Does Bindi Irwin's modesty defense denote a bigger trend?

Bindi Irwin has chided girls for dressing beyond their age, kindling the debate on modern modesty, what it means, and its relevancy. Despite the murky definition, one thing seems clear, every girl has to define that term for herself.

PRNewsFoto/SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment
Bindi Irwin is shown at an event for the SeaWorld Kids' Generation Nature(TM) (GenN) program in March 2014.

In a recent interview with News Corp Australia, fifteen-year-old TV personality Bindi Irwin, daughter of the late crocodile hunter Steve Irwin, advised her peers to be more modest, saying that girls should "dress like you are." 

In the interview, she said, "I'm a big advocate for young girls dressing their age. I mean, for me, I look around at a lot of young girls that are my age and they're always trying to dress older. Whether it's wearing revealing clothes or hardly wearing any clothes at all, I feel really bad for them. It kind of has the opposite effect in some ways … where it makes you look younger and like you’re trying too hard.” 

Do Ms. Irwin's comments show a growing defense of modern modesty? While there seems to be steady stream of news reports of girls under fire for dress codes and their battle for individual expression, could Irwin represent a trend of those removing themselves from the debate altogether by covering up? 

Similarly, this spring, the oldest four daughters of the Duggar family – Jill, Jessa, Jinger, and Janna – released their own dating book called “Growing Up Duggar" with tips for courtship that seem quaint by today’s standards. They explained their beliefs about the importance of modesty and focusing romantic relationships on good character and firm commitment. 

And more recently, news outlets and social media blew up with backlash after Kardashian sister Kendall Jenner, 18, was photographed in an extremely revealing dress at the MuchMusic Video Awards

This particular outpouring of criticism prompts a few questions, such as:  Have people finally had enough with teens and young women wearing over-the-top revealing outfits? And where does the line between proper dress and revealing too much lie in modern culture?

Irwin’s comments, the Duggars' dating advice, and the outcry against Ms. Jenner's dress choice seem like initial steps to reinstate modesty in youth culture. But even the push for more modesty can be taken to absurd extremes. 

For instance, school officials at Wasatch High School in Utah altered yearbook photos of girls to make their clothing more modest without alerting the girls or their families to the change. Many saw it as an attempt to hide the girls' individuality and a blatant infringement of their personal expression, even though some of the girls were wearing clothes that violated the school’s published dress code. Also, the fact that only girls' photos were changed prompted accusations of sexism.  

Another salient example is graduating senior Violet Burkhart, who was sent home from school after wearing a dress that just barely violated the school's rule on hemline lengths. In protest, her mom proudly wore the dress to her daughter's graduation ceremony.  Many considered this dust-up an example of school officials' overzealous effort to ensure girls dress modestly.

Beyond just the modesty vs. revealing clothes debate may be the opening for a larger discussion between parents and their daughters around identity, independence, and self worth.

What's appropriate for a teenager versus a young girl to wear? Why? What's acceptable for a young woman versus a teen to wear? There are different definitions for everyone, but thinking these questions through together has value.

For example, parents might ask their daughters: What do clothing choices say about who you are? Like it or not, clothing impacts what others think, and different choices send different messages. 

Talking about clothes isn't just about trivial choices – heels or flats, capris or shorts, V-neck or scoop necks – it's about the very fabric of girls' integrity, confidence, and self-respect.

To give girls that confidence, in my experience allowing them to experiment is really important. I remember so many style choices that I regret now – baggy cargo pants, tube tops, and bright red sunburns acquired on-purpose in my futile attempts to get a tan. But it’s all part of growing up. 

I remember my dad’s raised eyebrows as I headed out to go roller-skating with friends wearing short shorts and a spaghetti string tank top at 12-years- old, but I don’t think he ever vetoed an outfit entirely. 

Giving girls the freedom to choose their own clothes – unless there’s a truly egregious choice – is an important step in building trust with them. If my dad had outright vetoed an outfit, I might have been tempted to sneak around behind him and wear it anyway. He, albeit with some hesitation I am sure, allowed me to make those wardrobe mistakes, within reason. Since I didn't feel like he was trying to control me, I respected his voice anytime he did speak up and say something wasn’t right.

Sooner or later, every girl wants to learn how to dress like a woman. Learning what it means to be modest or not, as well as creating a personal style, is a key part of the growing up process.

Teens may turn a deaf ear to criticism, but they are often paying attention to and learning from how parents dress and carry themselves. Learning what’s appropriate is a long process – a parents’ job, in my opinion, often simply requires patience.

Oh, and trying to suppress horrified looks when their teenage daughter steps out with leopard print gaucho pants and sky-high heels. That might help. 

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to