On Modesty, Shaming, and Blaming

So a few months ago, this unfortunate open letter to teenage girls happened. Some people shared it far and wide it to proudly proclaim that their children would never be allowed to whore themselves out in such a way. And then as the backlash hit, the internet was up in a rumpus about it for a while…Jezebel.com and other feminist websites buzzed with snarky, satirical, or rage-filled open letters to Mrs. Hall. Other, kinder voices like Nate Pyle and Kristen Howerton had more helpful things to say. The whole thing upset me more than made sense to me at the time, and after some reflection I realized why.

When I came across another repost of the original Mrs. Hall letter yesterday, I realized it was time to share this part of my story.

I was in college at OSU. I was walking down High Street with my friend eating some Flying Pizza. I maintain that it’s the best pizza around OSU and even though my husband J prefers Adriatico’s, we’ve made it work. But I digress. Sorry. I’m nervous.

Anyway, it was a normal afternoon and I was walking normally when a normal-looking man came walking the other way. This was normal because it’s High Street and thousands of people walk on it everyday. I made brief eye contact and gave a tiny ‘smile-and-nod’ that I’d smiled and nodded at thousands of strangers before, then turned my eyes back forward. As we went to pass each other he stepped in front of me, reached around my pizza, and cupped my left breast. I was so shocked that I froze and we just stood there like that for a few seconds. He stared at me hard. Then he took his hand away and walked a few steps down the street then turned to look at me. I walked quickly away with my friend. We called the police to make a report, but I couldn’t give them many details other than “dark hair, dark eyes.” So that was that.

I don’t talk about this much. I only just told J about it before I went to write this post.

Here’s the thing. I don’t remember much about the man himself. But even now I remember very clearly what I was wearing when it happened: my pink t-shirt with a glow-in-the-dark turtle on it that says Speed Kills. Crew neck and fitted but not too tight. Never too tight. Jeans. Sneakers. Cross necklace.

Why do I remember so exactly what I was wearing that day? Because I worried about it for a long time afterward.

See, I grew up thinking that if I wore the right clothing (read: Modest. Several definitions of this. More about that in a minute), then I wouldn’t be a temptation to the men around me. It was my job to keep their hearts safe from wrongs they might commit when faced with my thighs or side-boob. I felt betrayed by the rules. I had worn what I understood to be appropriately non-sexy clothing. Why didn’t he leave me alone? Maybe my shirt was too tight, and I just didn’t realize it. I don’t remember what he looked like, I just remember thinking each time the modesty issue came up in church for a long while afterward, “Oh, God….was that my fault?”

Let me share that again, in case you missed it. A TOTAL STRANGER WALKED UP TO ME ON THE STREET AND GRABBED MY BREAST AND I COULDN’T IDENTIFY HIM BECAUSE I WAS TOO BUSY WORRYING THAT IT WAS MY FAULT.

Sorry for shouting at you, but this is important. How we express ourselves physically in the world (through dress, hairstyle, makeup, etc.) communicates what we think of ourselves in a significant way, and therefore is a sort of shared language. It is vitally important to kindly and continually have the conversation about what relational responsibilities lay with men and women with respect to each other. But telling girls that they are responsible for what men think about them is more than just false. It’s harmful. I got lucky, relatively speaking. Some perv grabbed my boob. I’ll live. But there are far too many girls who have far worse done to them, and sometimes all that Christian culture seems to have for them is “wear a turtleneck next time”. It’s not good enough.

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