woman backpacking in mountains
(Photo: Poike, iStock)
Tough Love

I Want to Dress Modestly Without Being Judged

Your style, no matter the reason, is your choice. Period.

woman backpacking

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Welcome to Tough Love. We’re answering your questions about dating, breakups, and everything in between. Our advice giver is Blair Braverman, dogsled racer and author of Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube. Have a question of your own? Write to us at toughlove@outsideinc.com.

I am a college athlete who is interested in dressing modestly for religious reasons. It’s something I started doing at home during quarantine, and I was surprised by how good it made me feel. I really feel like myself and I could see myself dressing like this forever. But now that things are starting up again, I’m nervous to keep dressing like this out of the house. I’ve already talked to my coach about changing my workout clothes. (For instance, I will wear loose pants instead of leggings or shorts, and I will keep my shoulders covered. I am not planning to cover my hair at this time.) He says that it shouldn’t be a problem but I do know that people will notice.

I am also active on the weekends and often go hiking or running with a different group of friends, and none of them know about this. I still want to join them for the same activities, but I will be dressed differently.

Nobody is telling me to do this, it’s my own decision. My family is supportive, although I’m not sure if they really understand it. But I’m worried about being judged or treated differently. Do you have advice for how to handle this as I start seeing more people again?

Clothing can be a huge part of our identities, how we present ourselves to the world, and I think it’s wonderful that you’ve found clothes that feel right for you. So, first off: congrats! Quarantine has been tough for everybody, and if you’ve come out of it with new clarity about how you want to dress, I think that’s great all around.

My hunch is that, although this decision feels major for you, it will not feel major to other people. In fact, most of the people you encounter may not notice at all, especially if you’re not covering your hair. The differences between shorts and pants, or tight pants and loose pants, often come down to style; if anything, acquaintances may just think that your personal style has changed. This isn’t to say that you won’t feel judgment, or that people won’t say mean things; I just hope that any judgment or misunderstanding you face will be minimal.

Ironically, a lot of people’s judgment of others comes from fear of being judged themselves. When someone makes a positive change—something they’re doing for moral or health reasons—it can feel like an implicit judgment, or highlight the ways that others have failed or neglected to change themselves. Some people might even be preemptively defensive, assuming that if you think modest dressing is better, you’ll look down on them for not doing the same. (This response, ironically, might come from the people closest to you—if you have another friend of the same religion, for instance, who doesn’t choose to dress modestly.) These are feelings that people should work out themselves; there is no excuse for cruelty. But it might be helpful to remember if you have to negotiate the occasional less-than-positive response.

You didn’t mention your religion, and I’ll refrain from guessing, because there are a number of religions that may involve modest clothing. But it should go without saying that if someone has a negative response related to your religion itself, that’s bigotry, it’s bullshit, you do not need to empathize with it, and you might even want to inform your coach or school and get them involved.

In any case, what you should do, as you start seeing people again, is pretty simple: go out boldly, explain the change in dress to relevant parties (that is, the people you want to tell), and completely ignore anyone else. But that’s harder to do in practice, which is why I’d recommend getting a support system in place first.

Does anyone know about your modesty? If you have a supportive pal, ask them to be your Modesty Support Friend as you re-enter the world in your new clothes. This is one of my favorite practices for short-term, non-crisis-level tough stuff, like visiting a difficult family member or getting through a hard week at school—getting a friend on board who’s not necessarily involved, but is willing to lend an ear for griping, text support, whatever, until the challenge is over. If you know a friend is doing something challenging, you can offer to do the same for them. Your Modesty Support Friend doesn’t need to dress modestly themselves, of course, but it’s someone who gets what you’re doing, loves you dearly, and can bear witness to any nonsense. Simply knowing that you’re not alone as you negotiate these first days, that there’s someone there in your corner, can be a huge help.

It could also be helpful to find a community—online, if not in person—of other people who get what you’re going through. Maybe you already have this, maybe you don’t, but it’s worth seeking out. And if it helps to have one stranger from the internet on your side: I’m happy for you that you found something meaningful, and I wish you all the best.

Lead Photo: Poike, iStock