‘I am so glad not to be in high school anymore,” Mary Hardy tells me.
The wise college sophomore was responding to an article I asked her to read about adolescent girls dressing badly.
As in, like sluts.
Mary tells me: “My parents never let me dress like that and I am grateful — only now — to them, because the boys in high school, although they did not say it, did respect me more, especially at the dances, where no one tried to come up and ‘dance’ with me in the manner they did with the other girls, whose bodies were mostly exposed.”
She got a little R.E.S.P.E.C.T, in other words.
Aretha Franklin’s song by that title was among the covers Charles Atkinson’s band, Dandelion Wine, played at the Queen Mary pub, in the heart of the campus where Mary and some of her friends were opening a conference they organized on work and femininity.
I recently wrote about young girls and how they dress. How their mothers often let them dress — about what clothes parents will pay for. How culture has been known to derail fatherly attempts to intervene. The response was overwhelming.
It’s not an easy battle to fight if you’re a parent who wants something more for your child. Especially when adults are frequently not helping. And not just in not pushing back. There is the modeling too.
Mary and Charles (in his third year, studying literature and classics) and the young women of Genuine Feminine are all undergraduates at Ave Maria University in Naples, Fla. It’s a Catholic school, so some of the discussion was about Biblical principles, theology, and prayer. But it was also and mainly oh-so-practical. As are these young men and women. Attending a school where they will be academically challenged but also encouraged by campus life to have a little dignity, and to treat others as they want to be treated, in this and other respects.
There is a sense of true social justice here. These young people understand our lives to be great gifts to offer in creative service, not in demeaning, or disjointed, or selfish ways. That there is great beauty and true happiness to be found in living according to a natural law that so many of our faith traditions and the best of our history and culture teach, reflect, and aspire to. As men and women, in unique and complementary ways.
When Monica Waldstein walked into a room at her all-girls high school, a particular group would make like they were throwing up, she remembers.
Being a self-possessed young woman, dressing with a little modestly, was not cool in school. But for at least one of those girls, Monica had something she wanted. “Once she asked for my advice because she was trying to decide which of two boys she should go out with: ‘You seem so much happier than every one else, so I thought that you would give good advice.’”
The poised junior biology major’s experience only affirmed her upbringing. “When I see girls who dress that way, I feel sorry for them, because they think that the attention they are attracting will make them happy, but it really will not. They do not know that they would be much happier if the behaved differently.”
The secret is out here. Eileen Gallagher, finishing up her sophomore year as a political science major, feels similarly and adds: “I was able to act and dress appropriately during the hardest teenage years because of the love and support of my family. Now, in college, I try to dress stylishly and beautifully, but modestly, because I have realized that the best guys will respect that.”
Ave Maria isn’t utopia, for modesty or anything else. It is, after all, a college. But here, kids do try — and encourage each other — to live differently. To live what they hear on Sunday (and maybe daily), throughout their hours. Charles tends to dress up out of respect for his teacher who prepared a lesson for him and his fellow students. That’s not an exotic sentiment here.
Gratefully, Mary notices an advantage here: “I think we at Ave have it fairly easy compared to our fellow college students at other universities where it is the norm to have guys sleeping in their roommate’s bed.” It can happen here, but there are repercussions. There is moral and disciplinary motivation not to. Practical, too. Mary adds: it “is enough to worry about getting papers done on time without worrying whether you can sleep in your own room at night.”
“Being modest does not mean being ostracized from society,” junior Sarah Pakalauk, who shares Charles’s double majors, makes clear. Nor does it mean dressing like a nun. There can be real fashion in modesty. These were all important realizations for her as she made her family’s values her own.
Her younger sister, Sophie, who has the political bug, is an unabashed fan of that other Sarah: Palin. When the former Alaska governor told a tax-weekend Tea Party rally in Wisconsin that our leaders ought to fight like girls — women who care about the future of their families and country, like the women who organized rallies around the country last year — I thought of these men and women of Ave Maria. They are grounded, respectful of themselves and one another, desirous of learning, and generous of heart, looking forward to humbly but confidently engaging the broader culture.
They are runway models of a stylin’ alternative to our regnant culture’s provacateurs and panderers.
If you, too, want something more — including a cover-up this summer — know you’re not alone.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online. She can be reached at [email protected]. This column is available exclusively through United Media.