#HERCollective Contributor: Talia Leacock
“When you dress like that, you send a message; you tell people you have nothing better to offer.”
That line, one I’ve heard more than a few times, was once delivered to me by my step-father in the middle of Walmart about ten years ago. It came at the tail end of an embarrassing public lecture about modesty. The catalyst? I’d reached for an item on a high shelf and a sliver of skin between the hem of my t-shirt and the waistband of my sweatpants peeked out. Small potatoes for most people but a big deal for me.
I was raised in a conservative Christian home where modesty wasn’t a suggestion, it was the law. As a skinny preeteen with barely any figure to flaunt, my step-father warned me that is was absolutely necessary to keep my body carefully shrouded. My body was a temple, he told me. It was sacred, and sacred things aren’t meant to be gawked at.
To bare that tender brown skin around my midsection was a punishable offense. Every outfit had to pass “the test.” Could I bend over and touch my toes without my back showing? Could I reach my hands above my head without revealing even the tiniest bit of flesh? Only a perfect score would do. Imagine the struggle in the age of baby tees and low rise pants.
In addition to the strictly enforced clothing rules, I was also forbidden from wearing any makeup, nail polish or heels with a height of more than three inches. An infraction on any of these rules could earn anything from hours of lecturing to lashings that would leave me too sore to sit without wincing, both of which my step-father was always ready and willing to deliver.
But lectures and lashes were not enough to quell my curiosity. In my adolescence, I was always drawn to girls who dressed more provocatively than I was allowed. I admired their freedom. Sleepovers with these friends whose parents didn’t much care about hemlines and inseams were a sweet escape. Stuffed at the bottom of my overnight bag were the clothes that would have failed inspection. Jeans that rode low on my slender hips. Shirts just a few inches too short. What I didn’t have, I borrowed. Big, gaudy gold hoop earrings. Lacy tank tops. Decked out in the forbidden, I would hit the mall with these friends to parade in my newfound confidence.
At home, I was told I was smart and beautiful and that I didn’t need to be sexy to feel good about myself which, of course, is not an irresponsible message for a teenaged girl. But I always knew that that warning wasn’t just meant to last through my adolescence. What I heard loud and clear was that immodest women of any age were somehow less smart and beautiful. They were cheap and insecure.
It’s an idea we’ve seen reinforced over and over again in the media. Even as we’re sold everything from beer to body products with images of scantily clad women, we’re reminded that sexiness isn’t something “good, smart women” aspire to. It’s a tool for women who aren’t smart enough to get noticed otherwise.
That’s a toxic lie I never really bought, so not long after moving out of my parents’ home, I started buying mini skirts instead. And it felt right. I came to love standing in front of mirrors and enjoying the sight of skin I chose to bare. I sat in university classrooms and beamed with pride every time a classmate in a risque outfit raised her hand and shone with intelligence. I met brilliant women who never forced themselves to choose between highlighting their credentials or their figures.
Those moments were all the validation I needed. Today, I am smarter and more talented than I was as a teen, but the least modest I have ever been. I like my shorts short, my skirts tight and my midriff bare. I live for summer so I can get a little colour on my thighs and stomach. The floor of my closet is filled with high heels and my makeup bag is too full to close. I like to think I am one of the millions of women who prove that intelligence and sexiness are not mutually exclusive.
This is in no way meant to knock more modest women. I respect the choice to be modest. What I reject is the idea that any woman should deny herself the right to dress as she pleases to prove she is more than her body. No woman ceases to be smart when she decides to be sexy. Our intelligence in no way correlates to the length of our skirts, the boldness of our highlight or our willingness to twerk in clubs. There is no such thing as too sexy to be smart.
So to my stepfather and any other person who would judge my immodesty, if the message you receive is that I am unintelligent or cheap, the onus for that is on you. Should you choose to dismiss, discount or disparage me for bare skin, the loss is yours. I will be happy with the massive collection of books on my bookshelves, all of which I have read. I will still have earned my Bachelor’s degree—cum laude, with honours, if I may brag a little—still in the manila envelope I brought it home in on graduation day. I will still have the business I started, the website I built, the clients I work with, and the body of work I have produced.
And believe me, I’m not done. I’m becoming every bit of the powerful woman I aspire to be, and I’m doing it in 5-inch heels.
Talia Leacock is a twenty-something creative wordsmith. She spends most of her time ghostwriting for celebrity and CEO clients and helping Masters and undergraduate students produce their best work. When she’s not in front of her laptop, you’ll find her behind the pages of a good book, under a barbell in the gym, or engrossed in Shonda Rhimes’ latest masterpiece. The keys to her heart: seafood, literature, and kick-ass shoes.