Abreast Abroad: Hide and Go Seek–Modesty Around Kids

In a few weeks I’ll begin working as an au pair in Switzerland, a job I got thanks to years of experience working with children. I’ve worked at summer camps, as a babysitter, a nanny, and an English teacher, and I’ve volunteered as a mentor, tutor, and Sunday School teacher for kids of all ages.

My wardrobe when working with kids has varied hugely based on the context. Whenever I work in a Christian or church setting, I am extra careful about what I wear because I know that there are people who are more conservative than I am in dress, and I don’t want to cause any offense.  The age of the children I’m working with also makes a huge difference. Kids five and under barely notice what their caretaker is wearing.  Some kids have stuck there grubby little hands straight down my shirt! Others say things like “Why are you boobs bigger than my mommy’s?” (How do I answer that?!).

Another factor that I take into consideration is the culture. The standard of modesty when I taught English in South Korea was different from what I was used to.  Korean dresses tended to have a high neckline and short skirt.  If I wore anything that showed any cleavage my seven- and eight-year-old students would be in uproar! “Teacher!” they would say, “Bad men will touch you!” Since there was no dress-code at my academy and I worked with all males who would never say anything about my clothes, I had almost too much freedom to wear whatever I wanted, so I’m glad my students had my back!

I am most conscious of modesty when I am working with middle school girls.  I think that middle school is the time when most people choose the path they are going to follow in life. Not necessarily a vocation or a style, but what their character is going to be.

While in university, I went to several urban middle schools for weekly mentoring programs.  The girls I encountered in these middle schools were all totally different, yet all had the same deep insecurities.  Some of them were still awkward little girls and others were beginning to look like young women.  It was important to me to be a role model to each of them and show them that they are all beautiful.  Many of them saw attention from boys as their only affirmation.  It was a real danger that they would start showing more skin to get more attention and in the end have no self-confidence apart from that attention.

As a young woman I was automatically “cool” to these girls and they paid attention not just to what I did, but what I wore.  What I ultimately wanted to communicate to them about modesty in my time as a volunteer was that it is about self-respect. You need to be able to look in the mirror and see that you are beautiful regardless of whether the opposite sex turns their heads when you walk by. “Modesty” doesn’t have to mean that you are old, frumpy, nerdy, or unattractive. It just means that you have the confidence and comfort to wear appropriate and properly fitting clothes and still feel beautiful.


  1. pdxeater says:

    I’m having trouble getting past a perceived underlying assumption that the way you are dressed can prevent sexual assault in these posts. An argument made that somehow assault is based on sex and attraction and not on power and control is a complete myth. I find the cleavage = bad men will touch you correlation to be not only inaccurate but offensive. Most sexual assault is done by a person know to the victim, and happens across all age, gender, race, economic and neckline height spectrum.

    I’m not arguing against context of being aware of how others may perceive you and deciding what you want out of a social situation (respect from your colleagues vs. a phone number at a bar), but that is very different from believing that you can prevent sexual assault by how you are dressed.

    • I agree completely and I hope that my post didn’t imply that women should cover up to avoid being sexually assaulted. That quote was simply something that my young students said to me a few times. I found it to be an amusing anecdote and didn’t intend a deeper meaning.

    • Agree with you complitely and from my perspective which was the corporate career one I want to correct if anyone got a vibe that any of my points were to do with sexual assault or harrasment if you dress a certain way as I surely did not mean to make such a point as I don’t believe in that.

      Whilst I still do believe that media has over sexualised womens breast and the perception that people might get from dressing immodestly will alter their view of who you are as a person.

      This is why I also talk a lot about making ones style their own because the style in general is a reflection of ones persona.

  2. ArgieBargie says:


    Well said.

  3. pdxeater says:

    I work in a corporate world. I hold an advanced degree in a field dominated by men. I’m fairly well respected and well paid. People like working with me. I say this so that I establish that I’m not some overly grumpy non-social person that everyone in the office avoids. I dress pretty carefully, but I do have what might be considered cleavage at work sometimes. Being short in the torso and big busted, it’s hard not to. I’m frequently the only woman in a room full of 5-10 other guys. If they can’t focus on what I’m saying because they’re so unable to tear their attention away from a hint that my chest is not completely flat from neck to waist? NOT MY PROBLEM.

    I proudly identify as feminist, while realizing not all of my choices will necessarily be considered as such since I tend to approach difficult choices as with a cost:benefit frame of mind, and sometimes the benefit of a “feminist” choice doesn’t outweigh the cost in my life’s circumstances. So I do get the posts and comments about dressing “modestly” to avoid harassment or gain more respect.

    But I don’t like them much. Let’s take corporate culture- it developed with a pretty homogeneous group (both gender and race) making all of the decisions. And their assumption is that the male gaze is what counts when it comes to a female body and a man cannot be accountable for his reaction to a female body, whereas the female is accountable for another person’s reaction. I vehemently disagree, and have been known to point out to certain male friends/colleagues that I disagree with them when they make inappropriate comments about another female’s form. I also think women need to be better to each other and not believe that we all need to compete for the all important male gaze. Yeah, it goes against a lot of biology, but really, we don’t exist to have the alpha male’s baby these days, right?

    And yeah, I get that something doesn’t change overnight but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t expect change. Accepting the status quo carries complicity, and I think we deserve better. Change happens gradually, with a lot of pushing and sometimes you do get big jumps (I love you New Zealand). So I disagree with the advice that young girls should dress “modestly” to avoid dealing with comments or rude reactions. As a young girl with big boobs that dressed to be acceptable in a fundamentalist Christian environment, I can tell you that it’s a no-win proposition. No matter how you dress, you will get comments. So why not focus on teaching our girls, boys, ourselves, that worth is not defined by attractiveness and that all humans deserve respect, including yourself.

    All of these to say, I think that teaching youngsters about context when it comes to appearance isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but teaching girls that they need to “cover up” to avoid being commented to only perpetuates a really screwed system where a person is held accountable for another person’s actions soley based on gender. I think we are smart enough to come up with a better approach, but it involves work.

    • Wow, I think your comment could be a blog post all on it’s own.
      I appreciate everything you are saying, but I don’t necessarily understand why it is in response to my post. Maybe my meaning wasn’t clear. In no way do I think girls need to “‘cover up’ to avoid being commented on.” I just believe that they should dress for themselves and not for the attention they receive from others, so that their confidence won’t be based in affirmation from men. I’m not saying that because of their gender they need to dress modestly. I simply believe that there is a connection between the way middle school girls dress and their self-confidence, self-esteem, and security.

      • pdxeater says:

        Hi Shana

        Your’re right, I’m long winded, and I was replying more to all of the posts here and their comments, not just yours in particular. Your post happened to be the one that was most current at the time I originally commented on.

        I guess what I’m saying, is that I don’t think a girl should be taught that self confidence, self-esteem and security are tied to how they dress or any part of their appearance. I might seem like I’m splitting hairs here, and I apologize.

        I do agree that all children, not just the girls, should be encouraged to dress in an appropriate manner for the occasion they’re in and the age they are.

  4. donna meeks says:

    As someone who works extensively with children and young people and have raised five children of my own I APPRECIATE when someone takes into account who they are working with when they dress. There are many, many opinions out here in this wide world-being considerate of others people’s standards of modesty does not mean you are being untrue to yourself, but that you are a considerate person.


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