I’ve been thinking a lot about modesty lately. I think about it a lot as it is, but with the days growing hotter and the shorts getting shorter, it’s on my mind. It’s a complex, thorny, subject that’s hard to respond to and draw lines around. So while I initially laughed at Sharideth Smith’s post over at Rage Against the Minivan, after taking a few hours, walking away, and buying a bikini, I’ve come back to it with a bit more caution than I initially had.
I think Sharideth’s post failed to pay due respect to the conflict between bodily autonomy and the culturally conditioned narratives about how our clothing communicates. I’m left with a lot of questions.
We say clothing communicates, but then we have to wonder how much of that communication is happening along culturally conditioned narratives. Does wearing a low cut top in a bar really demand “leer at me!”? Or is that how we’re culturally conditioned to view women – as objects whose clothing, when outside the "norm," means “stare at me"?
How do we get around the thorny issue of saying that our clothing communicates certain things while also deconstructing the culturally constructed narratives about what that clothing communicates?
This, to me, is the thorn in the modesty issue. Many critiques of feminist reactions to modesty culture tell us that we want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, we want to remove all standards for appropriate dress and have people show up in bikinis to work. And it’s often easy, in trying to find the middle ground, to fall back into the patterns of modesty culture.
Upon closer examination, I think this is where Sharideth’s post landed. We need to be able to talk about how our clothing communicates and what sort of culturally conditioned reactions we can expect from our clothing without denying a person’s right to bodily autonomy and to wear whatever the hell she wants. It’s a fine line, and I think the post crossed it. We need to be able to challenge cultural norms while also acknowledging that much of the world still operates by them.
What occurs to me here is the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network’s approach to how to reduce one’s risk. They are incredibly clear that there is no way to fully eliminate the risk, and that a victim of rape is never, ever to blame for what happens to them. But, they also say that, due to our cultural narratives and culturally conditioned responses, here are some things one can do – things like being aware of surroundings, avoiding isolated areas, making sure to have your cell phone with you at all times, etc, etc.
This kind of approach, for me, strikes me as a good way to discuss modesty. While you can never do anything to prevent the leers of other people, you can still be aware of how your clothing communicates in certain situations. This sort of discussion must come with careful caveats that we can trust women to know the difference between a leer and a doubletake and that we must always challenge the culturally conditioned narratives of what is “suggestive.”
Bottom line: we need to trust women to know what they are doing and wearing. We also need to be aware of how we place these narratives within heteronormative frameworks. Leering isn't restricted by gender, but our cultural conditioning makes it more expected that men will leer at women, and that women should expect this behavior if they wear certain clothing. We can trust women to understand those cultural narratives while challenging them in the moment. Even if she does have glitter on her boobs.
After all, if we don't trust women to understand themselves, do we really trust women at all?