Sierra: How modesty doctrines harm young women

Trigger warning: objectification of women/female-assigned people, disordered eating, spiritual abuse, sexual assault and rape.

Alternet has a great article by Sierra on the various ways evangelical and fundamentalist teachings on female modesty are  concretely harmful to women and, though she doesn’t touch on this aspect, female-assigned trans or genderqueer people as well. All of her points are on target, especially her comments on how ‘modesty’ discourages women from activities that would build up their physical strength, and also promotes a mindset that easily lends itself to distorted body image and disordered eating:

Modesty was not just about dress. It was also about moving like a lady. Knees together, butt down, breasts in, arms down. It is impossible to get physically fit while adhering to ladylike movements only. You might be able to run, but only if you wear two sports bras to keep anything from jiggling inappropriately. You certainly can’t do anything with weights. [She goes on to talk about how she avoided exercising in the presence of men because of the constraints placed on her by modesty rules.]

… before I got to college, modesty contributed to my eating disorder. How? Because I noticed that the best way to keep men from staring at my ass was not to have one. Ditto boobs. The skinnier I got, the less womanly I looked, and the more “modest” I felt, until I was 25lbs underweight. I was perpetually “fat” in my own mind – because in my own mind, the only acceptable body type was an androgynous one – one that could not possibly provoke a man to lust.

Sierra gets at one of the aspects of modesty culture that isn’t discussed much, i.e., the very real ways in which it functions to severely limit the ability of women and female-assigned people to move and act freely in public spaces and the public sphere. Requiring people to be constantly aware of how their bodies and appearance are perceived by others – more problematically, holding people responsible for how their bodies are perceived by others – places real constraints on what people can do in public or in mixed company. Of course this is true to some extent for everyone, but it’s particularly true for people who are or are perceived as women in a way it is generally not for people who are or are perceived as men.

We’re the ones called to justify what we are doing or wearing when we are harassed, assaulted, or raped. To answer whether we were behaving or dressed “suggestively.” Whether we gave someone reason to think we were sexually available? Whether we “provoked” sexual harassment or violence against us in some way by, well, being provocative. The implication behind such questioning being that someone subjected to sexually threatening or violent behavior is only truly sympathetic if they appear to hold no sexual attraction to others.

When you argue that modesty is just a “debate” that must be won by those whose arguments are strongest in the abstract, you ignore the fact that the “debate” has consequences you don’t have to live with. Women have to live with the consequences of modesty debates. Those debates impact every sphere of their lives: work, play, even their own health and wellbeing. If you think that, as a man, you can somehow argue “objectively” about what women should or shouldn’t wear and “win” a debate fair and square, let me remind you of a few things. If a man “loses” a modesty debate, nothing about his life changes. If a man “wins” a modesty debate, nothing about his life changes. But if a woman loses a modesty debate, the entire fabric of her existence changes. If a woman loses a modesty debate, she has lost whole areas of freedom in her life. She now has more things to worry about not doing so that men will not get aroused. There is no such thing as an “objective” argument in which the stakes are astronomical for one side and nonexistent for the other. Furthermore, by even accepting modesty as a valid area of concern for women, you have accepted a premise that defines women by their looks and objectifies them. Women have already lost the moment a modesty debate begins.

And as Sierra points out, this is a losing proposition from the outset, for many reasons. It’s premised on confusing (or willfully choosing to associate) sexualized exercise of power over another human being with sexual attraction. It assumes that it’s possible for a woman or female-assigned person to present themselves in such a way as to prevent any sexual attraction or response on the part of another person – when in reality, there’s no way to anticipate what will or will not be attractive to another person, and more importantly, it’s absurd to hold someone merely going about their business responsible for the thoughts and actions of another human being.

Absurd or not, this is precisely what our society in general, and modesty culture in a specific and extreme way, both do to female and female-assigned people. We are expected to shoulder responsibility for the sexual feelings and behaviors of men (usually cisgender), while the fact that men are perfectly capable of choosing how to act on their sexual thoughts and feelings, and therefore accountable for their sexual behaviors, is completely erased. And we are sent the message that we can be sexualized and objectified at any moment of any day, in any context, no matter how banal or public. We are always responsible for how our bodies are perceived.

What “valuing modesty” means is that the appearance of women and people perceived as women is always open to question. The message at the heart of this is that we cannot simply exist in the public sphere or in public settings.*  Our right to be in such spaces, to move with relative freedom and self-determination through such spaces, can always be challenged.

*Indeed, this is a luxury few outside the norm of white, male, able-bodied, class-privileged, straight cisgender folks enjoy – e.g., black men and other men of color often have to worry about how their appearance or behavior is perceived in a racist and white-privileging culture that sees nonwhite masculinity as inherently threatening.


One Comment on “Sierra: How modesty doctrines harm young women”

  1. This entry just made me realize that the modesty doctrines I absorbed from my dad’s family and Catholicism explain why I was so very uncomfortable during puberty when I suddenly sprouted breasts and got a butt. I felt constantly uncomfortable, like part of me was wrong and needed to be hidden or minimized. This feeling was heightened by the constant teasing about my “bubble butt”.

    Thanks for posting this… I think this is something I need to think about some more…

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