Posts Categorized: feminism

Modesty and Immodesty

I don’t generally post email correspondence verbatim, but this exchange merits reproduction in its original form. Reader Wendy emailed me with her thoughts on the concept of “modesty”:

I am a young woman and a long time (6-year) reader of your blog. I love the content, the writing style and the personality that is evident in your writing. However, there’s one thing that’s been irking me for a long time, and I’d like to tell you about it.

I really hate your (and other people’s) use of the word “modest” to mean “covered up”. I understand that it describes a style preference that is sometimes under-served by the mainstream fashion community. However, this is an incredibly judgmental word. What is the opposite of “modest”? It’s “immodest”–a word that is imbued with moral judgment and shaming. To describe skin-covering garments as “modest” implies that everything else is immodest, and that the women wearing those “immodest” clothes are immodest. This feeds into misogyny, sexism and the rape culture.

Judging from your writing and opinions, I would have expected you to recognize this problem already. However, I do not recall seeing any attempt to find a more judgment-neutral word, or a discussion on the implications and impact of this word.

Finally, a lot of the “modest” clothing these days don’t even conform to the same standard of “modesty”, so this term is pretty useless for its lack of specificity. For example, a “modest” clothing designer you showcased a few years ago produced beautiful long-sleeved, floor-length gowns that were slinky and body-conforming. In the conservative community where I grew up, something like that would have been considered absolutely scandalous and as bad as a mini skirt. A woman wearing that would be shamed by strangers and harassed by police for being a suspected prostitute. In [a recent] Lovely Links link to the story of Amaiya Zafar, her leggings would not have been considered “modest” in many conservative communities even now. My point is not to say that these examples are not “modest”, but that “modest” is such a subjective term that whatever “benefit” there is in using this term is outweighed by the negative impact. (I recognize that the word “modest” for the Zafar story was in the title of the article, not by your choice.)

Instead of the nebulous and damaging “modest”, why don’t you use words that actually describe the clothing? e.g. “skin-covering”, “chest-covering”, “leg-covering”, “long-sleeved”, “flowing”, “opaque”, or even “conservative”? Yes, “conservative” can have slight negative connotations in some circles, but “immodest” is strongly negative in all circles.

If you’ve read this far, thanks for reading. I hope to see a discussion on this topic with your community. I’m not an active commenter, but I would love to see what other people think.

She agreed to let me post my reply to her – a couple of clarifications have been added:

Thanks for your kind words and for sticking with me for so long!

Thanks, too, for your thoughts on the subject of modesty. Clearly this is a topic that stirs strong emotions for you.

A quick search shows me that the majority of my posts containing the word “modesty” are reader requests, though the word and topic certainly come up organically on occasion. This older post is a response to a reader’s question about modesty and self-image, and provoked a lively discussion. I also recently interviewed a group of observant Jewish women about their dressing practices for The Riveter, though the article hasn’t been posted yet. I’ll definitely link to it when it goes live. Certainly a topic worth re-visiting on the blog, too.

While I agree that modesty is a relative term, the argument that calling something modest is tantamount to calling everything else immodest is a fallacy. By that argument, calling one woman beautiful implies that all other women are ugly, calling one vocalist’s performance skillful implies that all others are amateurish, calling one type of shoe stylish implies that all others are passé. It’s not that simple. And although a segment of the population may have that dichotomy in mind when they deem certain clothing to be modest, it’s unreasonable to assume that all do. Or that misogyny, sexism, and rape culture are driving every woman’s choice to wear clothes she calls “modest,” or to contemplate concepts of modesty for herself and others. Just as it is a choice to reveal, it is a choice to cover, as evidenced by some responses to the French burqa ban. [EDIT: Meaning that choices can be driven by many unseen factors, including ones we might not expect due to limited personal experience.]

As you point out, “modest” is an incredibly subjective and relatively vague term. But I get reader requests for “comfortable” shoes, “stylish” skirts, “formal” dresses, and all of those terms are equally vague. I do agree that more specific terminology could be used in place of the word “modest,” and appreciate you pointing that out – I’ll keep it in mind moving forward. And I agree that the concept of modesty is a loaded one that’s often tied to policing of women’s bodies. But the words we use to describe clothing constitute an opinion-based shorthand, which leaves them open to interpretation. In my view, this can be quite healthy. The fact that my idea of what is “comfortable” or “formal” may clash with the ideas of others means that both parties are forced to consider differing perspectives on a single concept. Even if that consideration is made in private and not in an open comment section, it reminds all parties that our perspectives do not exist in a vacuum.

I would never argue that all discussions of modesty are free of misogyny and judgment: The concept is definitely used to censure women, to victim-blame, and to concoct shame under certain circumstances. But modesty is important to a wide variety of individuals, groups, and faiths. I feel that wholesale dismissal of the term as damaging fails to account for and respect the breadth of ideas it represents and people to whom those ideas are significant. [EDIT: Meaning that while I see the value in using more descriptive terminology myself, I am not comfortable insisting that everyone who uses the term “modesty” should be forced to do likewise, regardless of what the word represents to them as individuals.]

But I’m sure plenty of people will disagree with me. I’d be happy to open up a discussion on the topic using our correspondence as a jumping-off point!

Wendy wrote back:

Thank you for your thoughtful reply. I feel that there is still much to be explored, so this email is pretty long.

Firstly, I’m not sure why you interpreted my arguments as criticism on women’s choice to cover up. I also did not speculate why some women prefer to cover up, nor did I minimize the importance of observing dressing guidelines for personal reasons. I wonder if you are projecting your own bugbears onto my email. My email was focused on problems with using the word “modest” as a category of clothing.

I recall reading that 2010 article but not the comments, which I read just now. The word “modest” was used by many commenters, with the same vagueness that I am complaining about. In fact, when one commenter said “I balance [low-cut tops] out with modest bottoms”, I literally don’t know what she meant. Is she talking about any loose bottoms, trousers, floor-length skirts, or (quoting another commenter) “more modest mid-thigh skirts”?

Back to your reply, I really like your statement “the argument that calling something modest is tantamount to calling everything else immodest is a fallacy”. I think this is the crux of the issue. I agree that the words “beautiful” and “skillful” imply spectra of beauty and skill. Unfortunately, the word “modest” as I have experienced is in fact used as a binary metric. The message in conservative cultures as I have experienced is “be modest”, which means “meet these standards” not “move in this direction”. Let’s focus on my experience for a moment. In my personal experience (in three countries spanning wide ranges of religiosity/secularity, liberalism/conservativeness, and multiculturalism), the word “modest” in the context of clothing is usually used to judge, not just to describe.

For example, in my personal experience, women who describe their own style as “modest” often use this word to promote their religiosity or respectability. I have heard these phrases expressed by female friends: “I prefer to be modest, not have bits hanging out like a whore”, and “I dress modestly because I have self respect”. One teen friend’s mother even said, “[friend] wears modest clothes because she is a good Christian”. In these examples, the word “modest” is definitely intended to be judgmental: positive for the subject and negatively for others who don’t meet the standard. In contrast, the women I know who respect other people’s choices do not actually use “modest” to describe their own styles. Those friends would say things like, “I prefer to cover up”, “I’m more comfortable not showing my legs”, and “I don’t show my hair as a way to express my faith”. Of course modesty is important to these women, but they also recognize that it is a personal definition that may not apply to others, so they stick with the specifics.

Does my experience apply to your broader readership? Evidently not, since there seem to be many readers who like using “modest” as a clothing category. Do they live in a homogenous community where the definition of “modest” is already agreed upon? Is the majority of clothing in their environment so skimpy that anything covered-up is “modest” by comparison? Are they surrounded by wonderful people who never use this term in a judgmental way? Do they prefer this term because it makes them feel virtuous about their clothing choices and life choices? Without open discussion, I won’t know.

You are absolutely right in saying that the interpretation of opinion-based shorthand can encourage readers to consider different perspectives. Indeed, I’ve been thinking about this topic for several years, prompted by some of your posts and two “modest fashion” blogs I used to follow. Anyway, that’s enough blathering for one day. Thanks for being open to discussion.

So let’s discuss: Do you feel that the term “modesty” is overly judgmental and potentially damaging? Is it a word that’s important to you as an individual or to your community? Is it important to use more specific or descriptive terms in place of “modest,” or does the word serve a purpose in and of itself?

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The “All or Nothing” Conundrum


Over the summer, I read/listened to Caitlin Moran’s book How to Be a Woman. I knew she was British, funny, and beloved by many feminists, but very little else, so I went in with a pretty open mind.

For the most part, I found the book relatable, hilarious, and endearing. She tells stories about growing up female and navigating the world as a young woman that weren’t universal, per se, but still engaging and accessible. And she’s an astute observer of pop culture.

However, there were several sections that actually enraged me. I didn’t just disagree with her views, I wanted to punch her in the face for expressing those views in the ways that she did: She stated that the reason men view women as inferior is that we haven’t really done anything notable yet as a gender – in science, art, politics, or humanitarianism. She had some preposterously backwards views on body image that bordered on fat-phobia. She made statements about evolution and sociology that she’d clearly extracted from her own butt without consulting any research or getting any expert input. And she’s touted as “a feminist heroine for our times,” looked up to by countless impressionable young women, setting a sloppy example for the generations coming up behind her.

BUT. I still enjoyed the book, and I’d still totally take her out for a cheeseburger if I had the chance. And perhaps more importantly, I would never say that she’s not a feminist. Or not a good feminist. Or that her views – which occasionally clash with my own – will ruin feminism.

And you may be saying to yourself, “So what? That just makes you a reasonable human being.” But here’s the thing, friends: It also puts me in the minority, especially amongst my fellow feminists. The feminist blogs I read are clogged with call-outs and overrun with in-fighting. One of them seems to have created an editorial calendar that revolves around pointing out all of the things feminists and allies are doing wrong. You are expected to be completely perfect, or turn in your feminist badge and go home.

“All or nothing” works beautifully in many realms, but it is unwise to take it on as a universal life philosophy. If a designer you love releases a collection you loathe, you don’t need to write them off forever. If a family member you respect says something boneheaded, you don’t need to cut them out of your life. If a prominent figure makes a statement that enrages you, you don’t need to decide that they’re a minion of Satan. Discarding mere disagreement in favor of outright hatred turns people into closed-minded robots focused on false binaries.

There are may ways to be a Christian, many ways to be a woman, many ways to be a teacher, many ways to be a mom, many ways to be a leader, and – of course – many ways to be beautiful, and many ways to be stylish.  We may want a simple, easy, black-and-white world, but we just can’t have one. Instead, we have the one in which Caitlin Moran thinks women are historical underachievers and still gets to be a feminist. We have the one in which hypocrisy is part of human nature. We have the one in which we could all stand to get a little more comfortable with the gray areas.

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Reader Request: Bodies and Decency

Reader Leah sent me this question via email:

Views on body hair seem to me like part of a larger trend of regarding certain secondary sexual characteristics of women as obscene or inappropriate. Here are several examples:

“Bikini area” – The top 6″ of my inner thighs grow pubic hair rather than leg hair. I don’t think I’m allowed to wear a bathing suit that shows this hair. Showing leg hair might be seen as icky or unconventional, but I’d be concerned about being reported for indecent exposure if I showed pubic hair. I’ve never seen a woman wearing a bathing suit that showed this type of hair in this location. (Incidentally, shaving gives me terrible ingrown hairs, so I eventually started wearing board shorts when I swim. I’m quite satisfied with that solution, but it makes me “weird” and people ask why I don’t wear a standard bathing suit.)

Nipples – You’ve mentioned several times that you have permanently erect nipples. Mine aren’t permanently erect, but they might as well be since I get cold easily. It irks me that it would be considered inappropriate to go around with the outlines of nipples visible through my shirt. (I’m pretty flat chested so otherwise have little need to wear a bra, and I find the thicker, more supportive bras uncomfortable. No good solution here.)

“Camel toe” – When did this become a thing? Having random creases in the clothing around one’s groin probably isn’t the most flattering look, but now there’s a name for it and it’s considered gross. As someone with unusually large labia, I’m more likely to have problems with this than some women are.

Certainly there are plenty of characteristics that are considered gross and shouldn’t be, such as being fat. However, the specific ones I list are secondary sexual characteristics. I’m usually fine with violating norms for what’s stylish or flattering, but it’s much harder when one is considered obscene and when it’s a sexual characteristic. What do you think?

Oh, I think so many things. I think about my friends with big busts who have been called “slutty” even when they’re wearing high necklines and layers. I think about the movie “The Cooler” – which is just marvelous, by the way – and how I learned that one of the sex scenes originally showed the leading lady’s pubic hair which caused the MPAA to give it an NC-17 rating. Because women’s body hair is that scandalous. (The scene was removed so the movie could get bumped down to R.) I think about the fact that unlined bras are almost impossible to find because of nipple fear. I think about the multitudinous ways in which women’s bodies are policed, and how strict and judgmental that policing becomes when it pertains to body features that are related to sex and sexuality.

But beyond that, I don’t know what to think. American culture is simultaneously obsessed with pushing the boundaries of bodily exposure and shaming anyone who enjoys exposing her body. I have no idea how to react to that, much less change it. I understand that the simplest way to push back is to refuse to conform – let your nipples show through, wear your swimsuit even if you haven’t shaved or waxed your bikini line – but, as Leah points out, when you run the risk of crossing the “decency” boundary, it makes that pushback trickier to navigate.

Have any of you had direct experiences with these issues? Have you been scolded or called out for dressing in clothes that expose or reveal secondary sexual characteristics? How did you react? Any ideas for how to stem the tide?

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