Modesty: a response to common misunderstandings

Inevitably, when I write about the modesty issue, I get some variation of the following responses:

  • Modesty is about respecting yourself.
  • Dressing “immodestly” also objectifies you.
  • Only my husband has the right to see those parts of me.
  • Do you want everyone to walk around naked?
  • Even if men are responsible for themselves, we shouldn’t tempt them.

A new addition to this list comes from an anonymous commenter today:

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.

In short, men dress modestly while women are expected to be “sexy.” Actually, yes, I have noticed that. I agree: it’s not fair.

But: you have missed the point.

I have never advocated dressing skimpily for the sake of attracting men. I think the pressure on women to expose themselves for the sake of titillating men is wrong, sexist and unfair. “Girls Gone Wild” is exploitative. Victoria’s Secret uses photoshop to mutilate models’ bodies and capitalize on the insecurities of young women, telling them that they need to look like an impossible ideal. Being against the modesty doctrine does not make me in favor of any of these things. That said, the choice between being “sexy” and being “modest” is an artificial one, designed to distract you from the fact that either way, you’re being objectified. If you accept that the purpose of your dress is either to attract men or to hide from them, you’ve accepted that your dress is not about you. It’s about the abstract male observer. “Sexy” is not the opposite of the modesty doctrine; they’re two sides of the same coin.

Now, let’s get down to business:

If you think that dressing modestly is a way of fighting back against the oppressive cultural norms that objectify women by making them expose their bodies, you are wrong. The entire point of my previous post was that when you are preoccupied with modesty, you are still basing your clothing choices around whether or not men are looking at you. You are still dressing to get a reaction from them, whether it’s a drooling “she’s hot” or a “now there is a modest, respectable Christian woman.” Furthermore, women who feel superior to other women because they are dressed “modestly” are active participants in the objectification of other women. “That slut over there” is your sister; when you demean her, you demean yourself.

If you dress “modestly” in order to get men to respect you, you have already accepted the premise that respect for women comes from what they wear. You have also accepted the premise that women who are not like you do not deserve respect. That’s not okay. That’s the attitude that leads cops and judges to blame women who were raped for “asking for it.” (As if anyone asks to be raped!) Women deserve respect for their achievements and character, not their looks. Women deserve basic human dignity regardless of what they are wearing. Tell me, when was the last time you read a passage from the gospels in which Jesus despises a person based on her clothes? When does he even notice her clothes?

Dressing “sexy” and dressing “modestly” are both about dressing for men. Trying to be sexy means you are trying to get men to look at you. Trying to be modest means you are trying to keep men from looking at you. Attracting them or repelling them – either way, it’s still all about men.

What I am arguing for is not a particular kind of dress. I am arguing for approaching clothes as objects that make you feel confident, comfortable and happy. (You know, how men perceive their own clothes.) I am arguing for ditching the mentality that everything you wear and do is a performance for men. Modesty is a doctrine that is predicated on the male gaze. Think about it: When was the last time you worried about making a poor woman “stumble” by wearing expensive fabrics in front of her?

(This is not even touching homosexuality and the risk of tempting lesbian women, because that argument has no currency in homophobic fundamentalist groups. Lesbians are told they don’t actually exist.)

Now, as for men dressing modestly. Think about the adjectives used to sell clothing to men. Is “sexy” high on the list? I’ve seen that on occasion for suits, but little else. More often, it’s about comfort and performance. Men ultimately tend to wear more fabric than women do, but it’s not because they are worried about concealing their bodies from women. Men are not objectified in American culture. The phrase “male gaze” refers to the fact that in this culture, men are coded as “lookers” and women as “looked at.” Why do you think most people react to scantily clad men in sexy poses by calling them “gay”? Because they assume that men are ones looking at everything. Men do not dress “modestly.” Their dress tends to be more conservative than women’s, but avoiding female attention is not the reason for their choices. Men don’t worry about modesty; they dress in ways that make them confident, comfortable, and happy. Modesty is not usually part of their vocabulary when talking about their own clothes.

Here is the bottom line:

  • When “modesty” is what motivates your dress and actions, you are basing your decisions on whether or not men are looking at you.
  • When being “sexy” is what motivates your dress and actions, you are basing your decisions on whether or not men are looking at you.

That’s self-objectification.

I don’t know if I can make this any clearer: I’m not telling anyone to dress “immodestly.” I don’t give a flying fig what anyone else wears. I’m saying that basing your life decisions (clothing, exercise, etc.) on the modesty doctrine is just as objectifying as basing them on being “sexy.”

If you want to oppose the sexualization and objectification of women’s bodies in the mainstream media, teach your children to respect women. Teach them that women aren’t props for selling objects. Teach them that women’s brains matter more than their looks. Teach them to buy clothes that make them happy, not to attract or repel the opposite sex. Teach them to think outside the modesty/sexy (virgin/whore) binary that forever tells women they are meant to be looked at and can be discarded if they are found wanting (“not thin enough,” “not modest enough” – it’s evil either way). Criticize marketing campaigns that exploit women. Criticize the porn industry. Show your children that they don’t have to accept the cultural messages that are thrown at them by corporations who just want to sell products using whatever tactic works best (exploitative or not). Show your kids that being a woman is not all about attracting or repelling men.

Just teaching girls to cover-up is a cop-out. Covering or uncovering isn’t the issue. The issue is why we do what we do. What’s important is to fight the idea that women are objects to be looked at, and that message is reinforced, not combated, when we teach the modesty doctrine.

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