This week, a number of big bust bloggers decided to tackle the topic of modesty en masse (see end of post for links). I’ve been really looking forward to writing this post, as I am a feminist and have quite strong opinions about the topic. Please note that this post comes with a serious trigger warning. I will be discussing how the concept of modesty is problematic as well as how it relates to women’s ownership of their bodies, slut-shaming, and rape culture. Here we go!
Let’s start with an anecdote from my high school years. A public school without much funding located in an old building, the school did not have air conditioning (third-world conditions, I know). Additionally, most of the teachers refused to leave the classroom doors open to allow for a cross-breeze with open windows, since the halls were usually noisy even between classes. The city in which I grew up doesn’t get that hot, but during summer, including at least a few weeks at the tail end and beginning of the school year, the temperature can hit the mid-80s and 90s. So you can imagine that the school was very hot and stuffy.
With no a/c and not a breeze in sight, most students opted to wear less clothing in order to cope with the heat. Both boys and girls wore shorts and tank tops. Then the school issued new guidelines that girls were not allowed to have visible bra straps, their tanks had to have straps at least three fingers wide, and shorts had to reach past your fingertips when standing up straight. Sometimes girls who didn’t comply were actually sent home to change. Never mind that the boys wife-beater tanks were only two fingers wide and basically see-through, and that most of them were sagging their pants so low you could see five inches of underwear. Nope, the guidelines applied to girls’ clothing only.
In the US, similar stories have been making the news in recent months. A Petaluma, CA middle school held a mandatory assembly for just the female students to announce that leggings were being banned because they distract boys. A Readington Township, NJ school required all dresses at a school dance have at least one strap.
This is my problem with the concept of modesty: It is a construct that is literally only ever applied to women.
Why do women need to be odest while it’s okay for a man to walk around in public in a nipple-baring tank or even completely shirtless, with his pants falling off his ass? It’s because only women’s naked skin is sexual or deviant, so it must be covered up.
The idea of modesty is just another way to force women to relinquish control of their own bodies. Our bodies are treated as inherently sexual, no matter how young, innocent, or naive we may be. Many of my fellow bosom bloggers have stories of developing early and having little understanding of what was happening, yet being called sluts by peers just for having large breasts.
Further, women’s bodies are treated as public property. People have no compunction with commenting on a complete stranger’s body (see my previous post). Men feel entitled to catcall women on the street, as if our bodies are just there for them to appreciate and/or critique.
So when someone demands that women cover up for the sake of modesty, it’s another way to reduce women’s bodily autonomy. It’s a way of saying that women are sex objects whether we like it or not and it’s saying that we don’t have the right to dress in the way that makes us most comfortable. We must dress (and sometimes even act) in a way that agrees with someone else’s personal preferences and sensibilities.
Worse, even though women are treated as sexual objects from pubescence onward, we’re not actually supposed to embrace sexuality. Things like purity balls and modesty pledges reinforce the fact that while men are allowed to think of us as sexual beings with impunity, in practice we’re actually supposed to remain pure. Sure, men can gallivant around town with whomever they please, but women should remain chaste.
Further, with the hypersexualization of women’s bodies by outside forces, you end up with alarming things like the following list of helpful suggestions currently making the rounds on Facebook:
Ignoring for a moment the complete lack of sense that number 1 makes (I have sweatshirts that are hard to get into due to a tight neckholee–is that immodest?), number 3 is incredibly irresponsible. It’s essentially saying that if you have big boobs or a big ass or, hell, have a prosthetic foot, and someone notices that before looking at your face (completely likely in a group setting or when you’re all the way across the room from the looker), then you are immodest. Regardless of what you’re wearing or what you’re doing, your body is inherently obscene just by dint of being a woman’s body.
It’s also completely stripping the looker of any responsibility for his or her own behavior. If someone leers at your breasts, or any part of your body, then that person is a rude creep, plain and simple. Number 3 up on that list implies that the person being looked at is responsible for the behavior of the looker. It’s saying that the lookee has the ability to control the urges and behavior of the looker simply by dressing the right way.
This is where you get into some really dangerous territory. Things like this are exactly what feed the beast that is rape culture. If the lookee has the ability to control the behavior of the looker, then it implies that a woman who dresses immodestly is essentially inviting trouble. She’s not doing everything in her power to keep from being assaulted. How many times have you heard a version of the phrase “What did she expect would happen dressed like that?” when a sex crime makes the news?
When the concept of modesty is applied strictly to women, it absolves men of any responsibility for their behavior. If the idea that men can’t control themselves around a woman in a skimpy outfit is perpetuated, then it puts all the onus on the woman to avoid being sexually assaulted. It insinuates that the only thing keeping a man from raping a woman is the length of her skirt/the cut of her blouse (which is frankly pretty insulting toward men).
Even more damaging, this idea that immodesty is related to sexual assault completely disregards the fact that sexual assault is a crime not of lust but of power; it ignores the fact that the vast majority of sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows; and it downplays the abusive experiences of people who are not considered conventionally sexy, such as children, seniors, prisoners, and the mentally handicapped, as well as the experiences of men who have been victimized. Most sexual assaults are not committed by a random stranger prowling the streets at night. None are committed by adults who are simply overcome with lust.
So, what now? I’m hardly suggesting that dressing modestly is a problem per se. If a woman (or a man) prefers to dress in a way that does not highlight the body, then there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as it’s the person’s own personal decision. Even in my world, there is a time and place for everything. I wouldn’t wear a short skirt or plunging neckline to meet a new client, but I sure would strolling the streets of Manhattan on a hot summer day or going on a date with my boyfriend.
But there is something wrong with a person taking his or her own definition of modesty and attempting to force it upon others, particularly when that definition is only applied to women. More importantly, it’s unethical and just factually wrong to assume that anyone who’s assaulted while not following those modesty guidelines was “asking for it”.
Modesty is a concept that needs to stop being applied strictly to girls and women, and really needs to be left out of sexual assault discourse. No clothing, however much or however little, should be tied to a person’s value as a human being.
For more perspectives on modesty, check out the rest of the Bosom Bloggers’posts. The links go directly to the modesty post if it’s been published, otherwise it links to the blog’s home page:
Braless in Brasil
Bras and Body Image
By Babys Rules
Fussy Busty (1)
Fussy Busty (2)
Hourglassy (Abreast Abroad)
Hourglassy (Corporate Curves Report)
Nothing Ever Fits and Nobody Sympathizes
Red Hair and Girly Flair
That Bra Does Not Fit Her
The Tit Rambler
Thin and Curvy
Two Cakes on a Plate
Weirdly Shaped & Well Photographed
I shared this with my 13 year old daughter who, built tall and CURVY struggles with the ‘modesty code’ of her school and with her logical brain, struggles to accept the unequal rules for dress.
The message our girls (and WE) need is that when we choose the things to drape our bodies in, the choices are made with an eye to what makes us feel GOOD, feel STRONG, feel CONFIDENT, feel COMFORTABLE and feel like we are representing ourselves, parts of ourselves.
Truly, does it matter so much how we adorn our bodies? Does it not matter more what we DO with our bodies?
I’m so pleased to hear that you shared it with your daughter. It’s not that I think everyone should necessarily wear WHATEVER they want in all circumstances. Sure, the idea of children in spaghetti straps and cleavage-bearing necklines is discomfiting…but I think it’s more important to teach children (and adults) to control their urges and treat people respectfully regardless of how they’re dressed or what their body looks like.
All these schools that have girl-only dress codes because skimpy clothing is “distracting” to boys are teaching girls and boys a bad lesson. Girls should not be taught that they’re somehow responsible for other people’s bad behavior, and boys SHOULD be taught how to get through life despite “distractions.” Do we really want a generation of men to grow up without the ability to do their work or stay on task simply because there’s a woman in the room?
Thanks Leah, I appreciate your articulate article.
Bravo! I really enjoyed your post because it honestly but sensitively addressed how modesty is often about preventing someone else from feeling a certain way about you which, to me, is practically an impossibility. Human beings are unpredictable, and you could be, by the strictest definition, dressed modestly and still attract sexual attention.
Then there was this time at 15, where a 20-year-old man felt me up. It was my first time being drunk (not first time drinking, though) and we were also smoking pot. A â€œfriendâ€ of mine let it happen as leapt in and out of reality. I didnâ€™t receive much romantic or sexual attention in school. Being awkward and chubby, I was actually happy to receive attention from someone who wasnâ€™t honking and whistling while driving by. Now that I think about, Iâ€™m disgusted by everything about it: feeling unwanted and what this guy did to me. I even started to like this creep for a short period of time but nothing much else happened.