The Many Faces of Modesty by ObstacleChick

modesty check

A Guest Post by ObstacleChick

I posit that if one asked 10 different people to define “modesty,” there would be 10 different answers. Context is important, as “modesty” can refer to one’s demeanor or to one’s mode of dress. Dictionary.com defines “modesty” as follows:

the quality of being modest; freedom from vanity, boastfulness, etc. regard for decency of behavior, speech, dress, etc. simplicity; moderation.

While I know better than to engage people in controversial topics on social media, sometimes I still give in and make comments. My brother (and his wife) and I get along really well in person, as long as we do not discuss religion or politics. We enjoy watching movies, having sushi or Mexican food, or having a glass of wine together. But I avoid the topics of religion or politics with them like the plague. Why? Because we hold diametrically opposite views on those subjects. My brother and sister-in-law are more than a decade younger than I am. My brother and I were not raised in the same household – I lived with my grandparents and great-grandmother, and a few years with my mom living there too, and I would visit on weekends at my mom and step-dad’s house. I was sent to fundamentalist Christian school from 5th-12th grades, then studied at secular university and graduate school. A couple of years after college, I moved to suburban New Jersey about 20 minutes from Manhattan.

My brother, on the other hand, grew up in my mom and step-dad’s house. He went to public school after being expelled in 3rd grade from the fundamentalist Christian school from which I had graduated (yes, expelled in 3rd grade – he was considered too stubborn to be allowed to remain in the school). When he was in middle school, they moved from a suburban area about 20 minutes from Nashville to rural farmland about 45 minutes from Nashville, and he still lives in that area today. After graduation from high school, he never pursued university education and was married with a full-time job by the time he was 20 years old. My brother and his wife are evangelical Christians, though they haven’t found a church with which they agree. He is staunchly pro-Trump, anti-abortion, anti-marriage equality, and a gun collector (though he is adamantly for gun safety, he is not in favor of restrictions). He baptized his sons in the bathtub when they were 6 and 7 years old after getting them to pray the “sinner’s prayer.”

He doesn’t know that I am an agnostic atheist. He thinks I am “liberal” but he doesn’t know the extent. I think he could handle my differences in political beliefs more than my differences in religious beliefs. Eventually, my family’s lack of belief will come out because my daughter is moving to Nashville in the fall to go to college, and she has no qualms about expressing her non-religious, pro-feminist, left-leaning beliefs.

Recently my brother posted on social media this Matt Walsh piece titled The Four Terrible Things That Are Destroying Boys In Our Culture. In my opinion, Matt Walsh shows his misogynistic colors in his rant against feminism in modern culture. It is apparent that Matt’s white cis-gendered male patriarchal superiority is being threatened by the machinations of liberal, evil feminists. Knowing I could not comment the extent of my feelings on my brother’s post, I posted this:

“He goes to school and his female classmates are dressed like strippers. He goes anywhere and that’s how the women are dressed.” Where does this guy live that all girls and women are dressed like strippers? I apparently need to up my game and improve my stripper attire!

My brother responded:

I would not have used the word strippers. It is a harsh word. However, I completely understand the point he was trying to make. We are a nation where words like chastity, modesty, and holiness have become bad words while the opposite actions and attitudes are celebrated. We have truly become a nation that has forgotten how to blush. The prophet Jeremiah warned ancient Israel about the same thing in the book of Jeremiah.

I couldn’t take it at that point, so I responded:

Modesty is a function of perception. Hasidic Jews and fundamentalist Muslims look at me in my workplace attire – typically pants and a shirt, never low cut – and they consider that immodest. I have had this conversation with many people, but as a woman I find that there is no universal standard for “modesty.” People sometimes say, it is common sense. No, it isn’t. You have fundamentalist religionists who have their own standards of modesty (typically those modesty standards focus on covering up women as much as possible, but Hasidic men. for example. have to wear beards and black pants and button-down shirts at all times). I refuse to be held to other groups’ standards of modesty. Fabricated female modesty rules also send messages about men and women and taking responsibility for one’s actions that I don’t want to get into on a social media post but I would be happy to discuss my opinion in person.

A person’s mode of attire does send certain messages. If I am dressed in sweatpants and a t-shirt, I am signaling that I am in a casual mode. If I am dressed in a cocktail dress and heels, I am signaling that I am going somewhere special, perhaps to a wedding or a gala. Wearing shorts, a tank top, and running shoes signals that I am going out for a run on a warm day. Sporting a Yankees shirt signals that I am possibly going to a Yankees game, or at least I am supporting the team for that day. Donning a heavy coat, gloves, boots, and a hat signals that it is cold outside, and that I am attempting to stay warm. If I see someone wearing a US Postal Service uniform, I will assume that the person works for the US Postal Service. Someone wearing a military uniform is probably active military personnel. These are all situations in which clothing signals a message.

However, what if I am wearing a mid-thigh length sleeveless black dress and high heels? Would someone assume that I am dressed to go to a fancy social function, or would they assume that I am a prostitute? That depends on one’s perspective. The fundamentalist religious person who believes that the human body should be covered up as much as possible will automatically assume that I do not share their values in terms of “modesty.” I am not one of their membership. I am an “other.” Am I lacking in morals? Am I indeed a prostitute, or am I just lacking in “modesty”? Do they consider my bare arm and bare calf to be literally offensive to them, or do they just take it as a signal that I do not adhere to their rules? Does the fact that I am dressed differently mean that I should be treated differently? Should they avoid me, or should they try to proselytize to me in order to inform me of the error of my ways? Is my uncovered status a signal that they have the right to touch me without permission? At what point would adding clothing to my person make me more acceptable in their eyes?

Some guy driving a delivery van cat-called at me while I was out walking the other day. Nothing I was wearing was tight or revealing in any way. I was wearing long pants, a jacket, and a button-down shirt. Apparently, that’s “hot” in certain circles. It’s further proof that no matter what you’re wearing, someone is going to interpret it in whatever way they wish. Obviously, if you are working in a job or attending a school that has a dress code, you must comply with that dress code during working/school hours, but otherwise, wear what makes you comfortable and move on.

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17 Comments

  1. GeoffT

    I’ve recently listened to a couple of radio shows dealing with the subject of how Muslim women dress. The first dealt with dress code enforcement in Iran, and the role of the police. Muslim women defended Iran’s strict code, saying that the police didn’t interfere if dress was ‘sensible’. The defence actually went that of course women would be approached and at least reprimanded if not wearing a headscarf, but not usually arrested, and they could even be worn loosely if wished. Wow, how decent of them! Many ‘choose’ to wear face covers, and all the range that goes with it, but the police are just so relaxed about your headscarf.

    The second referred to an increasing tendency of young Muslim girls in the UK to wear headscarves to school, from as young as four and five. In some ways it was quite nice to hear the kids discuss how they liked bright scarves, or dressing like their mothers, how they felt they were conforming with their culture. Fortunately there was a counter view expressed, that wearing of the scarf may be cultural, but it is a culture based on male oppression, in which women are nothing more than chattels. Interestingly, some head teachers were against banning children from wearing headscarves, something I’ve always thought made sense, because they don’t want children to become the centre of battlegrounds. I hadn’t previously thought of it that way and I changed my mind on that part of the issue.

    Evangelicals are much closer to Muslims than they’d like to think.

    Reply
  2. ObstacleChick

    GeoffT, that sounds like an interesting position, not putting children at the center of a cultural battle. I suppose one coukd argue that if schools banned the headscarf, then those who want to wear it coukd pay for private school. Personally, I lean toward not banning the headscarf the school as a matter of choice, but i understand the argument otherwise.

    I have a friend who was raised in Tunisia. He was,bemoaning the fact that in the last 2 decades Tunisia has become more religiously conservative, and many ofhis relatives are wearing the scarf. He said to them, why would you do that, you were free? Most of them just follow the herd, but one aunt said she liked not being judged for her looks.

    Whole I respect a woman’s right to choose her clothing, I think there is a lot more tied up in the decision outside personal choice.

    It is interesting how similar all fundamentalists can be…

    Reply
    1. Brian

      It has long been my observation that religion of the fundamentalist variety is designed specifically to harm us and defines that harm as God’s love. The entire list you have posted of guidance for a woman in her dressing room, the entire thing, is born of a wish to harm. It reveals no genuine concern for the person it speaks to, only patriarchal distaste.
      It is none of Pope God’s business what a biped dons or not at dawn or dusk and only matters because it can be used to bully and cajole others. It should be noted that the stupid clothes police also harm themselves by being ignorant twits concerning how others dress. But do they care that they are making themselves more amore stupid with their bullying? Of course not! They feel good about harming others.
      To each and every one of them, I respond in-kind: Dearest prick Mohammed and asshole Jesus, please fuck off. (This is my honest exegesis, with open feelings, not as layered with bullshit as all their exegesis.) To ask a fundamentalist for advice regarding modesty is just about the same as closing your eyes to walk across a Bangkok highway.

      Reply
  3. That Other Jean

    I’m puzzled. How does wearing high heels affect the length of a woman’s dress/skirt? She’s a bit taller, because her shoes are forcing her to walk on her toes and raising her heels, but her skirt is in the same place relative to her knees. Or does the maker of the list just not like high heels?

    A lot of that checklist is just about not being sloppy–not wearing blouses that gap, or clothes that show your underwear because they are either too short or too tight–but taken all together, it seems aimed at making sure women all but disappear, making as little impression as possible. Anything else might lead to men thinking about them, and we all know where that ends up.

    Reply
  4. ObstacleChick

    That Other Jean, I think you nailed it on the head – that women in fundamentalism are meant to disappear. And secular culture hasn’t been much better with the glorification of women being slim, never “bulky” looking. It is only recently where athletic/fitness industry made “strong is the new beautiful” even remotely acceptable. Yet still I am told, “don’t put on too much muscle; don’t look like a dude; don’t get too big.” Some women naturally put on muscle but most don’t. And guess what – I will try to look the way I want to look. It is my body.

    Heels…i don’t get that either. It is probably about being too tall, taking up too much space, or maybe looking sexy…..

    Reply
    1. Becky Wiren

      As a former shoe sales rep, I have to tell you that heels make the legs look longer and sexier. Plus the woman’s walk changes to more of that swaying hips thang. Now, after standing up and selling shoes for years, I can no longer wear heels at all. LOL. Personally, I flinch every time I see a female celebrity, artist, musician, politician wearing 4 inch plus heels. Very bad for the feet, ankles, legs, lower back…shoot, might as well just say it is all around bad to wear those heels, period. BUT…those preachers are opposed to the sex appeal! If they tried to appeal to reason at least I wouldn’t have to detest them for opposing heels.

      Reply
  5. Tammy

    Whenever I see any religious person/group making statements about female *modesty*, the only word that comes to mind is control. It’s not really about religion, morals, or anything else, just control. How dare a woman wear what she likes or feels comfortable in? If these men were to allow women from their religious groups their own choices, all hell would break loose and then their pathetic empires would crumble. It’s one of the things that keeps me from a completely live-and-let-live mindset about religion.

    Also, this post reminds me of something I saw a few years ago. I was curious about the IFB-based school one of my friend’s children attended and was looking at their handbook online. In it was a picture of appropriate dress for female children along with a picture of inappropriate attire for comparison. The only problem was both outfits were all but identical. I don’t remember what they were, but I could spot the so-called problems in the outfit that was not approved by the school because of my brief exposure to the IFB brand of evangelicalism. It was ridiculous because both outfits were simply cute kid’s clothing. OT: Interestingly, the school authority (read pastor) seemed mostly concerned that students and parents not post any negative comments online regarding the school. That was rather telling to me.

    Reply
    1. Rachel

      “Pathetic empires” indeed!

      Also, someone (anyone) who worries about school-age girls and what they are wearing is someone whom law enforcement should be keeping a very close eye on.

      Reply
      1. Tammy

        Rachel, I agree with your statement about law enforcement closely watching these types of creepers. Sadly, we know that religious schools/leaders often get a pass on these things as often noted in Bruce’s Black Collar Crime posts.

        Reply
        1. Rachel

          Indeed. After all the scandals (and they keep coming), all the articles about the scandals, all the discussion about the scandals, it amazes me and depresses me in equal measure to hear how dangerously naive so many members of congregations still are. “Oh, but X is a pastor/minister/priest!” Yes, and so were all those others.

          If I were a man hoping to sexually abuse children or women, the first place I would head towards would probably be a place of worship, it’s the perfect set-up: lots of naive trust, endless forgiveness (when not warranted), lots of authoritarian messages being handed out, men automatically regarded as superior to women and children. And, often, a belief which is sometimes overt, sometimes not, that God is the only judge and that believers are answerable only to him and not to the secular justice system.

          A man who sees a pre-pubescent girl and thinks “Temptress!” because her skirt is “too short, or because she is showing too much skin, or for any reason at all, is a paedophile, by definition.

          Reply
  6. ObstacleChick

    Tammy, I had to follow a strict gender-based dress code at the fundamentalist evangelical school I attended. When I was in elementary school my mom let me wear shirts under my skirts so I could still run around on the playground, climb equipment, etc, without underwear showing or feeling as inhibited by the clothing. I got in trouble for hanging upside down from monkey bars, which apparently was ok for boys but not for girls. People think I am over the top for saying so, but I think limiting women to skirts/dresses physically limits them, often keeping them from pursuing physical activities. And that kind of limitation translated over into other areas, in my opinion. In the past few years, I have seen fundamentalist religionists (Christian and Jewish women) putting on yoga pants under skirts so they can run, lift weights, etc., but that is a new thing. I even saw a social media post with the Duggar girls doing heavy barbell squats while wearing skirt over pants. I guess that is progress?

    Reply
    1. Tammy

      ObstacleChick, skirts and dresses are limiting to physical activities. I think it also translates to women keeping to strict gender roles when it comes to said activities, at least for some evangelical groups. Certain activities may not be deemed lady-like, such as climbing monkey bars, participating in some sports or even just running. I attended public schools, but I can still relate to wearing shorts under a dress or skirt. I used to wear those, or even pants, under a dress when my mom got me to wear one. I, too, liked to climb and hang upside down from the monkey bars, lol. Now, I hardly ever wear a dress or skirt. And I abhor high heels.

      Reply
      1. ObstacleChick

        Tammy, I rarely wear skirts/dresses anymore. After I graduated from the fundamentalist evangelical high school, I only wore a dress or skirt when it was mandatory for several years. I like being comfortable, and pants and low-heeled shoes are most comfortable for me. As my name ObstacleChick represents, I do running and obstacle racing, so close-fitting wicking material clothing makes up a very large part of my wardrobe these days. I still climb monkey bars, but I don’t hang upside down much anymore ha ha.

        Reply
  7. Dr. R

    I grew up on the fringes of the Gothardite cult, and absorbed a lot of bologna that I’m still trying to unpack and sort out after years away from it. I recall a particular obsession (not just among Gothardites, but also among local groups in the area I grew up in) regarding the length of girls’ shorts and skirts. It truly was an obsession in some circles.

    My exposure to that obsessive behavior over girls’ legs had a very interesting outcome in my case – it turned me into a thigh fetishist. I didn’t realize it until the past couple of years, when discussing hijabs with my wife. Some cultures consider a woman’s hair to be erotic – so they cover the hair – so it makes it more mysterious and forbidden – thus more erotic. In the culture I grew up in, girls’ thighs were sexualized, so I find them erotic. My wife grew up in a drastically different culture, so she never understood what I found so interesting about shorts or skirts, not until I compared it with the Muslim attitudes towards hair. It’s not that legs (or hair, or even breasts) are inherently erotic – culture makes them so.

    And then I realized that’s one reason I love the anime art style from Japan, in which female characters are generally depicted with disproportionately long legs and often ridiculously short skirts. So thank you, Mr. Gothard, for inadvertently steering me towards anime! (Gee, I may have just come close to saying something nice about Bill Gothard!)

    It seems to me that they could solve the whole modesty problem once and for all by just going naked. Everyone would be on the same level, and they wouldn’t have to police hemlines.

    Reply
    1. ObstacleChick

      Dr. R, I think you are correct in your estimation that what people find to be erotic is very much culturally influenced. So I guess you like it when your wife wears shorts and short skirts LOL.

      Fundamentalists should just put everyone in a long sack-like shift – long sleeves, no shape, no form-fitting parts, high neck. Everyone’s covered, everyone looks the same, women can bind up their chests so there is less protrusion, “problem” solved. Maybe the shift is brightly colored or patterned for special occasions, but I suppose we would leave that up to the fundamentalist sect.

      Reply
  8. Brian

    Dr, R, there is a picture in Time Magazine of a young woman jumping atop Billy Graham’s motorcade car. It had a special place in my adolescent fantasies back in the 60’s. I cannot find it now so, alas!

    Reply
  9. Karen the rock whisperer

    I just found time to read the Matt Walsh piece. I actually have to agree (if I understood his p**n reference correctly) that there’s a lot of media depicting unrealistic relationships. Ideally, young people would watch such things with adults nearby who can explain the unrealistic aspects. Life isn’t ideal, and this stuff undoubtedly confuses both boys and girls.

    He makes another good point which is that some children adapt better to traditional learning environments than others. I’m not sure what the fix for this is (it sure as heck isn’t demanding homeschooling, though I know people who homeschool precisely for this reason).

    Okay, so I just wrote two short paragraphs that summed up what I found useful in all his misleading blather. The rest of it was ‘oh, noes, we’re going to hell in a handbasket, and it’s all the wimmin’s fault!’ How tiresome.

    But to return to the topic at hand, I hypothesize that if, starting tomorrow morning, every woman in the US decided to comply with the modesty rules at the top of this article, within six months the busybody preachers would be tightening the rules further. And it just frosts the culture warriors that the bulk of US women have basically told the busybodies to go fly kites on the freeway.

    Reply

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