There’s an interesting article at The Atlantic today called “Toward a New Understanding of Modesty.” Other sites linking to it told me it made a secular, even feminist case for covering yourself up, so I clicked. Unfortunately, while what I found within was neither new nor persuasive.
The article begins by disavowing the “old” reasons women are told to cover up, which is always something I can get behind. The idea that it’s a woman’s responsibility to control male urges is widespread and damaging, and a major contributor to rape culture, and I’m happy to hear even some Christians are letting it go.
But when it tries to construct a positive, secular case for modesty is where it gets away from me. From sources including “modest” swimwear designer Jessica Rey, the writer theorizes:
Here, there is freedom for individual women to practice modesty not primarily to preserve men’s sexual purity, but to preserve their own dignity. To show in outward form the inward truth that they matter to society for their minds, their leadership, their passions, and their talents–talents that have nothing to do with how many heads they can turn. Modesty can become a form of female power. In Rey’s words, this is “the power to be treated as an equal, to be seen as in control, and to be taken seriously. It seems the kind of power [women] are searching for is more attainable when they dress modestly.”
Do we buy this, or is it a logical fallacy? Absent any sort of pre-existing moral framework (i.e. God), it seems difficult to prove that modesty = dignity (and its implied corollary, showing skin = lack of dignity) is true. Plus, if women are no longer responsible for wearing clothes that keep people from raping us, why are we still responsible for wearing clothes that keep people from judging us? The one does not seem to follow from the other. If your mind and achievements have nothing to do with your body, does it really matter whether you hide that body or show it? At least the Christian understanding of modesty is consistent with its own internal logic.
I will admit to some ambivalence in this area, because I tend to dress pretty modestly myself these days, but it’s more because of my fashion sense than any desire to be “dignified.” I will also admit to letting the terrorists win a little bit, because if I hadn’t gotten so many unsolicited comments on my tits over the years, I might not have put them away forever. (Minus nude beaches and trips to Woodstock.) It’s not that I thought I was “asking for it” so much as a bunch of other people did, and I’m not strong enough to stand up to them every day.
Is there any kind of secular/feminist case to be made for covering yourself up, or is the most feminist thing you can do to just retire this debate and focus on the ideas in women’s heads rather than whatever may or may not be showing below the collarbone? I’m leaning towards the latter, with the caveat that no choice is made in a vacuum, and us women may indeed stop sexualizing ourselves so much once greater cultural equality is achieved. But I see this as more of a potential trickle-down effect of equality than a driving cause of it, and certainly not something we can achieve by shaming women for what they like to wear.
(Via The Atlantic)