Thursday, July 22, 2010

Musings on Modesty

As Peter puts it, "it's modesty week on the blogs!" And while I am certainly not as high-profile as Peter or Gertie or Sal, I did feel like sharing my thoughts, because this is a topic I have thought about a lot.

(Disclaimer: I am a Catholic with traditional sensibilities. I do not intend to preach in this post, or in any other post for that matter, but do be aware that what I will say does come from a religious perspective. You've been warned.)

To start off with, Gertie linked to this study, which I didn't find nearly as horrifying as some of the commenters did. A lot of commenters, particularly women, seemed to view this study as the religious patriarchy trying to oppress women. This study really didn't seem oppressive to me. Take this quote from the study overview page: "We're not telling you what to wear -- we're just telling you what we, as guys, have to guard against." To me, this study is more about providing information, and less about forcing women and girls to wear something ugly or burka-like. If I know what guys find difficult to deal with, this study can, at least theoretically, give me some information I might find helpful. (It's probably worth noting that although I found it interesting, I can't see myself changing anything about the way I dress based on it.)

However, me wanting to dress in a way that makes it easier for guys to not lust after me presupposes something, and that something is charity. Or kindness, or concern for others, or whatever you like to call it. If I dress is an immodest manner, is it my fault if someone reacts inappropriately? Not really--we all have free will and are responsible for our own actions. But at the same time, if I offer a recovering alcoholic a glass of beer and he falls off the wagon, I did help to cause that. Yes, it was his choice, but I could have been more sensitive. In the same way, while men obviously have the choice to look and whistle and imagine, or not, we can help them by dressing in a modest manner.

Being empowered does not mean that we should be selfish all the time. Peter said, "It seems many of us, scarred by the battles for equality perhaps, are loathe to admit doing something partly for others' pleasure, as if we were in some way contributing to our own objectification." In the same vein, I would suggest that the battle for equality has caused this division that is causing many of these problems, this attitude of "it's his problem, let him deal with it!" or "it's her body that's causing all the problems anyway--not my fault!" What would happen if both sexes changed their attitude and realized that objectification of a person, whether he be man or woman, is a serious problem, and one best dealt with by co-operation between the sexes? What we all dressed modestly, did our best to keep our thoughts under control, and took responsibility for our own actions?

I am very firm on the topic that modesty should be a two-way street, but at the same time I think that rules based on inches are hard to apply, arbitrary, and don't even work a lot of the time. Personally, I am a fan of the guideline that if you would be uncomfortable with someone of the opposite sex touching your bare skin in a certain place, that skin should be covered. (I don't remember where I heard it, though--if I stole it from you, please let me know so I can give you the proper credit!) I like this rule because it allows for personal comfort, while still providing a semi-objective standard. This rule doesn't work for everyone, but it's good for most people. There are obviously scenarios in which this rule can't be applied (bathing suits come instantly to mind), but for regular day-to-day wear, I like it very much.

I should probably add (and then I will finally shut up) that I am not at all a fan of the fashion police. I may think what you're wearing is beyond tacky or horribly skanky, but when you get right down to it, we all have to make our own choices, and forcing people to comply with our ideas of what is modest and what isn't is a very sticky issue. There are very few people, if any, who get up in the morning and think, "Hmm. What is the worst outfit I have in my closet to wear today?" Most people are trying to look nice most of the time. Depending on the circumstances, it may be appropriate to offer advice ("Dear sister, are you aware I can see right through your skirt? You may want to try a slip with that."), but going around judging strangers for what they are wearing only causes negative feelings and more divisions.

Anyway, I have given my opinion pretty strongly here, I think, but don't let that scare you away from jumping in. Agree? Disagree? A little of each?


Jana said...

I like the little rule of thumb -would you be comfortable with the opposite sex touching there? If no, cover it - that makes a lot of sense to me for school, errands, work and everyday sort of stuff. For me though, I don't think ID be comfortable with men touching my back, shoulders or knees - but I'm fine showing these parts of my body for evening situations ( like dinners, parties and concerts)
maybe this is because I'm not from a catholic upbringing (liberal Lutheran) but then again maybe it's personal preference and a bit of our own body consiousness. I also think that fit of clothes makes a bit difference - I wouldn't wear a tight above the knee skirt, but a swishy drindle seems just fine to me.

Sophie Miriam said...

For what it's worth, I don't think that rule of thumb is a Catholic one. At least I don't think I got it from somewhere Catholic. And also for what it's worth, I would be comfortable with someone touching my upper back, shoulders, and knees. (Just thought it was interesting that we reach the same conclusion, you by an exception and me by the regular way.)

And I totally agree that fit makes a huge difference, that's a very good point.

Teresa said...

I would like to see that survey done with non-Christian guys.

Sarah said...

You and the blogs you linked in combination with some reading I'm doing were the inspiration for me to do a whole post on the subject! I linked to your post and the ones you mentioned- thanks for the push!

Andrea said...

I think you're right about the attractiveness/modesty issue being a two way street. Attractiveness, even when modestly expressed, still encompasses sexuality. Culture dictates how we should handle this as men and as women, and though we may wish to be free of cultural mandates that seem oppressive, in many cases, they're there for a good reason. In this case, biochemistry's a big part, and that's much harder to wish away!

For myself, I don't like being touched ANYWHERE by anyone but my husband, so maybe I should start shopping for burkhas. :) I've always been inclined to dress modestly, in part because I'm an introvert and don't really want a lot of attention focused on me, and in part because I get cold easily! I'm an atheist, so religious belief doesn't enter into it for me personally, but I am certainly influenced by my own culture, which is strongly influenced by Christianity.

Me! said...

I really enjoyed your post. I am non-Catholic, and I agree with many of your statements.

Sophie Miriam said...

Wow, so many comments! I'm flattered!

Let me re-iterate that I am not trying to dictate my standards of modesty to anyone. :) For example, Andrea, it sounds like my rule of thumb wouldn't work at all for you. And as someone who gets hot easily, I do not want to pressure anyone into a burkha!