Modesty Shaming is Nothing New

Modesty Shaming is Nothing New October 14, 2013

St. Jerome tormented by visions of women immodestly playing stringed instruments

Over at Love, Joy, Femisim, Libby Anne is dealing with the latest attempt to shame young women into dressing and behaving in a way that young men consider modest. This “modest shaming” is an old trick.

Consider St. Jerome ( 347 – 420 CE), translator of the Bible, church father and posterboy for freudian analysis. In this letter Jerome is writing to a young Christian woman who has taken in a male monk to act as an advisor and steward. Despite the fact that she is declared a religious virgin there is still talk. Jerome wants to advise her to behave more modestly, eject the monk and move back in with her mother.

It starts off fairly respectfully, “In the first place my sister and my daughter, I wish you to know that I am not writing to you because I suspect anything evil of you.”

But soon enough, Jerome’s calm veneer begins to crack, and we get a look at what he’s really thinking:

A sensual mind pursues dishonourable objects with greater zest than honourable ones; and when a thing is forbidden hankers after it with greater pleasure. Your very dress, cheap and sombre as it is, is an index of your secret feelings. For it has no creases and trails along the ground to make you appear taller than you are. Your vest is purposely ripped asunder to shew what is beneath and while hiding what is repulsive, to reveal what is fair. As you walk, the very creaking of your black and shiny shoes attracts the notice of the young men. You wear stays to keep your breasts in place, and a heaving girdle closely confines your chest. Your hair covers either your forehead or your ears. Sometimes too you let your shawl drop so as to lay bare your white shoulders; and, as if unwilling that they should be seen, you quickly conceal what you have purposely disclosed. And when in public you for modesty’s sake cover your face, like a practised harlot you only show what is likely to please. [Letter CXVII]

Jerome does not know this woman, yet he’s describing her dress? He suspects nothing evil of her, yet in his mind he’s comparing her to a harlot? You can just imagine him drooling as he writes. No wonder Karen Armstrong described him as “sexually obsessed and one of the great voyeurs of all time.” Here’s the rest of Armstrong’s verdict on Jerome:

He has obviously studied women minutely, and is pruriently eager to pick up each and every movement, every mannerism. He is even excited by the creaking of a woman’s shoe. Watching a woman walk down the street, he immediately imagines her underwear; his eyes are skinned to catch a glimpse of her white shoulders. It is taken for granted that she is teeming with lust. Every movement, intentional or unintentional, is a sign of her “unexpressed” sexual desire.

It’s time to admit that if you’re obsessing about what the young women are wearing this season, then the problem may be you. Grow up, get a hobby and stop expecting women to save you from your own issues.

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