Modest, adj./Modesty, n.
There has been so much discussion among Christian circles lately about modesty, and Mormon circles have been no exception. Actually, here’s a funny story about that: One of the hot topics of late has been Jessica Rey’s anti-bikini video (otherwise known as the video is which she promotes her own swimwear line), which many of my Mormon friends have shared on facebook. But the irony is that by traditional, cultural Mormon standards the outfit that Jessica Rey is wearing in that video is not modest. She is showing all kinds of shoulder that no good Mormon girl would show. (Please note my sarcasm. I would be devastated if you thought I actually meant that.) I’m super tempted to rant here about the study that Jessica Rey sited as evidence that bikinis are bad. Because she totally misrepresented it and its purpose, and took a study where 21 college age men who self identified as hostile sexists were shown pictures of women in bikinis without heads and saw them as objects to say that men can’t help but see women in bikinis as objects. But, that would be a digression. It is not really what I want to talk about.
My biggest pet peeve about this whole discussion is how we are using the term modesty. (Cue Mandy Patinkin/Inigo Montoya impression: “You keep using that word. I do think it means what you think it means.”)
Let’s look at the definition, shall we? We could start with good ole Webster: for modesty he says, “freedom from conceit or vanity” and also “propriety in dress, speech or conduct.” For modest he says, “placing a moderate estimate on one’s abilities or worth”, “observing the proprieties of dress and behavior”, and “limited in size, amount, or scope”
Interestingly, that definition includes no reference to belly buttons or shoulders or thighs…. perhaps we should dig deeper.
Now, since Husband is an English Professor he often tells me that the Oxford English Dictionary is the *only* dictionary, at least certainly the only dictionary that a good academic would trust. And, indeed, the OED will expound on the etymology and several uses for the word you are seeking information about. So, of course we have to check there. (I’m not linking to any of these definitions because you have to subscribe to the OED online and I’m not going to assume everyone has. If by chance you have, or have connection to a university and so can access it through a university library, then by all means, check it out.)
In looking at the OED, I start with modest because the definition for modesty in the OED points back to the adjective instead of the noun. And here we immediately see why Webster definition is what it is. The word “modest” comes from the Middle French (around the 14th century) wordmodeste which meant “moderate, free from excess”. The French had taken this word from the Latin “modestus”, meaning “restrained, temperate, well-behaved, seemly, decorous, unassuming” all of which is related to the Latin word “moderari” or moderate. This puts into context our more accessible Webster definition that speaks of propriety.
But, since we’re still not seeing any reference to belly buttons or shoulders or thighs, let’s read on in the OED. Next we find a usage that begins in the 16th century that is much related to the Webster above, “avoiding extremes of behavior”. Still no thighs, so let’s move on to another usage more prominent in the 17th century that is, interestingly enough particularly related to women and almost never applied to men. This is “decorous in manner and conduct; not forward, impudent or lewd; demure”. Still no mention of how much skin is showing, but we can see some sexism and sexuality creeping into the word. It is still the same basic definition, well a special emphasis on sexuality, but the fact that a lewd man would never have been referred to as immodest the way a woman would have is pretty telling and I think a sign of where this word is headed.
And finally, becoming popular in the 18th and 19th centuries we get to “Of a woman’s dress: seemly, not ostentatious; sober in color and style, esp. so as to avoid revealing the figure of the wearer.” This usage is also almost never applied to men, of course—because since when have we cared if a man shows his figure? Never, because it is men who suffer when a woman shows her figure, amiright? I think we have found the usage of modesty we’re looking for. Despite the fact that we still have other, more appropriate uses for the word modesty (“Don’t be so modest.” “We own a modest house.”) the usage that sticks for us Christians in modern day is the super sexist one. The one that sexualizes the word, sexualizes the body (mostly the female body) and places the burden on women alone for the chasteness of society. (Tempted to go another rant here about rape culture, but am going to abstain.)
The rest of the information in the OED on usage of the word “modest” is more like what you see in Webster. If you check out more information on the word “modesty” you’ll find more of the same, and actually none of this business with any usage applying only to women and how they dress. It is interesting to me, that when discussing the noun we are more capable of keeping it undefiled and gender neutral. But when we start using the word to *describe things* it becomes a tool used by men to define women a certain way. Huh. Seems like a topic for another day, though.
Look, I’m all for modesty (the real definition of it) and propriety. I do dress modestly (by any Christian/Mormon standards, even) but that isn’t where modesty ends for me. It is not even where it begins. Our actions, our thoughts, our attitudes, our homes and material possessions, and yes even how we dress… all of these things can speak to our sense of modesty. And, here’s the thing: real modesty in dress has very little to do with how much skin we may or may not be wearing. A one piece swimsuit that shows every curve of the body is not really less revealing than a bikini that lays bare the belly button. Both can be worn modestly at the beach or pool. Both can also be worn immodestly at the beach or pool, depending on the character with which they are worn. (im, for the record, comes from the Latin negative prefix in, which when placed before a word basically means “not that”) Also, I’d argue that the swimwear that is modest at the pool will probably be immodest if worn to grocery store. I’d also not recommend going for a dip in the swimming pool with your jeans on. That lacks “propriety in dress”.
I’ve been in several discussions about this topic in the last couple of days, and what I’ve come away with is that most people are totally down with modesty. I’ve seen complaints from more orthodox Christian women that we liberal thinkers are just saying that “anybody should just wear what they want” and not worry about the consequences. And, well, I guess we are saying that. But we don’t mean what you seem to think we mean. What we really mean is that women and girls (especially very young girls, for crying out loud) should be able to wear what they are comfortable with, and without the onus of wondering if they are stirring impure thoughts in the boys around them.
Because let me tell you something, men: If you are looking at a woman, and experiencing a physical reaction, and you are blaming her for it, you have a serious problem with entitlement. Indeed, I would say it is a sense of pride, of vanity, that allows you to believe that your lack of propriety is someone else’s fault. If you are having lewd thoughts, you need to worry about YOUR OWN immodesty.
Husband and I, we’re the parents of boys, and it is so important to us that we raise them with a general sense of modesty. I’ll be damned if you ever hear me saying something like, “I wish young girls these day would dress more modestly, because they sure are making things difficult for my boys.” The attitude would give my boys permission to have inappropriate thoughts and behaviors; it would give their power and sense of self control away to the women around them and it would debase everyone involved. No. Instead of focusing on others, we will teach our boys modesty in behavior and thought, and we will teach them that this is their own responsibility.
So, good news to the parents who refuse to raise their daughters with body shaming and the burden of keeping the boys around them pure: We’re raising boys for your daughters to date.