CONTENT WARNING: Shaming culture regarding modesty within society & the church. A little ranty and possibly rambly. Not a theologian. All my own opinions. Reader discretion is advised. All for a conversation, but not for nastiness. Any abusive comments will be blocked & reported.
This is something that has been on my mind a lot lately. I, and I’m sure quite a few of us have seen this throughout the decades and is still prevalent today. Shaming people, namely women, and/or feminine presenting people, by policing how we dress, dictating our self-worth by how much or little we wear.
‘Modesty’ is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as the following:
- The quality or state of being unassuming in the estimation of one’s abilities.‘with typical modesty he insisted on sharing the credit with others’
- The quality of being relatively moderate, limited, or small in amount, rate, or level.‘the modesty of his political aspirations’
- Behaviour, manner, or appearance intended to avoid impropriety or indecency.‘modesty forbade her to undress in front of so many people’
In this instance, we’ll be primarily talking about the concept of modest appearance. I firmly believe that modesty, like what we find attractive, is entirely subjective, depending on one’s personal preferences, culture and/or faiths. For example, what might be considered modest to a devout Muslim woman from Abu Dabhi, may be completely different as to what’s considered modest by a staunch atheist man from California.
Modesty, for me, I consider clothing that covers parts of our bodies generally considered private, such as the breasts and genitalia. So for me, that means making sure a skirt doesn’t show my underwear when I bend down or over, my jeans don’t ride down, and that my tops aren’t too low cut. I’m a chesty girl so that latter is especially important for me. What’s could be normal for a smaller breasted person, may be very booby for me!
I personally love clothes that are, generally considered, more modest. Not out of shame for my body, as some associate modesty with (though my body-image isn’t great, I’ll grant you) but because those are the clothes I find most flattering for my shape, and I feel very comfortable in them, having done since my late teens. I love layering in my personal style.
So usually, I like to keep my skirts to my knee, my jeans fitted, my waist more defined and if I’m feeling like wearing long sleeves, a cardigan over my top, layering with a scarf etc. My tastes are feminine, I don’t have to worry about a potential wardrobe malfunction, and above all, it’s just very much me. I dress like that for me, not to impress anyone nor hide myself.
I’m not wishing to bash anyone for how they dress in this post. Quite the opposite, in fact. People should be allowed to wear whatever they like without others feeling entitled to their bodies. That’s the point of this whole post in a nutshell. Dress how you are most comfortable, be it as a commitment to one’s faith if you have one, or just because it’s what you like to wear. Either way, how we dress is very personal to us.
In this post however, I want to express some thoughts on toxic behaviours by certain individuals, regarding them shaming others to cover more or cover less, both in secular and faith-based life.
Being someone who presently has a faith (I never thought I’d hear myself saying I miss going to church!), I see all too often verses from various religious scriptures (in my case, the Bible) being taken out of context to justify archaic and at times, outright misogynistic behaviour regarding modesty. Just doing a simple dive into the subject online and *phew* there’s a lot to unpack! Being a sex blogger, I feel it’s important to talk about these issues where I see such a massive intersection.
The most common excuse I see and have experienced myself, is being told to cover more (when wearing perfectly regular clothing) to not want to attract or ‘incite’ attention from men. Or as some call it in more religious communities: driving men to lust or ‘causing your brother to stumble.’
This I’ve always considered straight up insulting. Not just for those on the receiving end, but to men in general. It paints them as rabid sexual monsters that just can’t control themselves at the mere glimpse of a feminine form. It is painted that men are visual and women are emotional, therefore women should be ‘more responsible’ in how we present ourselves around men.
This to me is absolute rubbish. Men, women and people of other gender identities outside the binary, can be both visual and emotional. The way I see it, if someone, regardless of gender identity, is shaming you, because a silhouette or hint of collarbone is driving them uncontrollably mad? That’s entirely their problem. Instead of shaming us, hold them accountable.
There’s also the common perception of how much someone wears with the amount of self-respect they have. We’ve heard it many times, comments on how low a woman’s dress is, short skirt is, colour of dress, makeup, hair etc. that she couldn’t possibly respect herself, and any attention she draws from arseholes means she’s ‘asking for it’.
Surely how we respect ourselves should not be inherently tied with what we wear, but how we look after ourselves, our families, our children, and taking time for self-care when we need it? By our character? That’s how I see it personally.
I also see this in the form of being shamed for ‘wearing too much’. I have also have experienced this. I see this primarily in the form of people being called a ‘prude’, ‘nun-like’. Or as we’ve seen in the news or our everyday lives, this is particularly targeted at Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab, or a burkini on the beach etc. Remember the French authorities in Nice ordering a woman to take off her burkini in front of a beach full of people? Not cool.
This societal construct hardly ever applies to men, and nor should it. But it shouldn’t apply to women or people who are feminine presenting either. We are not the nannies for keeping perverts in check. People with ulterior and questionable motives are going to try whatever they want by any means necessary. What you need to do is hold them accountable and not brush it off as just ‘boys will be boys.’
We see all too often sadly, where survivors of sexual assault and rape are blamed for their ordeal, because of their clothing. Not the fact that a vile person forced themselves on them. The same excuse is used, even at times by authorities, the very people meant to be holding perpetrators responsible for their crimes: Well what did you expect when you wear that? He couldn’t help himself, could he?
It’s awful. And no, it’s not because they ‘just couldn’t help their desires’, but because they wanted to exert power over someone in one of the most insidious ways. Rape is not about sex anymore than hitting someone on the head with a potted plant is about gardening.
Disclaimer from here on: Not being ‘preachy’ with Bible stuff. Just providing more context in how shaming can be used and how it affects others.
The term ‘stumbling block’ is used a lot in some Christian, particularly some Evangelical circles. Romans 14:13, from the letters of Paul in the New Testament, is one often used to blame women for being a ‘stumbling block’ for their Christian brothers, taught by individuals in some churches as a part of Purity Culture (something I’ll be writing a post on at some point). The verse is as follows:
‘Therefore, let us stop passing judgement on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling-block or or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister.’ (Romans 14:13 NIV)
Looks pretty straight-forward and self-explanatory, right?
If you look at the verse and its surrounding text, it talks about living for God, not judging and helping one another should something distress them i.e. certain food, drinking wine and whatever someone subjectively considers ‘unclean’ (a word often used in the Bible relating to food, sex and menstruation, particularly if you look in the Old Testament). This is so, in order to aim for the goal of ‘peace and mutual edification’ (Romans 14: 19) with our communities, by considering everyone’s sensitivities and needs.
However, this is used by some solely as a means to control what a woman or young girl wears, reinforcing a patriarchal view of controlling what someone wears, and that it must be covered so as not to ‘distract the boys/men’. While in the book of Timothy, Paul talks about women ‘dressing modestly’. Though technically, he doesn’t go into specifics as to how, with the exception of head-covering during worship in 1 Corinthians 11, which is a very interesting look into the traditions and culture of the time. Some Christian women today still observe this custom, either just in church or in everyday life, ie. Conservative Mennonites, the Amish, Russian Orthodox and devout Catholics etc.
So all around, modesty is pretty subjective.
However you dress is entirely up to you, whether it has a basis in faith or solely as a means of comfort and personal expression. Yeah, how another dresses may not be your cup of tea, or the opposite: It may be very much your cup of tea and find it sexy. But that doesn’t give us the right to feel we own someone’s body, or are entitled to it simply because it’s on show, because we don’t.
The only body that belongs to us is our own.
*Image credit – Terres Des Femmes