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The Dress That Ended My Modesty Obsession

My small Catholic college had an unspoken dress code, and finally I had had enough.

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I came back from class to find my roommates standing in the dining room, clearly awaiting my arrival. I was confused. It seemed as though I had done something terribly wrong, and they were all ready to perform an intervention. But I wasn’t interesting enough to warrant one, and so I asked what was going on.

“Have a seat.” One roommate called the meeting to order. “I found this in your closet.”

That’s when I noticed it. My dress. Laid across the table. Did they think I had stolen it? I had never stolen anything in my life, save a duck eraser from the prize box in fifth grade, but clearly that had riddled me with enough guilt that I was never one to foray into shoplifting. Between my guilt and the fear of getting caught, I had long since marked theft off of my list of must-tries.

“We know now. You were obviously sleeping with him.”

My heart started beating really fast. The room appeared to be spinning, and I saw spots. From what I could piece together, my concerned roommates had decided that my new, immodest dress was proof positive that I had been having sex with my now-ex-boyfriend. (I hadn’t been.) They had previously suspected as much because I had been so emotionally invested, but now this was their tangible proof that I was no longer a virgin.

I’d found the damning item of clothing the week before. Digging through the racks at Gabriel Brothers, a warehouse-like store where you could purchase everything from fly swatters to bridal gowns, all with the tags hacked out or Sharpied-through, I stumbled upon it: the perfect dress.

I had nowhere to wear any dress, let alone this silk off-white number with a cream eyelet overlay, but it was gorgeous. Ethereal, flowy, innocent, simple yet extraordinary, all at the same time. I was 18 years old, freshly uncoupled from my first real boyfriend, a man much older than myself, and I’d probably lost 10 pounds I didn’t have to spare that spring, having subsisted on cigarettes and ramen in part due to my heartbreak, but mostly due to the budget constraints of a college student. But there was something about trying on that dress that told me, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that I was going to be alright.

Twenty dollars was a lot to spend on one item of clothing, particularly one that had no practical use, but I figured it was worth the price tag. After I got the dress home, I figured out that it was actually two separate dresses from different brands that someone had probably hung together by mistake, but the pieces went together perfectly. I hung the ensemble in my closet and reveled in the endorphin rush that often follows a successful shopping trip, perhaps made exponentially stronger when you are stuck in the middle of the Ohio Valley and internet shopping has yet to be invented and you can’t afford more than a pot of glitter gloss from the Delia’s catalog.

Each morning as I got ready for class, I would open my closet and dig out my uniform as always: baggy flannel, bodysuit undershirt, jeans three sizes too big, Doc Martens. Thanks to the ‘90s, I didn’t have to struggle with covering my body, a social requirement of my conservative Catholic university. There was no written dress code for everyday activity, although sunbathing was not allowed in co-ed areas and the gym prohibited women from working out in sports bras without a T-shirt. But on more than one occasion, some well-meaning individual or group would take it upon themselves to post religiously-motivated suggestions in the dorm bathrooms. “Women should not expose their shoulders. Women should not expose their knees.” “Necklines should be no lower than two fingers-breadth below the collarbone.”

It wasn’t unusual for young women to confront one another to express concern that their outfit was immodest and causing a stumbling block to the male students. This could mean a quick one-on-one conversation over breakfast in the cafeteria, but sometimes it meant a resident advisor would assemble a group to confront the young woman together.

No one ever needed to confront me, though, since my crippling self-esteem issues kept me from dressing contrary to their rules. As someone with a naturally large chest, I was so self-conscious that I gravitated toward baggy clothing. It seemed unfair to me that women would be responsible for the way we were made, but I assumed I just couldn’t understand. I do remember a male student correcting me for wearing my crossbody purse across my body because it accentuated my breasts. At the time, it didn’t even faze me that a man was commenting on my body. Quite the contrary: I admired his humility for instructing me.

In the days after I bought the new dress, though, as I shuffled through the hangers heavy with shapeless clothing, I would notice the sheer eyelet sleeves sticking out from the darkness, and the small slant of light would comfort me.

In purity culture, the highest good is your virginity. It teaches that safeguarding your soul and your physical virginity means that you will be immune to the deep heartache of lost love. In other words, keeping your hymen intact means keeping your heart intact as well. A commitment to purity culture must be expressed in dress: You show the world how unblemished you are by dressing modestly.

And there is precious little sympathy for a heartbroken sinner who has brought such misery upon herself.

My cigarette and ramen diet had depleted my physical and mental energy, so when I was confronted by my roommates, I was unable to defend myself. Not that I owed anyone an explanation, but I hadn’t the ability to offer any. Instead I gathered up my dress, my glimmer of hope, carried it back to my closet, and placed it back where it belonged, sandwiched between all of the flannel.

I wish I could tell you that I put their false impressions of me out of my mind. I wish I could tell you that I didn’t care, but I did. I was genuinely crushed by that entire incident of what would now be called slut-shaming. But I did make the tiniest deviation that day, which set me on a path that steadily put a greater distance between myself and that mentality. Nothing about my own values was altered, but the lens through which I viewed those around me changed.

I never wore that dress. It hung in my closet for at least another year, and I would periodically run my hands along the lightness of the fabric, remembering the girl I knew I could be: a confident and happy person who owed no explanation to anyone. I kept up my uniform — the baggy flannel in winter, baggy Hanes tees in summer — and I hid my body from view. The dress moved on to a new home with a friend who wore it beautifully and without commentary.

It remained in my memory, however, and as I grew into my body and graduated college, I began to see beyond the strict standards I was taught there. I knew that I was the same person whether I was wearing baggy pants or a mini skirt, so why wouldn’t that apply to the world at large? My faith remained the same, although purity culture was no longer a part of it. Not having to worry whether or not my bare shoulders were causing others to sin was freeing, and if anyone, man or woman, thought it was their place to call me out, I’d inform them to avert their eyes if they couldn’t handle it.


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