I have a number of issues with the way modesty is introduced into society. Now, understand me, I do not believe that being modest is a problem. I feel far more comfortable in t-shirts and jeans than I probably should and am in no way attempting to say one should avoid being modest. However, I also do not believe modesty and morality are as nearly integrally tied as they have often been introduced as to society. First, let's start with a story, shall we?
“Two monks were making a pilgrimage to venerate the relics of a great Saint. During the course of their journey, they came to a river where they met a beautiful young woman -- an apparently worldly creature, dressed in expensive finery and with her hair done up in the latest fashion. She was afraid of the current and afraid of ruining her lovely clothing, so asked the brothers if they might carry her across the river.
The younger and more exacting of the brothers was offended at the very idea and turned away with an attitude of disgust. The older brother didn't hesitate, and quickly picked the woman up on his shoulders, carried her across the river, and set her down on the other side. She thanked him and went on her way, and the brother waded back through the waters.
The monks resumed their walk, the older one in perfect equanimity and enjoying the beautiful countryside, while the younger one grew more and more brooding and distracted, so much so that he could keep his silence no longer and suddenly burst out, "Brother, we are taught to avoid contact with women, and there you were, not just touching a woman, but carrying her on your shoulders!"
The older monk looked at the younger with a loving, pitiful smile and said, "Brother, I set her down on the other side of the river; you are still carrying her.”
This is easily one of my favorite religiously-orientated-but-not-scriptural-parables. Is that a thing? Oh well. Culture, especially the American-Christian culture uses the phrase modesty often in its rhetoric. As defined by the Oxford Dictionary, modesty is “behavior, manner, or appearance intended to avoid impropriety or indecency.” Now.. that doesn’t necessarily sound like a bad thing, right? However, the standards of modesty are set to a point that so much as showing shoulders suggests impropriety. Modesty in itself is not the problem — rather it is the intense focus on the standards of modesty. So now, with all that, here are three ways that the focus on modesty has negatively affected society.
It hypersexualizes women’s bodies
OK, gentlemen forgive me. I’ve never heard a man told to “dress more modestly.” Maybe y’all have, maybe it is a thing, but I have no knowledge nor experience with it so I do not feel comfortable writing about it. However, the hypersexualizing of women’s bodies? That is something I am unfortunately very familiar with. Teaching women to cover their bodies in order to avoid being viewed sexually suggests that women’s bodies are inherently sexual. Like every part, not just the actual sexual aspects of the body, but everything. Focusing so much on women being modest teaches women that their bodies are intended to be looked at.
Historically speaking, that has always been the case — women are intended to be viewed while men are intended to view. Maybe this is why men are never told to dress more modestly because, historically speaking, men are the sexual, not the sexualized. Evidently if it is not covered on a woman’s body it is sexual. Not because women are capable of being sexual themselves (read: female desire was thought of as myth for most of history) but because they are used for sex.
Similarly, it teaches women to be ashamed of their bodies. It teaches them to be conscious of how they appear rather than how they feel. By hyper-sexualizing a woman's body, you essentially tell her that her body is naturally improper; naturally indecent.
Can we talk about dress codes?
Apparently, my thighs are now sexual. As well as my shoulders. Also probably my stomach. Even when these body parts are covered, just the outline of my body in tighter clothing is an issue. These wildly strict and ridiculously sexist codes are the incarnation of the hypersexualized culture. Once again, it comes down to the viewed and viewer. Due to the fact that women are “intended” to be viewed, their bodies are constantly on display. Since men are “intended” to view, it is assumed that they can not learn in a classroom full of women’s shoulders. This is not because shoulders or thighs or stomachs are actually sexual. They are not used in any sexual function nor are they really all that cool looking. Rather, this becomes a question of power, and it is far easier to tell a girl to change her clothes than it is to tell a boy to change what society has been teaching him his entire life.
Yet, according to social standards, boys and men both are incapable of controlling their sexual urges around a pair of shoulders. These standards are being implemented younger and younger. Suddenly kindergarten girls are being told to wear longer skirts or to cover their shoulders as if they have the capacity to be sexual. These standards are literally saying the a six-year-old's body could potentially be viewed sexually and therefore must be covered. Now, I’m not saying it can’t be sexualized, but that is a much deeper problem than the clothes she is wearing. It always is. Regardless of age. Which brings me to my next problem.
Perpetuating rape culture.
“You shouldn’t wear that to school because you’ll distract the boys.”
“Boys won't be able to control themselves if you’re dressed like that.”
and my personal favorite (read: sarcasm) “boys will be boys.”
Teaching women that it is their responsibility to dress in a way that protects men from their (women's) bodies, not only teaches women to be ashamed of their body but also that if they do not “dress responsibly” it is their fault when things go awry.
“Well, what were you wearing?”
We try to use modesty as a shield; "if you don't dress provocatively you won't provoke," we tell ourselves to help us sleep well at night. Women’s bodies are not only sexualized when they show x amount of skin. To suggest that women will be safe from being sexualized simply because they cover their shoulders is naïve. It also ignores a larger problem you know, the one where there are men in the world who believe that they are entitled to women’s bodies, whether skin is showing or not.
It is not as though women are hiding anything secret or mystical on their bodies. We’ve all taken anatomy. My leggings (which of course I am wearing as pants) are not revealing anything secret. My shoulders do not hold some long-lost key to great sex. Yet, I’m taught to be modest, not for anything to do with myself, but rather to protect men from themselves because they just can’t control themselves (hey, men, if you’re reading this, that idea should offend you, you are better than that, you are stronger than that, and I have full trust that you are capable of treating women well.) Modesty in itself is not a bad thing. The simple act of being modest, in dress or action, is not bad for the world. However, when churches and schools and families spend so much time trying to teach their women to be modest, it puts the blame, pressure, and responsibility on women for the actions of the men around them.