbies, but the rule still applies: they’re not allowed to lie around naked, and whatever clothes they are wearing should meet some reasonable version of church standards. Strapless-wedding-dress Barbie has a shawl. The Barbie who came to us without clothes is wrapped in an artificial flower lei from the Party City. (She looks most festive.) One day my daughter asked me why her Fairytopia dolls–whose clothes are basically molded plastic–were allowed to flit around in next to nothing. “Fairies play by different rules,” I muttered. She totally bought it! Now she occasionally wishes she was a fairy.
In Relief Society we have a discussion about instilling the value of modesty in our children, specifically our daughters. We’re admonished to start when they’re very young. If you don’t want your daughter wearing tank tops when she’s fifteen, don’t dress her in them when she’s three. In my house shoulders are to be covered, and I still think this reasoning is chock full o’ nuts. Every teenage girls knows her body isn’t the same as it was when she was three. Remember puberty? Methinks she got the memo. Trying to draw a straight line from three-year-old standards to fifteen-year-old standards is side-stepping the whole issue of a young woman’s flowering (so to speak) awareness of her own sexuality. Seriously, go ahead and put your baby in that sleeveless onesie. When she starts growing breasts, say, “Darling girl, you’re growing breasts and it’s time to put away childish things.” She’ll be so humiliated that she’ll gladly cover her shoulders and anything else she can think of just to get you to STOP TALKING LIKE THAT. Everyone wins. But the ladies in Relief Society soon move on to another topic, and I’m too lazy to speak up. Next time, maybe. Maybe.
In my more lucid moments I wonder if a girl might internalize the modesty virtue if we tied it to her sexuality, rather than to the young men’s raging hormones. Obviously, everyone’s hormones are raging, but they’re raging in distinctly different patterns. Simone de Beauvoir (I think she was a feminist of some sort) said, “There will always be certain differences between man and woman; her eroticism, and therefore her sexual world, have a special form of their own and therefore cannot fail to engender a sensuality, a sensitivity of a special nature.” Modesty that is less about shame and more about mystery–where imagination meets desire–protects and empowers (if you’ll pardon the expression) women and girls, who–generally speaking–are not interested in soliciting all kinds of attention from all kinds of males, but a particular attention from a particular male. To quote G.K. Chesterton out of context, “Chastity does not mean abstention from sexual wrong; it means something flaming, like Joan of Arc.” Now doesn’t that sound more exciting than dressing up like a bad girl? But I digress.
My younger daughter, who is two, idolizes her older brother and wants to do everything he does. This is why she refuses to wear a bathing suit. When her brother puts on swim trunks, she insists on putting on “swim trunks” also. The last several times we’ve gone for water play, she wore a swim diaper and shorts and nothing else. She’s two, you see. (We actually finally broke down last weekend and bought her a pair of honest-to-goodness swim trunks–sporting Thomas the Tank Engine, no less. I think she slept with them that first night.) But wait–what happened to the shoulder-covering rule? That’s what my older daughter wanted to know. Well, yes, there is that, but…she’s two. Like the fairies, I guess, two-year-olds play by different rules. She still has to wear a dress to church, though. This week it even had poofy sleeves. (But not too poofy.)