In Defense of Modesty

Modesty, Oil by William Adolphe Bouguereau

Modesty, like reverence, is becoming a forgotten virtue. Calls for modesty in dress in ultra-orthodox jewish neighborhoods are perceived by some as a violation of human rights. Others, less extreme, view codes of modest dress as stifling individual expression or as shifting responsibility for men’s sexuality from the men themselves to women. Now, it may or may not be a good idea to post signs in the hasidic neighborhoods. And codes of modest dress may indeed be misinterpreted by men as absolving them of responsibility for their own sexual behavior. But regardless, modesty is still a virtue–and one that deserves to be encouraged and inculcated.

We use the term “modesty” in the context of dress and in the context of personal achievement, but the core of the idea is the same: “modesty” means not seeking for undue attention. Attention may be “undue” because the kind of attention sought is in some way wrong (as when a woman plays with the affections of a married man merely to gratify her vanity). It may be undue because the degree of attention sought is excessive (as when the class clown must always have the spotlight to himself). And it may be undue merely because the attention sought would be better spent elsewhere (as when one dwells on one’s French nails while walking through the Louvre).

I will focus the rest of this post on modesty in dress, which is more under fire and more misunderstood than modesty regarding personal merit.

Dress can invite undue attention in many ways–including merely by being excessively “loud.” All dress “speaks,” and it is a sign of good breeding to speak at an appropriate volume. Halloween, parades, and the theater (etc.) are the playground where shouting is appropriate. Within the other spaces, it is best to use one’s indoor voice.

But I will focus the rest of my essay on the importance of modesty in dress as it relates specifically to sexual attention–again, because this variety of modesty is the most criticized and the most misunderstood.

There are, for current purposes, two kinds of modesty: “subjective” modesty and “objective” modesty. Subjective modesty means not desiring undue attention. Objective modesty means not doing things that, within the given cultural context, appear to invite undue attention.

Having mentioned “cultural context,” let me acknowledge that modesty, while independent of culture in the abstract, is always a function of cultural norms and ideologies in practice. Not seeking undue attention is a worthy ideal in any imaginable context and has its own internal logic apart from any particular context. Modesty would make sense in the Garden of Eden just as soon as the possibility of “undue attention” could be conceived; and likewise in every other imaginable context. But how attention is sought, and what attention is “undue,” necessarily depends in part on the norms and ideologies in play. Gender ideologies, for example, are inevitably implicated by the dress code for men and women.

Cultural norms and ideologies, like languages, are dynamic. They may be reformed for the better or for the worse. I can imagine a situation where a person uses the language of dress in a way that appears sexually provocative under the old code, but not under a new, emerging code. For example, a woman in Saudi Arabia may appear in public without her head covered. It is possible that she is not being subjectively immodest. And it is possible that while the old language of dress defined this behavior as objectively immodest, she may be operating under a new, emerging language of dress, so that there is ambiguity as to her objective immodesty. Furthermore, it may be a moral decision to reject the old code in favor of the new, even when that means that one’s dress is objectively immodest under the old code. The morality of such a decision depends, in part, on the relative merits of the competing codes, and also on the actual effect of one’s choice on others. Dia previously posted about how breastfeeding in public will save society. Her decision to breastfeed publicly is the very furthest thing from immodesty; it is precisely anti-immodest. She views it, in part, as a corrective to pornography. In breastfeeding publically, Dia is striking a blow for a different, better cultural code, and indeed, for modesty itself. She and the Saudi woman are operating in a similar liminal space.

The possibility of ambiguity in the language of dress (and I admit that it is a very ambiguous form of language) adds a very important layer of complexity to the analysis. The existence of multiple dialects within each culture is only one of the many sources of such ambiguity. But these issues of cultural development do not form a part of the essence of modesty, which in the abstract is, as I have said, independent of culture. My purpose is not to say that this or that manner of dress in particular is immodest in any particular context, but to defend modesty itself. For simplicity’s sake, therefore, I will proceed largely without attending to either the cultural norms implicated by any particular code of dress or the ambiguity of the meaning of any particular manner of dress.

It is possible to have either subjective or objective immodesty without the other: one may attempt to arouse undue attention without understanding how to do so, and one may also accidentally arouse undue attention. But often–and, I think, in most cases–the two go together. We mostly understand our cultural codes and use them deliberately and effectively.

It should be said that what counts as objectively modest is extremely context dependent. Indeed, I think it depends entirely on context. Within American culture, nudity in a dressing room is not even slightly objectively immodest, while nudity in a classroom would be immodest in the extreme. What is provocative in America may not be so in aboriginal cultures (or any other given culture), and visa versa. Yet we humans have an uncanny ability to discriminate between contexts. For example, it seems to me that a healthy and mature mind recognizes instantly that tribal nudity is not erotic–that the man wearing only a gourd that doesn’t even cover the whole of his privates is not being immodest.

The attention sought or apparently sought with sexually immodest dress is “undue” for all three of the reasons I mentioned earlier.

(1) The kind of attention sought (or apparently sought) is wrong. Certain outfits in my cultural context are calculated to tease the eye with partial disclosure of sexual and/or sexualized body parts. They thereby attempt to pique the sexual interest of the viewer. Thus, by sexualizing the wearer, they also aim to sexualize the viewer. This is wrong. Why? For many reasons, one of which is that sexuality is by nature indiscriminate and unruly. It is a horse that needs to be bridled and harnessed rather than given its head. It is a fire that needs to be kept within the hearth and not allowed to blaze abroad. By indiscriminately piquing the sexual interest of all viewers, even sometimes against their will, it flatters the very passions that least require and least deserve to be flattered. It thereby injures the viewer, whether the viewer is wrongly eager to be sexually excited or rightly eager to not be so.

(2) The degree of attention sought (or apparently sought) is excessive. Sexual attraction between people is natural, inevitable, and very strong. It need not and should not be intentionally strengthened, reinforced, or inflamed in any degree. One can try to look nice for legitimate reasons, but increasing one’s sex appeal as such had better be a side effect and not a primary purpose. There are many ways of looking nice, and we should choose only those that do not seem to deliberately solicit sexual attention. One might ask, “But what about in the context of a wholesome sexual relationship?” Of course it is not wrong to ask for marital intimacy by doing things that purposely excite sexual desire. This constitutes the one exception to the rule. And yet even in that context, as far as I can tell, it requires very little strengthening, reinforcement, or inflammation–unless it has first been unduly excited in some other context or unduly emphasized and taxed to death. My limited experience, observation, and intuition suggest that one’s natural attraction towards a chosen mate persists until pulled another way or abused. It does not usually splutter to a halt on its own. This exception aside, any degree of strengthening the natural sexual attraction is excessive and therefore undue and immodest. An erotic stage performance is the most immodest thing imaginable, because it is calculated to set all viewers on fire with agitation and desire to the maximum degree possible. This movie clip (warning: cartoon nudity) from “The Triplets of Belleville” (a strange but worthwhile movie, by the way) very pointedly satirizes the evil of this kind of immodesty: it turns the men into monkeys, who attack and devour the banana skirt that covers the only part of the topless dancer’s body that is not already fully offered for the audience’s consumption. Bikinis with an erotic cut worn on a public beach are less objectively immodest than an erotic stage performance, but still invite the same kind of attention in a similarly indiscriminate manner. By contrast, lingerie used in the marital bedroom is not necessarily immodest, because the attention it invites is not necessarily undue. The marital bedroom is private precisely to avoid immodesty–to discriminate, that is, between one’s spouse and others. The encouraging of the sexual attention of others in any degree is excessive and undue.

(3) The attention sought (or apparently sought) would be better spent elsewhere. There is so much that is beautiful, profound, or delightful in the world. What a waste to fix the attention of oneself or others on the inch or two remaining between immodesty and indecency! Those inches may not be bare, but they are utterly barren.

For these reasons, I insist that both objective and subjective modesty should be encouraged and inculcated. One should not desire undue attention; and one should not ask, in the objective language of dress, for such attention. Our dress-speech should be polite and refined. We need not be overcautious–and indeed, an excessive fear of sexual immodesty in dress tends counterproductively to sexualize the body. But we should not be careless either.

Now of course, the fault of the immodestly dressed individual does not excuse the fault in the viewer who is overcome with lust. “She was dressed to provoke” is no excuse for rape or any intentional act arising from lust or any other evil impulse. One’s eyes may be drawn and the beginnings of a sexual response may follow involuntarily; but beyond that, we who are accountable for our actions must have sufficient resources to check the progress of that response. We might, for example, make an effort to look the person straight in the eye and get to know the person as a person. Willpower, wedding rings, and (most effective of all) other more fruitful subjects of contemplation may also be employed in the cause. It is possible to resist temptation, and we are responsible to do so–or else we are monkeys indeed and not men. And yet we are also monkeys–natural creatures, Darwinian animals–and the man in us should not take the monkey too seriously. We should resist temptation but not obsess about our minor failures; in most situations, it is more helpful to laugh at our apish lusts rather than trembling at them.

But I am straying from my subject, which is not the moral situation of the viewer, but that of the person being viewed. The lack of excuse on the part of the viewer does not excuse the immodesty of the person viewed–the person, that is, who presumably dressed him or herself with the expectation of being viewed. The duty to resist temptation does not excuse the temptor. Both parties are responsible for their acts. There is no contradiction here; there is not even any tension.

We want a society where family life is strong, marriages are faithful, and people are in control of and not controlled by their sexuality. We want a society where people are viewed and valued as whole humans and not as bodies. We want a society where the beauty of the human form can be appreciated without everybody dissolving into slimy pools of lust–a society, therefore, in which we distinguish between aesthetic appreciation and sexual desire, and in which we train each other to view the human form aesthetically and not, outside the context of marriage, sexually. We want a society that is conducive to peace and productivity rather than agitation and distraction. To all of these ends, modesty is an important means. And besides those ends, it has true beauty of its own. Modesty–the lack of desire for undue attention–reflects an inner confidence and humility that shines forth with a light brighter and purer and more lastingly attractive than all the fluorescent clamorings of immodest dress.

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3 thoughts on “In Defense of Modesty

  1. Thought provoking essay. many ideas that encourage great reflection. I found one idea that lingered in my mind is the subliminal coersion that is exercised by choice in appearance. You allude lightly to it in your concluding paragraph but I believe it could stand a lingering consideration–that of immodesty as control.

    It’s powerful and heady when you recognize you can affect others so easily.

    It is common for an individual who has a lack of confidence to utilize immodest appearance to exert influence on others. But we rarely consider that pride is also evidence of lack of confidence and evidenced in immodesty.

    I would make reference to the absurdly extravagant excesses in clothing choices particularly those of corporate business men as evidence.

    Although to reflect, then write in those conclusions is a definate CLM.

  2. Thanks for this excellent essay! I agree with everything you’ve said. I do resent the constant showing of long, beautiful legs of women on TV. especially news anchors on Fox News! Not sure what the reason is for this, but I
    think it’s neither a modest nor a fair portrayal of who these, (or) all women, are. It seems to be an obvious requirement for Fox News and I think that’s sad.

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