We Mormons have been accused of being a peculiar people. As I quite often feel more like a convert to my religion, as opposed to a person born into it, these oddities seem glaringly odd to me sometimes, too. (Like, honestly. Last week I found myself standing in front of the new Starbucks at our in-the-middle-of-a-remodel Target, sniffing deeply and snuffling longingly and thinking...really? Coffee? We can't drink coffee? And trust me: that's not the first time I've had that thought.) One of my LDS oddities that I've been thinking about lately is modesty.
We are encouraged to dress modestly. In general my take on me dressing modestly involves the length of my skirts and shorts, the cut of my shirts (including both the bust and the sleeve width), and the general, over all feel of my outfit. My interpretation of "modest" revolves mostly around the concept of elegance. I don't want to dress too young, or too skimpy or too...what's the opposite of elegant? I do, however, believe that I can dress modestly without wearing a sack. Maybe it is shallow of me—and honestly, I'm not afraid to leave my house in sweats and a t-shirt and a slumpy long sweater—but I do take pleasure from what I wear. My inner rebellious self somethings thinks really? sleeveless? No one can see our shoulders? but in general I stay firmly on The Plan. I like pretty, I like black, I like the style I've developed. Sweats included.
Except, I still wear running clothes when I go running. I don't wear those tiny running shorts that other girls can get away with. (Partly this is because my thighs rub together too fiercly to wear them, but it's mostly because I wouldn't feel comfortable with my butt nearly hanging out.) I don't hit the road without covering up my sports bra. But, I do wear singlets. I wear shorts that are shorter than my knees. I wear tank tops and running skirts.
And this bothers some people.
(I know it bothers some people because they have told me it bothers them. "You shouldn't run in that shirt" or "I think your running shorts are immodest" are actual real live words people have said to me.)
This topic has been on my mind since last week, when I was leaving my house for a run. It was a glorious afternoon—just warm enough for a running tank and one of my favorite running skirts. I left the house, ready to sweat and maybe get a little dusty and certainly come back red-faced as I am not one of those graceful runners who finish their workouts looking like they've just finished getting a facial, feeling pretty. Just as I turned the corner to leave my neighborhood, a neighbor turned his vehicle onto my street—and he gave me that look. The one I am completely familiar with. The one that means you are dressed immodestly.
And let me tell you: I argued with that neighbor (someone I consider to be a friend) in my head for all of my five (very hilly!) miles. I told him about my right to choose. I told him that my running outfit was just that, running clothes purchased from the workout-clothes section. I argued that running in pants and a T when it's scorching outside is absolutely miserable. I pointed out that swimmers exercise in swim suits (even the Mormon ones!) so it stands that runners can wear running clothes. He argued back (in my head) that there are running clothes and then there are running clothes.
So then I got personal. I pointed out (in my head) that there are some things in my life that make me completely unhappy and stressed out in ways he has no concept of. And that I am prone to letting my little black raincloud sluice away my attempts at being happy or hopeful or optimistic. And that I am starting to have anxiety attacks on a regular basis. But running? Running helps me keep those things at bay. Running helps me keep the unhappinesses in perspective and the little black raincloud from turning into a hurricane and the anxiety from needing medication.
But I can also be honest: physical and mental health aren't the only reasons I like running. I like wearing cute running clothes. They make me happy. They make me excited to get out the door. Without cute running clothes I would be far less motivated to run. Call me selfish if you need to, or vain, or even just downright lame. That's OK. I know myself and my life and my reactions to it well enough: if I ran in Mormon-modest running clothes I wouldn't want to run as much. If I didn't run as much I would eventually find myself rocking on the floor in a dark closet somewhere, contemplating slitting my wrists.
"If you had enough faith to be obedient," my neighbor volleyed back (in my head), "it could overcome all of those things."
A point I cannot refute.
Despite this imaginary discussion with my neighbor (for whom I hold no hard feelings as this whole idea was discussed in my head), and my knowledge that it's my weakness that's the problem here, I'm not going to abandon my favorite running clothes. Because imaginary arguments aside, I need to keep myself sane and strong for my kids. And for myself. Plus there's the fact that I still get to chose, and my choice is that I am OK. My shorts aren't tiny. My belly isn't exposed. My tank tops have thick straps.
Perhaps my idea of modesty is different from the rest of my neighbors'. After all, I also buy and wear tankinis instead of one-piece swimsuits. When Haley was little I let her wear sundresses without a shirt underneath. I am also pretty firm in telling my sons that they are responsible for the contents of their thoughts, not the girl in skinny jeans. (Because saying "girls should dress modest so that boys can control their thoughts" seems like an inch away from saying "it's your fault I raped you because you wore that short skirt.") I talk to Haley, too, about modesty. We don't always agree, quite frankly. Sometimes my ideas feel too prescriptive too her. I just keep trying but deep down I know: the style of clothes she settles on in her adult world might be sort-of influenced by me, but in the end she gets to choose. Just like I get to choose.
Besides. What does "modest" mean, anyway? It's very first dictionary definition has nothing to do with clothes, but with decorum: "freedom from conceit or vanity." Modesty, in the end, shouldn't be about hem lengths or exposed shoulders. It should be about humility. I don't run in running clothes out of conceit—I don't love my running skirts because of what I think they might make someone else think about me. I run in them because they (ultimately) help me to be happy. Or happier than I would be otherwise. Self-importance and showing off have nothing to do with my running-clothes choices. Comfort, functionality, and cuteness do. (As well as pockets, but that's an entirely other rant.) Flaunting my knees and elbows might be immodest, but so is flaunting your apparent superior righteousness.
Other than that familiar look, I have no idea what my neighbor really thinks of my running attire. Most of me doesn't care. Most of me thinks about stones and glass houses and judging not. If you don't like what I'm wearing, I almost said to my in-my-head neighbor, then don't look at me. Instead I said don't judge me for sinning differently than you sin to his silent smugness (in my head). And that made his smugness slide away. In fact, he was at last, blessedly, gone. Out of my head He left me to run in peace—even in my tank top and skirt.