No, Modesty Does Not “Empower” Women

I recently came upon an article via Ladies Against Feminism titled 4 Reasons Modesty Empowers Women (And Porn Does Not). Let’s start with the title. The title contrasts “modesty” and “porn,” seemingly unaware that the two are not the only options, or that there is a huge difference between porn on the one hand, and an ordinary person wearing “revealing” clothing she just happens to like on the other.

Now let’s move on to the post itself:

Modern women everywhere are taught that it’s perfectly normal to uncover 90% of their skin in public. Everything from bathing suits, to formal wear, to athletic clothes has been stripped down to the bare minimum.

Our culture teaches women that undressing and even going nude is empowering for our gender. We see this in the increasingly popular acceptance of female porn stars.

You want to hear something ironic? Kristen Clark, the author of this piece, describes herself as “passionate about fighting feminism” but appears to be completely unaware of the epic battles within feminism over pornography. Some feminists argue that pornography is okay and even empowering while others argue that pornography is the product of a sexist patriarchal society that objectifies women. Regardless of a given feminists’s position, I’m fairly certain that most feminists would gawk at the idea that feminism is the reason for “the increasingly popular acceptance of female porn stars”—whatever exactly Clark means by that.

Sadly, though, the results have proven to be anything but empowering. If you talk to the average woman today, you will slowly uncover a defeated woman who is insecure, unhappy, and completely discontent with her body and her life.

Empowering? I don’t think so.

A study called “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness” stated, “Women are less happy nowadays despite 40 years of feminism. Despite having more opportunities than ever before, they have a lower sense of well-being and life satisfaction.”

There are a number of problems with using the study Clark cites to make the point she makes—for one thing, the difference the researches found was tiny, and for another thing, female suicide rates have fallen during this same period while male suicide rates have remained stable. It’s also worth noting that she’s missing a variable in her analysis. It would be perfectly reasonable to suggest, based on the evidence she presents here, that women’s happiness may be affected by the oversized share of housework and childcare women continue to shoulder even as they now carry a more equal share of the income earning. Actually, that’s not the only variable that’s missing. We might ask, for example, whether women have higher expectations today than they did forty years ago, and whether that affects their happiness level. All this is to say that Clark’s data does not say what she thinks it says.

But let’s go back a paragraph or so to this: “If you talk to the average woman today, you will slowly uncover a defeated woman who is insecure, unhappy, and completely discontent with her body and her life.” What in the world kind of friend group does Clark have, exactly?! I am a woman myself and have many many many female friends and frankly, that description is not true of any of them. If Clark thinks she’s describing the average woman there, she needs to get out more!

Rather than jumping on board with our culture’s push to undress, I’m proposing a new method for empowering women. Modesty. I strongly believe that modesty empowers women far (far!) more than nudity does.

Okay, personal story time. Growing up in an evangelical home, I was raised on Clark’s modesty standards. Dressing modestly never felt empowering. I spent an awful lot of time judging other women for wearing revealing clothing and deeming myself holier because I covered up properly, but empowering? No. You know what felt empowering? Coming out of this mindset and realizing that I could wear whatever I damn well pleased.

Also, what is this contrasting of modesty with nudity? [Edit: I originally explained the reasons I don’t go nude—it’s not socially inappropriate, and I don’t think I would find it very comfortable. However, a reader pointed out that my discussion of nudity sounded a bit like a condemnation of nudity. It was not intended that way! Oops! The level of nudity that is considered appropriate varies by culture, and there is nothing shameful about nudity. I’ve read interesting defenses of nude beaches that point out that exposure to nudity demystifies the human body in a way that is not at all sexual. The point I was trying to make here is that Clark frequently argues against strawmen in her post. Clark is upset about the relative amount of clothing people wear, not nudity, but contrasting modesty with nudity allows her to provide the highest possible level of shock and horror to her (presumably conservative) readers.]

But let’s move on to Clark’s four reasons.

1. Modesty places value on a woman’s body (porn doesn’t).

Women were created by God to be physically beautiful—full of soft curves and a lovely figure. However, God didn’t design the intimate parts of this beautiful body to be consumed by any passerby. When we, as women, uncover and reveal our intimate body parts, we cheapen their value.

A large diamond is considered precious and valuable because it’s rare and uncommon. Modesty works the same way. By covering our intimate parts, we boldly state that we are precious, valuable, and not available for common consumption.

Women are not objects that are “consumed.” It doesn’t work that way. It’s true that there are some who reduce women to objects, but dressing “modestly” won’t change that (indeed, even wearing a burka doesn’t change it). I mean good grief, Clark herself reduces women to objects in this very section when she compares women to diamonds! Is it that hard to approach women as people?

Question: Why does no one ever talk abut a man “cheapening his value” when showing off his muscles?

Answer: Because purity advocates treat women, and not men, as objects to be consumed.

Our value doesn’t come from our bodies or our physical appearance. It’s true that there are some who believe otherwise, and who tie our value to our appearance and looks . . . and yes, I am once again talking about Clark here, because she is the one who is tying women’s value to their physical appearance. What else are we to take away from her claim that dressing in clothing she doesn’t approve of cheapens our value?

There is some serious irony going on here. Modesty advocates often deride the objectification of women and then turn around and reduce women to objects themselves. And similarly, they often deride the tying of women’s value to their physical appearance . . . while tying women’s value to their physical appearance.

Note: A reader has pointed out that Clark’s diamond analogy falls flat for another reason. While diamonds are rare, they are meant to be shown off and displayed. Their owners don’t hide them in bank vaults, they wear them in jewelry or display them in museums for all eyes to see—and that level of display does not lessen their value. If anything, it increases it, by making them only more desirable and alluring.

2. Modesty promotes female dignity (porn makes her an object). 

Pornography and immodesty have completely backfired on women. Rather than gaining more respect and dignity in the eyes of men, we have become objects to consume. By undressing, we have trained many modern men to view us as nothing more than eye candy. We have thrown our dignity down the drain at the false promise of becoming more empowered.

Putting our clothes back on is the first step to regaining some ground. Actions speak louder than words. By dressing modestly we silently proclaim that we are not purchasable objects. We are dignified women who value our bodies, and expect the same from others.

As Jessica Rey stated, “Modesty isn’t about hiding ourselves, it’s about revealing our dignity.”

Now wait just a minute. In the previous section, Clark jumped all over herself describing women as objects to consume, and here she writes that wearing revealing clothing has made women objects to consume. Sorry Clark, you can’t have it both ways. Clark is in fact arguing that women are objects to consume—she just wants them to be consumed only by their husbands. Well you know what? I reject the idea that I am an object to consume. I reject the entire framework.

If a man looks at me and thinks I’m sexy, what’s it to me? I’ve not been “consumed.” I’m still just as much here and just as much whole as before. And you know what? No amount of “modest” dressing will prevent men (and women!) from sometimes looking at a woman and thinking “sexy.” Clark doesn’t wear a burlap sack (and as I’ve pointed out, even that wouldn’t be enough). If you go through life obsessing over whether men are looking at you and thinking “sexy” you’re going to be miserable.

Now I know I’m starting to sound like a broken record here, but I do have to point out that Clark once again ties women’s value to their physical appearance and their bodies. She has tied women’s “dignity” to what they wear. This is absurd. It is absolutely absurd that we should have to dress in the way Clark wants in order to gain her respect. Clark needs a serious reality check here. Who is she to tell women how or whether they value their bodies? Who is she to decide what a woman who values her body looks or dresses like? Who is she to judge women who dress in ways she does not like unworthy of respect?

Clark thinks she has the solution when in fact she is the problem.

3. Modesty demands respect (porn does the opposite).

Women want respect just like men do. Sadly—in my opinion—nothing has destroyed respect for women more than the porn industry. I looked up synonyms for respect, and I found words like “esteem,” “regard,” “high opinion,” admiration, reverence, and honor. Porn encourages none of those for women. Why? Because porn turns us into “objects” and objects are disposable and replaceable.

Women who dress with modest class naturally demand more respect. When we respect our own bodies, we encourage the respect, honor, and admiration from those around us.

Sigh. Here we go again.

Look, there is more out there than the two extremes of “porn” and “modesty.” (And while we’re at it, I feel compelled to point out that there are an awful lot of people who would consider Clark’s clothing choices immodest.) I dress how I want to dress, not how the porn industry tells me to dress, and I would argue that this is true for most women. Yes, we sometimes go out of our way to make ourselves attractive to a potential mate, but usually, how we dress has much more to do with what makes us feel comfortable and confident than what is going to turn the male (0r female) eye.

Did you notice my use of the word “confident”? When I chose what to wear, I generally go for two things—comfortable and confident. I want clothes that feel comfortable on me and aren’t going to get in the way, and I want clothes I will feel confident in. Clark seems to think that “modest” clothing is necessary for things like esteem, confidence, or respect. That’s bullshit. Different clothing will be appropriate for different situations, yes, but as a general rule I feel hella confident in a low-cut tank top and yoga pants.

I also don’t want people to base their esteem for me on how I dress. Honestly, if someone is going to think less of me for wearing a shirt that shows cleavage or wearing skin-tight yoga pants in public, I really don’t want that person’s esteem to begin with. People who are going to judge me based on my clothing aren’t worth my time. Ouch, that sounded really harsh. My point is that it’s not worth my time or effort to change my clothing to satisfy judgmental people who care more about external appearance than internal value.

Ironically, Clark thinks it’s the world that judges women by their appearances, not her.

4. Modesty draws attention to the face (porn feasts on the body).

It’s not uncommon to be out in public and see a random guy doing a “once over” on a girl. When we, as women, undress and reveal sections of our intimate body parts, we shouldn’t be surprised when strangers feast on our body. By dressing immodestly we invite everyone, including creepers, to enjoy what isn’t theirs.

The attention we receive (good or bad) is based on our physical allure, not on who we are as a person. By dressing modestly we instantly put the creepers in their place. We send the message that our face is where the focus needs to be. We encourage people to get to know “us” not our curves.

Do I really have to say this again? Random guys will give girls a “once over” regardless of what they are wearing. Back when I was in college, I tried to explain why I cared so much about dressing “modestly” to my now-husband. I pointed out a girl I was in Bible study with and noted her modest attire. I told him that men wouldn’t look at her and think sexual thoughts because she was dressed modestly. He laughed and told me that my friend was actually extremely sexy in that outfit, modest or not. At the time, I was shocked. I had thought that my modest clothing choices protected me from the male gaze. That illusion was shattered.

There is no way to dress “modestly” enough to prevent men (and women) from finding the female body attractive. I mean good gracious, take a look at this image:

It turns out that dressing modestly doesn’t put creepers in their places.

Clark cautions that if we dress immodestly “the attention we receive [is] based on our physical allure” rather than on who we are as a person. But let me point out that Clark spent the entire rest of her post tying our worth as a person to our physical appearance. In other words, she is judging people based on their physical appearances, and doing so completely shamelessly. She talks of women who dress in ways she doesn’t appear of being “cheapened.”

Clark is absolutely right that there are people who judge women primarily based on their physical appearance and clothing choices—people like sexist men who see women as objects and, well, Clark. Is there any reason—any real, actual reason—we should let those people determine our clothing choices and and style? None that I can see! I’m going to carry on as I have been and presume that most people are the decent sort who understand that what’s inside matters more than what’s outside.

For someone so concerned about people receiving attention based on their “physical allure” rather than who they are as a person, Clark appears to care a lot about dressing stylishly. You can see pictures of her and her family here. If she wants people to focus on her face and who she is as a person rather than on her clothing choices or physical appearance, why dress so stylishly? I’m fairly certain that she and her sisters likely have friends gushing over this outfit or that skirt—how is this not receiving attention based on physical allure rather than on “who we are as a person”? I should clarify that I don’t have a problem with people wearing cute clothing, or being complimented on their sense of style. I just have a problem with Clark thinking that what she’s doing is oh so different from what other women do. It’s not.

Frankly, the only difference I see between Clark’s pictures and the young women I see walking across campus wearing cute bras under see-through shirts is the particular sense of style. In both cases I see young women confident in their bodies and excited about their clothing styles. In both cases I see young women wearing clothes that make them feel confident and cute. Look, I’m glad Clark has found a clothing style that makes her feel comfortable and confident. I’m all for that! Why can’t she let the rest of us do the same?

Letting women make their own clothing and style choices without judgement? Now that might be empowering!

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