Memorial Monday’s Massive Modesty Media Mention

I know, I know, I got carried away by the alliteration automobile. Here’s a definition of the modesty doctrine and a bunch of other people talking about it:

The Modesty Doctrine: A Definition

The “modesty doctrine” is the belief that women need to cover their bodies to prevent men from being attracted to them, because sexual attraction is lust that leads to sin and death for both.  The modesty doctrine is not the same as wearing conservative clothing. You can do the latter without believing the former. It is the belief, the mindset of the modesty doctrine that is so harmful. Not the clothes. The modesty doctrine is found in fundamentalist Christianity, Judaism and Islam, with milder echoes in mainstream Western culture.

The Modesty Doctrine: How it’s Taught

This fundamentalist Christian woman teaches about modesty in a Bible study on Youtube. She claims that she has only heard one sermon on modesty(by John MacArthur), so she is filling that gap. She provides a good overview of how fundamentalists think about modesty. I’ve made some notes below so that you can skip directly to certain topics. She begins the video series by instructing women to ask their husbands for permission to watch the video series, so doctrines of submission are also mixed in here:

Modesty and Christian Women, Part One
Introduction
Modesty and Christian Women, Part Two
2:43 “God tells us what to wear”; 3:05 “Shamefacedness and sobriety”; 5:30-6:30 “Consequences of being a ‘stumbling block’ are literally death,” “Don’t cause your brother to have to pluck out his eyes”; 8:45 “Underwear”
Modesty and Christian Women, Part Three
Motivations; 2:17-3:30 “Ten motives for dressing immodestly”; 4:20 “Ten motives to dress modestly”; 7:25 “Submission to husbands”
Modesty and Christian Women, Part Four
Motivations; 6:40 “Christ made himself of no reputation – the world will think we are weird”
Modesty and Christian Women, Part Five
Seductiveness; “Your body belongs to your husband; no one else has a right to see your stomach or your thighs”; 0:43 “You’re literally walking around naked and unashamed”; 1:27 “A brother thanked me for dressing modestly”; 2:15 “If you were to drop dead wearing your current garments”; 4:30 “Practicality and Application”; 6:20-7:06 “I was rebuked by a sister for what I was wearing”

Here is a video interview with several (mostly young) Mormon men about why they think women should dress modestly:
A Guy’s View on Modesty
Common views include: (1) Women who don’t follow modesty standards don’t respect themselves, and (2) are insecure and attention-seeking; (3) “I don’t want other men looking at my wife.”

This woman tells her story about learning to accept other people’s corrections of her wardrobe:
Modest Talk: Accepting Admonishment

Two “Modest Fashion” blogs illustrating the range of beliefs amongst Christian fundamentalists about what constitutes “modest” attire:
Heavenly Princess Blog
Bramblewood Fashion
Meanwhile, Get Off My Internets is confused about what modesty fashion blogs are for, anyway.

This long quotation from R.J. Rushdoony explicitly links the modesty doctrine with submission and sexual faithfulness:
Woman as Home Builder: Faithfulness in Modesty

She is building a home when her womanliness, her sexuality, is such that not only her husband knows and can safely trust in her, but all the world knows–if they know her at all–that ‘there is a woman who belongs to one man’. … The woman lies who vows at the marriage altar faithfulness to her husband–to the degree that she exerts her power over other men even in a minor matter, even in an “innocent”, flirtatious manner, even in the manner of her dress that she advertises to other men the peculiar relationships of her womanhood that belong only to her husband; to that extent, I say, she lives a lie. 

In other words, a woman can cheat on her husband by wearing shorts.

Critiques of the Modesty Doctrine

A series on Persephone Magazine ran a couple of weeks ago on the myths that fuel the modesty doctrine:
The Myth of Modesty, Part One
The Myth of Modesty, Part Two
The Myth of Modesty, Part Three

Gertie’s New Blog for Better Sewing:
The Problem with Praising Modesty

The Good Men Project responds to one of my posts about modesty on No Longer Quivering:
The Modesty Doctrine

A former Mormon missionary shares her humorous struggles with modest, skirts-only dress code and bicycles:
Biking in a Skirt
(I had to do exactly the same thing to make biking work when I was younger. I used to carry rubber bands everywhere to tie up excess skirt folds in an emergency.)

Simcha Fisher at National Catholic Register has another humorous post about modesty obsession:
How to be Immodest About Modesty

The Exponent has posted an excellent analysis on the relationship of the modesty doctrine to rape culture:
Modesty: Rape Culture, Rape Apology, Young Women, Young Men

The Modesty Doctrine in Judaism and Islam

On modesty competition amongst ulta-Orthodox Jewish women:
How Much Modesty Will Ever Be Enough for Orthodox Girls?
And an Orthodox rabbi responds in a NY Times op-ed:
Lechery, Immodesty and the Talmud: Ultra-Orthodox Jews and the Modesty Fight

The modesty doctrine can kill:
Saudi Police “Stopped” Fire Rescue

According to the al-Eqtisadiah daily, firemen confronted police after they tried to keep the girls inside because they were not wearing the headscarves and abayas (black robes) required by the kingdom’s strict interpretation of Islam.
One witness said he saw three policemen “beating young girls to prevent them from leaving the school because they were not wearing the abaya”.
The Saudi Gazette quoted witnesses as saying that the police – known as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice – had stopped men who tried to help the girls and warned “it is a sinful to approach them”.

My note: Please pay attention to the fact that the first criticisms of this egregious religious abuse came from Saudi families and the Saudi media. This isn’t about Islam, it’s about fundamentalism. The difference between the wardrobe restrictions of women in Saudi Arabia and women in fundamentalist Christianity is a difference of degree, not of kind. This story is from 2002, but is useful to illustrate the extremes to which the modesty doctrine can be taken.

The Modesty Doctrine and Body Policing

Feministe ran the following article this morning:
Students at Stuyvesant Take Issue with Dress Code
It concerns the way that the modesty doctrine ultimately isn’t about clothes, it’s about bodies. It’s a method for punishing women who do not conform to an idealized, asexual, inoffensive body type. The “offenders” are women with large breasts, wide hips, or discernible “booty”:

Beyond the treatment of young men as uncontrollable animals and the treatment of young women as rape-bait, the Stuy dress code enforcers also appear to fall into a common problem with dress codes generally — defining an “appropriate” body. As the students quoted in the Times article implied, some of them technically met the dress code but were still told they were “inappropriate,” not because of what they were wearing, but because of how it looked on them. I don’t know what those students look like, but I’m going to guess it comes down to boobs and butts. Flesh is what’s often considered “inappropriate” — B-cup boobs in a turtleneck are fine, but double-Ds are not; straight hips in a pencil skirt are fine, but curvy ones are not. It’s the body that’s being policed, not the clothes.

  • Lee

    This is so true. And, especially regarding the last article about dress codes, it’s not just in fundamentalist Christian (and other religious) circles, but it’s in the wider culture as well. I remember being in a (secular!) middle school and being told I violated the dress code over and over again (despite the fact that I was and am the sort of person who wears T-shirts, jeans, and occasionally a sweatshirt at pretty much all times), singled out next to friends who were wearing clothes that far more obviously flaunted the rules, like spaghetti straps. Why? Starting in 6th grades my breasts exploded to a size DD by the 8th grade. I remember feeling so crappy about it, so “slutty”– I couldn’t wear a T-shirt with a funny slogan on it because I would be accused by teachers (particularly the principal and one lady who ran the computer room, who were the primary enforcers of the ‘dress code’) of trying to attract attention to my breasts. Come to think of it, that was when I started wearing guys’ clothes, because they made me look shapeless and people could finally pay attention to the things I was trying to say. But then I caught crap for being a ‘rebel’ and a ‘dyke’! (Which, on another note, I turned out to be, but oh well)

    Basically, the modesty thing and this policing of women’s bodies and clothing– it’s a problem everywhere. It’s a lot bigger of a problem in fundamentalism, but it’s caught up in this whole slut-shaming culture we’ve got all over America. I was about as isolated from religion as anyone, and this crap still hurt me.

    • Liberated Liberal

      It’s true. It’s pervasive in our culture. Our culture is, ultimately, a patriarchal culture that puts all of the shame, blame and abuse on the women. Of course the degrees differ, but the underlying message is exactly the same all across the board.

      Lee, it’s also sad that you were made fun of for having large breasts. My mom was, as well, and carries that hurt today. I, on the other hand, grew none and was made fun of for that (even by teachers). I, because I also wore’s guy’s t-shirts and jeans in order to hide by bony upper body AND my very large lower body was labeled all sorts of derogatory-friendly terms for gay. I’m not, but even my mom thought I was.

      Honestly, we women are ridiculed no matter what we look like – too thin, too fat, too sexy, too androgynous, big boobs, small boobs, booty, no booty, long hair, short hair, too groomed, not groomed enough, etc., etc. We are blamed if we are aesthetically pleasing but then scorned if we are not.

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