Modesty, how it’s largely been co-opted by conservatives, and why maybe liberals should try to take it back.

First of all, I’m a modest dresser but I wasn’t always one.  It’s sort of crept up on me over the last four years or so.  I am very comfortable in the clothes I wear now, and I think it unlikely that I’ll go back to a more “normal” standard of dress.  I was raised largely Episcopal, I have been a Christian for many years, I vote Democratic, and I hold many “liberal” views.  My upbringing was a little quirky, and my mother was not on board with things like make-up, pierced ears, hair dying, high heels etc.  She strongly felt that women should wear pants, and that if you were going to wear a skirt it should be fairly long.  It wasn’t conventional modesty per se, but feelings about appropriateness, lack of display, and a desire not to commodify beauty.

I broke with a lot of those ideas as a teenager and a young woman for a number of reasons, including that I just really like having dangly sparkly things in my ears.  I still do.  I don’t wear them everyday but I love earrings.  They make me feel pretty.

Looking at various resources and blogs of modest dressers on the internet it is clear that standards of modesty are extremely personal, as they should be.  I cover my shoulders and most of my back, but not my arms, and I don’t do cleavage, but I don’t necessarily wear my necklines as high as many modest dressers do.  I almost always wear skirts, at least to mid-calf, usually with shorts or leggings underneath, depending on the season.  Hose is dependent on the shoe, the season, and the length of the skirt.  On the rare occasions I wear pants, they’re “traditional cut”, usually elastic waist, and fairly loose.  I wear my hair, which is graying, long and almost always up, but I don’t cover it.  I always wear a slip, and usually double up on the shirt to prevent clinginess.

My appearance is conservative enough that I’m aware people make assumptions about me based on the way I dress, some of them correct, some of them incorrect, some of them possibly silly, and some of them objectionable to me.  Particularly that because I cover more of my body than many women and wear my hair a certain way, that I may hold certain political, religious, or social views that are frankly abhorrent to me.  Most especially about homosexuality, but not limited to it.  I have occasionally been tempted to get a little button made saying “Modesty, not Bigotry” or something similar.  

I find this infuriating.  I can also find the assumption that modesty is antithetical to various liberal ideas equally infuriating.  Particularly feminism, because apparently it is liberating for women to be ogled by strangers.  Or judged by their public presentation of their sexuality and appearance.  Or that women who choose modesty have it imposed upon them, because the motivation to starve oneself into a double zero and appear in public wearing collections of string and band-aids is obviously completely internal. 

And I think some of these assumptions make it difficult for women to choose modesty.  Fashionable clothes are very skimpy.  Adopting a particular standard of coverage usually means either dressing and shopping very, very carefully and wearing a lot of camis, or wearing clothes that are frankly unfashionable.  For me, it’s worth it.  Modest standards say “My appearance is not a commodity; my sexual being is private.”   They do tie into both my religious beliefs, and both me and my husband’s beliefs about what’s attractive and appropriate, but neither of those are paramount.

The real shocker?  I feel pretty most of the time.  I feel attractive, and I am closing in on fifty.  I think the general treatment I’ve gotten from men has become more respectful, but I haven’t become invisible, which is something many women my age complain about.  I get flirted with, but I don’t get propositioned, and very few people make off-color jokes in my presence unless they know me fairly well..

I’ve concentrated on women in this post, because it’s much more of an issue for them, but I do occasionally see a man (almost always young, and probably often gay) that I’d like to put some more clothes onto, and for pretty much the same reasons.  Beauty shouldn’t be a commodity, and the sexual self should be private, for yourself and whoever you choose to share it with.

Rant over, at least for now.


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