I remember living in the dorms during my freshman year at the small Christian university (where I went for all four years of undergrad studies), and I was shocked by one particular practice I observed. One of the young women in my hall would occasionally ask us whether we thought her outfits were “modest enough.” Sometimes it was a neckline cut a few inches beneath the collarbone, or a skirt that was more fitted than flowy, but no matter what she wore, I was shocked that she even considered the question, let alone cared enough to change her outfit depending on the answer.
Four years later, modesty is still something that is something of a hot topic among women my age, and even more so in recent weeks. When the weather gets hot, the skin we show- or don’t– becomes a hot topic, and everyone seems to be talking about modesty these days (when they’re not talking about the royal baby, that is). . There are plenty of well-reasoned arguments on both sides, although I doubt the “modest swimwear” trend is going to catch on. Ever.
I don’t think we need to argue about the fact that most women, especially in the 13-25 age range, experience mixed messages about what to wear, what to cover up, what to show off, what to display “tastefully” in order to be sexy without being skanky. One minute we’re told to embrace our feminine curves, and the next we’re being told just what to wear to cover up those “trouble spots.” We are expected to embrace our sexuality and flaunt it, but don’t you dare let anyone define you or categorize you by it. It gets even worse in the Christian social circles. You’re supposed to dress attractively and look nice (presumably to catch the eye of your worship-pastor-future-husband-soulmate-with-the-Hebrew-Bible-verse-tattoo-modern-day-Boaz!), but you are cautioned against making men “stumble.” You start wondering what the Proverbs 31 woman would wear, but all that does is make you think about adding more purple to your wardrobe.
I’m not denying the effect a woman’s appearance can have on men and on people in general, but I am challenging the idea that modesty should be based on that potential effect. Modesty, in the way that it is often presented and especially within the American church, can encourage women to see themselves as sexual objects just as much as dressing provocatively can. We are not toys for men to play with, which must be wrapped up and hidden until we find that Prince Charming who will put a ring on it and we’ll finally get to give him the “special gift” we’ve been saving. I’m sorry, but screw that. It is possible to embrace your sexuality without identifying yourself by it. Heck, men do it all the time.
The modesty thing always seems to come back down to this: Women are supposed to look good, but not too good. Good enough to attract men, but not good enough to tempt them. Whether we are tempting men to think lustfully or harass us or enact sexual violence is not my focus, but rather the fact that the focus in these “modesty battles” is on the woman’s control over her appearance. From Jessica Rey and the “Evolution of a Swimsuit” to moderate Christian views to the more feminist take on modesty , there is a clear assumption being made: Men are tempted by a woman’s attractiveness. This assumption is extended, then, to support any manner of ideas- that a women should temper her beauty by covering up, that a woman should use her beauty responsibly by dressing “appropriately” (however that is defined), that a woman and her beauty are not responsible for a man’s choice to harass her.
Do you see the dominant implication in all these lines of reasoning? Modesty is contingent on physical beauty. Whether it’s a matter of women being more modest or less, the definition of modesty in all these arguments hinges on physical beauty- covering it up, revealing it, and the role it plays in male-female interactions. The problem here is that such reasoning makes modesty completely irrelevant for any woman who is less than conventionally beautiful and, perhaps more importantly, for any woman who considers herself less than conventionally beautiful. By this reasoning, if a woman is not beautiful, she has little with which to tempt men, and thereby need not concern herself modesty. And yet the beautiful women are not the only ones expected to clothe themselves “appropriately.” We’ve all heard people make remarks about larger women wearing skimpy clothing- “She really shouldn’t be wearing that…”- without batting an eye when they see more attractive women wearing an equally revealing outfit. It is a contradiction of the most damaging type. Beautiful women must cover themselves so as to not tempt men, and ugly women must cover themselves so as not to offend them. In either case, modesty is mandated for the sake of the public’s reaction to a woman. Correct me if I’m wrong, but that sounds a whole lot like objectification.
Now, I am not a feminist by most folks’ definition of the term (some might even call me an anti-feminist), but I am of the firm belief that women are valuable, intelligent, and deserving of respect, just as much so as men. Therefore, a conception of modesty that is based on the effect of a woman’s beauty on a man/men/the general public is insulting and unsatisfactory, not to mention ineffective. Such a perspective only serves to perpetuate the myth that a woman’s worth is based on her beauty, and her contribution to society is equal to the shape of her body. What if instead we believed that women are truly valuable, so much so that we preached modesty for their sake rather than the public? And I don’t mean modesty for “their sake” in the sense of “Cover yourself up, or you’re going to be a target for rape.” What if we let women know that we value them for who they are- with their unique perspectives, talents, emotions, abilities, and strengths- much more so than for how they look? What if, as a church, we encouraged women to dress modestly because they are valuable and honorable and do not need to prove their worth by the clothes that they wear or the skin that they show? What if we invited women to dress in a way that respects the beauty they have without qualifying it based on the shape and proportion and curvature of that beauty?
I’ve thought about my former dorm-mates question many times since my freshman year. And most of the time, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be something to have to worry about that?” I would have loved to have been beautiful enough to have to think about modesty. I would have loved to have been considered “tempting” enough to warrant tempering. But I considered myself neither beautiful nor tempting, so I saw no need to concern myself with modesty.
These days I consider myself decently presentable. I have parts I like and many that I don’t. I know what I can do to turn a few heads, but I know I can’t turn them all. I certainly weigh a few pounds more than I did that freshman year, but I’m a lot more comfortable with myself as well. These days I wear clothes that most would consider tasteful and appropriate, but I’ve also been told that I dress like a slut. The thing that’s changed the most between then and now is that I’ve learned that I am not a body, but that I have a body, and I’ve got a hell of a lot more to contribute to this world than a perfectly round ass. If I sound angry, it’s because I am- the Christian modesty movement was teaching me the same thing as Cosmo magazine, just with different packaging, some Bible verses, and a lot more turtlenecks. We can do better than that, yall. We have to. We’ve been so focused on what women wear that we’ve forgotten to care about who they are.
Now, I know this issue is a lot more complicated than one blog post can possibly cover. And I know lots of people- perhaps most?- will disagree with me. Maybe I’ll come back to this with another post someday. I’d love to continue the discussion, so please, if you have anything to add (especially if you disagree!), jump in with a comment below.