Monday, August 01, 2005

Looking for modesty amid the sleaze all around us

Monday, August 01, 2005By Ruth Ann Dailey
Summertime and the livin' is sleazy... I'm not referring, however, to the Northwestern University lacrosse players' footwear choices at the White House. Their flip-flops were unfortunate, and the flip-flop flap was lots of fun, but "sleazy" is something worse.
Sleazy is Britney Spears wearing a tiny crop-top with a tie-dyed skirt slung beneath her naked pregnant belly.
Sleazy is a Paris Hilton gal-pal gunning a motorcycle at a promotional event and revealing to paparazzi, as the bike shoots out from under her and she falls to the pavement, that she wears no underwear.
Sleazy is our non-famous daughters going to school dressed like street-walkers. (Actually, the hookers who troll for work in my neighborhood dress more modestly than today's typical teen.)
Our culture's ubiquitous sleaze -- about two decades' worth and not related just to women's clothing choices -- is what has brought us to the point that the fine young women who made it into elite Northwestern University don't know when and where shower slip-ons are inappropriate.
Some days I think that if I have to look at another bare female abdomen anywhere besides the swimming pool I will scream. I'd like to think I feel that way for reasons other than the fact that, after bearing three children, my belly is no longer fit for such fashions. When it was, my mother wouldn't let me dress like that -- not even while swimming. Now that I'm the mom, I want to shake these aspiring Britneys and say, "Have a little self-respect!"
At the recent White House event to recognize the Northwestern girls' achievements, the issue wasn't self-respect but respect for others -- "others" being not just the president of the United States, but the rest of us for whom the White House is a secular shrine. If you don't expend extra effort dressing to go there, is there any place worthy of your effort? Church?
When I raised the topic on talk radio last week, a caller informed me that in Italy, signs at church entrances still request, among other nods to the dignified proceedings within, that people not enter wearing open-toed shoes.
A 9th-grade classmate named Inga asked why I never wore jeans to school. (Short answer: I wasn't allowed.) She wore jeans even to church on Sunday and felt very strongly that God didn't care how she dressed so long as she was there. I agreed but argued that we might want to show Him our respect by how we presented ourselves.
These days, though I think we were both right, I lean more toward Inga's way of thinking. God accepts us as we are and mercifully doesn't leave us like that. But the god Inga and I were discussing is one who sees inside our hearts. Humans have to look for other clues.
You might argue that while the clothes don't make the woman, they do reveal what she's thinking: An awards ceremony at the White House, a worship service, yawn.
But maybe our clothes do make us. Maybe our pervasive casualness toward much that used to be considered special and important has, in fact, been shaped by the casualness with which we present our private selves.
It used to be that middle- and upper-class youth would adopt the clothing and mannerisms of the uneducated, angry and dissolute in order to shock their elders. They were rebels without a cause, but with the clothes.
The posturing of yesteryear's James Dean wannabes now seems naive. These days, every man's a gangsta, and every girl's a porn star. And it's no longer a pose. Too many kids have become what they were pretending to be. A good mother used to say, "If you're not selling it, don't advertise." But any sociologist or teen counselor can tell you that kids aren't selling it, they're giving it away for free.
It doesn't seem to be a coincidence that the loss of the very idea of propriety has occurred along with the rise of the Internet. Chat-room anonymity invites us to reveal our most private and ugliest thoughts -- to get naked with strangers. There are also millions of literally naked strangers: The mind-blowing omnipresence of hard-core pornography online almost makes our scantily clad teenagers seem modest.
We've been letting it all hang out for so long that there's nothing left to air.
And if everything's allowed, then nothing's shocking. What's surprising about those lacrosse players' flip-flops is that anybody noticed. I must point out, however, in the young women's defence, that they were all wearing modest skirts. So hope springs eternal, even in a sleazy summer.

(Ruth Ann Dailey is a Post-Gazette staff writer and can be reached at

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