Modesty Culture and the Fear of the Confident Woman

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[content note: potentially triggering discussion of eating habits and weight]

When I was in high school, I was rail thin. I didn’t have problems eating – in fact, I ate like a thing that eats a lot. But my metabolism worked in overdrive and my body was still growing, so it hadn’t settled down into the quiet rhythms I recognize now that I’m in my late 20s. It also didn’t help that I was a picky eater – I liked what I liked, and I ate lots of it.

My family likes food. Whenever I went on a trip while I was still living at home, I knew that one of the first things my mom would ask about upon arriving home would be the food. “Tell me about what they made you for dinner, how was the lobster, did you enjoy the fresh seafood?”  She asked me this after I returned from a missions trip to Belize with my youth group in 2003. The lobster was, for the record, caught that very day and boiled in butter and was incredibly delicious.

I’ve always been able to put away food without gaining weight – until the past few years. Since moving to the Chicago area, I’ve put on about 35 pounds, moving from an underweight 125 pounds to 160 on my 5’8” frame. My clothes began to pull tighter in spots that had never been a problem before. Shirts that previously showed no cleavage would now be a little scandalous in a conservative church. Despite being okay with the lack of modesty in my clothing, my new developing figure gave me pause to consider, again, how modesty culture controls and discusses women’s bodies.

There’s an expectation in modesty culture that a woman’s body will be attractive and – as many other bloggers have noted before me – there’s a sense of betrayal that ripples through men when a woman is immodest but not embodying the “ideal” standards of attractiveness.

This is what happens when modesty culture teaches that women’s bodies are dangerous simply because they exist as female shapes. Rather than recognizing the unique beauty that each individual possesses and recognizing that not every individual is going to be attractive to every other individual, modesty culture sees a world in which every single man should be attracted to every single woman, especially when she shows skin. Therefore, when men fail to experience attraction – particularly when a woman does not fit the culturally created standards of attractiveness, eg, white, thin, cisgender – the reaction becomes one of “no one wants to see that.”

Modesty culture forces men to create universals out of their individual attractions, demanding that because they, as the individual man, aren’t attracted to an individual woman, then no one else could possibly be. Therefore, if that woman chooses to dress in a way that indicates that she sees herself as beautiful and a man is not attracted to her, she ends up on the receiving end of harsher judgment from modesty proponents. She is defying what men think of her in more ways than one – she is not only violating modesty standards, but she is doing so in direct conflict with what men supposedly desire, asserting her autonomy in ways that patriarchal modesty proponent cannot handle.

By not kowtowing to the male gaze, by asserting that she sees herself as worthy in ways that modesty proponents think she should not, modesty culture exacts a harsher punishment by demanding not only that she cover up those assets which are impossible to hide, but also reinforcing that she should do so precisely because she is exhibiting a confidence in herself that is not dependent on the male gaze.

In other words, there’s nothing that scares the patriarchy more than a woman who doesn’t need the affirmation of a man to know that she is awesome.

Modesty culture demands that I should start wearing clothing that covers me up more because my boobs have gone from a 32B to a 36C and are suddenly more noticeable. Modesty culture says that I can’t wear a bikini because I have love handles. Modesty culture demands that I should dress for men.

But I don’t. I am an average American woman, and I will dress in what I feel confident in. And that, to many, is the scariest thing I can do.