Modesty

Jun. 11th, 2015 10:25 pm
liv: oil painting of seated nude with her back to the viewer (body)
[personal profile] liv
Modesty is something that's valued in my religious tradition, and also something that's difficult for me personally as well as being politically fraught. Recently a friend was kind of vehement about modesty, specifically women's modest dress, and as it happens we didn't have time to have a proper conversation. So I've been turning the question over in my mind in anticipation of having the conversation, and I think it's enough thinky stuff for a blog post, so:

Jewishly, the idea of modesty comes from Micah 6:8: It has been told to you, human, what is good and what the Eternal requires from you, namely doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with your God. So the word for modesty might be better translated as humility, depending on context. It seems clear that in a theistic system everybody should be humble in relation to God, but rabbinic tradition has tended to extend this to the moral idea that people should be humble and modest in general behaviour as well.

So modesty is primarily about not demanding attention, not taking up other people's space, perhaps not boasting about how virtuous you are. This seems like a good moral value, and one that I'm quite bad at personally because I tend to be quite arrogant and noisy and liable to blunder around not noticing other people's needs. So it's something I put effort into as part of my general moral aims.

The problem is that although this idea of modesty isn't inherently gendered, it plays out in a sexist society. [personal profile] hatam_soferet had a brilliant insight some years ago, which has really stayed with me: a lot of Jewish law is based on the assumption that the target audience are people with a relatively secure position in society. So Torah says that "you" should protect widows, orphans and strangers, but has little to say about how you should behave if you yourself are in one of those subaltern groups. People who are already assumed to be the default, the sort of people society is built around, need lots of religious strictures to tell them to be more kind and more charitable and more modest (humble). But people who are already marginalized, who are always expected to serve others ahead of their own needs, generally don't need religion telling them to make even further sacrifices. Indeed, people who are in positions of power may end up using religion to consolidate their power, using it to control others and tell them that it's their duty to serve the powerful people.

Of course, in contemporary Anglo society, men are more likely to be in the category of assuming the world exists for their benefit, and women are more likely to be in the category of being heavily pushed towards sacrificing themselves to please and support others. I didn't notice this at all because in spite of being assigned and raised female, I have also spent most of my life in an environment where being female isn't really a disadvantage. I am definitely the sort of person who needs reminders to be more compassionate and modest, and part of that is that until [personal profile] hatam_soferet pointed it out, I hadn't really noticed that telling women to be even more modest and even less confident of their value is a way of controlling people who often already defer to others more than they should.

A relevant example I came across recently was [personal profile] legionseagle's rant on ill-advised admonitions in meta and connected discussion. The post referenced basically takes the tone of, thou shalt not write insensitively about rape! Be more considerate! Remember that there might be rape survivors consuming your stories! I think this is a microcosm of a lot of debate that's being going on at least since Racefail. People are setting up moral laws with an implicitly assumed audience of, well, default or we might even say privileged people. And they're good moral laws ('thou shalt not write racist dreck' is kind of a no-brainer), but the way they're being socially enforced is hurting a lot of people who have history of being controlled by being told they're selfish and morally bad people if they have any desires and needs of their own. To some extent that's many women within a sexist society, and as [personal profile] legionseagle very lucidly illustrates, on a different level it's survivors of certain kinds of emotional abuse.

This connects to the specific case of modesty which is about dressing in a way that's not perceived as sexual (which I'm pretty sure is what my friend was objecting to, not to the whole concept of having a modest demeanour in general). I am to some extent in favour of being considerate about how much you push your sexuality on other people, but also very conscious that treating sex as dirty and damaging is often used to control women. No matter how much in theory rules about modest dress apply to all genders, the discussion nearly always ends up being very much centred on how women should or shouldn't dress. I've read a lot of analysis suggesting that a lot of slut-shaming isn't really about sexual behaviour at all, it's about respectability; women with low social status are perceived as being "over-sexual", and therefore not deserving of protection from male violence.

I get very impatient with the kind of feminism that insists on a very narrow "right" amount of skin to show, because if your body is on display or you are read as sexy, you must be dressing like that for male sexual gratification, and if you cover up too much, you're being controlled by patriarchal ideas of modesty. It's just respectability politics under a different name, essentially the message is that the only way to be taken seriously is to dress like a fairly high status professional or business woman from an Anglo culture. That said, I do take seriously feminist critiques of using modesty requirements to control women, as long as they're not swinging in the other direction and forcing women to display their hair or breasts or legs in public when they may not feel comfortable with that, for any reason.

So I am not entirely happy about modest dress as part of my religious tradition. I've thought about it quite a lot, because my approach to religion is not about cherry-picking the stuff that's spiritually meaningful to me, it's about engaging thoughtfully with all the requirements and trying to apply them in a way that fits with me as a person and my ethical values. I also studied modest dress quite intensively (but only for a month) at Drisha back in 2006, with a bunch of passionate feminist women who were nearly all to the right of me religiously, and nearly all more modestly dressed. The upshot is that I am willing to dress more "modestly" than comes most naturally to me, partly because I don't want to make other people uncomfortable, I feel like I'm more prone to being self-centred than self-sacrificing so it's worth making an effort to correct that. And partly because it's something that my people do and (like many other things that I'm not personally passionate about, such as keeping kosher), I want to assert my identity as an observant Jew.

But I don't think it's really modest to cover yourself way beyond the social norm. That's the opposite of modest, that's wearing clothes that draw attention to you and how religious you are. Also restrictions being applied way more strictly to women than to men is sexist, and therefore not in keeping with my Reform values. So I generally try to cover collarbones to elbows to knees (not, say, throat to wrists to ankles), and I keep my hair tied back but I don't cover it. That last one is a bit complicated because my husband isn't Jewish, therefore I don't count as married in Jewish law, so it's unclear whether I even should be covering my hair anyway. I don't bother with wearing only dull and dark colours, I just like purples and reds too much for that, and also I think in a modern context, coloured dyes aren't showing off how rich you are, they're just as cheap as plain colours. And I do try to adapt my dress for circumstances; for example in Leipzig where the local norm was elaborate goths, many of whom were half-naked or in fetish gear, it was appropriate for me to display a lot more cleavage than I normally would in the street. Or if I go to a black tie party, it's appropriate to dress in a more sexy and revealing way than if I'm at work or synagogue. I have no issues with wearing a swimming costume at the beach or a park for sunbathing, but equally I'm happy to cover my hair and arms if I'm visiting a mosque, church or other shrine where that is expected. Again, the point is to be modest, to fit in and not try to make myself look better than others.

I'm also trying to dress a bit more revealingly around my friend who objects to modesty rules. Because the underlying value is consideration for other people, and if my relatively covering, conservative clothes are making her uncomfortable, that's the opposite of the point. But it's surprisingly hard; some of my clothing choices are just habits I've formed and not really expressions of the value of modesty. For example, I generally feel more comfortable in calf-length or longer skirts, so knee-length skirts are in principle fine but I'm not used to them. And shorter skirts than that are fine too, in a situation where in general that's appropriate and not outside social norms. At the weekend I wore a top that exposed part of my tummy, because I was at a summer barbecue where that sort of thing is well within the range of normal, and because I wanted to respect my friend's views. And I felt a little strange, not that I think it's wrong and most certainly not that I would judge anyone else for a bare midriff, but just that I'm not used to wearing that little.

I think my modesty is partly reflecting my moral and religious values, but also partly it's a protective habit. I was fat and ugly as a teenager; now I'm still fat but tolerably pretty, at least to people who don't expect that you have to follow fashion rules closely to count as pretty. But at some level I have the experience that if I dress sexily, I will get grief for daring to imagine that I'm the sort of person that others would want to look at in a sexual way. Unlike many women, I don't personally have the experience that if I dress sexily, I will be harassed and groped and molested (which I know isn't really about clothing choices, it's about bullies exerting power over women), but I do basically expect to be mocked. Not consciously, not if I actually stop and think about it, but I have a kind of visceral memory of it. Especially if what I'm showing off is my legs and bottom, which is one reason why when I am in an appropriate context to dress more revealingly, I default to low cut tops rather than short or tight skirts.

My personal experiences of feeling uncomfortable about uncovering more than I'm used to are therefore comparatively mild. But enough to give me empathy for women who, for religious or personal reasons, do prefer to cover up a lot more than the default for women in the societies they're part of. Muslim women who wear headscarves or veils or abayat, for example, but also women who for purely personal reasons feel uncomfortable wearing the amount of clothes expected for women of the culture they happen to live in.

Basically I'm one of those "choice" feminists, I do expect that people should make their own decisions about what they want to wear. And yes, I am aware that those choices carry messages which affect others, and take place in a social context, there are factors other than purely personal expression which determine how people dress. I believe that consideration for other people should in fact be one of the factors that go into clothing choice; for me that's the main point of modesty. Equally people don't have a right to ogle my body, much less to have access to it, and people do have a responsibility to control their own behaviours and behave in a civilized way if they happen to find me sexually attractive, it's not up to me to hide myself from view in case some hypothetical stranger finds me sexy and is offended by that.

(no subject)

Date: 2015-06-12 02:38 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] daharyn
But sometimes the choice is "because I want to," or "because I like [the chosen option/item]," or "because it feels good," or even just "because," and all of those ought to be enough. It's not cool to force other people to justify their choices to others. Sometimes there isn't a reason why.

Why did I wear this skirt today? I honestly don't know. There could be a million reasons, but nothing jumps out at me, and I don't give a fuck about how anyone interprets that choice, ya know?

Sometimes a tank top is just a tank top is just a tank top.

(no subject)

Date: 2015-06-12 03:50 am (UTC)
nicki: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nicki
(I'm a psychology professional :P )

Basically in this instance I'm using Kohlberg and Piaget's stages of moral development wherein a fully developed moral person will achieve some level of post-conventional morality, which is basically that you think about what you value and your morals and decide which thing are things that truly have value and letting those things inform your choices vs what your culture tells you has value and letting your culture force you to act in certain ways.

My general world-view (based on study, research, and experience working with people) is that people always do things for a reason. They may not know what the reason is, or think about why, but there's always a reason. Sometimes are reasons are entirely internal (I don't eat walnut brownies because I'm allergic to walnuts) but often society plays at least some part in people's reasons for doing things. Part of what one does, if one is interested in particular kinds of contemporary sociology, is to think about how society has acted on people to give them reasons to do or not do certain things.

So, as I'm a person who is interested in some of those particular kinds of contemporary sociology, and as a person who has an interest in why people do what they do, I think it's important for people to think about why they do what they do and, as a person who believes people should strive for post-conventional moral development (within certain bounds), I think people should act on their informed choice based on what they believe is right, rather than what society demands of them (this does not mean they won't necessarily do what societal pressures would otherwise dictate, but for their own reasons).

A tank top is always a piece of clothing that primarily covers a part of a person's chest, back, and stomach. There are reasons a person chooses that piece of clothing, however, even if it's just as simple as "everything else is dirty". I just believe people should consider their reasons for doing things.

(no subject)

Date: 2015-06-12 04:32 am (UTC)
slashmarks: (Default)
From: [personal profile] slashmarks
I mean, there are of course reasons why a camisole type tank top is a clothing option available to a woman/female presenting person living in certain geographical locations, eg. culturally, those locations consider it inappropriate for women to expose their chests, but okay to expose arms and shoulders; culturally, also they consider this set up the most "normal" way to do that. There also might be climate reasons (you see a lot more tank tops in the American South than in the northeast).

And then there are reasons why a specific person might buy the tank top, ranging from "it was on sale" to "I agree with these specific conditions for public decency" to "I liked the color."

But I think that suggesting that there's some sort of moral imperative to think about your deeper reasons for choosing clothing is falling into this trap where clothing of women in particular is seen as symbolic, often of their, their family's, or their society's morals. I mean, do you think that there's also a moral imperative for men to consider why they wear T shirts? The answer may be yes, and from what you've said it sounds like it would probably be yes, but for a lot of people it's going to be no, because women's clothing choices are much more likely to be "marked" morally speaking.

To give some examples of female clothing being symbolically marked, I'm reminded here of an essay I read a while ago by a Muslim woman about how every female Muslim blogger feels they HAVE to address their position on hijab eventually. I'm also reminded of one of my sisters telling the other she was dressed like a prostitute when they were teenagers in relation to going outside together. A tank top is never allowed to just be a tank top when it's worn by someone who's read as a woman, is it?

For some people, that kind of thought exercise is interesting and important, but for some people it's boring or irrelevant or a reminder of all the times they had to justify their clothing on moral grounds or had clothing rules enforced by other people on moral grounds. I'm much more concerned about whether someone's "thought about why they do things" when we're talking about things that have the potential to hurt other people.

Ultimately if I don't want to analyze all the complicated reasons why I wear a T shirt when it's hot out but don't expose my calves, I don't have to, and I don't think that negatively impacts either my morality or anyone else's state of being.

(no subject)

Date: 2015-06-12 05:32 am (UTC)
nicki: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nicki
Before I say anything else, I just want to make it clear that this is my opinion based on my experience with life. Other people have different experiences which may cause them to think differently.

It is MY OPINION that people (men/boys and women/girls) should think about their actions and why they make the choices they do because in MY experience, people who do not think about why they do things often inadvertently hurt to themselves and/or those around them.

Everyone, however, gets the option to do what they want to do. Their thoughts exist in their own heads and no one can FORCE someone else to sit on their beds and actually think about why they did what they've done. My thinking that people should make informed decisions is in no way actually going to force them to do that if they find doing so to be boring or irrelevant.

(and I would say that both men and women experience judgement on their presentation. In fact, I would say that men have simpler rules, but also a far narrower range of acceptable presentation than women do in most modern industrial powers)

(also, I'm not sure why the idea that people should consider their reasons for doing things seems to be hitting a sore spot)

(no subject)

Date: 2015-06-12 07:55 am (UTC)
siderea: (Default)
From: [personal profile] siderea
(also, I'm not sure why the idea that people should consider their reasons for doing things seems to be hitting a sore spot)

Because you aren't arguing that people should consider their reasons.

You are using the proposition "people should consider their reasons" as justification for the contention we might articulate as "women should think about moral rectitude of their clothing choices."

And the sentiment "women should think about moral rectitude of their clothing choices" is being taken as advancing the presumption that women's clothing choices have a moral rectitude to consider.

That's not going down well.

I think you're being somewhat disingenuous in your argument. When someone says, "Think about what you're doing", it doesn't mean, "being contemplative is good". It's idiomatic for "I think you're fucking up, and maybe if you think about it some more, you'll agree with me." I think you know that, and should stop pretending that it will be heard otherwise.

P.S. You aren't sharing your opinion. You are making normative value statements. Expect contention when you do that.
Edited Date: 2015-06-12 07:56 am (UTC)

(no subject)

Date: 2015-06-12 07:21 pm (UTC)
nicki: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nicki
I think you are reading something that I'm not saying. Clothing is basically costume. A person can wear EXACTLY the same outfit in different colors and indicate they belong to two entirely different social groups. It's a piece of personal artistic expression, social expression, and gender presentation.

I think you are reading what I say and instead of the actual words being presented you are reading "I think women should dress more modestly" which is not, in fact, what I am saying. Clothing, in and of itself, is amoral. It has no moral value/immoral value in and of itself any more than furniture does. I could walk into my (conservative) grandmother's house in short-shorts and a tank top tomorrow (if I were in her city) with no moral judgement from my family (though going in nude would lift some eyebrows).

I am, in fact, saying that being contemplative (working to understand one's own reasons and not just accept external motivators without thinking about it) about all one's actions including clothing choice is good. You are reading a connotation into my words that isn't there.

However, here's my judgement on this point in the discussion: Using rude language and calling someone dishonest and deceptive in what appears to be an attempt to garner an unearned apology and to shut down a discussion is not acceptable in my opinion.

And here's my normative value statement: You should not go around calling people dishonest and deceptive. It's offensive and rude.

(no subject)

Date: 2015-06-12 11:20 am (UTC)
emperor: (Default)
From: [personal profile] emperor
I don't think much about my clothing choices (I mean, I won't wear a t-shirt with the work "Fuck" on to work or choir, but basically unless there's some specific occasion it's going to be t-shirt and trousers), but equally I don't have many options unless I want to draw attention to myself (and/or end up feeling self-conscious) - I could go a little smarter with a shirt, but if went smarter than that it would invite comment at work (or, indeed, with people that know me socially), or I could wear shorts while it's warm.

(no subject)

Date: 2015-06-12 05:09 pm (UTC)
recessional: bare-footed person in jeans walks on log (Default)
From: [personal profile] recessional
Hoping I'm not being further intrusive: I find the presentation-policing for men, at least in North American/Western European culture and cultures heavily influenced thereby (I have no ability to speak to others) to actually simply be an offshoot of that for women, in that men are not allowed to be women, and thus not allowed to be overtly sexual or decorative in any way that women are culturally assumed to be at all times. Caring too much for your appearance or wearing things beyond the general shapeless shirt-and-trousers on which all quote-unquote "western" men's clothing is built is seen as "feminine" or even "girly" - and thus, of course, "gay" and absolutely forbidden and, as you note, often enforced with violence.

So it's still very related, ime, to "women's bodies are for THIS, and we assume a straight-man's gaze on the world, so other men's bodies aren't ALLOWED to be for THIS."

(no subject)

Date: 2015-06-12 04:43 pm (UTC)
slashmarks: (Default)
From: [personal profile] slashmarks
Can you give an example of how failing to think about clothing choices could or has, in your experience, hurt other people?

It's my opinion that this sort of thing is a matter of personal autonomy, which is why I'm kneejerk annoyed by the position that people have to have a justification for it. Women often are required to justify their clothing choice, at length, and threatened with social or physical violence if they don't have good enough justifications.

(Men have a narrow range of acceptable presentation in western cultures, but every choice they make is not symbolic in the way women's clothing is treated as; men can usually wear most options within their range of socially acceptable clothing without having to decide which "type" of man they want to be read to the extent women do. While their choices give impressions, most of the time they aren't treated as a reflection of their family's morality the way women's clothing is -- class, certainly, but not usually ethics.)

(no subject)

Date: 2015-06-12 07:47 pm (UTC)
nicki: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nicki
Sure. Because we, in "the West" are conditioned to overvalue certain kinds of social praise, many of us "learn" to dress to get that social praise without really thinking about it. This can lead to certain people in groups to slightly overdress all the time. This can have two effects. It can cause their friends who have dress appropriately but not overdressed for an event to feel "frumpy" and overlooked. It can also cause consistently escalating dress "requirements" which can be a financial hardship for a lot of people. Gym-wear is a good example of this.

IMO it is a matter of personal autonomy, but because we are often influenced by social conditioning, IMO it's important to think about whether we are really making our own choices, and in order to figure that out, we have to think about why we are making them.

I agree about men's choices, but more in the direction that the resulting judgements are different, esp re gender expression.

(no subject)

From: [personal profile] nicki - Date: 2015-06-23 06:08 pm (UTC) - Expand

(no subject)

Date: 2015-06-12 12:49 pm (UTC)
kaberett: Overlaid Mars & Venus symbols, with Swiss Army knife tools at other positions around the central circle. (Default)
From: [personal profile] kaberett
(aside while I'm being prissy about language: my understanding while out-group is that in general "prostitute" is considered a slur and isn't okay for out-group people to use, but "sex worker" is fine and the preferred terminology of most sex workers)

(no subject)

Date: 2015-06-12 01:26 pm (UTC)
kaberett: Overlaid Mars & Venus symbols, with Swiss Army knife tools at other positions around the central circle. (Default)
From: [personal profile] kaberett
"full-spectrum" or "full-service" is maybe the adjectival modifier you're looking for? here's the resource my knowledge is based on!

(no subject)

Date: 2015-06-12 04:45 pm (UTC)
slashmarks: (Default)
From: [personal profile] slashmarks
Gah, I do know that, but I got lost rephrasing the original much more offensive comment to something I felt was repeatable. I possibly should have phrased it differently.

(no subject)

Date: 2015-06-12 04:36 pm (UTC)
slashmarks: (Default)
From: [personal profile] slashmarks
Thanks! The idea of women's clothing as symbolic has been something I've been thinking about a lot lately. Particularly in relation to veil bans, which seem to me to be making the same choice as legally requiring them in the opposite direction. (Instead of treating women as a symbol of family/society piety that has to be enforced, treating women as a symbol of family modernity/Western-ness that has to be enforced. In either case, the women's dress is how the family has to "prove" how mainstream their morality is to society, which it should be a choice she makes.) It also comes up in a lot of other places, though, where we're not used to having these discussions - class markers, for instance.

Not everyone has strong feelings about clothing, and it's okay if your morality doesn't have much to do with it. Of people who do have strong feelings on clothing, sometimes those feelings are "I don't want to think about it" or "talking about this upsets me." I think of clothing choice as a part of bodily autonomy, which I think is why I got annoyed by the suggestion that everyone Must have a justification for it.

That one kind of stunned me at the time, even as a kid, but it's a good example, I think, of the 'how you dress reflects on us all' thing. "Our society degrades prostitutes" -> "You are dressed in a way I think is associated with prostitutes" -> "If you don't change your clothing before going outside, people will think of you as a prostitute, and by association me and the rest of our family" -> "You must change to prove OUR social standing/morality." Which has about ten different logic holes and is really terrible to both actual sexworkers and the women being accused of being sexworkers for illogical reasons.

(no subject)

Date: 2015-06-12 07:58 pm (UTC)
nicki: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nicki
Yeah, if people are already thinking about it, I'm not saying they should necessarily think more (counselor hat for a moment: it might be healthy for them to work on anxiety and/or consider if everyone judging them consists of a healthy relationship with their culture/friends/relatives :P /counselor hat).

(no subject)

Date: 2015-06-12 01:09 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] daharyn
Our mutual friend can confirm that I am very, very intentional about my clothing. I have a distinct sense of style (made all the more specific in the past year, now that I have to look professional five days a week for the first time in my life) and my clothing is absolutely a way in which I express myself. Today at work I'm presenting my first annual report; every last item of clothing or piece of jewelry has been specifically picked out days in advance, including underthings and shoes.

It's just that every choice was made based on how I want to feel today--not on how this clothing will resonate with others. So that's where I'm challenged by the modesty business. Even if the relevant religious texts seem to be about modesty of spirit and apply to all, the practical application of those laws seems to be based on caring too much about what others think of you?

I have a not-so-secret fascination with Christian evangelical mommy blogs; they're something I read when I have downtime. (My parents nearly became conservative Christians in the early 80s, so I have a "that could have been me!" sort of feeling, particularly since my life is nearly the opposite.) I feel like I see a lot of policing there--so much so that the person is erased, and only the rules remain. In contrast, I want my clothing to highlight, complement, and extend who I am. So for me, I don't apply any external code to how I dress--it's a very internal thing, driven by personality and desired emotions.

I also think we should take on a generous mindset, and just not worry about what other people wear? What you wear is your thing. Honestly, it kind of makes me sad that you wore a cropped top to please someone else. I'm all for people wearing whatever they want to wear, and that includes fat folk (myself included) wearing whatever they feel like, but I would really really hate to think someone was making clothing choices specifically to make me comfortable. I basically think your friend should get over their discomfort.

Soundbite

Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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