Ah springtime, that magical time of year when both the temperature and hemlines go up. This, and recent events, led me to write this article about what it means to be on the cusp of adulthood, trying to discover who you are as an individual, and no matter what you wear someone says you’re showing too much. In the year 2013, is there still such a thing as modesty and how can someone look hot, cool off, and dress appropriately in someone else’s eyes all at the same time? Can modesty culture both help and harm?
I had spent my entire life going to church, sometimes by choice and sometimes not, and I have always had questions about modesty. In my youth group, all of us girls were around the same age and not a week went by without hearing a lecture or comment about how we or other girls our age were dressing. Don’t show too much skin, don’t wear clothes that cling too close to your bodies, never under any circumstances show your belly button, etc. which was all well and good until we were told that we were responsible for how men look at us and the thoughts they think towards us. If a boy or man thought lustful thoughts towards us, it was our fault because we were causing them to sin. Huh? Modesty doctrine was preached to us during the Sunday sermons as well, but since I had left that church, I have formed my own opinions about modesty as well as gathered the opinions of others.
My jeans and dress slacks are my favorite things in my wardrobe, at least besides my 40 or so pairs of shoes (and yes, I do need all of them, thank you very much). I once read on a Christian website, called preparingdaughters.com, that “anything you can’t do in a dress or skirt that hits at least right below the knees is probably something you shouldn’t be doing anyway because it’s not feminine, ladylike, or modest” and “it is our duty to hide our bodies so as to prevent men from having impure thoughts about us.” On that same website, there was even a testimony from a woman who chose to only wear skirts and dresses to remind her who wears the pants in the family. So, naturally, my questions came to mind once again.
First, what is modesty? Webster tells us that modesty is the act of not drawing attention to yourself through your dress or your demeanor. However, if there’s one thing I learned throughout my young life, it’s that regardless of what you wear or how you act, someone is going to take notice of you, and it may not be in a way you want it to be.
There was a website called IsThisModest.com, which was called out by feminist blog Jezebel for slut-shaming and for being the equivalent of Reddit’s CreepShots forum. The site is consisted of adults, mostly men, posting pictures of random girls and women, and commenting about what they are wearing — saying that their outfits are showing either too much, not enough, that their outfits are too clingy, or are too baggy; all of these descriptions by the moderator MintheGap is “unbecoming” on a young woman. On the site, and this picture was also used in the Jezebel article, there was a picture of a girl who was obviously a minor and was wearing an off-white shirt that had three buttons, the buttons were undone and underneath she was wearing a blue lacy lank top. Despite layering being “in” and no cleavage being exposed, the moderator said that the outfit was immodest because the tank top being exposed how it was made him think it was her undergarments and she was drawing male attention, which undoubtedly caused impure thoughts and caused men to sin. Another picture showed a young woman and her mother, both wearing sweatshirts, yoga pants, and Ugg boots, as they exited a doctors’ office. The same moderator said the women looked sloppy and were drawing negative attention to themselves, which was still immodest despite having everything from the neck down completely covered. Still, there are people who are even more extreme when it comes to body policing.
A commenter on the blog fearlesslyfeminine.blogspot.com said, “Women and girls should take full responsibility for any untoward thoughts that men may have about them. They need to be careful to keep fully covered; not just their midriff area, but also their neck, arms, and legs. Clothing should not only be fashioned to completely cover, but also be loose enough to fully disguise even the feminine shape or form. Bathing suits should always be avoided and even in summer, one should wear long sleeves. In some cases, hair should be wrapped up in scarves or snoods, and should never be allowed to be loose for the view of men. Everyone knows that men are aroused by even the mere sight of loose hair. We can’t blame them or expect them to control themselves. It is their nature and we ladies are responsible for helping men and boys to control their nature. We ladies need to realize that every time a man is aroused by the sight of our bodies, we are responsible for tempting him to sin. To remove this temptation, we need to fully cover ourselves. It is fully our own fault if we have not covered up.” Basically, what this means is that it’s our fault for causing men to think certain thoughts about us, and it’s their nature. However, this argument is used all the time to justify rape and to blame the victim for what happens to her. “If you didn’t want to get raped, you shouldn’t have left the house in a skirt that exposes your ankles. You were asking for it.” I would like to think that the great First Wave Feminists Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Amelia Bloomer, and Elizabeth Smith Miller are rolling in their graves every time a rape is blamed on how the victim was dressed. In fact, two other commenters on the blog stated my thoughts exactly, both with their own stories — one of which had a sister who was raped and the blame was placed on her because she was dressed a little provocatively and another who said this: “The blame shifts from the guys and their wandering eyes to the girls’ dress. Now I agree that women should take care with what they wear, completely. But I also feel that too often the women are to blame for the fact that men cannot keep their eyes from focusing on a woman’s chest. I am not to blame for the actions or thoughts of the men around me — I respect myself enough to dress modestly. Men need to take care of their own sin, and their own hearts and stop pointing the finger at the women around them. It is this way of thinking that has made the women in the church feel like objects rather than the loved children of God that they are. Come on! We (women) are NOT objects. We are NOT supposed to be treated like that. We are NOT supposed to feel as if our place is to sit back in the corner, silent. If the “Christian” men cannot keep their eyes in the right place, that is between him and God — not the women around him.” Then there was someone close to me, my fiancé, who, disturbingly, had this to say about how women dress: “Women have every right to wear what they want. They do. All I’m saying is a little less of the ridiculously short “trampy/slutty/whorish” stuff that is thrown everywhere would be nice. If women want to show off their bodies with certain clothes by all means do, because obviously you want men to ogle you, so don’t complain when they do.” Meanwhile, Jezebel did a survey late last year, earlier this year, asking who women dress for — contrary to the belief that women only dress so men may “ogle” them, nearly every woman polled said she dressed the way she did either for comfort or because a clothing item gave her more confidence and boosted her overall mood. However, a minority of women said that they dressed to get men’s attention, or even dressed for other women.
As we can see from the above examples, modesty, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. If the definition of modesty is to not draw attention to yourself by the way you dress or your demeanor, and everything a person wears, regardless of sex, draws attention, then it seems as though modesty is in fact a moot point.
I found it a little strange that I was only able to find Christian blogs and websites promoting modesty. Of course, that doesn’t mean that non-Christians constantly walk around looking like street-walkers.
From what I’ve learned from TLC’s “What Not to Wear,” there is a time and place for every outfit. Part of being a woman, part of being a person, is to express yourself and you can do that through your outward appearance. Yes, we are bombarded from a young age that “it’s what’s on the inside that counts,” but when we enter the real world we’re told to “dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” That elementary school lesson about not judging a book by its cover is seemingly wiped out.
Let’s talk about rape culture. The notion that a woman causes a man to stumble and think lustful thoughts should upset both men and women alike. This notion degrades and demonizes women by saying that by dressing a certain way we are allowing men to do whatever they’d like to do to us. HOWEVER, this also seems to say that men are animals who cannot control themselves. That should make men mad. No matter how mature or cultured or whatever you are, you cannot control yourself and you are hardwired to rape a woman you find attractive while walking down the street. But do not worry, she was exposing cleavage or her belly button or too much leg and was asking for it.
This method of thinking that women dress a certain way JUST to get men to “ogle” them, that rape victims are to blame for what happens to them because they chose to wear something that a man they don’t know found sexually arousing, that girls and young women are to blame because they get male attention when they wear their favorite jeans and men can see the shape of their bodies and the men think lustful thoughts about those girls and young women, that telling someone else what they can and cannot wear because it may get them attention and thus makes them immodest by definition is okay after they are capable of choosing what they want to wear regardless of how little or how much skin they show, needs to stop.
Women are not merely sex objects, but it seems that the concept of modesty turns us into sex objects by degrading us, blaming us and how we chose to dress that day on things that happen to us, and by blaming us because of how men act when they see us. I know when I wear my favorite, perfectly worn-in jeans that I’ve had since 2005 and a tee-shirt, I’m not asking to be sexually harassed like what happened to me one day last semester. Modesty is a double-edged sword — it can both empower and it can harm men and women alike. I gave you my opinions in this article and used quotes from others. It’s time for you to answer the question of modesty for yourselves, but take heed: What you think is acceptable to wear may not be acceptable in someone else’s eyes.