Some [more] Thoughts on Modesty


So lately I’ve been delving deeper into the modesty issue, especially as related to the Victoria Secret model/Proverbs 31 woman kerfuffle, brought back to mind by a few discussions with friends via Facebook. One thing that’s been coming up over and over again as I participate in the discussion is the concept of modesty – it seems, in the minds of many of the supporters of the Live31 movement that “modesty” is a virtue above all virtues. I find this ironic because modesty isn’t actually mentioned in Proverbs 31 (which is yet another example of how we have imposed our 21st century ideas on an ancient Jewish text). Before I get into things, I’d like you to take a minute and to think about these questions: Is the Venus de Milo pornographic? What about the statue of David? Why or why not? Should a woman cover up when she breastfeeds in public? Again, why or why not?

I ask these questions to highlight a principle that is often missed in the modesty debate: not all exposed skin is sexual in nature.

To rephrase: Nudity is not inherently erotic.

And that’s why I have an issue with modesty rules and regulations and people judging my faith based on whether or not I show a little cleavage. When we discuss women’s bodies and claim modesty as an essential element to a virtuous woman, we sexualize exposed skin – we remove the distinction between sexual and non-sexual situations and flatten the differences.

Last year, a man in Springfield, MO, led a campaign to ban Laurie Halse Anderson’s book Speak from Missouri schools based on one concept: That the book, Speak, is pornographic.

Now, I remember learning what pornography is (and by this, I mean in a definitional sense) in sixth grade health class. Pornography is material that is produced with the purpose of causing sexual excitement in viewer. As I stated the other day in a debate on a friend’s facebook status, pornography caters to the lowest common denominator, is built solely for eroticism, and encourages objectification for one’s personal satisfaction. That’s what most people understand pornography to be.

Those of you who already know the plot of Speak should be rightly horrified by the implication that it is pornographic. Why? Because Speak is about a girl who is recovering from being raped.

To call such a thing pornographic is to erase distinctions between rape and sex, between skin in a sexual situation, and skin in a non-sexualized environment. There is something deeply creepy about finding Speak in any way titillating. And I would say the same goes for exposed skin that occurs in non-sexualized situations.

I had a friend in college who traveled in Italy on a vacation. Italy has a lot of art. Italy has a lot of NAKED art. This friend was uncomfortable with nudity existing outside of a sexual situation, so she carried around a spoon. When approaching, say, the Statue of David, she would hold up the spoon to cover up the “naughty” bits, and therefore make it possible to still view the art without all that gross nudity.

That’s an extreme example, sure. But that is what happens when we sexualize every instance of nudity, when we enforce modesty rules that demand a sexual outlook on every instance of exposed skin. We end up being unable to be comfortable with a Mom breastfeeding her child – which isn’t a sexual act in any sense of the term. We end up not being able to view great pieces of art without immediately feeling dirty. And we end up finding rape scenes abhorrent, not because they depict a terrible crime, but because “zomg ‘sex’!”*

It’s something I’ve noticed is a peculiarly American hang-up. We have dangerously conflated the idea that nudity is immediately and intensely sexual, which destroys our own conception of ourselves and makes us unable to engage with the world at large.

No one in their right mind looks at the Venus de Milo and gets aroused. So why do we accept that of men looking at complete strangers on the street? Why is it that when I wear a shirt that shows a bit of cleavage, I am immediately sexualized? There’s this idea that, because women’s bodies are public property (and therefore available for comment), then what matters is the view that is imposed upon them, rather than the original intentions. And that’s problematic.



*This is possibly the worst of all, as the viewing of rape as a sexual act diminishes the violation and the dynamic of power that motivates most rape. It allows us to excuse rape as “well, s/he was just really horny.”