On Modesty, Self-Respect, the Appropriate, and defining your terms before you open your mouth

I would be perfectly happy never again to hear the fusty, huffy catch-cry of “It’s about self-respect! What next?” when it comes to modesty, clothing or behaviour, because honestly, the answer to “What next?” is usually “Hotpants.”

I would be happy never again to hear, “They can do what they like, but I don’t want to have to see it” or “I don’t want to see anyone’s [body part]” or “I don’t want to see a [person of description] wearing [apparently objectionable clothing item].”

(I happily quote Ragen Chastaine’s blog in response to the latter: “Look over there! It’s a whole bunch of other stuff you can look at!”)

And I would be happy never to hear someone say, “It’s called being appropriate.”

I’m not sure if I get this from my general English major or my science major, or just being plain rigorous, but I get quite uncomfortable whenever anyone uses a term to proscribe someone else’s behaviour that they then cannot define.

Thus far, no-one has managed to provide me with a definition of modesty, the appropriate, or even the nebulous self-respect (in this context) without resorting to

(1) extraordinary sexism

(2) religious beliefs (see 1); or

(3) generalised sex-negativity (see also 1).

Appropriate may refer to “current societal norms” (which vary from place to place within the same city), but it more often refers to “the societal norms I grew up with.” You can not reasonably expect everyone to operate according to your specific personal preferences. You think your god doesn’t like people eating pies? Great! Don’t eat pies. Now explain that to all the people who don’t follow your god. Why, exactly, should they stop eating pies? Moving on from pies (it’s possible that I’m a bit hungry just now): you’re upset by seeing navels? That’s a shame. You should probably try not to look at people’s navels.

People do have a right to complain about their discomfort (I complain frequently, whether I’m being reasonable or not), and I have a right to sling it back at them. Sure, I wince a little when a friend refuses to wear pants that cover his butt-crack, but I have no objective standard for saying there is anything morally defunct about his butt-crack (we all have them. If we did not, our buttocks would be fused! Would that not be problematic, gentle reader?), nor do I imagine he is unaware of the problem (the air blows through the pass a wee bit cold), and I am not obligated to stare at the coin slot thus exposed (no matter how my eyes may be drawn to it, as unto a single stain on an otherwise pristine carpet).

If my butt-crack exposing friend were attempting to project an air of professionalism, I might let him know that his vulnerable crevice is working against him (assuming he did not already know). Otherwise, it’s his call.

I deliberately used a male example here. Should we now, perhaps, discuss young ladies who wear extremely short shorts, such that one can see, from certain angles, an exposed derriere? Oh, my stars, I feel quite faint. Should we discuss breastfeeding in public such that someone might see a nipple? Bring me my smelling salts! (wait, these aren’t smelling salts. This is Wizz Fizz)

Can anyone define modesty in such a way that it is a societal virtue?

Honestly, whenever someone says “modesty”, all I hear is, “Cover yourself, skin is bad,” and “Cover yourself, because people don’t want you to make them think about sex,” and “Cover yourself, because other people’s thoughts are your responsibility,” and, finally, “Cover yourself, because I was a bit surprised and now I have seen something that is out of context for me, and I’m being forced to deal with it, and it’s all a bit too difficult.”

Modesty, as near as I can tell, is somehow positioned and staged (with special effects and clever lighting) as being about self-respect. With glorious sleight-of-hand, people use the term “modesty” and then somehow manage to skip over the definition, where your body is something you actively restrict; self-respect means not letting other people see your parts which… are apparently bad? Self-respect means only letting certain people see your parts, otherwise… rain of toads? Because, if you respect yourself, that means hiding yourself away. Things are only worthy of respect if they are rare and offer restricted access.

Wait? What’s that you say? Oh, right, sexism. Alright, women are only worthy of respect if they are restricted. The minute you can see too much of a woman, you aren’t supposed to have respect for her, and it means she does not have respect for herself.

Now, please, stop for a minute, and think, because that shit right there is fucked up.

Stop, and just for a moment, swap the genders. I don’t assume my friend with the naked crevice lacks respect for himself. I don’t feel he’s immodest. I honestly think he probably just doesn’t give a donkey’s ball sac whether anyone can see his arse or not. I think it’s misguided when he’s trying to be professional, but when he’s not, I think it’s admirable.

Here’s another one: the notion that women who breastfeed in public are somehow being immodest plays into the idea that women with babies should enter into “confinement”. Women should be restricted whenever showing evidence of, ahem, biology. Biology is not appropriate, apparently.

And all people can tell me is, “Mumble, mumble, modesty,” and “Mumble, mumble, appropriate.” If a breastfeeding mother is uncomfortable potentially exposing the nipple, because there’s the possibility of being judged and stared at, and that is upsetting, sure, cover up, find another space, do what you need to do. I don’t like being stared at and judged either and it definitely informs my choices and anxieties. But if you don’t give the aforementioned donkey’s ball sac about other people’s hang-ups, then go forth and lactate.

If you like the short shorts and what must surely be a wedgy sort of feeling (I may be projecting; short shorts don’t deal with my hips), go forth! Expose the lower portion of thy buttocks. I don’t care – although, granted, I find it looks a bit odd – and if anyone does, it says more about them than about you.

The minute someone says, “But what about the elderly?” remind them that the elderly are adults, and that the world was in the process of changing as they grew up and isn’t going to abruptly stand still. If they say, “But what about children?” remind them that children not only have body parts, they tend to find them pretty fascinating. The fact that other people have body parts is not likely to confuse them. In fact, it’s a reassuring confirmation of logical expectation.

Lest anyone be confused, here: I reserve the right for anyone to make aesthetic judgments. I can subjectively say, “I don’t think that looks pretty”, and none can say me nay. I won’t say that to the person in question unless they actively seek my opinion (and even then I may dance around the issue in a clumsy not-wanting-to-hurt-feelings sort of way), but I have my preferences as does everyone. The difference is that I do not ascribe any moral relevance to my aesthetic preferences. The fact that I prefer A-line dresses to t-shirt dresses just means I like full skirts and a fitted waist (where that is comfortable for the body type in question); I don’t like t-shirt dresses because I think it looks like people just aren’t wearing any pants, and I’m used to the people with baggy tops wearing pants. You know what? It doesn’t matter that I think that. It doesn’t matter that I’m confused. It doesn’t matter that damn it, fashion changed since I was a teenager, and now these young-uns are wearing weird looking clothes and it’s not in line with the aesthetic I developed growing up; and that is all that is (this also applies to music in a serious way, but that’s another conversation).

No-one has the right for their subjective aesthetic preferences to be followed. In a similar vein, no-one has a particular right not to be exposed to flesh, or clothing they don’t like. No-one has a right to judge, by any objective standard, another person’s clothing, body type, or sexual behaviour (outside of causing harm).

People will judge anyway. So do I. We’re human. We should, however, take a step back, and remind ourselves that we have our own business we’re perfectly capable of minding, and we should get right on that. Why, when I was a lass, people didn’t… I don’t know what they didn’t do, but they didn’t do it, and now they do, and it’s wrong! What’s that? Why is it wrong? Because it’s disrespectful? Of what, exactly? Of… me and my expectations.

That’s it. Seriously, screw your expectations.


2 thoughts on “On Modesty, Self-Respect, the Appropriate, and defining your terms before you open your mouth

  1. Hmm, I agree and I disagree. Certainly, I agree that being offended by what someone wears is one’s own problem and projecting it onto the wear-ee is pointless and for your average girl / guy walking down the street, I agree with what you’ve said. And anyway, it’s pretty difficult to offend me with clothing. HOWEVER, I have some serious issues with ranch culture in society. The constant depiction of women in little clothing tells me that I am judged by my body and my ability to make men desire me. Cue body image, self esteem and self worth issues and a whole host of other societal issues around objectification and rape culture. I don’t know, is depiction of women a different issue? Or is it all rolled up in one ball of doom?

    • (Apologies for any typos – I’m replying on my phone and either WordPress doesn’t do mobile versions well or I have it set up wrong)

      I think that depictions of women are, by an large, a different issue although it feeds into it. I’ll elaborate although I would be very surprised if you and I were not on the same page on this issue 🙂

      They are two sides of the same coin (to employ a trite metaphor). On the one hand, the overwhelming dominance of sexualised portrayal of women is part of a constructed social aesthetic, wherein the appearance of a woman is her most important feature and exists to please society at large in its expectations. There’s a loop. Sex – usually the female sex – sells. So we are used to seeing these images. Therefore we expect to see them. And so on.

      When it’s applied to women on the street, the immediate problem presents itself that not all women will meet those expectations. The expectations will vary; some will expect “hotness” of the billboard variety, others will expect the poorly-defined “modesty” I malign in the OP, and some will paradoxically expect both, but expectations will be disappointed. When you are used to the idea that it is the job of women to look a certain way for our benefit, it comes out in this self-righteous claptrap: women should be models, or invisible, and dress the way they did when I was a horny teenager.

      This is why I get so frustrated with people commenting so loudly and condescendingly “She shouldn’t have worn that, she has fat legs,” etc etc.

      I may need to tease this out in a other post which would require actual research; but while thy are distinct concepts they are both derived from the problem of presumed and enforced gender roles. At least, this is the opinion I’m currently standin behind.

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