Take a look at your high school yearbook or photo album. If you're under 30, look at your mom's. You'll notice something: less skin. Certainly there were the exceptions. Remember hot pants? Parental reminders regarding necklines, skirt length and "sending the wrong signals" have always been a necessary part of raising a girl.
But in recent years, even good girls have dressed like they're bad. And young women who would rather cover up more have had trouble finding stylish clothes.
Sometimes even their mothers, unwilling to look matronly, find themselves with scant middle ground between frumpy and "Desperate Housewives." So they compromise, just a little, then a little more until we have a new norm where fashion trumps modesty. Christian women and girls unwittingly undermine their testimonies by the way they dress.
A few churches are attempting to address the problem. So are some public schools. In Arlington, Texas, the school board voted last year to prohibit "the display of cleavage."
Some Arlington parents complained that the cleavage ban would be tough to enforce. We can only hope that most are grateful for the back-up in the modesty battle. Some students said the rule would make back-to-school shopping more difficult, and a trip to any mall proves their point. It's almost impossible to find clothes teen girls like that don't reveal too much, sometimes way too much. The fashion industry seems to be conspiring with the popular culture to tear down the natural modesty that God has provided as protection for little girls. Some parents, especially mothers -- even Christian moms -- are going along with it.
Little girls' natural modesty gets its first challenge during the grade-school years, when they are inundated with the Britney Spears-Bratz dolls culture. This world is less than wholesome, to put it mildly, and provides inspiration for clothing manufacturers. Parents do not have to buy the dolls and the provocative clothes for their little girls. But they do, by the millions.
Of course, mothers hold the purse strings and have the final say regarding their teen daughters' clothes. But faced with the most popular stores offering revealing clothing and little else, moms of teenage girls are tempted to compromise to avoid friction within the home. In doing so, they sacrifice something very important: their daughters' modesty. Parents who should be protecting this treasure are allowing, even encouraging, it to dissolve. Girls are victims of this corrosion. So is a society that once benefited from the virtue of its women. But we no longer encourage that virtue, and the sexual revolution of the 1960s that claimed to empower women has fueled a full-blown sexualized culture.
There are, though, some encouraging signs that this is changing.
Move over Paris and Britney. Make room for the "mild girls." A recent Newsweek story described a growing modesty movement in which young women are learning they don't have to be what Newsweek calls "bad, or semi-clad."
It's a welcome backlash. Author Wendy Shalit calls it "a youth led rebellion" in her new book, "Girls Gone Mild: Young Women Reclaim Self Respect and Find It's Not Bad to Be Good." The book is filled with stories of girls who, often motivated by their faith, or just the innate desire not to be defined as sex objects, hunger to escape the sexualized culture. Shalit's 2000 book, "A Return To Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue," offered a common sense rationale for chastity and virginity. It hit a nerve and sparked a "modesty movement" that has given her the opportunity to continue talking to girls who are tired of the pressure to portray themselves as sex sirens. Her website (www.modestyzone.net) has spawned at least a dozen others.
Additional leaders in the modesty movement include model and actress Summer Bellessa, publisher of the magazine Eliza, launched in June. Her goal is to help women be stylish and "still keep high standards in dress, entertainment and lifestyle." And then there's Brenda Sharman, national director of Pure Fashion, a modeling and etiquette program for teen girls. The website (www.purefashion.com) features a schedule of the group's fashion shows across the country. A new fashion niche is developing, and clothing manufacturers are beginning to respond.
The modesty movement is about much more than clothing, although dress is a sort of bellwether. Paul, in 1 Timothy 2:9 instructs women to dress in "modest clothing, with decency and good sense." It's unrealistic to minimize the impact and importance of fashion. The truth is most females love clothes. The "mild" girls are not rejecting the trampy look in favor of the drab denim jumper. Modesty and glamour are not mutually exclusive.
Allyson Waterman, from the shopping magazine Lucky and a regular guest on ABC's "Good Morning America," says we've hit a limit in style and behavior. She says the modesty backlash is not about being dumpy or "hiding under a lot of fabric" but "about embracing a woman's body with elegance and decorum," a la the style icons of the past like Jackie Onassis, Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn. No, they're not the role models for Christian girls, but we never saw their navels or their bra straps.
Some feminists call this modesty revival a new kind of oppression. The mild girls will tell you it's liberating.
Penna Dexter is a board of trustee member with the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, a conservative activist and an announcer on the syndicated radio program "Life on the Line" (information available at www.lifeontheline.com). She currently serves as a consultant for KMA Direct Communications in Plano, Texas, and as a co-host of "Jerry Johnson Live," a production of Criswell Communications. She formerly was a co-host of Marlin Maddoux's "Point of View" syndicated radio program.