Growing up, the summers were hot and humid. We spent a lot of time playing in the woods, collecting wild berries and trying to find a pool or creek to cool off in. There was one rule in our family that compounded the heat on sweltering days: everyone had to wear a real shirt (with sleeves) and a real pair of shorts (much longer than your pockets). My buddies were running around with no sticky shirt to weigh them down while I was carrying a sweat sack on my shoulders every day. But those were the rules. I wore a shirt everywhere I went. As a parent, I now understand my parents' logic.
You might be thinking that my family was prude — part of a never-ending Puritan-American heritage. My parents didn't know much about skin cancer risks until my oldest siblings were out of the house, so all this couldn't have been in the name of protecting our freckled noses or pasty shoulders. We just wore clothes. I eventually found it weird that some of my friends walked around their own houses in just their underwear. You see, my family wore clothes around the house as well. All of us. Two parents and six kids all not being naked around each other. What did that teach us?
Modesty is for everyone
The most important lesson I learned growing up in a house full of clothed people was that we should all be modest. My dad didn't hang out in his undies and my brothers didn't lounge on the couch in a towel after showering. The lesson of modesty was taught by rule and example. Both the boys and girls were held to the rules. These days, modesty debates often revolve around the control of female bodies. When modesty is only a rule for women, it truly is a power game and I understand how that can make women feel oppressed. However, when modesty is a rule for everyone, it is part of common decency.
One of my brothers was a huge fan of Charles Barkley when he played for the Phoenix Suns, and he loved to wear his "Sir Charles" jersey around. He wore it to school or just shooting hoops in the driveway. He wore his sleeveless jersey over a white T-shirt, though. For my parents, it didn't matter if that wasn't cool or typical. The shirt didn't have sleeves. My sisters couldn't wear spaghetti-strap tops, and we couldn't wear tank tops.
But there are exceptions, right?
When I joined the cross country team during freshman year of high school, I was fitted for a uniform right before team photos. I had never felt so naked in my entire life. The sleeveless jersey and almost nonexistent shorts revealed limbs so pale they could blind you in full sun exposure. But the uniform served a purpose. It identified me with my team and covered as little of me as possible so I could run quickly, unimpeded (though I was, nonetheless, very slow). My oldest sister found the same exception when playing varsity soccer. The shorts were shorter than we were allowed to wear, but the uniform served a function in the sport.
There are real activities that require us to wear less than we normally would, but for the sake of other people not needing to see our every detail, we still need to make sure that we aren't looking for excuses to romp around in the buff. To this day I wear an SPF 50 swimming shirt to the beach or the pool. I'm not there to compete, so I don't need a pair of racing briefs. Our children have obtained a skin tone similar to that of a fresh sheet of acid-free printer paper, so most people don't question us when putting them in bathing suits that cover their shoulders and thighs. But it's not just about preventing years of melanoma removal for us. It's about teaching a consistent idea. And that idea is that every single person should be modest. We need to respect our bodies and respect that others probably don't want to see them when we're in public. After all, if we don't respect ourselves, then who will?