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BY Barb Ernster
At a time when exposed midriffs, pierced navels and tattooed backsides are all the rage, the pressure is on young girls to grin and “bare” it.
Everywhere you turn, Catholic parents — their influence challenged by the onslaught of writhing pop idols on TV and the prevalence of racy attire at the shopping mall — are lamenting the loss of their daughters' modesty.
“It used to be just the fringe people who dressed like that,” says Kathie Nalepa, who resides in Clarkston, Mich., with her husband and three children. “But [now] even the girls who want to do the right thing are feeling pressure.”
“Pure Fashion” shows hope to offer an antidote. One, co-organized by Nalepa, drew more than 600 mothers and daughters. Hosted by Challenge Clubs of Michigan, a Catholic youth organization, the show featured club members — girls in junior and senior high — modeling modest, but trendy, clothing.
The Michigan show was just one of many. Since Pure Fashion was launched in Minneapolis five years ago, Challenge Clubs in nine states have put on scores of similarly styled events under the Pure Fashion banner.
One of the best pieces of news to come out of the shows lately is that they're attracting audiences not only from Catholic youth groups but also from a widening swath of the general public.
Pure Fashion is proving successful because it “speaks to virtues that are very necessary in today's world, modesty and purity,” says Tammy Grady, a Regnum Christi consecrated woman who provides spiritual formation to members of Challenge Clubs in the Midwest. “We're all a product of our environment. What the media portrays is fashionable. So there has to be a whole environment created that leads [young people] to the good, and it has to be ongoing.”
Since 1995, when the more outrageous styles started to emerge en masse (low-cut jeans with the top button undone, for example), retailers have more than doubled the floor space devoted to teen fashions. The market, they know, is ripe: Spending among 12- to 19-year-olds hit $170 billion last year, according to market-research firm Teen Research Unlimited, and 48% of the teens they surveyed said they plan to spend as much or more this year.
“You're looking at a huge market. Companies like Abercrombie & Fitch and Victoria's Secret know these young people, primarily girls, are interested in buying products and so they market them heavily,” says Teresa Tomeo, a former Detroit television news anchor who left the secular media in 2000. Today she speaks, writes and hosts a Catholic radio program with Jeff Cavins.
Coleen Kelly Mast of Catholic Answers, who also spoke at the recent Michigan show, says Pure Fashion can impress upon young girls how important it is to consider how they present themselves to others. “You are a walking advertisement,” she says. “The type of clothing you wear will either advertise your body — or your values and beliefs as a person.”
“Teen-age girls often don't realize what men and boys think and feel when they see girls dressed immodestly,” adds Mast. “Clothes that are tight, short, skimpy or transparent can be a real temptation for others to lust.”
Supply and Demand
Catholics are not the only ones doing something to stand up to (and out from) current styles. Last fall, a group of Mormon teens in Mesa, Ariz., wrote a petition asking Dillard's department store to offer more modest clothing. Some 1,500 high-school students signed. The retailer responded quickly with a line of modest dresses — right in time for homecoming season, as it happened.
And Dillard's at the Mall of Georgia, in Atlanta, provided clothing for Pure Fashion this year. When asked if the retailer was hearing from its customers about the current fashions, the store's general manager, Michael Falabella, said those decisions are made at the buying level, and managers can't do much about it. (Calls to Dillard's corporate offices, and other retailers, were not returned.)
Kim Gibas, a Plymouth, Minn., mother whose daughter modeled for a Minneapolis Pure Fashion show, says it's hard to make an impact on retailers “because there aren't enough kids out there wanting to buy the stuff. Their sense of modesty is gone. Nobody thinks it's wrong.”
Indeed, Tomeo says the relationship between the media and what's happening in society is well documented. Studies by the American Academy of Pediatrics have found that half of the Saturday television commercials are aimed at young girls and focus on physical appearance. Other studies from the National Institute on Media & Family found that viewing MTV results in more permissive attitudes about sex and exposes youth to a tremendous amount of violence — particularly sexual violence against women.
The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality, a document of the Pontifical Council on the Family, says it is the duty of parents “to protect the young from the aggressions they are subjected to by the media. The practice of decency and modesty in speech, action and dress is very important for creating an atmosphere suitable to the growth of chastity, but this must be well motivated by respect for one's own body and the dignity of others. Parents, as we have said, should be watchful so that certain immoral fashions and attitudes do not violate the integrity of the home, especially through misuse of the mass media…May no one shirk from this duty by using the excuse that he or she is not involved.”
Tomeo says getting involved is not difficult with the Internet at hand. Many Web sites are helping parents organize and give voice to their concerns. Not only are the sites good resources, but many also have petitions you can send online, along with pre-written letters, toll-free numbers and other means for action.
The Parents Television Council (http://www.parentstv.org) has 800,000 members that get the networks' attention when they launch a campaign. Tomeo also recommends the American Decency Association (http://www.americandecency.org), the National Coalition for the Protection of Children and Families (http://www.nationalcoalition.org), www.lyrics.com and her own site, http://www.teresatomeo.com as go,od resources.
Mast says parents should begin modesty training at age 6 or 7, when they still control the money and shopping.
“Teaching modesty should be a normal part of the discipline of children on the road to self-mastery,” she says. “It can remind them of their inner dignity as a child of God.
Each time a child shops for or gets a new outfit, the question of modesty should be addressed. Children can begin to think about the statements they are making with their clothes.“
Nalepa marvels that actions taken, even small ones, can bring positive responses from teens. “I am convinced that kids want to be modest,” she says. “I think it's a natural virtue. When modesty is presented as a good thing, they're happy. They don't want to worry about being sexual beings. They're just kids.”
Barb Ernster writes from Fridley, Minnesota.