When I was a young girl in grade school, I was a very quiet person. I didn’t speak up or volunteer my opinions, and when I spoke it was much too quietly. I am not sure exactly why I was this way, but I do know that I liked to think about things before I said them, and I liked to feel that I had a good understanding of a situation and a conversation before I jumped in.
In some ways, this tendency stays with me. While I have learned to be much more outgoing and outwardly friendly, I still have a reticence toward “meet and greet” events – unstructured socials in which people who don’t know each other (and yet when I am there they all seem to know each other, just not me) stand around and drink cocktails and try to talk to each other. I never know what to say, or to whom, and I always feel as if I am interrupting a conversation just to announce my awkward, gangly presence. I much prefer getting to know people slowly. Even more than talking about things, I like to write them, because I can write with a slow, careful deliberation that is not possible in conversation.
What does this have to do with modesty? Well, in these examples I see a blueprint, a parallel structure, that we can use to understand the benefits of modesty.
In response to my shyness, people generally had one of three responses: indifference, interest, and hostility. The indifferent classmates would simply seek out friends who were more their speed, more interesting, louder, etc. The interested people would listen hard enough to hear what I had to say, and many of them became my good friends. The hostile people, while in the minority, perhaps made the greatest impression on me for their insistence that to be shy is to be wrong – that holding something back from the world was an insult to the world and a sign of wrongness or illness on my part. These were the teachers who would make me stand up and shout my answers over and over until they were sufficiently loud and I was sufficiently humiliated, and the fellow students who would interrupt me midsentence to say “WHAT? I CAN’T HEAR YOU,” and then turn to leave before I was finished talking. Yet in being shy, and in eventually embracing my shyness, I actually became more comfortable with myself and as a result, less shy, because I felt secure enough to reveal my thoughts to whom I wanted, when I wanted, and not a moment sooner.
And so it is with modesty. In my unmarried days, I ran into much the same reactions to my choice to dress and act more modestly as I did when I was a shy young girl: most people were completely indifferent to me, a few people were interested to got to know me (most notably my virtuous and handsome husband), and a few people were quite hostile. I remember a conversation I had with someone I dated briefly right after college. He asked me why I was the way I was, why I insisted on holding parts of myself back, what gave me the right to be so private with the private parts of myself. My lofty ideals were just fine for a twenty year old, he said, “But when you’re thirty and unmarried, you’ll change your tune.”
Needless to say, the relationship took a nosedive shortly thereafter, but his calm insistence that my modesty would lead to some sort of punitive karmic loneliness got me thinking, and it still makes me think today: why was there such hostility? What does it matter to someone else if I don’t want to show my legs? Why are boundaries and propriety so threatening?
I suspected it then as I walked out of his life toward something better, and I know it now, to an even greater extent: Modest young women frighten people because they have taken control of their own narrative. They will not allow themselves to be cast as the virgin or the whore; they do not offer each of their physical attributes up for evaluation and judging. They dare to say that something of theirs is worth more than that, so special and important that it is none of your business.
When I was young and shy, I didn’t allow many people access to my thoughts. I have since discovered a certain strength in my words when they are correctly applied, and unfortunately, even when they aren’t. I might say (im)modestly that I sensed this strength in my young days and was a bit frightened of it, and wanted to treat it with care; my shyness allowed me to get a handle on what I wanted to say, and finally, in my own time, allowed me to say it.
And so I want to say, to my former self and everyone else who finds themselves where I once was – feeling adrift in a sea of indifference with a few interested and hostile souls bobbing about in the waves:
When they try to call you out, try to shame you out of your modesty, when they try to insist that you are being strange or puritanical or snobbish or woefully stubborn or mentally ill because you won’t put yourself on display, know in your heart that it’s because they sense exactly what you do: that what you are keeping for yourself is valuable. Feel the power of knowing that there is something in you worth keeping like a delicious secret, until you yourself are ready to tell it.