Culture War Correspondence: Modesty

EVAN: Welcome, readers of various genders, ages, personal beliefs, et cetera, to yet another installment of Culture War Correspondence. This week both Kat and I will be discussing how people need to stop being so gosh darn proud all the time. Seriously, take it down several pegs.

It’s hard for ginger cat not to feel a little proud.

Wait, no, I meant the other definition of modesty, particularly, though not restricted to, what people wear. Sorry, my notes got mixed up. No, I do not in fact take notes for these segments.

KAT: Ah, modesty. If you grew up in a Christian school that will be a very familiar term. Especially if you were a student of the female variety.

But what got you thinking about the topic to begin with?

EVAN: As our readers may know, as a believer myself I’m also primarily familiar with the issue via the Christian subculture, and I spent a good chunk of time last week debating it. And yes, as you said, it basically solely revolves around women.

The prevailing thought is that they are to cover up due to the risk of calling their brothers to stumble, and I realize I’m sort of using churchy language right now but I think the point is clear.

I’m sure you can elaborate on that [the potentially massive issues therein] since you are, in fact, a lady.

KAT: A lady? Me? Well gawsh!

So, as I mentioned above I did attend a Christian school for most of my pre-university schooling. It was a pretty great experience for me in general, and although we did have a dress code, I didn’t really have an issue with it at the time. That being said, I’m a pretty big people pleaser, so even if they were dress “suggestions” I probably would have still tried to toe the line. I think my issue with it now is exactly what you just mentioned above. So often modesty has been with an emphasis on women, but with a focus on men. It either translates to a) “don’t dress sleezy or men will think they can take advantage of that” or b) “men are uncontrollable beasts who just cannot help jumping you the moment they see your bra strap.”

And here we see the human male, at the sight of a bra strap.

EVAN: I was going to make a comment about bra straps, but I’m going to soldier on. With the two pretty awful conclusions that you mentioned it becomes a question as to what needs to change.

Could we just do away with dress codes of any kind and just leave it up to guys to get a grip [pun of any sort not intended, goodness gracious, readers] and deal with it?

KAT: I would say yes. I remember one time at a Christian school where they split up the boys and girls. They gave the boys a talk about porn and girls a talk about modesty.

I had this mentor at the time who was so frustrated with the situation because she felt that modesty was sooooo not about the clothes you wear. She explained how she would have considered Eve to be modest, despite being completely naked because of her state of mind, meanwhile totally appropriately dressed women may still be trying to use their body to gain some advantage over the men around them. I think by making a dress code we mix up style with manipulation. I’m quite sure a woman (or a man, but for the sake of this premise I’m going to focus on women) who has the intention of seducing someone is going to still be able to do that without the “two-finger width tanktop” rule.

Measuring swimsuits in the 1920’s. Wouldn’t want to be immodest!

I could also get into how annoying it is that they assumed that porn was only an issue for men, but I will try to keep on topic.

EVAN: Oof, yeah, that would be a derailment we might not be able to get back on track.

I don’t particular want to unpack the entire issue of “Christian modesty” given the potential mess that is a discussion over lust as a sin and defining both words and ugh, just thinking about it is exhausting, so I’m going to ask that we try turning off down that portion of our brains and talk about modesty in a secular context.

Nudity is really not as huge a deal in parts of Europe compared to here, whereas even pornography in Japan has the genital censored. There are huge differences across cultures, but as far as North America goes, how are we doing? Feel free to steer the conversation towards men if you’d like.

KAT: How are we doing. That’s such a broad question. I also think it’s hard to actually separate the idea of modesty from religion. I don’t even had a point of reference because I grew up in a Christian home so I don’t even know what kind of meaning there would be behind modesty from a secular perspective. Can you maybe elaborate on what you mean a bit more?

EVAN: If you asked the average person, who in certain areas of Toronto would be decidedly nonreligious, how they would describe an “immodestly dressed” person, what would that sound like?

I mean, the broad definition of “modesty” is “propriety”, or basically sticking within conventional boundaries of what is right and normal.

KAT: Well I think it’s impossible to really say how we are doing in that way because I think standards really depends on your cultural circle. We are always gauging what is or is not appropriate based on our immediate environment.

EVAN: I think that in the broadest sense there’s a definite impression of North American modesty, which is that the more exposed female breasts [technically guys have them as well] the less modest said person becomes.

Which is all to say that people who dress in a way that pushes that are going to be viewed a certain way, for better or for worse [usually for worse].

KAT: Ah, I see what you mean. But where do you think that idea of modesty arose from? Even in secular culture? I know within some cultures the breasts are hardly even associated with sexuality (instead just viewed as a feeding tool).

You know, in light of that cultural comparison I’d like to go back to your previous question about “how are we doing in North America,” and say “terrible”. I remember someone saying to me when I was in Niger that “In North America sex is an obsession, here it is just a fact.” So in some ways I would say that our obsession with modesty is actually just the other side of our obsession with sex.

EVAN: It does feel particularly unhealthy a lot of the time. And that becomes even more apparent given the way sex is used to sell basically everything nowadays, especially since that takes the form of scantily clad men and women which goes back to our idea that they are appealing because they are wearing less.

KAT: It’s funny, because I feel like the idea of using women’s bodies in sales actually connects back to what we were previously saying about modesty in Christianity.

And in spite of what you see in movies, the majority of Christians actually don’t take this approach to modesty.

I don’t want to lay all the blame on Christianity, because I have had some fantastic Christian mentors, but there are some things about the way modesty is often taught in Christian circles that causes more harm than good.

According to Sharon Hodde Miller from her.meneutics, “The Christian rhetoric of modesty, rather than offering believers an alternative to the sexual objectification of women, often continues the objectification, just in a different form.”

By framing modesty as a way to “not tempt the men around you” it also creates a culture where sexual assault can be traced back to the victim. Unfortunately, men who assault women do refer back to the idea that they were “asking for it” because of the way they dress. You can see that both trains of thought (“don’t tempt men” and “she was asking for it”) trace back to the same kind of ideology, which is that men should be able to dictate what women can wear.

That being said, I think there IS something to be said for being culturally appropriate. I mean, we wear black to funerals, we wear nice clothes to a wedding, we wear a swimsuit to the beach, so why wouldn’t you want to wear clothing that reflects the culture around us. Yes, I don’t believe in dress codes, that being said, would I let my kid wear their swimsuit to school? Probably not.

EVAN: Honestly, I feel like we’ve barely scraped the top of the barrel in regards to this discussion, and not only are we out of time but I actually have something pretty big coming up tomorrow morning.

Do you think there’s any way we could continue the discussion on this topic? Either one of us could write more about it, ideally if readers let us know what we should focus on.

KAT: You are so right. I feel like we’ve barely started, but you have to go prepare for your big time interview! Well, get some sleep so you can be prepared that is. So, let’s say we will put the topic on hold for now and come back to it again soon

EVAN: *snores*

KAT: It would appear Evan just couldn’t keep his eyes open. We would love to touch on this topic again sometime in the future, so let us know what you think and what angles we are still missing!

Poor Evan was feeling a little like this kitten!

4 responses to “Culture War Correspondence: Modesty

  1. You should talk more about modesty and Christianity. I think when you talk about modesty and culture, it’s really a discussion of what is culturally appropriate dress, which is really broad and ever-changing. I think you could have a deeper conversation about modesty and Christianity.

  2. I second that idea. It would be interesting, since you come from similar backgrounds to see how your understanding and evaluations of modesty have changed or remained the same.

  3. Pingback: The Problem with Purity (When Christian Values Distract from the Message) | Culture War Reporters

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