Once upon a time, I saw a poster telling me that if I didn’t want to be responsible for the sinful lusts of men, I needed to dress with “Mary-like modesty.” The poster provided a list of everything that should be well covered, lest we lead our brothers astray: apparently, not only cleavage, but also collarbones, knees, and elbows are charged with superpowers to destroy the male will and bring on the downfall of society. Women, weapons of mass destruction. I’m surprised the military hasn’t patented us by now.
The rules on the poster were silly, and so was its general premise. Mary, as far as we know, dressed like any other poor woman in first-century Palestine. If the fashions of the day have some perennial moral significance, shouldn’t we see posters telling men to dress like Jesus, also? And yet, one never does. Modesty talks are always directed at women; modesty, it would seem, is a gendered virtue. Even those who try to be moderate still maintain that since men are, supposedly, more easily visually aroused, women have a special duty to dress modestly out of love for our brothers.
I was told this so many times. I was told it was my job to keep men from sinning, that once a man saw between a woman’s legs it was all over, that we don’t even understand what happens to men when they see us. The rhetoric of modesty wove a pattern of creepy anthropology, according to which women were passively, helplessly, blossoming all over with deadly sweets for male corruption, and that men were a sort of werewolf, transformed into ravening beasts with twitching monstrous appendages, whether they wanted it or not.
Eventually I got tired of feeling creeped out and guilty, and decided modesty was a lot of bunk, just another way to control women. If I’m a weapon of mass destruction, I thought, let’s see what I can do? And so I did. But destruction, it turns out, is not much fun either.
As a result of my experiment with deliberate immodesty, I learned two things: the first, was that modesty is a virtue, after all. The second is that real modesty has almost nothing in common with the false and sexist versions of modesty I’d been hearing about all my life. I knew that there was a depersonalizing and destructive way of presenting oneself, because I had tried it, but this didn’t validate the warnings against immodesty I had heard so earlier. It made them look irrelevant, stupid, or even malicious, situating modestly in a narrow space pertaining only to clothing worn by people potentially sexually attracted to one another.
If modesty is a virtue, it should be for everyone, but in the usual account, if one is not young and hot, or if one lives in a culture which accepts nudity, is there no need for modesty? Some might respond that to be comfortable with nudity is itself immodest, but such a view is very Euro-centric, as well as ignorant, since even our own trends are fluid, so today’s “modest is hottest” poster girl is yesterday’s vile temptress. Cultural codes of fashion have to do with creating sartorial texts, languages, even, that enables wearers to project messages about themselves, but every “language” is different, and within each language there are shifts and miscommunications, so a woman wearing a short skirt is not necessarily broadcasting to you “I’m sexually available.” She might be wearing a short skirt because emphasizing legs means emphasizing freedom and mobility (which is why men flaunted their sexy legs, in many cultures, while women kept covered all the way down to the ankles). If a man feels sexual desire for her (and he may not, if he isn’t into legs or women’s legs, or if he is sexually mature enough not to go around with a hair-trigger sexual response system) – this is his own act, for which he himself must take responsibility.
So, it’s a mistake to think a woman in a short skirt is necessarily immodest. It’s also a mistake to call a short skirt immodest, if modesty is a virtue, because virtues are properties of human action, or habits of the soul, and skirts do not act or, as far as I know, have souls.
But, what is modesty, then?
Modesty appears sometimes as a component of decorum and good manners, sometimes as an aesthetic quality. J.Alfred Prufrock’s “nectktie rich and modest” suggests good manners and aesthetic sensibility, but not, alas, virtue. There is some overlap, perhaps, between manners and morality: good manners entail treating those around us with decency and respect. But morality sometimes stands in opposition to manners: when working for justice, especially, it is sometimes necessary to kick over the traces of respectability, even if this makes for bad etiquette.
Modesty could refer to an attitude or posture of not claiming too much for oneself, not going too far. Jonathan Swift’s “a modest proposal” comes to mind. In this case, modesty has a certain rhetorical cunning to it. But it’s a virtue we seek here, not a mere pose.
Perhaps we can best understand modesty by looking at its opposites: what does it mean to be immodest? To be boastful, flaunting, overbearing, swaggering. When we think of dressing immodestly, the point is not what is or is not showing, whether accidentally or on purpose, but the intention one has to use one’s powers to overwhelm or manipulate another.
Modesty’s cousins in the realm of virtue include honesty, humility, chastity. But we want to get at what modesty is, itself, not at what similar virtues entail.
It’s good to look at where our idea of modesty as a virtue originated, in the Christian life. Scripture says “women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works” (1 Timothy 2:9-10) – and “do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart… (1 Peter 3:3-4). No mention of covering the body here, only a warning not to flaunt wealth. This is in keeping with other scriptural warnings against showing off, especially in spiritual matters: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 6:1).
So this modesty that is decent and orderly must be seen not as passivity or absence, but as a certain right-ordering in action, a kind of restraint, a refusal to succumb to the temptation to use one’s gifts or powers in order to lord it over others, to manipulate them, to overwhelm them. This idea of modesty explains why it is wrong for a woman to flaunt her body in such a way as deliberately to manipulate and control men, but doesn’t lead to the senseless shaming of women who happen to be dressed differently from what the culture normalizes – or, worse, the scapegoating of women by men afraid to own up to their own immature sexuality.
When we misuse out own powers in order to take control of others, we violate our own dignity, also, performing false paradigms of personal value, making ourselves objects of desire, or terror, or envy. The CEO who lords it over his employees is immodest not only in his treatment of them as objects for use, but in his presentation of self as a creature of value only because of his position and prestige. Immodest acts lead to a failure of personal relation, a mutual objectifying. And this mutual objectifying is a danger in a far broader sphere than that of sexuality or fashion: it is immodest to flaunt wealth and power, immodest to use one’s gifts – whatever they are – to intimidate and control others. And modesty as it relates to clothing is not limited to sexuality: it is immodest to try to manipulate or overwhelm others through displays of wealth and possessions (as St Peter and Timothy both suggest in their admonitions).
We often hear sermons or admonitions against scanty dress in women, but rarely do we hear admonitions against the flaunting of wealth or power. If I get called out for my spaghetti straps, why isn’t that businessman being called out for buying yet another expensive sports car? Perhaps concentrating the meaning of modesty in sexuality is a good way for those in positions of religious power to deflect their own guilt for kowtowing to the wealthy, instead of treating every single person as a member of the body of Christ. In the American church, at least, the worship of wealth is a disease – as manifested in the fact that Catholics who ought to know better are admiring Trump, instead of being embarrassed by him. Our obsession with sexual sin is certainly connected with our unwillingness to sunder ourselves from the American (heretical) dream of prosperity.
The path out of immodest relationships is to get rid of these idols of identity – the wealthy, the powerful, the glamorous, the sexy – and see self as well as other always as subject, respecting his or her freedom and uniqueness and irreducibility. This is what Martin Buber referred to as the “I – thou” relationship, as opposed to the “I- it” relationship. To see oneself as “I” means protecting one’s identity as a subject, one’s inner depth, one’s private selfhood, not by objectifying oneself, but by acting with modesty and restraint. It’s possible that many acts that appear immodest may, in fact, arise out of a fear of one’s own vulnerability as a subject. Perhaps, like so many other moral failures, immodesty arises out of fear.
Modesty as a virtue, as it has to do with sexuality and dress, is not something we can determine from clothing alone, anyway. A person may be from a different cultural background. Once upon a time, showing calves was immodest, but cleavage was fine. Once, it was bad to show ears. Social context matters, but this has more to do with appropriateness or decorum than actual virtue. And sometimes, people are just clueless – which is a variety of innocence, not vice.
So if another person is wearing something that causes us to experience lust, or envy, we can not infer that our feelings are the direct result of any causal act on their part. Our responses may indeed by manipulated unjustly by others, but ultimately our actions still arise from our own internal ordering. It is our duty to moderate our own responses towards others, just as it is our duty to moderate our actions and not indecently attempt to use whatever powers we have – talents, good looks, wealth, power – to formulate a false image of personal value, and manipulate those around us.