My journey to embracing modesty would be incomplete without “the step, step, pull down” and Wendy Shalit.
I have had three major clothing conversions in my life. The first was when I acknowledged that, although I could get attention from men based on my body, that was not the kind of attention I wanted, so I needed to wear more clothing. The second was when I realized that I was dressing better for work than I was for church. That was convicting, let me tell you. The third was recently, when I starting phasing out my many polo shirts for clothes that actually suit my body type. It’s been a slow process to dressing like an adult, much like the process of becoming an adult.
“The step, step, pull down” is a phrase coined by my pastoral associate when I was in undergrad, a lovely woman named Michelle Sesny (then Michelle Carper). She organized a book club to discuss Girls Gone Mild (now in paperback as The Good Girl Revolution), by a young Jewish woman named Wendy Shalit. Michelle could see that the female students on our campus had been caught in the culture of immodesty, particularly in the way they dressed. Their skirts were so ridiculously and uncomfortably short, she explained, that they could barely take two steps without pausing to pull them down. Step, step, pull down. Step, step, pull down. This was absurd—but in reading and discussing Wendy’s book, we found hope and evangelized our campus to know that there was something more than what the culture had to offer. We didn’t have to put up with “the step, step, pull down.”
I’m embarrassed that it took so many years for me to get around to the original book! Girls Gone Mild was a hopeful look at the rise of modest young women since Shalit’s original book, an extended essay from her own undergraduate years called A Return to Modesty: Rediscovering the Lost Virtue. It is that earlier work, now reissued for its fifteenth anniversary, that I propose for your reading pleasure.
The essay is presented in three parts. First, the problem: we have been conditioned to believe that embarrassment is to be avoided at all costs, despite the reality of a well-formed conscience that tells you something just isn’t right. We are told to separate sex from emotion, and when boys who have been trained to do so commit sexual crimes against women (all too often before they have even grown into men), we wonder what happened. But it was our fault. After all, we taught them that boys and girls are no different, not even biologically, so they reasoned that if they want sex, she must want it, too. We told the women they could wear micro-miniskirts, so if a woman finds herself doing “the step, step, pull down,” she clearly just needs to stop pulling her skirt down!
Second is the “forgotten ideal,” a detailed examination of the way modesty was previously discussed (albeit infrequently, because, well, that would be immodest!), lived out, and innately understood. We didn’t need sexual harassment to be legislated against when it was rare, and we somehow don’t question why such suits are almost always filed by women. We no longer challenge men to be honorable, but we wonder why so many of them treat women so terribly (and of course, because we’ve told women they must act like men, they’re treating men no better). Despite every attempt for “liberation,” the person we must become has merely changed attributes. “In this post-sexual revolution era, a young woman may freely cohabit,” Shalit writes, “but she may not choose to wait. If she does, there must be something wrong with her.”
Finally comes a sliver of hope. Shalit shares personal stories of returning to treating sex as something significant (which it is), women who long for reassurance that it’s okay to have feelings and to want love as part of their sexual relationships, and the rise of modesty both secular and religious. The best part is that, at least from my point of view (and Shalit’s, in her second book), the return to modesty has taken hold for the better.
Those of our parents’ generation tell us that we we’re too young and “optimistic,” that we don’t understand, that we can’t just take back the sexual and motherhood revolutions. Well, why not? Do you have a monopoly on revolutions?
I offer a few words to those of you who are considering reading this book. Shalit’s degree is in philosophy, so if you’re not familiar with reading philosophy or theology, you might get bogged down a little. This book does not tell you specifics on how to solve the problem, although it does a great job of describing it. Furthermore, it is about sexual modesty primarily, so it contains frank, illustrated descriptions of the exact problems it tackles. This may not be the best book for your young teens, but your mileage may vary.
In the end, I’m glad I read this book for two reasons. It helped me get a much deeper view of the problems our society created for itself by rejecting modesty, and it filled me with joy that my friends and I have begun to rebuild. The sexual revolution made too many promises that it didn’t keep. Let’s keep pushing for a new revolution.