First, we're introduced to a young woman who represents this modesty comeback:
Kathryn Arkin is a classic American beauty: blonde hair, blue eyes, a lean body ideal for skinny jeans and itty-bitty tank tops. But when Arkin, 17, goes shopping at her favorite store, Forever 21, in Kensington, MD, she picks out loose-fitting babydoll tops, which she'll layer over cleavage-covering camis. Needless to say, her wardrobe rarely draws second glances from guys. And that's the point.The emphasis on the fact that Kathryn is thin and beautiful is interesting. I guess it wouldn't be newsworthy if overweight or unattractive young women were covering up, but when someone who should be flaunting it is piling on the layers, it's a big deal.
Arkin is one of 650 sweet young things around the country enrolled in Pure Fashion, a "beauty and character formation program" for girls ages 14 to 18 - think Barbizon Modeling Schools ("Be a Model or Just Look Like One") for Sandra Dee types. Instead of strutting around in treacherously high stilettos, Pure Fashion-istas attend classes on "walking and sitting like a lady" and "the deeper meanings of modesty and purity".
I think that there are three main problems with this article. Let's break them down, shall we?
1. The alleged "modesty comeback" is overblown.
So, there are 650 young women across the country who are in the Pure Fashion program. Here are the other numbers that the article gives us to convince us that this is a noteworthy growing trend:
Despite the crummy economy, Pure Fashion, which charges up to $450 for membership and is affiliated with the Catholic group Regnum Christi, has seen enrollment grow 20 percent over the last two years.It's taken them four years to go from a whopping nine cities up to 26, and this is supposed to be a big "moment" for girls in America? (Of course, this is the same magazine that declared that Asian women are "the new trophy wives" based on a handful of questionable examples, so maybe this was the "Manufactured Trends" issue.) And if you look at the map of cities that currently have Pure Fashion programs, you'll see that it's very regional and concentrated mostly in the Midwest and the South. So yes, attendance at their fashion shows has grown a fair amount over the last few years, and participation in the Pure Fashion program is also up slightly, but we're still talking about far less than 1000 girls actually enrolled in the program across the entire country. For a little context on those numbers, Teen Vogue has a circulation of 1,017,025 and ElleGirl.com gets around 200,000 unique visitors per month.
Purity By The Numbers:
26: The number of U.S. cities where Pure Fashion holds runway shows featuring demure garb. That's up from nine cities in 2005.
10,000: The number of people who have attended Pure Fashion shows this year, up from 3300 attendees in 2005.
12: The number of countries outside the U.S. that run Pure Fashion programs.
A recent article in USA Today mentioned Pure Fashion and talked about the fact that some retailers are starting to offer more modest options for young women. But the consensus among the people quoted in the piece was that "the trend is more moderation than modesty" and is largely driven by the poor economy. Rather than just filling stores with trendy pieces, retailers are trying to cater to every possible customer, including smaller groups like the Pure Fashion crowd, as well as people with limited funds who are now looking for more basic and versatile items. Even Pure Fashion National Director Brenda Sharman acknowledges the economic driving force behind retailers' decisions at the end of the article, saying, "Fashion has been so sexy for the past seven to 10 years, they wanted to do something different to keep sales going."
2. There's no analysis of what being a "Pure Fashionista" actually entails, and no critical perspectives presented.
Pure Fashion's "Modesty Guidelines" are about what you might expect - no short skirts, no tight shirts, no exposed bra straps or any other manner of "under garments as outer-garments", no visible panty lines (even if you have to wear a thigh shaper to prevent it), no strapless or spaghetti strapped dresses, no "grungy" clothes that don't "express your personal dignity as a young lady".
But that's not the end of the story. Being a Pure Fashion model also means adhering to a set of beliefs and behavioral guidelines. The "Beliefs" page has two lists - one tells us what "a Pure Fashion model should be" and one is a list of 10 things that Pure Fashion models believe. The second list includes cutesy stuff like "a real model is a 'role model'" and "virtue is the most important must have for every season".
Here's the other list:
- A model of virtue
- Wholesome and happy
- Modest in her thoughts, words and actions
- Convinced of her dignity and acting accordingly
- Sincere and unselfish
- Generous and grateful
- Prudent in her decisions
- Kind and gentle with others
- Energetic and enthusiastic
- Stylish yet dignified
- Courageous in defending what is true and right
- Pure of heart
- Obedient to God's commandments
- Committed to Chastity
- Follower of Christ
- Helpful at home
- A leader of many and a servant to all
- Obedient and optimistic
- Proud to be PURE!
Despite this, all of the quotes in the piece are entirely positive on this whole idea, maybe because Robb chose to only quote people who are affiliated with Pure Fashion.
"Many parents view it as a necessity," says National Director Brenda Sharman. "They're willing to sacrifice in other areas to encourage a wholesome lifestyle for their children."Here's an idea for these parents. How about spending the money on a true self-esteem and character builder like a sports team, an art class, a science camp, etc., instead of "purity" classes that teach girls to build their self-worth around their sexuality?
"If you show skin, a lot of times a guy, like a dog seeing a shiny object, will look to it. And the girls lose. Guys won't even see who you are," explains Chris Walters, a 24-year-old minister who spoke at a recent Pure Fashion event.Well, there you have it. Guys are sex-obsessed dogs! This is coming from a guy who's also a minister so you know you can trust that it's 100% true. And, of course, the underlying message that young women should make all of their decisions about what to wear fully on the basis of what guys like and how guys might react. The Pure Fashion FAQ reinforces this by saying that "dressing modestly helps a young woman to be pure of heart, as well as helps the young boys or men with whom she comes in contact, to remain pure of heart". I guess it would be totally out of the question to expect young men to be responsible for their own thoughts and actions and to teach them to respect women regardless of how they dress or whether they meet arbitrary "purity" standards.
The cherry on top of this modesty lovefest comes from our girl Kathryn from the beginning of the article:
As for Arkin, modest clothing is a small price to pay for her virtue: "It doesn't mean you don't want to be pretty. But you should still be pure. Why? Maybe it's another word for self-respect. Or another word for nice."Purity=self-respect=niceness. There's an equation that will never let you down in life. This would have been a great time to introduce even one critical voice to balance the discussion a little. If they had asked someone like, say, Jessica Valenti, she probably would have pointed out that programs like Pure Fashion are "...ensuring that young women's perception of themselves is inextricable from their bodies, and that their ability to be moral actors is absolutely dependent on their sexuality." [The Purity Myth]
Instead, the only moment of pause that we get comes from Robb herself, who notes that, "Faith-based efforts to promote primness can be worrisome; one need only look to Tehran, Kabul, and Jerusalem to find the disturbing phenomenon of 'modesty police'." Unfortunately, that's a rather random and unhelpful criticism to make here, especially when Pure Fashion has its own questionable religious underpinnings that are worth examining.
Robb continues, "And yet, in the era of sexting and Gossip Girl-esque man-eating, there's something intriguing about Pure Fashion , which teaches its young charges that self-esteem isn't measured in terms of inches above the knee." The point should be that it isn't measured in inches below the knee either, and beyond that, it's too bad that Robb apparently didn't find Pure Fashion intriguing enough to actually dig a little deeper into what it's really about and what its members are being taught in addition to the lessons about spaghetti straps and skirt length.
3. The article glosses over Pure Fashion's connection to the controversial Catholic organization Regnum Christi.
Robb mentions that Pure Fashion is "affiliated with" Regnum Christi, but that's all she says about the group. Regnum Christi describes itself as "an apostolic movement at the service of mankind and the Church...a movement for evangelization...Regnum Christi’s mission is to bring Christ’s redemptive message to every heart, and to imbue every human endeavor with the spirit of the Gospel. Its mission is to extend Christ’s Kingdom in full collaboration with the Church and its bishops." Regnum Christi is the lay arm of the Legion of Christ order of priests.
I noticed this on their website's page about women:
Regnum Christi strives to spread an authentic vision of true femininity, in accordance with the Magisterium of the Church, and promotes initiatives aimed at strengthening the authentic rights and duties of women, thus helping them to avoid being manipulated by false forms of modern feminism.They don't specify exactly which horrors of feminism they're referring to - reproductive rights, women having careers, Title IX, suffrage? - but it's a question that I'd probably want to ask before enrolling my daughter in a "character formation program" that they were sponsoring.
But questionable views about the role of women aside, Regnum Christi has a controversial reputation both inside and outside the Catholic church. Bishops in several cities across the country have banned (or severely limited) any activity by the Legion of Christ or Regnum Christi in their dioceses due to secretiveness, suspicious recruiting tactics, and allegations of "parallel church" activities that undermined local church structures.
Archbishop Edwin O'Brien of Baltimore has been one of their most outspoken critics and has restricted their activities within his archdiocese. One of his specific concerns has been about the way that the group interacts with children and teenagers, and he has directed the group not to engage in any one-on-one spiritual counseling with anyone under the age of 18. Here are some of his comments on that issue and on his general concerns (and if you're interested in learning more, the full interviews with Archbishop O'Brien cited below give a fuller picture of just how problematic Regnum Christi might be):
But what goes on in the one-on-one counseling [with kids]… there seems to be a tendency to say, ‘We represent God. You can tell us anything, and you better believe that what we tell you is from God too. If your parents disagree, we know better. We’re in the God business, and they’re really not.’ This is a caricature, but it’s there. [National Catholic Reporter interview, 6/12/08]
I think they were walking along with us as we discussed things, they saw what our concern was – among other things, that there is undue influence on the part of Legionaries over very impressionable young people that not even parents have. That’s just not fair. If the parents don’t realize it, we have to awaken them to it, or at least speak up for the innocent one. [National Catholic Reporter interview, 6/12/08]
I want to ensure that encouragement of vocations is carried out in a way that respects the rights of parents in the upbringing of their children and the rights of young persons themselves to be able to make free and fully informed decisions about their futures.
He said the ban is motivated by concerns that the groups practice “heavily persuasive methods on young people, especially high schoolers, regarding vocations.” [NCR, 6/27/08]
"While it's difficult to get ahold of official documents," Archbishop O'Brien said, "it's clear that from the first moment a person joins the Legion, efforts seem to be made to program each one and to gain full control of his behavior, of all information he receives, of his thinking and emotions." The archbishop said many members who leave the order suffer "deep psychological distress for dependency and need prolonged counseling akin to deprogramming." [NCR 2/25/09]
When word got out of what I was doing, I was surprised by the response. I've received some harshly negative reactions, but I've also had letters from all over the country saying 'Thank you, here's my story.' I got one just last week, from somebody who had been in the organization for seven years and left last week, saying how guilty they felt and that they're having nightmares. It seems to have such a hold on people, and we need to find out why. I don't know of any other organization that has created this atmosphere of suspicion. [NCR interview, 4/3/09]
The biggest scandal involving Regnum Christi concerns Legion of Christ founder Father Marcial Maciel. Maciel was accused of sexually abusing as many as 30 boys and young men who had been his students over a period of three decades. The Legion maintained that the allegations were false, but Maciel was investigated more than once by the Catholic Church's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and after that investigation was reopened in 2004, Father Maciel stepped down as General Director of the Legion. In 2006, the Vatican ordered Maciel to retire to a life of "prayer and penitence".
Maciel died in 2008, and after his death it was revealed that he had fathered a child with a woman that he was involved with decades ago. (He was also accused of misusing Legion funds.) Now, multiple women have come forward claiming that they had children with Maciel, including at least one who says that she was also abused by him as a young girl. A Mexican lawyer has announced that he is representing three of Maciel's children in a civil suit over his estate. The Maciel scandal (and the questions about how much was covered up by the Legion and the Vatican over the years) was the subject of the 2004 book and accompanying documentary Vows of Silence.
In the wake of the scandal, earlier this year the Vatican ordered an investigation known as an apostolic visitation into the Legion of Christ. The stated purpose is to help the Legion "overcome the present difficulties...with truth and transparency". A group of designated bishops will investigate the Legion in every part of the world where it has a presence.
Just last week, an open letter to "all Regnum Christi members and friends" was released by the North American Territorial Directors of the organization to address to address the group's "difficulties".
As priests, our hearts go out to all those who have been harmed or scandalized by his actions. To all we extend a special apology on behalf of the Legion and our General Director, Father Alvaro Corcuera, who has, in fact, begun to reach out personally and in private to those he knows may have suffered most, offering his heartfelt apology and consolation, and will continue to do so. As he wrote in his March 29 letter: “We are deeply saddened and sorry, and we sincerely ask for forgiveness from God and from those who have been hurt through this.” We also regret that our inability to detect, and thus accept and remedy, Father Maciel’s failings has caused even more suffering.The letter goes on to say that the organization is taking steps to prevent any future cases of child abuse and to better deal with any allegations that do arise. It also addresses the difficulties that many Regnum Christi members are having in coming to terms with the fact that there is a great deal of truth to the many allegations against their revered founder, and notes that some people have left the organization over it.
That brings us to the question of what former members of Regnum Christi have to say about the organization. Former members who are critical of the organization have a vocal presence online, and it's easy to find stories from people like the one who wrote to Archbishop O'Brien to talk about his nightmares and feelings of guilt. Or the young woman who shared her story with the blog Catholic Light:
Along with stories like that, there are whole blogs and websites dedicated to supporting former members of Regnum Christi. The biggest group is called ReGAIN: "ReGAIN's mission is to outreach, unite and support those touched or adversely affected by the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi Movement. Past and present members and all those who quest for justice and truth, resolution and healing are invited to join in this endeavor." (While obviously not an unbiased source, Regain is certainly in a position to offer a unique perspective.) ReGAIN's website has a collection of critiques of the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi, including an examination of what they claim are "cult-like features" of the group, as well as testimonies from former members about their experiences and lists of resources for learning more and for "recovery and healing". And oh yeah, they also have something to say about Pure Fashion, which brings us back to where we started.
And now, as I'm reading about Father Maciel's love child, and prescriptive drug addiction, and his possible other children, and how he used Legion money to fund his philandering, and how the Legion hierarchy is spinning the truth in order to keep the "mystique" alive, I'm seeing things so clearly. And I'm angry, and I'm disillusioned, and I'm depressed, and, oh yeah, I'm bitter.
I'm bitter because I believed all the lies. I'm bitter because I wasted the best years of my life on a fraud. I'm bitter because people I trusted, people I looked to for guidance, people I admired, lied to me -- lied right to my face. They told me stories about what a good man Maciel was, what a saint he was. They taught me to see life through a "supernatural light." They convinced me that I was doing God's will, that I had been blessed by God with such a beautiful vocation. They brainwashed me. They used me. And then when I was of no use to them, they threw me away. And then, I thanked them.
I'm bitter because I was loyal. I'm bitter because I wouldn't let myself turn against them, I refused to see all the red flags that are so obvious to me now. I'm bitter because the movement and those involved in it meant more to me than I meant to the movement. I'm bitter because, in the end, I lost. I lost years, I lost dignity, I lost my way.As I see it, my anger and bitterness -- what I most wanted to avoid -- is actually my way out. I'm passing through the grieving process. I'm grieving my lost years, and my lost innocence. No longer the naive 20-something, so eager to do God's will and ready to sacrifice everything for the cause of Christ, I find myself almost an entire decade older, and an entirely different person. Holier? I wouldn't say that. Smarter? Tons. Wiser? Time will tell. Ready to move on? You have no idea.
So what does all of this drama with Regnum Christi have to do with Pure Fashion? Well, from what I've read so far, none of the "difficulties" with Regnum Christi have involved Pure Fashion directly. But I still find it troubling that a "character formation" and "purity" program for young women is being run by an organization that is currently struggling to come to terms with a far-reaching sexual abuse scandal and probable cover-up, and that has been accused by many people of being secretive and using questionable and "heavily persuasive" recruiting tactics on teenagers. So while it's entirely possible that Pure Fashion's activities are totally separate from Regnum Christi's and that the program isn't used to help to attract or recruit young women into the Regnum Christi movement, I don't think it's unreasonable to raise some questions about that possibility given the organization's mission statement and the concerns about how far they will go to accomplish it. There's also the question of what Regnum Christi does with the money that Pure Fashion brings in.
For what it's worth, the staff at ReGAIN is convinced that Pure Fashion is nothing more than "the latest recruiting endeavor" for Regnum Christi. They also have concerns about the messages that the program sends - not necessarily exactly the same concerns that I have, but they definitely raise some points worth considering:
Pure Fashion purports to teach young women how to dress modestly and so to be "pretty for God." In reality what happens is that the best-looking and most privileged girls are asked to model clothing in a glamorous setting while their less-than-gorgeous friends squeal and scream in appreciation (on command by their team leaders, of course) to draw attention to the event. With attention comes more possible recruits (and money) to Regnum Christi.I also think it's a bit concerning that Marie Claire would run a fluff piece basically promoting Pure Fashion without touching on any of this background information. Sure, "Modesty Makes A Comeback" is a one page piece about a cute little trend among teen girls, so the editors of Marie Claire probably wouldn't have let Amanda Robb turn it into an eight page expose of Regnum Christi. But would it have been too much trouble to include a brief cautionary note mentioning that the group that backs Pure Fashion is pretty controversial?
But the Regain contributors to this editorial (many Catholic mothers) ask all visitors to this website to stop and think clearly about Pure Fashion's consequences for a minute…
Why are we displaying our pretty, young innocent Catholic girls on a “catwalk” in a shopping mall or an elite park? The mall is a common hangout for perverts wanting to prey on children. What a perfect opportunity for each young girl to be "checked out" and her name and affiliation revealed far and wide. Imagine the microphone: "Next we have Colleen from St. Thomas More Church in Plano..."
Why are we displaying our daughters in ways that encourage vanity and undue attention to the externals. What about the feelings of the less glamorous girls who feel left out and rejected because they have acne or a non-model figure? Parents with less developed and less-than-gorgeous daughters know that many tears will be shed and real anguish of rejection experienced by their youngsters at not being invited to participate as a model or to go on other YTM outings to "important" destinations, like Rome.
Why should young Catholic girls not be encouraged to imitate St. Clare and witness to Christ by living their Faith? If they walk around modestly, doesn’t that speak volumes?
...Pure Fashion is holding a show at the Dallas Arboretum on April 28. For just $55.00 per ticket (and the cost of a $10.00 parking fee) a good time can be had by all...that is, if the adults who are paying the entrance fee are so brainless that they buy the line that the purpose of this latest recruiting ploy of Regnum Christi is "purity."
It's bad enough that the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi wreck lives of adult men and women, but when they start to shred the hopes and hearts of young girls and boys, it is pure pandering as well as being pure predator activity under any other name, even "Pure Fashion."
By criticizing Pure Fashion, I'm not suggesting that the idea of young women dressing modestly is a bad thing in and of itself or that there are no issues worth discussing when it comes to the role that the fashion and beauty industries play in sexualizing girls too young. But I do take issue with Marie Claire presenting Pure Fashion as an "intriguing" solution for young women without acknowledging the problematic aspects of Pure Fashion in particular and the myth of "purity" in general.
Rather than imposing strict definitions of "modesty" on young women that require them to define themselves by someone else's judgment of how "pure" they are, maybe we could try encouraging young women to figure out what's right for them, to experiment and express themselves in ways that they're comfortable with, to respect themselves because they deserve it even if they dare to wear tank tops sometimes, and to define themselves based on who they are and what they do with their lives rather than on how they dress.