Basic Instincts

I’m currently rereading A Return to Modesty by Wendy Shalit. There were a few passages that kind of struck me: “Yet embarrassment is actually a wonderful thing, signaling that something very strange or very significant is going on, that some boundary is being threatened–either by you or by others. Without embarrassment, kids are weaker: more vulnerable to pregnancy, disease, and heartbreak” (p 22). Shalit goes on to point out in her section on Female Self-Consciousness, which follows the one about Immodesty in Dress that: “If you are practically naked in front of people you hardly know, your self-consciousness might be your natural thermometer telling you that something is off” (pg 72).

These quotes are demonstrative of one of Shalit’s main points in the book. One reason women have so many problems (sexual harassment and assault, eating disorders, depression, etc) is that they have been pressured and trained by society to go against their natural modest and romantic instincts from an early age. Embarrassment and self-consciousness are a woman’s internal warning sirens, but girls are told early on that there is nothing left in our modern society to be embarrassed or self-conscious about and they should ignore those feelings.

This whole idea reminded me of Protecting the Gift by Gavin De Becker. One of his main points is that in order to protect our kids from violence we need to encourage them to trust their danger instincts about people and situations. He points out that as a society we are taught “innocent until proven guilty”, to give people the benefit of the doubt, and not to be “rude”. He notes, though, that kids and women should be trained to over-ride those ideas if their danger sense is tingling. It is better to be rude and/or make a scene than to be a victim of violence.

The whole thing struck me because those are not two books I would initially lump together. One on the surface appears to be about “women’s issues” and the other appears to be about “stranger safety”. However, when you do dig deeper they do overlap quite a bit. Shalit could have even titled her book Protecting the Gift, but as she would be quick to point out, society today laughs at the idea of a woman’s modesty and virginity being a gift. I think Shalit would contend that it is better to trust your instincts to be modest in dress and deed and be seen as stuck up or weird or having hang-ups than to have your sense of self-worth and ability to demand respect from the opposite sex shattered by being pressured to act like the “modern sexually-liberated woman”.

I could go on and on about my own experiences that back up many of Shalit’s finer points.  And as a mother of three young daughters A Return to Modesty gives me a lot of food for thought.  I think it would be a valuable read even if I had boys to raise, because we need more parents raising young men with a healthy respect for women.  I think these are must-read books for everyone.

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