Being a feminist, the topic of modesty has long been on my mind, but I've been hesitant to share. It's controversial for many reasons. It's a big topic. It covers so much (no pun intended) and extends beyond just dress. In fact, I believe modesty extends to men as well. I'll tell you just what I mean by that.
I applaud Jessica Rey--and others like Wendy Shalit, the author of A Return to Modesty--for their insightfulness in the topic of modesty in our current culture. But there are a few areas where I disagree.
As Jessica Rey says, when you wear a bikini, it may be more likely for men to objectify you. True. However, I don't think this is our fault. As women, we're not responsible for the thoughts of others. Everyone is responsible for their own thoughts and behaviors, and no one else controls these. Wendy Shalit also remarks in her book that by dressing more modestly, women can preserve their dignity and the dignity of men.
And that's true to an extent. But I think the bigger picture of modesty is respect.
We don't respect each other anymore--regardless of gender. It goes both ways. And in disrespecting each other, we disrespect ourselves.
In our culture today, children are given sex-ed classes that teach them everything about sex but nothing about the connection between sex, emotions and love. They're taught the key is to have "safe sex"--when in fact, that "safe sex" isn't always "safe" at all. Because the separation between the physical act and the mental/emotional connection doesn't really exist.
We're taught that we should have healthy sex lives, but we're given this pre-determined "normal" model of what that looks like--when in fact, it looks differently for every single person. Subsequently, those who remain virgins until marriage or choose to wear more conservative clothing are deemed the odd ones out. They're viewed as immature, young, childish, backwards, weird; the list goes on and on. And as a result, kids are pushing farther and farther against the line of sexuality. There's so much pressure from our culture and society, and it takes away a person's authenticity in those regards.
Here's the thing: I don't think modesty should be a double standard. While I do believe that a modest lifestyle is healthy and positive for women, I think the same should go for men. I don't agree that, by women changing their dress or sexual behavior, men will suddenly stop objectifying them, harassing them, pressuring them or disrespecting them.
Because that's not why men objectify women. It's not because women's skirts got shorter. Men have been objectifying women for a long time. This is an ongoing thing. I think, in order to minimize this behavior, we have to start teaching men to be modest, too.
Women are not to blame. Yet I've heard mothers tell their daughters, "Don't wear that if you don't want the boys all over you." And I've heard girls call each other sluts because of their dress, roll their eyes, smirk when the boys start making catcalls, and remark "If she wasn't dressed like a slut...." As if we are guilty and evil. As if we should expect and accept the harassment, mocking, disrespect. As if we deserve it. And on the other side of spectrum, I've heard countless women say, "You know, boys will be boys....."As if excusing them for the way they treat women.
Enough already. It's not okay. None of it. Regardless of what someone chooses to wear, no one deserves to be disrespected or looked down upon. Unfortunately, I don't think that will change; we are visual creatures, influenced by what we see around us, making quick and instant judgments without a moment's hesitation. And we are naive to think that if we dress immodestly, there still won't be some men who disrespect us.
And then there's the hook-up culture. Women giving it up to men when they don't want to, feeling pressure or convincing themselves it means nothing under the cover of darkness (and often in college, alcohol). And if they do find the courage to say no--they are heckled. In the paraphrased words of Wendy Shalit, refusing to sleep with someone is now seen as an act of hostility when it was once a part of searching for one's mate.
There is nothing wrong with wanting romance. There is nothing wrong with desiring love. There is nothing wrong with waiting. Yet, we're told it's not normal. That we should ignore our need for romance. And replace it with our need for lust.
So yes--you are not fully responsible for other's thoughts and opinions of you. But you are responsible for yourself. And you have to decide who you want to be, what you want to wear, and how you want to act.
I like to think back to Jane Austen's times when I think about modesty, virtue and respect. While there were many things wrong with society at that time (i.e., women weren't supposed to enjoy sex, men owned everything, etc), there were some really great things too. Men would woo and court women, and intimacy was often saved as that sweet beginning to a new marriage. Romantic letters, stolen moments alone, introductions and dances.
As a feminist, I firmly believe men and women are equal. But that doesn't mean they aren't different. That doesn't mean as women, we have to stop being feminine. If that's part of who we are, we shouldn't deny that. We don't have to be men. Our differences complement each other.
This is getting long-winded. Basically, I do agree we should return to modesty, in at least some form that cultivates respect, equality, and recognition of our differences. But I don't believe as women, it's entirely our responsibility. We need modest men, too.
Men who don't rate women on a scale of one to ten. Men who see women for who they are, not for what they're wearing. Who don't guilt women into having sex with them and then skirt out the next morning. Men who are humble, honorable, and virtuous. Real gentlemen.
Modesty is for both of us. And until we recognize that, the things we wish to see change will remain the same.