Friday, February 22, 2019

Modesty in the South

As an author of Southern literature, I have taken upon myself to adhere to Southern social and cultural norms that prevail below the Mason-Dixon Line in my writing. I both imply and state blatantly those Southern realities in my novels, and, oftentimes, I enlarge upon those topics in blog posts, magazine articles and newspaper articles. I was born in the South, raised by Southern grandmothers, Southern aunts and great aunts, a Southern mother, and, of course, the revered Southern church ladies, and I received a proper education in modesty—church modesty, societal modesty and even family modesty. From early in my career as an educator, I was asked to officiate propriety at formal school events, like graduation, baccalaureate services, and many times, I was asked by my students to teach them about manners and propriety—the latter of which I declined for obvious reasons.

So, no matter the changing social values and mores in the rest of the country, true Southerners still value modesty. But what exactly is modesty, you ask? Merriam-Webster defines it as “propriety in dress, speech, or conduct.” The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “correct or socially acceptable behavior and clothes, representing traditional cultural values.” But the definition that I like best—and I can’t believe the English teacher in me is even mentioning this site (because years ago it was not revered)—Wikipedia defines it as “a mode of dress and deportment which intends to avoid the encouraging of sexual attraction in others.”  

Kate Middleton proves that modest dressing is still stylish dressing.

In a world inundated with Kardashians and Hollywood “It” girls and where showing your body has become more acceptable, the old guard in the South still holds court on promiscuous behaviors and dress. Where the West Coast wears body bearing, low-cut dresses and high-cut shorts, the real South values demureness and pearls. We admire Kate Middleton, Emma Watson, Audrey Hepburn and Barbara Bush, to name a few. You must remember that the South was predominantly settled by the British, and we still adhere to a very formal program of behaviors, if truth be told. 

From the time I was young, however, I could point to examples—even in the South—where people where immodest, but those were the people who always walked on the fringes of proper society. They were looked down upon, talked about, and were eventually—in effect—exiled from social engagements, parties and ultimately lost friendships because of their immodest dressing or deportment.

My examples are far and wide, and I could write a novel on the subject; however, a couple of personal examples stand out for me. When I was in college, a friend and I went to a party at a beach house on Folly Beach. Surely, practically any attire would suffice there, right? I was quickly informed by my friend when we arrived in our bathing suits and modest cover-ups that we needed to retire to restroom to “Southernize” out bathing attire with Band-Aids. What? “Yes,” she said. Her respectable Southern mother informed her that we needed to add Band-Aids under our already padded bathing suits to ensure that nothing pointed could be seen or inferred by the other people at the beach house. It was a subtle difference, but one that needed to be defined: What was acceptable ON the beach was NOT the same as what was acceptable IN the beach house around the ladies, their boyfriends and husbands. That lesson has served me well for MANY years after that day. What I may wear in my own yard, house and on my own boat, and around my own husband, I do NOT wear around others that may take my dress as immoderate.

Another early example came from my mother and her friends and dealt with one of my own dear friends who was breastfeeding at the time. Bless her heart, she was not from the South, didn’t have a Southern mother and didn’t know the rules, so, unfortunately, she thought it was acceptable to breastfeed in front of my father, brothers and other men who just happened to be around. Turns out it was not. My mother, her friends and others derided my poor friend and let me know in no uncertain terms that my friend was NEVER to be invited to any other social engagements. Though it was a shame, no one—including me—because it was ungracious to call her out—spoke to my friend about the way Southerners felt about modesty—especially in their own homes. Instead, she found herself OUT of their society.

Right or not, fair or unfair, sexist or not, I am simply blogging about what is, and it IS because we live in the Bible Belt, where myriad examples of the virtues of modesty are given in verse after verse. The lines of modesty in the South may look blurred—at times—especially to outsiders because of our mobile society and because people move below the Mason-Dixon Line and continue to behave the way they were taught in other regions. But make no mistake about it, modesty still prevails in the South, whether or not you understand or not, or choose to ignore it and be eventually, effectively ostracized. In the REAL South, people may as well call it the Modesty-Dixon line.

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