candid thoughts on modesty

Lately the concept of modesty has been on my mind.  I don't think about modesty on a daily basis these days, as modesty isn't something I strive for when I'm getting dressed, but the idea of modest dressing seems to be brought up whenever the topic of rape is brought up, which it has been quite a bit with recent current events.  So thoughts on modesty have been ruminating in the back of my mind for a while and they bubbled to the surface a few nights ago as I lay in bed unable to sleep.  Prepare yourself for a novel because I had lots of stuff bubbling up.

When I was in high school modesty was something I thought about a lot more.  It was a conversation in school relatively frequently as we had a dress code.  It was a pretty lax dress code, not really to much more strict than any of the public high schools.  We didn't have to wear uniforms or slacks and turtlenecks or anything.  Living in Alaska, it wasn't really that hard to abide by the dress code, for me at least.  There was no way in hell I was going to try and wear a mini skirt and tube top when the weather outside was below zero.  There were a few girls who tended to dress more in that mode, however, and would frequently have to change their outfits to fit the dress code.  Guys also had a dress code, though I believe it was more about not having explicit/inappropriate designs on their tee shirts.  I was never really influenced by the dress code, as I didn't have a desire to dress in a way that broke the dress code anyway, but conversations about modesty and such were frequent due to the dress code and my thoughts about modesty have been percolating ever since.  More and more I'm coming to believe that modesty, as a value, can be particularly harmful to girls for many reasons.

Lately I've seen that putting an emphasis on modesty can contribute to rape culture by placing the blame on women for men's lack of self control (though I would argue most rape isn't due to the rapist being too sexually overwhelmed to hold back, though perhaps in some date rape cases, but more due to violence and power).  When we hear about a rape, one of the first questions asked is, "well, what was she wearing?  Was it promiscuous?  Was it immodest?" as if her rape was predestined by her predilection for wearing revealing clothing.  Essentially, "She was asking for it," because of her revealing outfit.  While it may be the case that dressing in a revealing way might draw the eye of a rapist, it does not release the rapist of full culpability for the crime.  Girls that dress immodestly are no more deserving of being raped than girls who are covered head to toe.  No one deserves to be raped, regardless of how they are dressed.

On the flip side, emphasizing modesty tends to villainize men.  It paints men as sexual beasts who are unable to control themselves if there's cleavage in their immediate vicinity.  While I do know that teenage boys are definitely struggling to come to terms with a flood of hormones and overwhelming sexual desire, when we tell them that it's not their problem to overcome- rather it's the woman's problem to cover up- it tells them it's not important to develop the ability to restrain their eyes and thoughts.  It also feeds the lie that men are only interested in your body, and tells girls that their most valuable asset is their bodies, despite the fact that dressing modestly is supposed to take the focus off of their bodies, which it certainly can.

In the same way, it downplays the importance of the beauty of a woman's body by turning it into a taboo, rather than a beautiful creation to celebrate.  We naturally feel shame about our bodies when we are told we need to cover them up.  We don't view our bodies as amazing and beautiful, but rather something shameful that needs to be hidden from sight.  This undermines girls' understanding of healthy sexuality and sensuality.  Confusion is added by the phrase, "modest is hottest" which doesn't seem to be the case when the evidence shows that what's hottest is often the exact opposite of modest.  It's a nice thought, but in reality doesn't really play out like that.  It gets even more confusing when you get married and all of a sudden you're supposed to embrace your sexuality and your body is supposed to switch from being an object of shame to something beautifully pleasurable for both you and your partner.

For even more added confusion, modesty is hyper subjective.  What's modest for a girl in public high school isn't the same as for a girl in a private catholic school which isn't the same for a girl in an Amish community.  What's considered modest in a hot climate is different than what's modest in a cold climate. There isn't a hard and fast definition out there for what is modest.  It's an opinion that not only differs from culture to culture, but from person to person, dramatically.  And to complicate matters more, women's bodies are so radically different from one woman to the next that an outfit on one girl may be "modest" but the same outfit on another girl with a different body could look totally "immodest."

Modesty can create a space where judging immodest girls is okay and paints them all as sluts or sexually promiscuous.  It places low value on them automatically because there's no way "immodest" can be painted in a positive light.  It is a negative word by design.  Girls who dress modestly can start to acquire a sense of superiority and look down on the "slutty" immodest girls.  And really, what does that accomplish, other than creating pain, anger, and separation?  Does that attitude make the "immodest" girl want to listen to the opinion of the "modest" girl and become more modest?  I'm going to guess that if you feel judged by another person, you probably want nothing to do with them, much less sit and listed to them talk about how you need to change your ways and be more modest like them.  When an environment of judgement is created, relationships are broken and open discussion is almost impossible.  When we approach one another with respect and seek understanding, doors are opened.

I don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, though.  I think that modesty, while it's complex and often gets mixed up with a bunch of other issues, has value, especially for younger girls in junior high and high school.  It's important to communicate that you shouldn't have to show cleavage or wear a short skirt to get a guy's attention.  Your body is NOT your most important asset.  We place a lot of importance on bodies in our culture, which is evidenced by the epidemic of eating disorders.  There is so much shame and guilt surrounding our bodies, as women.  But a relationship shouldn't be based on your body or how "hot" you are, because a lasting relationship is ultimately going to rely very little on your hotness factor.  There are so many mixed messages in our culture about sexuality.  Victoria Secret ads and modern pornography tell us that we need to look a certain way to be sexually attractive and that if we don't look that way, our man will leave us for someone who does.  We need to stop talking about our bodies in that way, and start talking about them in a new way.  Our bodies are beautiful and incredible.  They are curvy and strong, naturally sensual, capable of producing life itself!  Even down to the amazing functions our bodies perform second by second, our bodies are so much more than flat abs and perky boobs.  Modesty is a damaged word with a lot of confusing messages.  More straightforward is the message that you are worthy of love, love that isn't conditional on hotness, that your body is a beautiful thing that is desirable and powerful, and that a relationship should have a much stronger foundation than physical attraction.

High school is such a strange time of trying to navigate the waters of understanding beauty, love, sexuality, and relationships.  In high school I remember I wouldn't wear makeup in because i didn't want a boy to like me because of my make-upped appearance, only to be disappointed by my bare face (and I was too lazy to wake up earlier than necessary...).  When I went to college I started becoming more creative in the way I dressed, and started wearing a little makeup.  Not because I figured it would make me more apt to land a man, but because I liked wearing it.  It made me feel beautiful, not for men, not for women, but for me.  It wasn't about covering up flaws and hiding myself.  I didn't care if an outfit was immodest to some, because I wasn't dressing for anybody but myself.  I found that wearing makeup and getting dressed was something that made me feel creative and happy.  It was a way to express my personality in a visual way.  I wish I could've seen getting dressed that way when I was in high school.

Sexuality is already so confusing as a teen.  So much weight is on the issue, and I think girls feel most of that weight, especially considering that sexuality for a girl involves that whole baby-making thing.  Girls deal with the stress of balancing between "prude" and "whore," something men by and large have no issue with.  Modesty is often one more weight that is placed on girls, shouldering them with the task of keeping not only themselves sexually safe, but keeping boys from even thinking about them in a sexual way.  I not only have to manage my own thoughts and feelings about sex and my body, but I'm given the task of keeping the thoughts of men around me on the straight and narrow as well.  Instead of stressing modesty, perhaps stressing responsibility is more appropriate.  Responsibility, not only for girls, but for boys as well.  Responsibility for your actions, your thoughts, your appearance, your attitude, and your speech.