Sometimes I misremember my middle school self. I make assumptions based on the obvious: I was smart so I must have been nerdy. I was self-conscious about my faith so I must have been shy. I didn’t “hang out” with people outside of school so I must have been a loner. I rush my remembering and think “Look how far I’ve come.”
But then I remember things, little details playing in saturated slow motion that don’t seem to fit the bleak picture I’ve colored.
Like tonight. I just remembered something that seems so unlike me. But then so like me, too.
When I was in seventh grade, I made cards, little hand-drawn notes on white computer paper. I’d make as many as ten a day, and I made them every day. I’d draw them while I waited for classes to start or during lunch. I can’t remember exactly what they said but it was something like “Have a happy day.”
After I’d lovingly, carefully drawn my cards, I’d begin passing them out.
To complete strangers.
In middle school.
I handed them to tough-looking eighth grade boys, popular blond girls, bus kids, to kids who never even looked up at me, to kids who ridiculed me for the gesture.
I close my eyes and I can see myself standing in an open hallway, watching as one of my cards floats through the air just barely above the freshly cut green grass, a happy face in black sharpie looking back at me.
Even right now, I can feel what I felt then—not embarrassment but genuine unaffected joy.
Sometimes I forget, but in middle school, I was unashamedly happy.
I am a grown woman. 30 years old. Two kids. Married to a preacher. And yet, I am still struggling to get modesty right.
The word modesty means, among a slew of variations, “disinclined to bring oneself into notice.”
While my body isn’t exactly hanging out of my clothes, I do like being noticed. Honestly, I probably dress to get noticed.
Recently, I began coming to terms with my clothes problems. I’ve set some severe limits on both the number of items in my closet and the likelihood that any given item might turn heads. I’ve realized that I have unhealthily defined myself by my wardrobe, allowing what I wear to dictate my moods, my level of confidence, and my feelings about others.
I’ve also realized I care way too much about what other people think of me. More than that, I care way too much if other people think of me.
When I’m real with myself I admit that I prize compliments and seek affirmation. I can recount every compliment I’ve received on an outfit at the end of the day. Once, while shopping in Anthropologie (clothes heaven) a particularly well-dressed salesgirl “LOVED” my scarf. That off-hand comment fed something inside me. I felt like a better person for having received it. But looking back on it, I feel a little gross.
In Wendy Shallit’s book A Return to Modesty she says the essence of immodesty is “a desire for spectators.”
I hadn’t ever seen it that way. In fact, I think subconsciously I’d decided dressing was all about spectators, about representing myself to others through my clothes. I’d taken such care putting together outfits because I expected people to look at me, and when they did, I hoped they see a me I could be proud of. I wanted people to look and say, “That Jennifer is so stylish.” Or “That Jennifer is so quirky and feminine.” Or “That Jennifer looks like she just stepped out an Anthropologie store window” (Yeah, I’ve got Anthropologie hang-ups).
When I think about it now, I can’t believe I cared so much. I am not my clothes, but sometimes I felt like I was, like if my outfit was great I was great and if my outfit was sloppy or out of date, well, I guess I felt like a mess.
In the last month or so I’ve tried to dress in a way that doesn’t encourage people to look at me. Not that I’m trying to avoid attention. I’m just not seeking it.
Too, in limiting my options (and limiting my shopping for new options) I’ve forced myself into a general contentment. I wear my clothes too often for any one ensemble to be particularly special. And since getting dressed is easy—wear the outfit that’s clean—I don’t really think about my clothes that much.
I haven’t completely sorted this thing out, but I’m working on it.
*Be prepared for some modesty quotes in the next few days. I’m reading some GREAT stuff.