Wendy Shalit is a young woman of no modest accomplishments. Yet, it’s modesty itself that has given her a national platform.
In 1999, just two years after graduating from Williams College, she wrote the bestseller A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue. The response she received from young women prompted her to launch the blog Modestly Yours (online at blogs.modestlyyours.net). Last year she wrote Girls Gone Mild: Young Women Reclaim Self-Respect and Find It’s Not Bad to Be Good (see GirlsGoneMild.com), which was republished this summer as The Good Girl Revolution, a paperback edition with a study guide.
Shalit, who is Jewish and lives with her husband and son in Toronto, spoke with Register correspondent Lori Hadacek Chaplin.
Some of what you’ve written paints a very bleak picture. What signs of hope do you see for the future?
Well, ultimately, my books have a very positive message. The truly amazing thing is seeing how many young women are rebelling against the low standards our society sets for them. I’m actually very optimistic after talking with more than 100 young women who are leaders in the personal-dignity movement. So many are committed to giving their own daughters very different advice from the sort they received. I think that’s great.
I’m also optimistic because of the studies showing that young people think virginity is much less “embarrassing” than their parents assume, the studies showing that young people are looking for more wholesome role models, the sheer number of girls who are speaking out and taking a stand — even in the face of criticism from their own parents. I think we’re on the cusp of a paradigm shift.
It seems our culture starts objectifying girls at such an early age. Do you agree?
Even though the Bratz dolls and such really can make you want to despair, I think when a girl becomes objectified is less a function of age than the kind of parents she has. Obviously, if you have a mom who tells you to wear tighter shirts “because that’s what the boys want,” then it’s going to be tough. But if you have a parent who takes seriously the concept of guarding your innocence and giving the daughter a lot of love and the opportunity to discover what she wants her life to be about, she’s much less likely to end up obsessing over if she’s “hot enough” for complete strangers.
Why has it become more socially acceptable to be a bad girl than a “prude girl”?
Well, since the 1960s, what we’ve been told about modesty is a lie, largely promulgated by the media with a vested interest in making a parody of the concept of modesty. We tend to misunderstand modesty as repression. If you want to dress modestly or maintain your purity until marriage, people will ask you: “Are you uncomfortable with your body? Are you ashamed of it?”
But the reason to have high standards for your relationships has nothing to do with shame; it’s to protect the inner core of your person and to make real intimacy possible.
True modesty is the opposite of shame. But today, unhealthy relationships are glamorized and having high standards is seen as pathological. So obviously, in such a situation, it’s the “good girls” who are the true rebels today and the so-called “bad girls” who are the conformists.
You also write that the contemporary concept of women’s liberation — being blasé about “hooking up,” for example — actually undermines girls in ways that would have been unthinkable in previous generations. Will you elaborate?
Well, nearly every magazine or online advice column is forever telling young women that being emotionally detached from their [romantic partnerships] is a sign of maturity. In Girls Gone Mild, I challenge these advocates of “emotional repression.” Caring is what makes us human — it’s wonderful that we care! Let’s value that instead of making fun of it.
And guess what? Caring is also what makes intimacy exciting and more than just brushing your teeth. In fact, even mainstream therapists are now speaking out about this. Yet, the conventional expectation today — that a girl should be jaded — still persists. And I argue that this is much more misogynistic than the old expectation for a girl to grow up to be a good wife. Having to pretend you’re jaded when you really care requires that a woman be very alienated from her female nature.
Many baby boomers expect their children to not wait for marriage. Why do you think that is?
Well, most baby boomers mean well, but they don’t really get how their rebellion has become an entrenched status quo. Younger girls are looking for a new definition of empowerment. Experimentation with intimacy, it turns out, does not lead to happiness; frankly, girls are dealing with the consequences of the sexual revolution in a way their own mothers and grandmothers didn’t.
For example, the hook-up scene is the norm on college campuses, yet, at the same time, a majority report that they’re unhappy with the hook-up scene. Even those who are active in it report that, for the most part, they’re active not because being active is particularly gratifying, but simply because it has become the norm. To many young women — and men — this behavior is not liberation. It’s being sheep.
So naturally, girls are opting out in increasing numbers and trying to stay true to their own hopes. All the personal attacks I get are from baby boomers — while 99% of my support comes from high school and college girls.
How can mothers protect their daughters from a culture that is dangerous to women spiritually, mentally and physically? How about sons? Any advice for our readers?
I hope this doesn’t sound trite, but to me, it’s all about love. When your child knows that you really care and want the best for her, then your advice has real meaning. It’s no different with sons: Demonstrating love is the difference between an arbitrary rule and trusted advice.
I was fascinated to find out that every single role model I interviewed had at least one parent who showed that they believed in them. That’s what gave them confidence to stand up to their peers and the messages they get from the media.
Lori Hadacek Chaplin is
based in Forest City, Iowa.