On Modesty

Anna Vodicka Click to read more...

Anna Vodicka’s essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Michigan Quarterly Review and Brevity, as well as Iowa Review and Ninth Letter. She is a graduate of Tufts University and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Idaho, where she taught English and creative writing. She is a grant recipient of the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, and currently writes from Spokane.

Asking for it

I was young, still in Sunday school, when my mother told me the parable of the girl who was asking for it. That was the word she used, girl. I listened as we drove past the girl’s house, which frightened me in its hollow darkness, the way it looked shut-up and lonesome, the way its dark grey paint peeled off and left it stripped and no one was trying to make it any better.

The girl was nice, a Christian—two distinctions that go a long way in a small Midwestern town. But she was also a young mother of three with no man to speak of. And though my mother always said it’s what’s on the inside that counts, the moral of the story was that a girl can love Jesus on the inside, but she can walk a certain way, talk a certain way—or dress, work, clean her fork a certain way—that makes a man forget his commandments.

The girl’s mother, who babysat for me and seemed ancient with her grey hair in curlers, her faded cotton frocks and heavy body always propped before The Price is Right and afternoon soaps, warned her. “If you dress like that,” she said, “some man is going to get the wrong idea.” And sure enough, one night a man stole across the scrappy little yard and crawled through a window of the girl’s sorry grey house and had sex with her even though she said No.

In our house, sex was an unmentionable thing God designed for married men and women only, a word so closeted that the only meaning I could attach to it was darkness. I knew that what happened to the girl in that house was very wrong.

“Why?” I asked my mother. And here, parable gave way to scripture.

            Asking for it means dressing yourself up in a way that makes men look. And in fact, certain clothes make it impossible for men to stop looking. Nothing like this had ever occurred to me, but now the rules were plain:
Thou shalt not sport a low-cut tank top.
Or a mini-skirt.
A cropped shirt.
A tube top.
Remember your anatomy, what you risk revealing:
Thou shalt not cast a shadow of cleavage, nor a peek of thy midriff, nor a hint of high thigh.

And don’t forget to consider fit. A clingy sweater might show straps, hooks and nipples. A tight skirt might bear witness to underwear. If you don’t obscure your shape, you are a nothing-to-the-imagination, perfect silhouette, shadow, pin-up, playgirl. You might as well be naked.

The lesson continued in Bible studies at home and in church. In 2 Samuel 11:2-5, a beautiful woman bathes nude in a river. She is quiet and alone, but there is David on the roof of his house, with a view. He spies the woman washing, and her nakedness ignites in him a fervent and unruly desire. Since David is king, he sends a servant to fetch her, and once she arrives he lays with her. (The Bible doesn’t say whether or not she said No.) He fathers her child. He murders her husband. It all falls apart for them both. And in this undoing we have a message: in the face of lust, man is both lamb and lion, trailing along after her until his bleating becomes a roar. It is the duty of the woman to watch where she washes.

God commands this, too, in 1 Timothy, a verse that was applied to our middle school lives by many a charismatic youth group leader: “I desire, therefore, that men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting; in like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with braided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array; but, which becometh women professing godliness, with good works.” We examined this verse and listened to the sermons of our pastor, who never continued on to the following lines of Paul’s epistle, because it was the 1990s, I suppose, or because it was already implied: “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.” We nodded and made scrawling notes about modesty and good works in the margins of our KJV Teen Bibles, and I bent my head down low.

La Vie en Rose

A blood rush. That ruddy-cheeked flush, like a rose fast unfurling, a scarlet bloom below the cheekbones. We blush.

We blush in love, we blush in lust, we blush when we’re nervous or when we’re ashamed. We blush on the spot, when we’re unprepared, mortified or undignified. We blush at first kisses and all through first dates. We blush at flattery, Oh, you do go on. And, oh, don’t we love those blushing brides? Love such sweet, white innocence on the verge of a marriage bed?

But unchaste women of the world, don’t despair. You, too, can achieve this virginal look! Rouge on-demand waits in the form of talc-based powdered blushers, tints and creams that come in every shade on a scale of red: Rose Rebelle, Bronze Sensation, Breath of Plum, Mauve Coquette, Everything’s Rosy, Precious Pink. You can customize your blush.

Some of us blush more than others. Some of us blush at the fact that we’re blushing—a self-conscious circle of life, lived in waves and rushes, a perpetual state of red. Red at work. Red at meetings. Red in bed. Red at touch. Red in the company of strangers. Or crushes. Not green with envy or yellow-bellied or singing the blues, just red.

Blushing originates in the sympathetic nervous system (and since I am a writer and not a biologist, I latch on to the “sympathetic” here, the sweetness and the irony of it). In the network of neurons and ganglia that runs the length of our spinal column, adrenaline pulses, igniting response through fiery synapses—from the Greek syn, “together,” and haptein, “to clasp.” I imagine neurons uniting, clashing and clasping, making microscopic fireworks beneath the skin. In reaction, the blood vessels of the face relax. It’s a vulnerable position. They open up, and blood rushes in.

We understand the anatomical “how” behind this reddest of reactions, but the metaphysical “why” remains puzzling. Every human species, regardless of race or ethnicity, blushes, but we are the only animals to do so, and an evolutionary explanation eludes us. We gave up Neanderthal skulls, jutting jaws and body hair long ago. How has blushing survived the genetic steeplechase?

Research suggests that the blush may be the body’s own built-in response to social cues. In studies led by University of Amsterdam psychologist Corine Dijk, for example, participants more quickly forgave the mistakes of others when the offender blushed. But science has largely overlooked blushing, and findings have done little to advance our understanding of what Darwin, in The Expression of Emotions in Humans and Animals, called “the most peculiar and the most human of all the expressions.” Then and now, the single common denominator in blushing is self-consciousness—the very awareness of our own existence.

Consider the rise and fall of our blushing lives: we begin around kindergarten, when we’re suddenly aware of ourselves in a crowd (“Who told you that you were naked?”); we reach our blushing peak in adolescence, often the height of social anxiety, when our strange, changing bodies feel awkward and mortifying; and blushing tapers as we age, as we become more comfortable in our skins, less chameleon, more self-assured. As Darwin wrote, “Modesty from humility, or from an indelicacy, excites a vivid blush, as both relate to the judgment or fixed customs of others.” Perhaps in maturity, having tried on social norms for size, we are reconciled to the facts of our own bodies, regardless of how they fit.

Sometimes, though, the blush takes over. It doesn’t collect in the apples of the cheeks, but spills down the neck, the arms, the torso. There are solutions. Endoscopic Transthoracic Sympathectomy extinguishes the flame with a surgical snip of the sympathetic nerve. It’s a delicate procedure, a risky last resort after medication, hypnosis, and self-help. (For twenty-seven dollars, Gary Ambrosh’s Blushing Free offers a step-by-step cure for “freak show” blushing, available at blushingfree.com, which claims, “You have absolutely nothing to lose here, and EVERYTHING to gain.”)

But didn’t the Bible teach us, somewhere earlier in these pages, that beauty is in the eye of the beholder? (Or was that Maybelline? Or my mother?) My friends with rosacea—that common, flaring redness—are quick to cover their blushing cheeks with their hands, stifling the fire. They forget that the blush, in all its modest innocence, is what charms us. I want to catch that hand mid-reach and watch the blaze, for the rosacea blush is the boldest, the most brazen flush of all. It defies the perimeter of the porcelain doll bloom, the structure of the skull’s zygomatic arch. It sees the apples—forbidden fruit—of the cheeks and refuses to take responsibility for them.

The blush is a match strike. A northern light. A lipstick kiss I want to keep. It comes swift and unexpected. It gives us away. It is blood pulsing, nerves alive, nature red. Primary.

*

            Jessie Cameron Allison, my great-grandmother, was a teetotaler, a conservative woman of the early 1900s who exercised restraint in every aspect of her life. Her hair went pure white in her thirties, but it only made her appear more angelic. In the black and white photographs we keep, her hair refracts light into halo.

Music and writing were her passions, but to use the word “passion,” itself a pronouncement of everything loose and unbridled and erupting, seems ill-fitting. She was precise in her arts. She never deviated from the sheet music when she played the pipe organ at church on Sundays. And I doubt that her piano ever sang in syncopation beneath her steady hands—no deliberate disruption of meter, no shift of focus to the offbeat. She respected form. Even her poetry, sweet and songlike, stayed within bounds of structure.

For Great-Grandma Jessie, cosmetics were forbidden. And yet, on her way to an outing, she would pinch at the flesh of her cheekbones just enough to make it flush. In the winter, she would reach for a bit of fresh snow and rub it into her cheeks until her skin went tingly and her brain sent blood rushing to tend and warm. These were the modest girl’s methods of rouging. And I latch on to two notions here: that makeup was sinful to her, but that she allowed herself this small pursuit of its effects; and that beauty, to her, was in the blushing.

 

Makeup is to Minxes :: _____ is to ______

In the fifth grade, my best friend was the new girl in town, come to northern Wisconsin from Shreveport, Louisiana. Louisiana! All the way down on the opposite end of the Mississippi. The boot-shaped state that stood firmly on top of the Gulf, dipped its toe in, looked like it was about to step off the edge altogether. Exotic accents. New Orleans. Baton Rouge.

I liked that she was from the bottom side of the country while I was from the top. I liked that she said “Yes, ma’am,” and, “Yes, sir” in the classroom—and she thought we talked funny—and hollered loud as she wanted on the playground. Unlike other girls I knew, she wasn’t cruel, or quiet, or sweet-as-pie or preachy. She could hit a baseball harder than any of the boys. She could out-cuss them and out-run them, too. She danced the Roger Rabbit and wore her overalls backwards like Kris Kross. She couldn’t believe we’d never heard of them.

She had been held back a year, was what our mothers called an “early bloomer.” While the rest of us were just noticing that we had nipples, she wore a bra every day and more than filled out a B-cup. Occasionally, she wore a swipe of eye shadow that sparkled in the sun or light pink blush on her cheeks. And my eyes went wide one day on the playground when I asked, “What happened to your knee?” And she answered, “Oh. Cut myself shaving. Hurt like heck. But feel ‘em.” I reached down and touched her legs. Silky smooth. Then she made a pose like Superwoman and we raced to the monkey bars, where we hung upside down on the rungs and laughed at each others’ blood-rushed, upside-down faces, and loved the whole upside-down world.

Which is why it struck me when I was over at an old friend’s house, a girl I’d known my whole life, whose mother was a Pentecostal like mine, and her mother stopped our playing to warn us about the new girl. I can still hear her voice as I heard it then, sharp but sing-songy in the warm, familiar kitchen. “You watch out for her, you hear?” She told us. “She’s a little Jezebel, that one. Painted face little Jezebel.…”

Jezebel. The Painted Face. She is, as we’ve defined her, a scheming and shamelessly evil woman. She’s Lolita and Eve. A woman of easy virtue. A temptress, a mistress and a courtesan.

Call her a hussy, hootchie, hooker, whore. Harlot. Jade. Vamp. Vixen. Tart, tease, trollop, tramp. Siren, seductress, strumpet, skank. Coquette, floozy. Wench, hoe. Loose. Slut. Minx.

Find a male equivalent. Look up “gigolo” in your handy thesaurus. Find “playboy,” “socialite,” “pleasure-seeker,” “ladies’ man.” A stud, a player. A father, an uncle. A boy toy. A bachelor. A groom.

By our own definitions, the girl is still, as the Bible commanded her, shamefaced, head bowed low and face aglow with a smolder of scarlet, the harlot’s hue—the sanctioned rouge of disgrace.

On Bathing Alone

I was a modest child, because I was brought up in a conservative household and I was obedient, and because I never considered my body to be anything but a vehicle for tumbling and speed and power and scrapes until middle school. My younger sister was the exhibitionist. Mom used to have to chase her down and break her will in order to get her to keep her underwear on or to dress herself. She loved to be naked. I liked it, too, in the summertime when I was young. As kids, my sisters and brother and I used to float days away on the lake, naked and swimming, clinging to inner tubes. We’d float idly, or link our tubes together and paddle in trains, feeling the cool water pass through our dog-kicking, chubby little thighs. When summer nights were too hot for sleeping, Mom and Dad would shake all six of us kids from our beds for a late night skinny-dip in the thick, pitch-dark of humid Wisconsin summertime. Caring only for cooling down, Mom and Dad and the rest of us eagerly stripped at the water’s edge, the stars and lightning bugs and moon casting a glow around us, the dock’s tall blue waterslide leaving our bare bottoms pink and tingling from friction and the slippery rush of the ride.

We took baths together as children, sometimes four at a time. This ended, naturally, as we each gradually outgrew the confines of our standard-sized bathtub. I feel like it must have been significant at the time: an older sibling suddenly missing from bath time, having graduated to the solo shower. First Josie. Then Alan. Then me, leaving Bethye to the bathtub, alone.

But I don’t remember leaving her, and I don’t remember the first time I showered by myself. Funny, how a girl spends a lifetime of seven or eight years bathing with siblings and showering with parents, and suddenly she’s standing alone in that wide expanse of the tub, water storming down, and no one to wash the soap out of her hair. No sister to scrub her back. Maybe it was liberating, one giant step closer to Big Kid. Maybe it was frightening and lonely and I wanted it to be over as fast as could be. Either way, the significance of such a moment seems great—profound, even. I don’t know how I lost it.

And I wonder, is this when we started hiding, when we started closing ourselves off to one another? One minute, siblings are naked, swimming like a school of giddy minnows; the next, they’re yelling at each other for barging into the bathroom without knocking first. When did we stop thinking of our bodies as limbs and muscle—all the tools we needed for cartwheels, tree climbs, and monkey bars—and start thinking of them as dark secrets for keeping? At some point, we started taking them seriously, and became shamefaced in one another’s sight.

Asking for It: Reprise

I often feel bewildered by my adult body. It’s a feeling like I’ve misplaced something I just set down, or like I’ve walked into a room and forgotten why I intended to go there in the first place. Sometimes I spy my body in the mirror and am surprised by what I see. Breasts, for one thing. Somehow I go about my days forgetting that my body looks any different than it did when I was twelve, and it startles me to see them there, to see curves in place of the angles and lines. I forget until I catch my reflection in a windowpane, or until I try to swing a golf club or go for a run, and these two fatty, fibrous mounds—soft and workable to an extent, but nonetheless fixed—get in my way. Over the years, I’ve gotten used to the feeling of a bra, even the underwire. As long as the straps aren’t loose and everything’s in the right place, I can forget that I’m wearing it completely—until I undress, and my body remembers what it feels like to be loose, and it’s like an unshackling.

In my father’s house of five daughters, many arguments took place over bra straps and cleavage—and nipples, when we tried to get away with no bra for a day. One day of freedom. I remember getting ready to leave the house for a high school dance. I was fourteen, a freshman, and I was wearing a dress that just one year earlier would have gone unnoticed: a burgundy knee-length with thick white ribbon around the empire waist, a squared neckline and white straps. It was modest, really. I wore heels. A white mohair cardigan with pearl buttons covered my shoulders. I looked in the mirror feeling grown-up and pleased.

When I heard my ride pull into the driveway, I made my way downstairs, stopping in the kitchen to kiss my parents’ cheeks and ask, How do I look? My mother nodded approvingly. But my father said nothing. Silence. He averted his eyes. And then he started singing to the tune from Carousel, “She…was busting out all over!”

The shackles tightened. My cheeks burned. He said, Better keep that sweater buttoned.

Tears fell, because here, all this time, I thought I was dressed, but it turned out I was naked, and even there, in the easy comfort of home, surrounded by family, by my own father, I was mortified.

As I walked in silence to the door, I heard a voice. Girl, the world said, you are guilty of a B cup. Think of the untamed hormones of adolescent boys! Think of what your body might incite in another! Think of your rounding curves, of Jezebel’s end, of all the gods in all the heavens who command you to cover up. Ask yourself, “What would my father say?”

And I understood then that no matter how many layers I wore, or how much concealer I used to mask the red, or how privately I bathed, it would never be enough. I would always be naked.

I lifted my chin. I let my shame turn to quiet rage. For the first time, I left my parents without saying goodbye.

You girls in grey houses, you Louisiana girls, early bloomer girls who bathe nude in the river or the lake, you know your lines. You will bite through the ripe red skin of an apple, through the flesh, to the core. You will wear your hair long, tuck it beneath a veil, let that be your immodesty, the one thing you will never tame. You will reach for a red dress, because you like the color and because the skirt is loose and full and makes you think of swimming naked, of burden lifted. It’s what’s on the outside that everyone notices, but on the inside, you will rage.

I rage at the veil. I rage at the gaze. I rage at the ogling of construction workers on lunch breaks, when a girl has no choice but the sidewalk before them to take. I rage at she must be silent and it was she who became a sinner.

I rage at the one who takes, who wrecks, even after the word No. And I rage at the silence we expect will follow, the blame we place, the shame.

I rage, and still, in the mornings before school and work, I wake up and remember that I must arrange myself correctly. Is this blouse too clingy? Is the neckline too low? I remember my duty, that the difference between a red dress and a black sweater set is biblical. I remember my body, that once I get to work I have to be careful about leaning on desks or crossing my arms or bending at the waist. I remember that without even intending to, I could be asking for it.

I remember, too, rehearsing for a college theater department’s production of Hair, a musical of defiance. In preparation for the show, I spent months singing the protest songs of my parents’ generation—songs my pious parents never sang themselves—and growing my dirty-blonde hair as long as I could. I let my waves go wild, wanted a shock of hair, for this was the shape protest took during Vietnam, when a soldier’s hairstyle and sexuality were clear-cut. And when the time came and the chanting swelled and the character I played couldn’t bear the weight of the war and the world anymore, she stood up, lifted her bowed head high, and dropped the veil.

Our clothes landed in uneven piles on the stage, and the lights went up, hot and white. To the audience, the ones who did not avert their eyes, we were a blur of skin in varying shades, and I was just one of a number of bodies—not men, not women, not blushing or sexy, just bodies—a mass of unruly hair and immodesty, all of us naked and no one ashamed.

It was the briefest of moments before the curtain fell, but I remember it as pure sublime beneath those haloed lights, to not just act a part or be loved for my parts, but to be, simply, a part—to feel genderless, not threatening or threatened, to be cast into the world and not cast out. Or, to be cast out in the sense of a fisherman’s net, which is a kept thing until it unfurls loosely, gloriously, in midair before disappearing into the wild waves, far from shore where the children swim safely, unabashedly naked.

Discussion

13 Responses to On Modesty

  1. Steve Streets says:

    It’s the man that needs to behave. As a man with a daughter, if boys were taught to respect girls, this story would not have been written this way, but would have been written as a celebration of self.

  2. Prof. Robbin Martinelli says:

    You have a breath of truth, sweetness, disappointment, and a wide-eyed joy in your writing. You are a gifted writer who has not lost her sense of spirit. Don’t! I applaud the innocence that lives within your words, its sharp-pointed tongue of truth; and you have figured out just what creative non-fiction work is about, how to write it, and how to pull your reader in to the all-important message simmering along until at last you set it free upon us.

    Good stuff!

  3. blackeyd12 Dory Blackey says:

    I really enjoyed reading this story. As a young female, I can relate from my past and my present to this piece. While our experiences may be different, they are similar and many of the feelings are the same. It is without a doubt unfortunate that such perceptions and anxieties exist; however, I do appreciate seeing them in writing for both my personal and humanities sake.

  4. Zoe Yarborough Zoe Yarborough says:

    Props to Anna Vodicka for writing such a thoughtful and thought-provoking piece on a curiously taboo topic. How odd it is that society or religion or authority can tell us that our bodies must be covered or presented a certain way depending on age or situation. How odd it is that the same father who woke his children up the go skinny-dipping in the summers–a celebration of freeing our bodies–humiliated his teenage daughter for an innocent slip of modesty. This piece was much more than interesting thoughts on modesty for me. It evoked poignant nostalgia when I realized that I, too, have lost many of the “moments” that are supposed to flash in my memory as formative in becoming a “Big Kid” and even an adult.

  5. Lauren Starnes Lauren Starnes says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed this wonderfully frank and provocative essay. As I was reading it I found myself nodding my head in agreement to many of the points Anna Vodicka raised. I have had several similar experiences when I was younger. On several occasions my father has awkwardly informed me that my skirt was too short or a shirt was too low cut. However, at the same time, I have even been guilty of deriding a fellow young woman for dressing too provocatively. In many ways this is one of the Catch-22′s that women are subject to in our society.

  6. Tim McAleenan says:

    This story does a great job of raising questions that contribute to the double standard that exists between men and women’s clothing choices, in particular on the constant judgment and scrutiny that face women on a regular basis. My favorite kinds of stories are those that generate dialogue and point to larger issues than can be found in the story itself, and this story does an excellent job of delivering on that front. Not only do we become engaged in the story’s telling of the frayed emotions that often encapsulate any debate on appropriate attire, but we feel the urge to engage in this debate after the story is long over. Great insight on feelings, emotion, identity, and judgment.

  7. Mary Olive Keller Mary Olive Keller says:

    This enlightening, at times humorous discussion does an effective job of shedding light on the absurdities and injustices of mandatory modesty. After I read it, I immediately thought: women really do get the short end of the stick. How can blush signify both purity and “the harlot’s hue”? Why must we compromise our clothing, makeup, and “unruly hair” to avoid jeers and, God forbid, rapes? Although I understand and commend Vodicka’s ultimate embrace of nakedness, the conservative societal norm has already cast its spell on me.

  8. Andrea Siso Andrea Siso says:

    It is painful to realize that the undercurrents of ideals that have gripped me and guided me are downputting and dismissive of my personal freedom. Like Vodicka, I grew up in a very religious-centric family, but unlike Vodicka, I also grew up in a culture of “machismo.” In machismo, what Vodicka denounces in her essay is even more prominent. Women are continually objectified, degraded, and insulted by both genders whenever any attempt is made at asserting bodily freedom. It disgusts me that a woman could be deemed culpable for sexual harassment because of the clothing choices she makes. It disgusts me that I, like Vodicka, have long felt compelled to find ways to hide myself in order to not “offend” or to not attract attention.
    Vodicka’s essay shook me. The direct sincerity of her writing artfully conveyed her viewpoint, especially when she denotes all of the insults that could apply to a “loose” woman, and the few that could apply to a similarly offending man. Our social consciousness quickly disparages women for acts that men would be lauded for, and is inclined to find fault in women though she may be the victim.

  9. Michael Ripkin says:

    This essay is brilliant!

  10. Anna Vodicka says:

    I’m blushing! Thanks, all, for sharing your experiences and your thoughtful commentary. A bit of back story: A few years ago, when I was teaching English 101, I assigned a research essay and asked my students to brainstorm topics by coming up with questions for which they didn’t already believe they had answers. One of my bright female students submitted her question: “Men almost always get blamed for rape,” she wrote, “but is it true what people say, that some girls are asking for it?”

    I couldn’t get that question out of my head. It got me thinking a lot about my own experiences as a girl growing up in a small town and the kinds of things I’d been told–and the things I grew to tell myself. Eventually, I wrote this essay as a kind of response. Your comments create a collective response, which is all I could ask for.

  11. Mike Campbell says:

    Thanks for this! I really enjoyed it.

  12. Great post, you have pointed out some great details, I too think this is a very great website.

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