How Modesty Made Me Fat

This isn’t a story about how modest clothes allowed me to “let myself go” and conceal a growing figure. It’s not even a story about how wearing modest clothes kept my self-esteem at rock bottom and thrust me into a too-close relationship with Ben & Jerry. It’s a story about how modesty doctrines impacted my mind, in ways that had real, negative effects on my body. Modesty was one of the reasons my defining relationship with my body became whether or not I was “fat.” Modesty was one of the engines that pushed me into a full-blown eating disorder. It’s not just a dress code: it’s a philosophy, and it’s one that destroys young women, mentally and physically.

Modesty taught me that my first priority needed to be making sure I wasn’t a “stumbling block” to men. Not being sexually attractive was the most important thing I had to consider when buying clothes, putting them on, maintaining my weight (can’t have things getting tight!), and moving around (can’t wiggle those hips, or let a little knee show). Modesty taught me that what I looked like was what mattered most of all. Not what I thought. Not how I felt. Not what I was capable of doing. Worrying about modesty, and being vigilant not to be sexy, made me even more obsessed with my looks than the women in short shorts and spray tans I was taught to hate.

Modesty taught me that I was always on display. There was no occasion in which it was acceptable to be immodest. Not the beach, not at the pool with friends, not in my own backyard (sunbathing was out because a neighbor might glance over and see me). This took my normal self-consciousness as a teenage girl and amped it up to an impossible degree. I once had a bee fly down my (acceptably loose) shirt and, in flailing around to get it out, had a family member comment that I’d just “flashed” my own grandfather. I was horrified for the rest of the week. That’s not normal. The normal order of priorities is getting dangerous animals out of your clothing first, and then worrying about making your own relatives perv on you second. Not so with the modesty doctrine. I should have let it sting me, apparently. Getting stung was the lesser risk.

Modesty was not just about dress. It was also about moving like a lady. Knees together, butt down, breasts in, arms down. It is impossible to get physically fit while adhering to ladylike movements only. You might be able to run, but only if you wear two sports bras to keep anything from jiggling inappropriately. You certainly can’t do anything with weights. In college, I had the chance to join a horseback riding team for a couple of semesters. I soon realized that staying on the horse required starting some kind of fitness regimen. In the gym, I found a couple of hip abductor/adductor machines that were handy for building the thigh strength necessary to grip the horse. The problem? I was so embarrassed that somebody might walk in front of me while I was on the machine with my legs spread that I started going to the gym the moment it opened in the morning and avoiding exercise when men were present. In this instance, modesty was literally keeping me weak. Eventually, I grew comfortable enough with my own body to exercise without worrying about other people happening to look at me. Now, I do an exercise routine that would have scandalized my old self: squats, deadlifts, and barbell rows. I have so much more energy and my mood is so much improved – plus, I can move my own furniture! But I couldn’t have got to this point without dumping the modesty doctrine. Because I couldn’t concentrate on hauling iron while worried that some perv behind me might happen to glance my way and pop his gym shorts. That’s not my job anymore. I’m not responsible for men’s souls, because I no longer think of myself as an object to be looked at and evaluated.

Backing up to before I got to college, modesty contributed to my eating disorder. How? Because I noticed that the best way to keep men from staring at my ass was not to have one. Ditto boobs. The skinnier I got, the less womanly I looked, and the more “modest” I felt, until I was 25lbs underweight. I was perpetually “fat” in my own mind – because in my own mind, the only acceptable body type was an androgynous one – one that could not possibly provoke a man to lust. I’m sure I don’t need to explain why that was a bad thing.

Modesty taught me that I was a decoration. Everything about my life was governed by whether or not a man was watching. How I moved and what I ate or wore all depended on the male gaze. Modesty taught me that nothing I did mattered more than avoiding sexual attention. Modesty made me objectify myself. I was so aware of my own potential desirability at all times that I lost all other ways of defining myself. I couldn’t work out or get fit without worrying about attracting men. I couldn’t relax my eating habits for a moment lest my shirts start to pull a little in the chest. I couldn’t grow like a normal human adolescent because staying slim and sexless was the biggest priority in my world.

When you argue that what’s modest and what isn’t is a valid concern for women, you tell them that their appearance matters most. You objectify them. You tell them that whether or not you are sexually aroused by their actions or their dress is more important than anything they want to do or wear. You tell them that they must, at all times, be thinking about you when they are making decisions about their own lives. That’s arrogant. That’s immoral.

When you argue that modesty is just a “debate” that must be won by those whose arguments are strongest in the abstract, you ignore the fact that the “debate” has consequences you don’t have to live with. Women have to live with the consequences of modesty debates. Those debates impact every sphere of their lives: work, play, even their own health and wellbeing. If you think that, as a man, you can somehow argue “objectively” about what women should or shouldn’t wear and “win” a debate fair and square, let me remind you of a few things. If a man “loses” a modesty debate, nothing about his life changes. If a man “wins” a modesty debate, nothing about his life changes. But if a woman loses a modesty debate, the entire fabric of her existence changes. If a woman loses a modesty debate, she has lost whole areas of freedom in her life. She now has more things to worry about not doing so that men will not get aroused. There is no such thing as an “objective” argument in which the stakes are astronomical for one side and nonexistent for the other. Furthermore, by even accepting modesty as a valid area of concern for women, you have accepted a premise that defines women by their looks and objectifies them. Women have already lost the moment a modesty debate begins.

Modesty made me “fat” because it defined my relationship with my body in terms of appearance. Not action. Not gratitude. Not the joy of movement. Just appearance. It also defined my relationship with men as one of predator and prey. It was my job to hide from men so that their sex drive would lie dormant, like a sleeping wolf. But if that wolf ever awakened, it was not because it had been sleeping for a long time and its circadian rhythm kicked in, or it was just naturally hungry. It was my fault because I had done something to “bait” the wolf. Just by being visibly female, or by moving in “unladylike” ways. You cannot consider women full human beings unless you recognize that their lives do not revolve around the male sex drive. Modesty is a philosophy that dehumanizes. It incites constant fear and vigilance in one sex while excusing the other of all responsibility. It’s immoral.

  • Naomi

    Wow I never thought about this…very true though!! I never thought how modesty makes me more aware of the men around me and fear waking the big bad wolf!

  • elisa hill

    Its the human need to blame the victim,no one would say’you tempted that burglar by having a house to burgle’ People are responsible for their own sin,it is their choice.

    • Naomi Waterman

      Totally agree Elisa! And just because you accidentally left the door unlocked the police aren’t going to blame you for having your house robbed! So why do we blame the women when it isn’t their fault some idiot couldn’t control himself?

      I love the saying of even woman in burkahs in Iran/Iraq get raped so how does this make it the women fault?

  • Anonymous

    When modesty was a huge component of my life, I was way too thin. I was 119-121lbs and 5’9.” I was so thin my bloodsugar was dangerously low. I was so lightheaded and negatively impacted healthwise that I couldn’t play raquetball – a sport that I loved. I had to leave class early because of it (I couldn’t play sports in a team but I could in a class) and it was embarrassing, humiliating, and oh so very disappointing. I was never concerned about my looks. I didn’t feel ugly, I didn’t feel exceptionally beautiful, I felt secure. But, to hide who I was in the effort to be modest, I wore baggy clothes for the most part – to the point where my mom said something. Then, in order to not be attractive, I would run away whenever a guy would even glance my way. If they attempted to talk to me, I would soon ditch them. I believed I was not supposed to attract male attention – I would be a flirt and I would gain unwanted attention – only “the one” could give me attention (who the hell would know who that was, God maybe?? — not likely that I would find out). Later on it was believed there was something wrong with me because I didn’t have a boyfriend. Then, later, when I did stumble across a guy who was interested in me – one I ditched because he was Mormon (one of the nicest guys ever), one used me as a stepping stone to get to my sister, the other was in the right place at the right time who I married then later turned out to be not-so-nice but now he’s a great friend that I connect with every so often. I’ve now been single since 2003 and have continued to not know how to date, how to attract men, how to be other than a really great friend. I also hardly eat. I eat one maybe two meals a day and the second is likely cereal. I fill up on breafast via a latte or white chocolate mocha sometimes topped with mini donuts. As a result, I’ve maintained and/or gained weight with the most unhealthy diet ever. I dress horrid – although some disagree. And I see myself and think of myself as fat and ugly. Repulsive, really. My friends don’t see that, but that is how I see myself. Never thought of the correlation between modesty and body image before. Never thought of myself as being a component of the “modesty” image. Thanks so very much for the insight.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t feel refusing to emphasize or expose my breasts the thighs, due to social pressures to be “sexy” (which basically means trying to get everyone out there to desire sexual pleasure from you whether they actually touch you or not) while men are allowed more clothing then women is objectifying. Don’t get me wrong, I see how some people may use immodesty as an excused for abuse which is wrong (with abuse people tend to like any excuse they can get) but I think blaming “modesty” for social problems is like throwing the baby out with the bath water. Think of the alternative. Is immodest dress non-objectifying of women? Do porn sites and sex traffickers use modest dress to degrade women? Not really, they use immodest dress as a tool to get the mind of the person as a human being and keep it on their parts. Haven’t you noticed that men dress more modestly than women? In western society women are expected to be exposed to anyone. Main difference between male and female clothing is that female clothing tends to be much shorter tighter which isn’t fair. I don’t think being immodest is going to do anything to uplift society’s view of women from a play thing to a human being.I can be a beautiful person without advertising my parts and think it’s also a bit unfair to expect men to view women in a manner that isn’t highly objectified and then purposely walk around naked or close to get draw attention to one’s parts and then get mad if they look lower than the face WHICH I THINK IS STILL THEIR FAULT IF THEY CHOOSE TO BUT, as I said walking around naked or close to isn’t going to help uplift sociality’s view of women.

    I think sociality needs education to not view women’s body’s an entertainment or their parts (breasts thin legs etc…) or as all important and immodestly, in my mind contradicts that. Woman’s bodies are really sexually stimulating either way; modesty doesn’t deny that, it just keeps the woman in view as a whole in focus (not being scared of men etc…I also think modest is more then not showing skin it’s a sign of self esteem or respect to not feel dependent on the attention of others by working hard for it not that attention is bad) vs. immodestly purposely objectification of women by empathizing certain body parts above the whole that’s why sociality sells us many fake breasts padded bra padded panty etc instead of self acceptance as a person overall.
    Ps. I’m not an old lady or even living on my own yet and I don’t wear a tent by any means. I wear clothes that actually fit and flatter me but simply don’t show my cleavage and so on to everyone because I think I’m awesome and blessed to be a women and don’t think any random man (or women) should be entitled to see the intimate parts of my body anymore than men (or women) should be entitled to touch me. I also firmly believe women aren’t to blame of things twisted men think up and I’m going work my outfit, just not promote any of my parts because I am not anyone of them. I am a whole person and only the person I specifically choose to give myself to should be allowed to peak. ;-) I do find it a bit odd how people in tend to assume dressing modest =equals oppression of some kind especially since men wear much more than women. I am modest because I feel like it (I won’t deny I believe in God but having modest dress is still my personal choice) and think sociality’s pressure on women to show their curves to any and everyone is silly. No other human or even God forces control over how I dress.

    Being afraid of men/self conscious and being modest isn’t the samething.

    • http://nonprophetmessage.wordpress.com Sierra

      I have addressed several of these points in my subsequent blog post.

  • Anonymous

    Twisted men go for “women in tents” just as much as women “showing their cleavage” or “more skin than not.” A Conservative Mennonite (their dresses are regulated ‘to a T’) got raped and beaten and left for dead in the states. And, as Naomi noted Muslim women in full garb get raped. Girls in Africa get raped all the time and all most of the girls getting raped by army kids/guys/men have are the clothes on their back. As you may be suggesting, you can go overboard on both “tents” as well as “cleavage”/”skin.”

    I think what is being referred to are women who want to wear clothing to be a feminine female vs a downtrodden female. To dress to be attractive – not necessarily to show off the body as if no clothes were worn (although that in itself can be sexy in the right place at the right time such as on the red carpet or to a dance), but to be a woman and to be identified as a woman.

  • Andy Goteroff

    Rape has nothing to do with this discussion. Rape happens because there are men who are rapists, not because of how women are dressed. Rapists are from every culture. They are psychopaths. The discussion is about how the pursuit of modesty impacts a woman’s ability to define herself as more than an object of male desire (rape has nothing to do with desire).

    Understand this. As much as the female self image is bound to the perception of male attraction, so is the male self image bound to the perception of female attraction. Many men feel compelled to bind their self worth with how successful they are. Statistically, men pursue jobs that are more dangerous, stressful, and difficult to attain than women. The relentless drive for success impacts their lives and the lives of those around them to an extraordinary degree (and not necessarily for the better). These men view themselves as success objects for women and define their entire character through that context. This is no different than the women who define themselves through how their physical appearance affects men. It is just as crippling for the men. Its not a female thing, its a human thing. We are all together in this and must heal together.

    What we are all missing is that these perceptions of what the opposite gender desires from us are typically not necessary. Just as women are attracted to all kinds of men (successful and otherwise), men are attracted to all kinds of women (modest and immodest). There is no reason to embody one and avoid the other. There is enough variation in how humans desire each other that it is entirely possible for everyone to find someone who is attracted to them just the way they are most comfortable. Women who wear gobs of make up in order to attract more men and just as silly as men who buy a flashy sports care in order to attract more women. Neither needs “more”. They only need a small number of quality relationships in which they can be valued without the baggage of social artifice that is incorrectly deemed necessary to attract anyone at all. The more disturbing thing is how culture informs us that it is socially improper to desire anything but those who embody this social artifice. Men who are attracted to fat women and women who like short men are held in lesser esteem. What we really need to change in society is this intolerance for non-typical attraction. When people are free to love who they want without fear of social ostracism because of it then we will all feel more free to reveal ourselves as we are without the restriction of social artifice.

    In other words, if we stop judging others for who they are attracted to then there will be plenty of people who feel free to express their attraction to us, however we wish to be.

  • http://www.facebook.com/fairbetty Elisabeth Kauffman

    I love this post. I think that what men think and how men view women has been so ingrained into our culture and understanding of the world that we take that as the gospel truth for how we act and police ourselves… and it’s really hard for most people to see how it’s broken and why the “rules” are different for men and for women and why they need to be redefined. Your discussion is so important and it resonates with me. Thanks.

  • Pingback: Nudes, Modesty, and the Pink Elephant Principle « The Nest Egg

  • The Donald

    Any principle taken to this extreme is unhealthy whether it is “modesty” patriotism or even love. There is a huge difference between the modesty this article described and the actual meaning of the word. It is not a woman’s job to make sure men do not find her attractive but at the same time a lady does not dress like a prostitute and say it should be acceptable. The issue in this situation is one persons warped view of what is normally a positive character trait. A lady can dress modestly and still be beautiful and it is obvious that if you teach a girl she is not allowed to be attractive there will be mental repercussions. We should speak out against people who in their ignorance create these problems, instead of attacking a virtue that has almost been lost in this society as it is.

    • http://nonprophetmessage.wordpress.com Sierra

      I don’t think anyone is actually attacking the virtue of modesty. My own critique is of a doctrine that calls itself modesty but is really sexism in disguise. The literal meaning of modesty is much more about character: humility, most of all.

  • http://cberryonline.com Christina {Chrissy} Berry

    “You cannot consider women full human beings unless you recognize that their lives do not revolve around the male sex drive.”

    OMG. Thank God someone finally had the guts to say this!

  • http://airmattresschronicles.wordpress.com tamaracorine

    Thank you.

  • Jus

    I can understand that your experience with over zealous (and apparently religiously motivated) family makes you angry. And rightfully so.
    I see how you think the ‘doctrine of Modesty’ is the problem but i disagree. Not going to the gym is not modesty doctrine, that’s something else. That’s oppression. Thats a whole other level of control. That’s akin to denying women education or votes or jobs on company boards. A systemic sexism that denies a man has any responsibility for his actions particularly in relation to sex or sexual violence. That’s far from a balanced doctrine of modesty.

    I would go as far as to say it is the SAME oppression that tells adolescent girls they NEED to look sexy, appealing, always conscious of their appearance. where you are told to dress ‘non-feminine’ or bland, they are taught to dress to entice, as sexually sub-ordinate partners desperate to serve. Their are equally demanded of to be conscious of their public image. And it is equally soul-destroying.

    The pressure on them is no different to yours, just the opposite outcome.

    Surely you recognise that modesty in various circumstances (funerals and work meetings) are equally adhered to by men, and reasonable, and that modesty at the beach or at the Gym is not modesty but another form of male domination and women’s inequality?

    Glad you’re now free to sweat like a pig at the Gym and not feel less than adequate!

    • http://nonprophetmessage.wordpress.com Sierra

      Um… that was exactly the point of my post (and its follow-up). I don’t see how we disagree at all, other than on the meaning of the word “modesty.” My point is that the idea of “modesty” has been hijacked in evangelical Christian culture and turned into just another form of misogyny/sexism/oppression.

      Modesty, the virtue, is not about sex appeal or what one wears. It’s about an absence of boastfulness in one’s attitude.

      • Anon E Mouse

        …..which while not JUST about dress, will AFFECT the way you dress!! That’s all I would add to your definition.

        • http://nonprophetmessage.wordpress.com Sierra

          You’re free to add that, certainly, but I disagree. I don’t think the two are related at all, and saying that modesty of character will affect your dress is barely a step away from saying you can tell who has modest character based on how they’re dressed. I reject such snap judgments.


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