This past week I’ve been following an intense discussion about Harvey Weinstein, sexual assault and victim blaming.
Mayim Bialik – an “aspiring modern Orthodox Jewish Woman” – wrote a controversial and highly maligned piece for The NY Times in which she seemed to connect her own beliefs about modesty with assault. I’m not going to spend a ton of time going over that piece, but briefly she made some very problematic correlations between her own escape from sexual assault and the fact that she is what she refers to as not a perfect 10, someone who focuses on developing her brain not her body, and someone who dresses and behaves modestly. I think people very rightfully called this piece out for all the problematic ways it tied victimization to dress and behavior, and how it very erroneously labeled itself as a feminist view.
But the entire debacle got me thinking about the topic of modesty in general. One comment I saw in response to Mayim’s piece was that one cannot hold an ethos of modesty and also be a feminist: that the two views are fundamentally incompatible. And I suppose, based on the most common notion of modesty, that statement is true.
In general, most public discussions of modesty are focused on women more heavily than men. Dress codes are predominately concerned with ensuring that women don’t show too much of their bodies so as to become a distraction. Whether that’s spaghetti straps, low cut tops, high cut bottoms, things that are considered too tight… the message is always that women’s bodies are both inherently sexual and inherently problematic, and that men need women to cover themselves up in order to be able to control themselves. We see this all over our culture, from school and workplace dress codes, to public campaigns aimed at protecting yourself from unwanted attention, to television series like “Counting On” – a continuation of “19 Kids and Counting” highlighting the growing Duggar clan and their Uber patriarchal worldview embedded in their conservative Christian beliefs. This representation of modesty is absolutely counter to any sort of feminist worldview, and in my opinion absolutely harmful in the ideas it continues to perpetuate both about women’s bodies and about men’s apparently animalistic sexual instincts. It contributes to rape culture. It sets up women to be responsible for the actions of men. It’s not ok.
Before I continue, I need to admit something. I believe in modesty.
I grew up in a church that taught me about the type of modesty discussed above. It was almost always presented to me as about honouring the holiness of my body, but with the added need to protect myself and to not “tempt your brothers or sisters” (the brothers and sisters are in Christ – not biological, for those of you not familiar with church speak). You can imagine that this concept of modesty did not sit well with me long before I considered myself a feminist, and certainly after. In my late teens I had pretty much stopped going to church, and while I held on to some fundamental belief in God, I disposed of everything else. I was certainly anything but modest. For me personally, my times of greatest immodesty coincided directly with my times of least self respect. THIS DOES NOT MEAN ANYTHING ABOUT WHY OTHER WOMEN CHOOSE OR REJECT MODESTY – I can’t speak to their realities. I am only telling my own story here.
As I started to return back to my faith, but this time cautiously trying to think through it all, I kept coming back to modesty. Because it had always been tied to harmful patriarchal ideas, I really had no idea how to navigate my feelings. On the one hand I felt it was a fundamental part of embodying my faith. Not in a turtleneck and long skirts kind of way, but more a maybe I don’t want my boobs to be covered by a 1/4 inch of fabric because it makes me feel like I’m disrespecting myself kind of way. And even in that, I felt uneasy, wondering if feeling like I was disrespecting myself was somehow the product of being told I needed to hide my body FROM MEN.
I wasn’t sure what to think about modesty. I spent nearly a decade trying to figure it out. Why did I still feel compelled by the idea of modesty, and how could I reconcile that with my understanding of how harmful traditional conceptions of modesty were? Was it even possible to believe in modesty and feminism?
Modesty isn’t anti-feminist. Modesty, at least the kind focused on sacredness instead of sexuality, has nothing to do with controlling someone else’s behavior, or with making you more worthy.
Modesty as it was intended is about honoring that which is sacred. That being the human body. Each human body, male and female. It’s about recognizing that the same sacred nature of God that required men to hide their faces and cover their heads, to stay behind the curtain because the sacred was so overwhelming – that same sacred nature is embedded in our very flesh. Many of the rules imposed over centuries are most assuredly patriarchal. But holy modesty is not about the rules – it’s about recognizing and honoring the sacred God who lives in us, not just spiritually but physically.
The relationship between God and our physical bodies has largely been lost in modern Christianity. It’s one of the many things I so appreciate about my Orthodox Christian faith: the recognition that my flesh is as much a part of my story of redemption as my spirit is. And modesty as I now understand it is about accounting for this reality and honouring that which is sacred. Because encountering that which is sacred should not be something casual. It requires attentiveness, thoughtfulness, trust, respect, and holiness.
There is nothing shameful about my body, and my worth is not increased or decreased based on my modesty. It’s my recognition of the sacredness of my body that increases (or decreases), and my requirement that I honour that which is sacred as a response of thanks, humility, awe and respect to the God who lives within me.
Glory to God.