I Was Raised In An Orthodox Religion: Here's How I Learned To Rethink Modesty

by Lesley Butterfield
Originally Published: 
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Being raised in an orthodox religion, I was taught from a very young age that my body was a temple and it was my responsibility to keep it covered up. I knew the word “modesty” by the time I was six years old. And what exactly did that mean? Modesty meant that my hemlines touched my kneecap, maybe just the top of it if I was feeling a bit rebellious. My shoulders were always covered, nothing low-cut, nothing too-tight. Modesty was a measurement of outward commitment to my religious beliefs. Furthermore, it was my responsibility to make sure that men and boys did not have impure thoughts.

After experiencing a faith transition as an adult, I found myself sorting, shedding, and scraping some of my beliefs, but modesty was one that I still was not able to categorize in a nice, neat little pile of keep, toss, or donate. It didn’t fit anywhere on the shelf. I couldn’t hang it in my closet of mishmash.

I am still working on examining, pushing past, accepting and letting go of some unhealthy conditioning of orthodoxy that exists within. A pattern of thoughts race through my mind each time I put on a dress that is a little shorter than I had become accustomed to.

Will they think my dress is immodest?

Will they think it shows too much of my legs?

Will they think I make bad decisions?

Will they think less of me?

Am I less of a person?

Am I unworthy?

The thought of what I was inadvertently exemplifying to my kids with these thought patterns has kept me up at night. The thought that my girls could grow to think these things about themselves was painful and heart-wrenching. The thought that my boys could grow up judging a girl’s worth on what she wore was just as painful and heart-wrenching. I became determined to break the cycle of the modesty trap.

Examining why modesty was so tied in my mind to my inherent worth as a person has been a journey. A long, rough path. This is an effect of purity culture, which is heavily present in many orthodox religious communities. More importantly, I found myself asking: What can I do to move past the teachings that equate my individual worth with how my body is covered or not covered? How can I model and teach a healthy view of modesty?

And soon, new pattern became scripted in my mind.

I am not my legs.

I am not my hemline.

I am not my calves.

I am not the tightness of my dress.

Or where it grazes my thigh.

I am me. A whole person. Not what I wear. Not how I look. Not how I dress.

I am me, who feels great about how she presents herself to the world.

And suddenly, I found my own meaning of modesty that I could comfortably pack into my closet of mishmash.

So, this year, I look back and acknowledge; I never would have worn a dress that fell on my mid-thigh, a dress that showed my legs, with heels that accented my calves, especially not for family photos.

And this year …

… I did.

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