August 1, 2008 | Commentary on Sex Education and Abstinence

Ladies, Please

Girls Gone Mild: Young Women Reclaim Self-Respect and Find It's Not Bad to Be Good by Wendy Shalit Random House, 352 pp., $25.95

"We don't want you wearing something that blends in with the crowd . . . boring! We want something that inspires!" Mrs. Hoffmann tells 45 high school girls assembled on a Saturday afternoon in Bethesda, Maryland. In black patent peek-a-boo heels and a sheer black sundress skimming the top of her knees (and this from her maternity wardrobe), Mrs. Hoffmann, 37, makes a convincing pitch.

This is Pure Fashion, a program that emphasizes virtue and dignity as it cultivates modesty and life skills. "Remember, many girls are pretty, but few are radiant," Mrs. Hoffmann tells her protégées.

I recently led a workshop on public speaking, and now it's time for the group's fashionista to assess girls' outfits for next month's fashion show. Besides the no-wallflower rule, each must meet Pure Fashion modesty guidelines and suit the individual girl. "Grow some thick skin real quick," Mrs. Hoffmann advises as the girls prepare for their consultations.

These "Pure Fashion divas," as Wendy Shalit calls them, are among the countercultural heroines she champions in Girls Gone Mild, her second book. Thick skin is a prerequisite for this rising generation of activists--girls engaged in what Shalit calls a "postmodern battle for decency." In a culture that seems "to have lost the ability to say that some toys, clothing, songs, or programs are simply inappropriate for children," Shalit's Girls are taking matters into their own hands.

That's partly because they can't always count on the adults around them to uphold decent standards, Shalit explains. Baby boomer parents who fought for sexual freedom assume their children will make the most of it. According to surveys from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, adults were more likely than teenagers themselves to think teens are embarrassed to admit being virgins. College professors' crude treatment of sexuality and high school teachers' low expectations don't help, either.

"Far too often, it's the adults who are saying we can't accomplish our dreams, and they expect us to fail instead of encouraging us to aim high," observes one teen.

With cultural consensus lowering the bar, standing up for modesty becomes an act of defiance. Girls Gone Mild pays tribute to young women who have tangled with corporations and campus authorities to challenge the status quo. One such heroine is Ella Gunderson, who at age 11 appealed to Nordstrom for more modest clothing selections. It began with a shopping trip with her mother, 13-year-old sister Robin, and friends. When Robin tried on jeans that they agreed were too tight, they asked for the next size up--only to have the Nordstrom clerk advise them, "No you don't want that size, you want the smaller size, the tighter size, because it's The Look."

That didn't sit well with Ella. She wrote a letter to the company (her mother didn't find out until Ella asked for help addressing it) expressing frustration at clothes cut too tight and too low and clerks too narrow in their concept of fashion. "I think you should change that," Ella told Nordstrom.

A few months later--while the Gundersons were helping produce a local Pure Fashion show--they were surprised to receive two apologetic responses from the company. Ella's letter and the Nordstrom responses were added to press kits prepared for the fashion show. Soon the story made the front page of the Seattle Times. Radio and television interviews followed, including an interview on the Today Show. Today's Katie Couric also interviewed Pete Nordstrom, who acknowledged receiving such complaints from other teenage girls for some time. A question raised at a stockholder meeting pressed the matter further with the company: "What do you plan to do about the Ella Gunderson issue?"

In a separate episode, a Pittsburgh-based group of girls launched a "Girlcott" of Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirts that were sexually suggestive and otherwise demeaning ("Do I make you look fat?"). When the company invited the group to its Ohio headquarters, one of the girls charged company reps with "neglecting their social responsibility." The Girlcott attracted nationwide attention and the participation of thousands of girls. It also achieved changes (at least temporarily) at Abercrombie: A&F pulled the shirts, and its inventory soon included a tee touting "cute and classy."

Abercrombie is notorious for playing on sex in its merchandise and advertising, but it is no longer exceptional in that regard. Sexualized marketing targets younger and younger audiences. One of many troubling outcomes, Shalit observes, is that when everything is sexy, it trivializes sex: "There is no longer any mystery or power to sex--it is just expected that everything will be sexual, and so nothing is. There is nothing to wait for, or to look forward to."

Instead, Shalit argues, young people should be taught "that sex is significant and that it has emotional consequences." By college, many young women have reached that conclusion the hard way and are looking for "more romance and less explicitness." Casual sex hasn't gotten them where they'd like to be. Most women are looking for a lifelong union with a man who appreciates them as a whole person, and hooking up leaves them feeling hollow. "In seeking a soul mate, it's helpful not to forget your own soul," writes Shalit.

Still, "setting high standards for your romantic life takes a lot of confidence." That's part of what prompted Cassy DeBenedetto and other Prince-ton undergraduates to found the Anscombe Society in 2005. The group supports students who are steering clear of the casual sex culture to pursue a life characterized by chastity before marriage. Similar groups have been launched on other campuses.

These and other young women are proof that the revival Shalit called for in her popular first book, A Return to Modesty, is underway. For the subjects of Girls Gone Mild, modesty "derives from knowing the true worth of something." As one high school student in Los Angeles described it, "Modesty is about having an internal approach to life." And for those who would misconstrue such an "internal approach" as sexual repression, Shalit sharpens the point:

We continually malign the good girl as "repressed," while the bad girl is (wrongly) perceived as intrinsically expressing her individuality and somehow proving her sexuality . . . . [O]ur war against sexual repression always seems to require another sort of repression, of feeling and caring.

"Could it be that badness requires more suppression of individual preferences than goodness ever did?" Shalit asks. Contrary to some feminists' beliefs, modesty doesn't have to mute individuality. In fact, says Shalit, one of the reasons modesty appeals to the girls in Pure Fashion is that "it showcases their individuality." As Elsa Hoffmann charges her suburban Washington girls, what they learn about individual dignity and self-respect is not just for them, but to influence everyone in their circle.

Girls Gone Mild is a rally cry for more young women to reclaim their rightful dignity and respect, swamped by the tide of radical feminism and the sexual revolution. For all of us, the example of Wendy Shalit's young leaders calls for "rediscovering our capacity for innocence, for wonder, and for being touched profoundly by others." 

Jennifer A. Marshall is director of domestic policy studies at The Heritage Foundation and and the author of Now and Not Yet: Making Sense of Single Life in the Twenty-First Century.

About the Author

Jennifer A. Marshall Vice President for the Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity, and the Joseph C. and Elizabeth A. Anderlik Fellow

First Appeared in World Net Daily