Why the Concept Of ‘Modesty’ Disgusts Me

Originally published at The Feminist Wire

(of a woman) dressing or behaving so as to avoid impropriety or indecency,esp. to avoid attracting sexual attention

(of clothing) not revealing or emphasizing the figure

When I think about what modesty means in today’s political, cultural and religious environment  I am inclined to believe that the concept itself does not involve choice. It continues to lack any dimension of freedom or independent thought, rather it constitutes a dictatorial concept pushed down on women whether they agree with it or not. It is a vague and misleading concept and although some argue that it is down to interpretation one thing is to be sure of; modesty is patriarchy.

When I speak about modesty, I speak about it in relation to clothing, mannerisms and behaviour. Throughout history, women have been judged on how “modest” they are and this has been a way to determine how much of a “lady” they have the power to be. In a patriarchal society, to be modest is to dress “appropriately”, speak “accordingly” and maintain a “ladylike” image throughout. If you fail to do this, you are not modest and God forbid you choose to wear a low-cut top, you are simply a whore!

Modesty to me means subservience. It means acquiesce. How you dress suddenly becomes some one else’s business and how “ladylike” you are is determined by a standard you never gave your consent to in the first place. Let’s face it, men are not subject to this standard. I mean, have you really ever heard someone describe a man as “immodest”? It is a standard reserved almost exclusively for women. And this is because we suffer in a largely patriarchal society. If modesty is simply about avoidance of dressing in a “revealing” manner, why is it predominantly directed at women? Why is a woman’s dress choice suddenly everybody’s business and why is a woman’s choice to reveal what is her’s; “indecent” and “immoral”?

And how about this idea that the level of “respect” you should receive is inextricably linked with how “modest” you are. Shouldn’t “respect” be linked with intellect, intelligence, ability to hold an intriguing conversation, anything but the tightness of your dress or shortness of your skirt. Too often we measure our respect of women on the basis of how well they fit our standard of “modesty” and “decency”. This is nothing but oppressive. And hey here’s a crazy idea, how about a woman doesn’t leave her house everyday desperate to receive your stamp of approval and rating of modesty? Maybe it’s just her choice to wear what she wants and act the way she choices. It’s a ludicrous idea I know, but just consider it for a moment.

I have heard countless men and women use “impure” and “unclean” as synonyms for “immodesty” and there is a reason. Modesty is a way to oppress women into giving into a system of patriarchy that dictates what they wear, how much skin they reveal and how “sexual” they are. As a way to attack, marginalise and oppress women, it is effective. There is nothing innocent about throwing around the term modesty and there are no excuses for the ignorance about what it really implies. I for one have no interest in being “modest” because how I choose to live my life, has nothing to do with my gender or with what somebody has dictated for me. I refuse to vilify women who do not fit into a illusionary standard of “modesty” and I do not consider the concept relevant, accurate or useful. It is a concept that truly disgusts me and not merely because of its essential meaning, but because of the importance we have given to it.


4 Comments Add yours

  1. Hello, I am commenting on this because of a share on facebook and I think it is nice to talk about such things here rather than on facebook.

    You specifically say this is strictly a female burden but men can be immodest also, if they show off their figure too much they get made fun of also. Picture a guy with his sleeves cut off. It’s like “Man… wtf… trying to show off or something? What a joke.”… he will probably end up getting laid but we still think they are absurd… or that 80 year old man with the spandex shorts at Wal-mart. Modesty people… I just work here. It depends on the environment also of course… There are commonly accepted forms of dressing and you basically want to say that it is all about oppression when you want to change norms of dressing. If someone showed up at my parent’s funeral not wearing appropriate clothes they can leave. My point being that it is not a gender battle for showing off the body based upon an evil society and it is freedom vs the world. What about my freedom?

    If this is about girls have a problem when they go out to clubs… typically guys target these girls because they think that they are available, it is very difficult being single because you don’t know who starts things off or how, or if they are single or what… even if it is 1 out of 100, if it works once, then it causes and enforces such behavior. The guys that are shy don’t get anywhere. Try to talk to someone and some other guy will come in and start bragging, talk louder, basically take over…

    female – “Just because I dress like this, doesn’t mean I want to grind with you.”

    male – “But it worked on the last girl?”

    The guys that approach girls and start grinding more often than not get somewhere and it is this club culture, not some sort of Patriarch society scape-goat, that is the cause.

    The power struggle is real but it sounds like guys are always this ugly force of conspiring against the females when deep down they can just be confused and lonely and don’t know anything except what has worked in the past or what they’ve seen work for others and try to emulate. As weird as it sounds, they (we) are human also, and they are just as confused what to do, who is available, how to approach and when they make a mistake it hurts their sense of worth so they lash out. Please you don’t take it personally either! Also… lots of guys are stupid and don’t see females as individuals or mistakes happen…. maybe no more complexity than that but don’t say every guy and this “system”.

    Relationships with the opposite sex don’t have to be power struggles, but can often be as wanting something makes you vulnerable, maybe dependent on also and it scares both genders to be at the other’s power and we all handle this fear differently.

    i have gave you my perspective. please understand, I could be wrong, but it is still my viewpoint. Correct me if I am wrong.

  2. Lorna says:

    Brilliant article. Couldn’t agree more

  3. CAAC shelter says:

    Sorry, but this reminds me of…(why did I just apologize? That Pantene commercial…). Let me start over. This article reminds me of an amazing movie and book that I’ve read and seen: Persepolis. Marjane, the main character, often made fun of her professors and disobeyed rules; she was forced to wear the hijab. Once, at college, she stood up and addressed the fact that the men on campus got to wear short and cropped clothing with their exposed boxers free to the air whilst the school administration thinks that a sight of her angles, wrists and neck is too much for men. I believe that I am privileged to be an American women. I don’t have to deal with the stress of showing my body…sometimes, but it could be so much worse. Even though I have it hard as a growing girl, I am grateful.

  4. Mary Allison says:

    We must develop a conscious awareness that society’s Narcissistic judgements are lies. Without awareness, judgements as you described are prone to become unconsciously embedded in womens’ psyches, causing torturous self-criticisms.

    The danger of unconsciously harboring internal, negative self-talk seems especially rampant where a woman’s mother was judgemental and employed verbal guilt/shame emotional abuse strategies.

    A symptom/cue here is that the critic voice inside will say and sound like the mother/attachment figure who installed the “lie” program.

    Must identify as lies and process the facts (that we did not cause or deserve the emotional abuse) to heal.

    Societal injuries toward us can be processed in the same manner. Awareness it was undeserved + feeling and releasing the negative emotions event(s) caused.

    Tears are good. They release pain. Processing all the abuse we have suffered is the only way to stay healthy, sane and whole.

    I do believe the natural human distractions created by lack of modesty (in any gender) over-promotes sexual energy exchanges to great human detriment, distracting from other important spiritual & energetic exchanges among us.

    Especially the way men are structured, it seems near impossible for some to overcome powerful feminine physical distractions. They consequently fail to direct their focus toward greater concepts/consciousness.

    I am not judging anyone. Just observing, inspired your intriguing writing. Keep up the great work!!

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