Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Problem with Praising Modesty

 What the what?

Monday's post on what men think of vintage style garnered so many interesting comments! I was especially pleased to see the conversation take a turn toward sexism and expectations of modesty. I won't quote anyone in particular (so as not to put any one person on the spot), but some were disturbed by the idea of men treating women more respectfully if we're more covered up. Because, after all, what's the flip side of that? Men feeling they have permission to disrespect - or even outright assault - a woman if she's not dressed modestly. It's a common problem in many cultures to believe that a woman is "asking for it" if she's wearing something provocative, is it not?

Let me start by saying that I didn't mean to imply that I commend men on the street for being more respectful towards me if I'm dressed in a vintage style. I really don't think it's such a great thing for cat callers to be slightly more polite to me; I would prefer if men did not cat call to begin with. Also, though I suppose I tend to dress fairly modestly by some New York standards, it's not because I feel that to do so makes me more worthy of respect from men. It's just a personal style choice - and I don't believe it makes me morally superior in any way.

That out of the way, I've been wanting to write about the troublesome notion of modest fashion for some time now, but I admit I've shied away from it. The idea of modest dress is inextricably linked to religion and culture, and the last thing I want to do is offend anyone based on their beliefs in that area. Additionally, standards of modesty vary greatly from culture to culture - for some it means being covered from head to foot. For others, it's covering the upper arms and cleavage. It's impossible to dilute the idea of modest dress into a simple set of rules.

But it must be said that the expectation of female modesty in many cultures is an inherently sexist one. The idea is often that men must be saved from their own thoughts of temptation and it's a woman's responsibility to dress modestly to prevent men from having these thoughts. (There's an interesting survey on what modest dress means to young Christian men here if you want to take a look. I'll warn you that I couldn't look long as I found some of the basic ideas so disturbing.)

There's not much that enrages my cold femi-nazi heart like this idea of protecting men from temptation by dressing modestly. Why?
  • Standards of modesty for women put the onus on women themselves to prevent unwelcome advances and sexual assault. See, men just can't control themselves! If ever an idea were insulting to both genders, it's this one. Why don't we try everyone being responsible for their actions?
  • These double standards create hurtful divisions among women. For example, many feel it's okay to "slut-shame" a woman who shows more skin than she does. How often do we call each other sluts, skanks, whores, or worse?
  • At worst, it's a form of rape apology. The belief that women are sending sexual invitations by the way they dress is a prevalent one, sadly. 
Of course, many women choose to dress modestly out of their own accord and that's great. But the problem comes when we start placing a moral value on this choice - when we believe that covering up makes us more worthy of praise and respect. (Also, it's worth noting that etiquette calls for more modest dress at a memorial service than a barbecue and that this is a separate matter of social norms and manners.)

So, to bring this back to dressing vintage: yes, vintage styles can be more modest than current fashion. No, that doesn't give any of us the right to demean other women for choosing to show more skin. And, above all, we deserve respectful treatment from men no matter how we're dressed.

124 comments:

  1. Love love love this post. I love the way you separate out etiquette from modesty, and the fact that there is no such thing as an objective standard of modesty (as a commenter on the modesty thread on Already Pretty put it - 'clothing itself does not have a moral nature'). Shaming women and putting the onus on them for the way they dress (and how it affects men) is a integral part of rape culture and rape apologism and it's really important to challenge this attitude. I love this recent campaign and ad that's airing in Scotland which directly confronts this myth (and other forms of victim blaming): http://notever.co.uk/
    Regarding cat-calling, I also wish it didn't happen. In my experience and opinion, it's based far more upon power and intimidation than an attempt to compliment me! Compliments are fine (I don't have a problem with a guy coming up and saying 'hey, I like your outfit'), but depersonalised shouting is so not cool.
    Thanks again Gertie, I think you are spot on with this post!

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  2. great post, I dress modestly though my boyfriend wishes sometimes for little less. I hardly ever get unwanted attention from men, in fact I have been called a lesbian behind my back for the way I dress! talk about sexism! I have even considered a scarf for my head but haven't because I am concerned about religious /political baggage that surrounds it. i just like the way it looks. its such a interesting topic though -on the other hand I get annoyed that men can take such liberties as only having to ware trunks at the beach etc but bare breasts are obscene. thats a little off topic sorry
    Nora

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  3. Thank you for this interesting post and the link to the survey. Even though I couldn't look long either..

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  4. Great post, though, flicking through that survey REALLY got my blood boiling.

    One question.

    Why weren't girls asked the same questions about a the modesty of guys?

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  5. Modesty of my way of life! I am a female 5%er and we dress 3/4ths... meaning, while abroad, our bodies are covered 3/4ths with clothing. I get way more positive and respectful attention than I ever did before 3/4ths. And thats not saying that I dressed like a harlot before. But now..... Its bananas.

    I was at a concert and most of the women were putting their goodies on display, but I got all the male attention. You could hear the women hating, though wondering why I was fighting the men off with all these clothes on and no make up. Teehee. I suppose membership has its priveleges.....


    Peace!

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  6. What bothers me about the various doctrines of sartorial modesty (and I can only complain about the ones I'm familiar with, which is the American "cover up or you'll get street harassed" jerk-apologetic) is that there are actually a lot of useful virtues contained in the idea that are completely inaccessible in this world of debate about whether collarbones or a half-inch of cleavage are Giving Men The Wrong Idea. The basic idea behind modesty is that there's a public sphere and a private sphere and that it's okay to keep some things private; I love that idea, especially in the age of the internet. Of course, the ability to have privacy over your body depends on other people respecting your privacy - in a world that didn't consider women's bodies public property for general comment and assessment, swimming naked probably wouldn't be immodest.

    Incidentally, the root of "modest" is most similar to "measured" - having measured approach to the world that avoids hyperbolae or self-aggrandizement. See? It could be an awesome virtue! But no, we have to worry about ankles, like those are the window to our souls or something.

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  7. Wonderful post, beautifully articulated. I whole-heartedly agree.

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  8. I forgot to add a couple of things: first, the point about men being 'unable to control themselves' is an idea that seems to pervade a lot of mainstream 'moral' narratives and does a disservice to both men and women, preventing women from acknowledging an 'active' sexuality and expecting men to be sexual all the time (that stud/slut thing).

    Second, the flip side to criticisms of 'immodest' dress is the religious or cultural requirement for modesty, with women who choose to cover up being shamed by people from other cultures, particularly other women (as the commenter on your previous post described, in her experience of wearing hijab). I have seen the same thing (also in London) - I once had a woman (not wearing a veil) turn to me (also not veiled) and say (loudly) 'isn't it a disgrace?', with regard to the woman in the queue in front of us who was wearing niqab. I said something about how it was none of my business, but it made me so uncomfortable that this woman was trying to get me to engage in shaming a complete stranger. I don't want to go too OT with this (perhaps this comment belonged in the last thread, if so I apologise), but I think that basic respect for anyone regardless of what they're wearing, should be the attitude to which we all aspire.

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  9. Thank you Gertie, tis was well said. It is a fine line between choosing to dress modestly, and being influenced to do so by culture or faith. In many areas of young woman's life they need to make these decisions for themselves and dress the way they feel comfortable.

    Loved your point about appropriateness. Can we talk about how it is not appropriate that every server/hostess in every chain restaurant in downtown Toronto must be wearing the skimpiest, shortest skirt and revealing tank top? This not appropriate for a Sunday brunch or a business lunch.

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  10. Bottom of the LeagueJuly 21, 2010 at 8:14 AM

    Of course, one of the problems of identifying this sort of behavior with religion is that it is often just projection of what are in fact the attitudes of non-religious people onto religious people. Like all projections, it involves taking your own less pleasant feelings and doubts and attrbuting to them inaccurately to others. This is a psychological trait which is particularly common among Western feminists.Imbued as they are with a sense of their own cultural (and even national supremacy in their attempts to "liberate" women, they often serve neo-colonialist aims, especially when they project the qualities of their own culture onto another.

    For example, in my religion (not Christianity) Eve is NOT held responsible for the "fall" and physical modesty is demanded of MEN as much as women. Of course, Western feminists fail to realize this. Why? Well, apart from their apparently unassailable sense of their own superiority, perhaps because Western men in the main do not compete to show as much flesh as possible either, so there is less contrast.... Incidentally, nakedness of either sex is not seen as any excuse for men or women to behave as they plase, Both sexes are ordered to look away if they see something they shouldn't. As such it does not all revolve around men (as 99 percent of your argument and your reposndents' arguments seem to) there is a religious motivation (which may be hard for some to grasp) not a social one - you can wear what you please. I don't care at all.

    But anyone who thinks that wearing more clothing rather than less is oppressive has a very poor understanding of the semiotics of clothing. Throughout every society in the world, people demonstrate their higher status and dignity by wearing more not less, from the Amazon Indian chief with a special willy-cover to the Queen of England when she opens Parliament. Not for nothing throughout history have slaves been deprived not only of clothing but of the right to wear clothing. And women in 19th century Britain didn't even own the clothes they stood up in (Tenant of Widfell Hall) - not something that has EVER been the case in the Muslim world - see what I mean about projection?

    The problem is, of course, it hurts to recognize that your assumptions about yourself ("liberatedness", cultural superiority, advancement, "sisterhood", etc) might be very, very far from true....

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  11. If I weren't *mumbleage* and *mumbleweight* and psoriatic, I think I'd go sew some of those scandalous (*pearl clutch*) playsuits I've seen from the 50s, with short-shorts and halter tops.

    Modest vintage clothing that.

    More seriously, the thing that bothers me most about the people pushing "modesty" (rather than "appropriateness") in dress is that it so often seems to come back to a moral/cultural belief that women's bodies don't really belong to them.

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  12. bottom of the league- its oppressive if its required by your government or religious leaders or husband

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  13. Why does sexiness or overt sexuality in our dress elicit disrespect? That's a core question here. Emphasis of physical assets, display of physical assets seems to neutralize civility in some quarters (male and female)? Why? I'm a dyed-in-the-wool feminist, but I struggle with this . . . especially as a mother of a teen girl. I want her to feel empowered by her young and beautiful body . . . not at risk of being victimized because of it. Yet, I sometimes worry about what she wears, as I'm sure my mother worried about me. It's a sticky, sticky issue. And yet, I think our culture has come a long way in the last 30 years. Great and thought-provoking blog post. Thanks.

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  14. Having read through some of the answers on that site, I wanted to tell the men involved that they were spending far too much time thinking about the acceptable length of a woman's skirt. And if any of them tried to tell me that my clothing choices weren't acceptable, I would be extremely angry.

    But I found the longer answers to the questions at the end rather more reassuring. They all said that it was their responsibility not to look at or treat women as objects, rather than it being the woman's responsibility not to tempt men. One even went as far as to point out that the argument that women were to blame for tempting men could be used to justify rape. It's just a shame that they continued to make moral judgements about women who chose not to meet their standards of "modesty".

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  15. Bottom of the League - these are really good points, and I totally agree regarding the way in which the veil is frequently misunderstood in 'Western' societies. I took away from Gertie's post that she wasn't saying 'more clothing is oppressive/less clothing is liberated' or 'covering up is wrong', just that the idea that it is women's sole responsibility for controlling the attention (and potential for sexual assault) she receives through her clothing is a problematic one.
    However, you are very right, that non-Muslims need to keep questioning assumptions about the 'liberatedness' or 'advancement' of non-Muslim vs Muslim cultures (or any other culture that differs from our own) which form the basis of prejudice.

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  16. "This is a psychological trait which is particularly common among Western feminists."

    and

    "Of course, Western feminists fail to realize this. Why? Well, apart from their apparently unassailable sense of their own superiority[...]"

    Whilst I do not wish to pick on anyone, re. Bottom of the League's above comments, one of the things I have often noticed amongst apologists of 'religious modesty' is their own unerring sense of moral superiority...

    Maybe a certain moral modesty would be a nice accompaniment to modesty of dress? Just a thought...

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  17. Bottom of the league - great points. These are the issues in cultural relativism. If we say one particular item of clothing is a symbol of oppression, can't all clothing be so? Personally, I think skinny jeans and stilettos are a lot more symbolically "oppressive" than say, the hijab.

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  18. Great points, Gertie! I wanted to just chime in a bit from the standpoint of someone who was previously involved in a very legalistic sect of Christianity that put a huge burden of modesty on women. The sad thing is that in many ways there is a lot of guilt and/or responsibility put on women and women alone within the "modesty camp" to cover up in order to keep me from "stumbling". Franky, that is a load of you-know-what to put the entire onus on one gender. While I do think dressing a certain way can elicit certain responses from those around us (and to say that "slut dressing"--just to name a very obvious example--doesn't is to bury your head in the sand), my blood boils at the thought that I am fully responsible for how men react. Frankly, it's never really mattered a ton if I've got a lot of clothes on or not--men who have not learned to respect other humans (women included ;) will always be jerks. Their actions/reactions are their own responsibility, not necessarily (or fully) mine. As I said though, I do think there is a certain obligation each human has to dress in a manner befitting respect and the occasion, because people do (rightly or wrongly) react a certain way to how you present yourself. That being said, this is not to excuse men who make lewd comments or sexually harass women based on their dress--by no means. I like what "purpleshoes" said about the idea of private and public dress, as I think it deals with this idea perfectly:

    "The basic idea behind modesty is that there's a public sphere and a private sphere and that it's okay to keep some things private; I love that idea, especially in the age of the internet. Of course, the ability to have privacy over your body depends on other people respecting your privacy - in a world that didn't consider women's bodies public property for general comment and assessment, swimming naked probably wouldn't be immodest. "

    It's quite a controversial topic, from where I came from (out of the super conservative sector of Christianity that placed a high value on outward female modesty. While, ironically, completely neglecting the innner state of one's heart and mindset! :p). In many ways I've completely turned my back on it, and in others I am still a very modest person. I think there is value in modesty--especially in public (I certainly wouldn't go out in some of the outfits I wear around the house ;), as it shows respect not only for yourself but for others. However, I think modesty can mean different things to different people (and cultures), and certainly should not mean things like "no jeans" or only "ankle length skirts" or "headcoverings" (a whole 'nother controversy, let me tell ya! ;). Nor do I think it is only a mindset that should be confined to religious groups. What it means to each person though and how they approach it, is up to them.

    Oh, and for the record: if we want to put some burden on men to be "modest", I think we should start pressuring them to wear shirts. I've had enough of shirtless men (with hairy chest and beer bellies) this summer! Or maybe it's just a weird thing in Florida to go driving around without a shirt on? So not attractive... haha.

    ♥ Casey
    blog | elegantmusings.com

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  19. Nathalie - If I had a group of people constantly telling me that I am oppressing myself by choosing to wear a particular garment (or even belong to a particular faith!), and not actually listening to what I had to say, I would probably consider them to have a superiority complex as well.

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  20. Bottom of the LeagueJuly 21, 2010 at 9:05 AM

    Anonymous who said "its oppressive if its required by your government or religious leaders or husband". I do so agree, but why can't you respect Gertie's rule about not posting anonymously?

    Also, isn't it oppressive when you force women to take clothing OFF? Like in Turkey where women cannot wear a headscarf at university? Like in France where teenage girls can't wear one at school but boys can wear gangster rap gear? What makes one set of "group values" OK by the state and not the other? What will they ban next? Your bra which you wear for what reason exactly? To keep your breasts looking perky, youthful and acceptable to men? Or because you don't like it when men leer when your breasts swing freely? Your high heeels? Your boob job? Your lipo? All much more oppressive and limiting than a long dress. They do permanent damage in the case of high heels and boob jobs. And more common in the US than anywhere else in the world. So "feminists" argue that western women can "choose" these things freely and should not be limited.

    Why is Western self-mutilation OK? The whole argument here about cultural values is on shaky ground - it's pure colonialism, very, very thinly disguised.

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  21. theres a difference between choice and no choice - thats the difference

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  22. Great post, and I like what Nora said about 'modest' as opposed to 'appropriate'. Big difference. And the stuff on young Christian men is scarily familiar - was told in high school not to wear an across-body bag because it make the boys 'stumble' at the sights of defined busoms! Yikes!

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  23. If you are dressed out of the ordinary you get an out of the ordinary reaction or one that the 'reactee' thinks is appropriate. ie sweeping minstrely type bows if one is wearing medieval type garb, etc Gertie I applaud you for thinking out this prickly issue of "modesty" and appropriate dress. I dread adding to the heated debate,so because I agree with you i'll just add that I am an independent, autonomous female who expects to have the same rights as anyone else. (and I can dress how I want..as much and as little)

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  24. I dress modestly as a matter of course. Partially, it's how I was raised. Practically, it's about comfort for me. My legs are frankly too ugly to show off, and I'm no longer comfortable even in shorts these days. It's the swelling, thick scars, and weird bumps all over them that keeps me in long pants and long skirts more than anything else. That being said, I also belong to a church that preaches modest clothing choices for both sexes!

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  25. Lots of good comments, ladies. Please remember to *not* post anonymously and please keep it civil.

    I don't think the question is about what level of dress is more oppressive. I think the debate about whether a hijab or stilettos is more oppressive just serves to further alienate women from each other. It's culturally relative, and not the point of this post. The point is a call for respect for women no matter what level of modestly they choose. I would hope we can all agree on that.

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  26. This conversation reminds me of a video I saw recently: it's a commercial airing in Scotland:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h95-IL3C-Z8

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  27. Wow - as a member of the generation of the wave of women to go into business in the 1970s, we did not get involved in the issue of 'modesty' (in the religious/cultural sense). For us, business dressing was a case of 'protective coloration' and maintenance of status and position. It was deemed 'clerical' to dress in a skirt that was too short, a blouse that was too tight or a top that was too low. The rule (flogged by Mr. "Dress for Success' himself) was to dress in the male version of a suit and be as non-distracting as possible so that you'd be taken seriously. Now, looking back, I'm not sure that dressing this way actually helped that many women. From a 'glass ceiling' and 'women getting to the top' aspect, I'm not sure that this was a successful 'strategy'. I think there were other items in specific organizations (real effective efforts at getting women into areas other than HR, marketing and back office; mentors who were good at moving people along)that were more effective. Dressing in a suit with a skirt just below your knees was not necessarily the golden ticket and if you look at how really successful women in corporations dress, I think you see that they do dress in suits, but feminine and not just in black, dark blue, dark grey, etc.

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  28. Gertie, you have the best posts!

    I keep feeling like we're skirting an issue of control. Who controls who---behaviour, dress, morality. When the control rests with the individual, I think we're all okay, but when outside forces---church, state, strangers on the street, even family---get involved, things get much stickier.

    I guess in my ideal world, we'd all be judged on our actions rather than our apparel. That being said, most of us have a lot more control over our clothing than a lot of other things we could be judged on---race, gender, age, sexual orientation---

    Bottom of the League, I'm very glad you feel that the tenets of Islam place equal responsibility for modesty and behaviour on men as on women. Sadly, I don't think that is how the religion is practiced in many places. This may have more to do with patriarchal tribal culture than the religion itself, but it's still used as a justification (just as Christianity has been used as a justificaiton for plenty of atrocities over the centuries, by the way). Saying that the hijab is not oppressive or unfair for you doesn't help a woman in Saudi Arabia who isn't allowed to drive, or a woman in Afghanistan who's afraid to leave her house to work to feed her family, or the girl in Ontario last year who was murdered by her father because of her 'shameful' behaviour.

    All right, that's enough pot-stirring for me for one day. Perhaps I should save my feminist rants for my own blog... ;)

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  29. Posted on this very topic on Monday and got a HUGE variety of responses and opinions. See especially the tidbits of male perspective in the comments, and the back-and-forth that ensues.

    I am so grateful never to have been put in a position where my sartorial choices have been cited as the cause of someone else's discomfort or inability to control him/herself. But I know it happens, and it strikes me as absolutely bizarre. If I decided to steal a gorgeous dress, I would never blame the shop for my choice because the dress was put on display. How illogical for anyone to blame women for presenting temptation, and citing that temptation as the cause for disrespect and violence. I agree with Gertie's assertion that acceptance of responsibility is being shunned. In an insulting and dangerous way.

    Also agree with purpleshoes, though, that there are aspects of modesty that are beneficial and positive in theory ... but become far harder to access in practice. And that drives me nuts.

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  30. Great post, babe! I sure do love that cold femi-nazi heart of yours!

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  31. WOW! That modesty survey was deeply disturbing to me. I could only read a few entries, too. I have a young daughter(13) and son(5) and it was very thought provoking. Surely men and boys don't think that way...?

    This was such a great post! Thanks for posting!

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  32. I only quickly scrolled through and scanned the comments (no coffee yet!) so forgive me if I missed anything...

    I'm going to throw out an alternate view here: Whether based on religious or social mores, and for whatever the reason, sometimes dressing modestly allows one more freedom.

    So, I spent a year in India about 20 years ago, when I was a wee lass of 16. I went from shorts and a tanktop culture in rural Michigan to small town conservative salwar kameez (tunic and loose pants) in India.

    Wow. What a difference! What I found though, is that the more I dressed modestly (within two weeks of being there, I was in traditional Indian garb rather than western clothes) the more I was able to disappear - in not drawing attention to myself, I became invisible, and thus, NOT elicit unwanted attention. Think about that for a second.

    I went on a trip to the south, and while at a lovely international beach resort, saw a couple walking down the beach at sunset. The man wore a dress shirt and dressed pants, the woman was in head to toe black burqa, with a chain screen over her eyes. They were holding hands and laughing as the strolled.

    At first I though, Oh, that poor woman! Oppressed by a patriarchal society, forced to cover herself because men cant control myself.

    But the more I though about it, the more I realized that it might not be all that bad. By shielding herself from the gaze of the world, she was effectively armored against the gaze of men. Because she looked like every other woman in a burqa, she might be one man's wife, but she could just as easily be another man's mother, or sister or daughter.

    I know I'm not articulating it very well, but I think you guys can get my meaning.

    Whether we like it or not, society is what society is. Women will be taken more seriously if they are dressed more modestly.

    The same goes for men - if a man wore, say, too tight khakis and his shirt unbuttoned to work, you can bet he would probably be passed over for promotion in favor of the man who wore clothes that fit, and kept his chest covered.

    As wrong as we may think it is, we all make judgments based on appearance, because until we get to know someone, appearance is all we have to go by.

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  33. I must say that it sounds like the elephant in the room here is fear of sex.

    Straight men are sexually attracted to women. Straight women are attracted to men. Gays, to each other. Often this will lead to sexual behavior. WHY is this something to be repressed? Isn't this what it all boils down to?

    If sex where not considered shameful, if women's free expression of their sexuality was considered fully acceptable, would we need to be shrouding ourselves in anything, male or female?

    Sex is natural. Sex is healthy. Human beings are sexual. We will be attracted to each other.

    If a man (for example) is going to commit a violent act against anyone, male or female, do you think a shrouded body is going to stop him?

    If we were less sexually repressed this would not be an issue, imo.

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  34. Gertie, I love how your posts generate so many thoughtful comments. I have always thought my crafting/sewing intersected with life/social stuff. Most sewers keep it to the sewing, which is fine, but it is fun to hear from another home sewer pondering some of the social stuff that comes alongside sewing.

    I have enjoyed both this and your last post and I want to add something that can get lost in the discussion on rape. I agree that the woman's clothing does not justify rape. That is like saying if someone leaves money out that justifies stealing.

    But most men are not rapists, even those cat calling construction workers mentioned are not roving the streets for fair maidens to defile. When I read the comments I feel like we have gotten mired in deviant sexual expression and are ignoring normal sexual impulse.

    Modest dressing in a contemporary Western sense emphasizes shape over skin and may be more mysterious, it may imply that the man must woo, or persuade the female to like him, because she isn't giving a clear signal right off the bat.

    Does bypassing modesty in dressing bypass some portion of the selection process, usally called courting, where the man and woman both get a little time to make an assessment of the other.

    Women I know almost always rate kindness in a man over good looks - is this somehow hardwired into her biology because as a woman she is not only vulnerable to rape, but also to domestic violence. Does modest dressing somehow get intrepreted as the woman not giving a clear signal, and that period of confusion allow her some time to assess the male? Is this a survival instinct that is hardwired and comes out in cultural contextual ways?

    Also the male wants to be-The Only Male- with sole access to this woman's sexuality. Does modest dressing somehow play upon his hardwiring? She isn't going to put it out there for just anybody, but if he gets to know her and she selects him, then he will get special treatment. That means he has, you know, "the special treatment" going for him, and as men can be competitive is there a status to this situation?

    What I am throwing out is could something as simple as dressing modestly, small in itself, ping on some very ancient impulses, the dress itself becoming symbolic for both the man and woman and allowing them to negotiate some tricky territory?

    I am not a social scientist and may not be putting things well. I would like to see more comments on dress and its part in normal sexuality. A rapist is a criminal and will use any excuse. That a rapist uses clothing as a rationalization is in some ways not the point if you are wondering why Westerners respond so strongly to the Avedon photo posted in the earlier post. I am a woman and I responded to it! I am not going to rape myself or another woman so modesty in clothing must ping some other buttons.

    The rape discussion is valid, definitely, since clothing has been used against women and I can hear the justifiable rage. But this photo and topic has a lot to say about normal sexuality also and I look forward to hearing some other insights into the response to the Avedon photo and related post.

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  35. I only quickly scrolled through and scanned the comments (no coffee yet!) so forgive me if I missed anything...

    I'm going to throw out an alternate view here: Whether based on religious or social mores, and for whatever the reason, sometimes dressing modestly allows one more freedom.

    So, I spent a year in India about 20 years ago, when I was a wee lass of 16. I went from shorts and a tanktop culture in rural Michigan to small town conservative salwar kameez (tunic and loose pants) in India.

    Wow. What a difference! What I found though, is that the more I dressed modestly (within two weeks of being there, I was in traditional Indian garb rather than western clothes) the more I was able to disappear - in not drawing attention to myself, I became invisible, and thus, NOT elicit unwanted attention. Think about that for a second.

    I went on a trip to the south, and while at a lovely international beach resort, saw a couple walking down the beach at sunset. The man wore a dress shirt and dressed pants, the woman was in head to toe black burqa, with a chain screen over her eyes. They were holding hands and laughing as the strolled.

    At first I though, Oh, that poor woman! Oppressed by a patriarchal society, forced to cover herself because men cant control myself.

    But the more I though about it, the more I realized that it might not be all that bad. By shielding herself from the gaze of the world, she was effectively armored against the gaze of men. Because she looked like every other woman in a burqa, she might be one man's wife, but she could just as easily be another man's mother, or sister or daughter.

    I know I'm not articulating it very well, but I think you guys can get my meaning.

    Whether we like it or not, society is what society is. Women will be taken more seriously if they are dressed more modestly.

    The same goes for men - if a man wore, say, too tight khakis and his shirt unbuttoned to work, you can bet he would probably be passed over for promotion in favor of the man who wore clothes that fit, and kept his chest covered.

    As wrong as we may think it is, we all make judgments based on appearance, because until we get to know someone, appearance is all we have to go by.

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  36. I have seen plenty of men dressed inappropriately for the setting but women get judged more harshly both because women are still praised for appearance and expected to be primarily motivated by men's concerns...in many societies. The women who jump on the judging bandwagon often strike me as really promoting themselves (by tearing others down) and/or trying to gain male approval in the same way they're judging other women for, just in a different outfit.

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  37. Ha, wish your post would be printed in some high fashion magazine. I wonder about their attitude towards modesty. Many of their photoshoots don't look appropriate or practical.
    How do we handle of the overwhelming "unmodest" advertising surrounding us everyday? It is at the least confusing. Is that why you can find these incredible outcomes of surveys?

    Whatever someone's dress style, it is never an invitation to rape. Not even a prostitute wants to get raped. But moving on from that idea, most sexual assault comes from people the victim actually knows, even from relatives. I'm not sure if dress style has anything to do with that. Maybe it blurs the subject of this discussion.

    Casey's right, modesty can mean different things to different people. That made me think…
    I live in a multicultural European city. Since 9/11 there is a rise of religious awareness amongst the young muslim population and they show it. There are some extemes, but it is a small (and young!) minority.
    Most young muslim girls in this town are breezy, loud, colourful and stylish that scavenge the highstreet chain stores in flocks.
    Yes, they do cover up hair, body and limbs, but in such a manner that diffuses the definition of modesty. The clothing is layered but very tight, they trott around in heels, wear make-up and jewelry.
    I admire their selfconfidence and some have such a great sense of colour and style.
    It's like a complete new chapter in fashion. They translate fashion into their modified definition of modesty, which has nothing to do with a Saudi dress code.

    And then, the hot weather we do have here for some time now, got me wondering why it is an excuse for so many to dress inappropriate. People dress in public transport, or do their grocery shopping, if they were on the beach. Men and women! Bring on Trinny and Susannha on what not to wear when there's a heat wave.

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  38. Gertie, I love how your posts generate so many thoughtful comments. I have always thought my crafting/sewing intersected with life/social stuff and I love to see another sewer exploring this territory.

    I have enjoyed both this and your last post and I want to add something that can get lost in the discussion on rape. I agree that the woman's clothing does not justify rape. That is like saying if someone leaves money out that justifies stealing.

    But most men are not rapists, even those cat calling construction workers mentioned are not roving the streets for fair maidens to defile. When I read the comments I feel like we have gotten mired in deviant sexual expression and are ignoring normal sexual impulse.

    Modest dressing in a contemporary Western sense emphasizes shape over skin and may be more mysterious, it may imply that the man must woo, or persuade the female to like him, because she isn't giving a clear signal right off the bat.

    Does bypassing modesty in dressing bypass some portion of the selection process, usally called courting, where the man and woman both get a little time to make an assessment of the other.

    Women I know almost always rate kindness in a man over good looks - is this somehow hardwired into her biology because as a woman she is not only vulnerable to rape, but also to domestic violence? Does modest dressing somehow get intrepreted as the woman not giving a clear signal, and that period of confusion allow her some time to assess the male? Is this a survival instinct that is hardwired and comes out in cultural contextual ways?

    Also the male wants to be-The Only Male- with sole access to this woman's sexuality. Does modest dressing somehow play upon his hardwiring? She isn't going to put it out there for just anybody, but if he gets to know her and she selects him, then he will get special treatment. That means he has, you know, "the special treatment" going for him, and as men can be competitive is there a status to this situation?

    What I am throwing out is could something as simple as dressing modestly, small in itself, ping on some very ancient impulses, the dress itself becoming symbolic for both the man and woman and allowing them to negotiate some tricky territory?

    I am not a social scientist and may not be putting things well. I would like to see more comments on dress and its part in normal sexuality. A rapist is a criminal and will use any excuse. That a rapist uses clothing as a rationalization is in some ways not the point if you are wondering why Westerners respond so strongly to the Avedon photo posted in the earlier post. I am a woman and I responded to it! I am not going to rape myself or another woman so modesty in clothing must ping some other buttons.

    The rape discussion is valid, definitely, since clothing has been used against women and I can hear the justifiable rage. But this photo and topic has a lot to say about normal sexuality also and I look forward to hearing some other insights into the response to the Avedon photo and related post.

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  39. as Voltaire said

    "I do not agree with what you are wearing, but I'll defend to the death your right to wear it."

    I think that's it!!

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  40. I believe that dressing modestly is more than just what one wears.

    Our modesty consists of shoulders/cap of arm covered, no cleavage revealed, and things to my knee.

    I expect my 3 boys (18, 10, 8) to be modest - just like their 3 sisters (15, 13, almost 5). They wear shorts to their knee, no tank tops, and undershirts. They also don't go around without a shirt - even while working outside (a big thing, considering we live where 5 months a year are 100+).

    But, it is more than how we dress - modest is in our language, our manners, and our behavior. However, this does NOT mean that we are doormats! (I an very outspoken, just not rude).

    My children dress like their friends - just with sleeves or jacket, an undershirt or tank top, and pants/shorts/skirts to the knee. You would be surprised at how cute my girls are - without showing anything.

    Their self-esteem is high - because they are able to be themselves!

    I don't believe that people who are immodest are slutty, etc. Because it is none of my business -
    and it's none of my business that people dress more modestly than we do.

    We all have some sort of moral compass, and we follow that compass. It does not matter if our moral compass comes from religion, past experiences, or environment. It is our moral compass.

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  41. Bottom of the LeagueJuly 21, 2010 at 10:03 AM

    Nathalie

    So I can't wear hijab because you might feel that I might feel that I am morally superior. Well, there's projection in action for you. If my clothing makes you feel discomfort or self-doubt, that's your problem, not mine.

    I have actually counselled women who have been raped (in London), and never at any point can it be justified by what they are wearing (or not wearing). There is also no religion in which rape is the punishment for immodesty.

    For a start, rape is not about sexual desire, it is invariably done out of anger (often not even anger at the victim) and in order to humiliate. And usually it's planned in advance.

    Modesty, on the other hand, has multiple reasons, and ONE of them is about restraining desire (both men's and women's) in order to cooperate in a spiritual quest.

    Modesty IMO is not about preventing the pathological. I don't view rape as on the continuum of normal, as in "all men are rapists" - I am afraid I fell out with Rape Crisis over that. I just don't believe it, and it didn't correspond with my experience which showed that a man who got away with rape once would do it again, getting better and better at "trapping" his victims into unclear "scenarios" so he could not be charged. In other words most rapists are serial rapists, but most men are not rapists.

    If you still think female modesty is all for the benefit of men, it is worth looking up what has been discovered about the very key role of narcissism in triggering women's feelings of sexual desire. This implies that modesty may actually be an effective form of SELF-control for women. Unfortunately, again, it's not very comforting for women's view of themselves as saint-like and oppressed.

    So dealing with modesty with reference to rape can be a red herring or rather an unnuanced approach. Shame the discussion started on such blunt terms in fact.

    But a discussion on women's narcissism could be interesting. Seems to be the driving force of most style bloggers at least so we would have plenty to go on. And 99 percent of those are women.

    As would a discussion of the relationship between alcohol and violence against women and children - the single biggest statistical correlation. Of course it correlates heavily with women's violence against children and against other women and against men too. So not really to do with sewing.....


    Sorry for taking up so much space. This is my last post!

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  42. Great bullet points Gertie!

    Also, @Bottom Of The League: some of those feminists you're talking about were raised with a conservative religious upbringing. Like myself. So we're not all speaking from a point of ignorance, like perhaps yourself.

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  43. I'm not religious and dress modestly only so far as it is age, body type, and situation-appropriate. I've always been pretty offended both by the idea that women who dress in certain ways are "asking for it", and, too, by the parallel idea that men can't control themselves.

    While it's primarily a "woman problem," though, I don't think it's exclusively one. ANYONE who dresses in a way that shows off their body is going to get attention for it. Women ogle men who go shirtless, don't they? Granted, men don't get the same kind of aggressive attention (usually) that women do, but they do get noticed. I think it's worth mentioning, though, that you can't totally control how other people react: Anyone who dresses in a way that is intended to get attention (because it's skimpy, or colorful, or has an inflammatory slogan printed on it, or whatever) takes the risk that the attention will be negative. For it to be negative as far as assault or legal prosecution, in my book, is not OK, but if you flaunt it, people are going to comment.

    I had a friend in high school who had great legs and wore very short skirts, and then complained when men whistled (a problem I never had because I've never in my life had nice enough legs to wear anything shorter than knee-length). Okay, yes--the men were crude, but she was wearing the skirts to draw attention to her legs. What did she expect? Little bit of personal responsibility here?

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  44. I'm very, very torn on this subject, and much of what I am thinking is not popular at all.

    I do agree with the others who have said that to put the burden upon women, because men can't control themselves, is insulting to both genders.

    However, as someone else mentioned, when you first meet someone, you don't know them. All you have to judge/assess them by is appearance. We all make judgements based upon appearance, whether we intend to or not, consciously or unconsciously. Any woman would respond differently to a man in a wife-beater and cut-offs vs. a man in a business suit. It's only logical to assume that any man is going to respond differently to a woman in a "modest" dress vs. a woman with her boobs hanging out.

    While I know that I SHOULD agree that no one "asks" to be raped, in all honesty, I don't fully. If you're going to out with everything hanging out, then you shouldn't be shocked when you get attention---good OR bad. You CHOSE to dress that way because you WANTED people to look. Let's be honest: a girl dressed like Brittney Spears is a lot more likely to "give it up" than a girl dressed like Donna Reed. No one wants to say this because it's unpopular, but it's true. Is it fair or right to make this assumption? Probably not. But stereotypes are formed because at their core, there's some truth to them.

    I know what I'm saying is not popular, but I wanted to give another opinion.

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  45. Wow! great post Gertie and I completely agree with what you have written.
    I also think a number of commenters bring up excellent points. Love Peter's post!
    Nora excellent point, I agree, the word modest does seem to have some sort of moral implication vs the word appropriate. I think you are on to something.
    I agree whole heartedly with Clare the notion that clothing itself does not have a moral nature and that shaming women to be modest or else is just plain wrong for me.
    Sure we can make the case that men have dress codes as far as what is appropriate to wear for work etc. But really ,are they being raised to believe that their bodies, their own sexuality is something to hide and if they don't it will lead to all sorts of bad behavior? It is this idea, the idea that there is something inherently shameful,tempting, wrong with a woman's body that I take issue with and to me that is oppressive.

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  46. Gosh. I seem to get almost the exact opposite response from dressing vintage (or retro in style).

    I am a member of a rockabilly/retro styled charitable ladies organization and hear nothing but gushing praise from men.

    I have heard over and over how sexy, intriguing, refreshing, unique, and titillating our clothing, hair, & makeup is. We have a drooling, fawning fan club, which in part contributes to the successes of our charitable endeavors. (score!)

    As I think about it though, I will add that most of the praise comes from men who are rockabilly/retro enthusiasts or men who are over mid 30's and up. There must be a certain maturity that comes with age which acknowledges there is more sex appeal beyond a thong showing beneath super short shorts.

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  47. Isn't it funny -- and this is not to make an example of Mary -- how often we find ourselves using terms like "bad behavior?"

    Other than physical or verbal violence against another person, what exactly is bad behavior in our relations to each other?

    How about exploiting the underclass, stealing the riches of other cultures, starting wars, etc. That is rarely described as bad behavior even by many religious people. It's sex -- THAT'S bad behavior, perhaps the worst!

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  48. There must be a certain maturity that comes with age which acknowledges there is more sex appeal beyond a thong showing beneath super short shorts.

    I couldn't agree with that more. I think it comes with realizing that there's more to life (and relationships) than getting laid.

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  49. Bottom of the League,
    I am absolutely not stating that you can't wear what you want to wear and I'm really not sure how you came to that conclusion from my comment...

    However, when you open an argument by coming across as morally superior as those you are decrying for being morally superior, you tend to lose the higher ground... which is a shame because you actually made some interesting points later on in your argument.

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  50. Peter, I couldn't agree more!

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  51. This is really a fascinating post, as are all the comments from the readers.
    I agree that it really is the choice of the wearer to what they clothe themselves in. It wouldn't be fun if we were all cookie cutter images of each other, especially if there were "rules" that were imposed which we didn't agree with. Like you mentioned, there are cultures with much worse standards than ours and I really count myself lucky to have been born in a country where I have a choice in what I clothe myself in.
    Coming from a Christian standpoint, I agree wholeheartedly with Casey. I have been to many different churches (I wasn't raised with religion so chose what I wanted), and have seen things from women covered all the way up to the neck and nearly to the ankle, to tank tops and mini skirts being the appropriate mode of dress, so there is quite a wide variety out there. I was lucky in that the one I settled down in encouraged you to think about the motives behind your dress, rather than inflicting some cold hard rules that really didn't make much sense. It was refreshing, because it left people free to choose for themselves.
    Why don't men have standards of modestness? Well, if you ask certain groups they do... but unless you're into beach culture you rarely see men sporting less than a t shirt and knee length shorts. Besides, I think a lot of women find men more attractive dressed up in suits anyways, and they can't get more covered up than that ;)

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  52. Someone above mentioned it should be 'appropriateness' rather than 'modesty' and I agree. Is it appropriate to wear a shirt that shows your ass cheeks off with lace panties around town? No, I don't think it is. Is it appropriate for a man to walk around without a shirt on a public street? No, I don't think it is. Is it appropriate for a fat women to shove her boobs into a 36C bra, throw on a mini skirt and hit the nightclub? No, again, I don't think it is. Modest or not...who cares. Its not appropriate. Period.

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  53. Peter, I think that the religious restrictions concerning "modesty" are related more to lust or coveting than to sex per se. It is the idea of wanting someone that you are not allowed to be with b/c that person is attached to another or you are attached to another or will someday be attached to another. It goes to the idea of one lifelong, monogamous relationship. So perhaps it has to do not with fear of sex itself, but fear of sex with the wrong person. Of course, there is a much smaller group who find sexuality/sensuality, even in the private context of that monogamous relationship offensive. Outside of the religious circles, I don't know what motivates such prudishness, perhaps it is more related to sex itself and a taboo against overt sexuality.

    That website was disturbing. Not to defend, but I wonder if the statements and survey responses had more to do with what was going on inside of these young men than an attempt to place blame on the women described. Kind of a thought of if you know what affects you, you can better deal with that situation in the future so that it doesn't affect you. But, then again, looking at some of the text responses that the men give, it seems that there is a lot of responsibility being put on the women. There seems to be some picking and choosing as far as what bits of the Bible, these Christian boys/men are following. "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her," jumps to mind.

    Gertie says, "It's impossible to dilute the idea of modest dress into a simple set of rules." I think that is the crux of the issue. Modesty can be defined as showing regard for the "recognized standards of propriety," both in dress and behavior. Those standards are different depending on who you talk to, even within a very similar group of people.

    If it is a 90 degree day and I choose to wear a spaghetti strap sundress to keep cool, wearing the only thing that would allow me to feel comfortable, that behavior and dress is in my estimation modest (heck, I'd probably feel more comfortable wearing nothing at all, but that would be inappropriate and illegal in public); another person may judge my motives for wearing that dress to be to show off my sculpted arms and shoulders and believe my dress and behavior to be immodest. It is too subjective.

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  54. Wow, what a lot of comments! Ultimately, people should be able to wear WHATEVER THEY WANT without being morally judged for it. It should also be encouraged that people work through every aspect of meaning to the clothes that they wear, and hear I refer to items which are mostly marketed to women such as the hijab, high heels, make-up, tight/revealing clothing. Women should be able to wear these items without anyone making snap judgements about their moral stance, sexual nature and even how intelligent they are, but if we're talking female oppresion here it has to be noted that these items ARE NOT MARKETED TO MEN. Not with half the same ferocity they are pushed upon women. If we are talking rape culture then it must be noted that in many places women are encouraged to not wear revealing clothing, or 'easy access' clothing (?!). This is a message which many people agree with and promote. However, it puts blame on the woman for revealing her body not responsibilty on the man for not being able to think 'Hey, maybe rape isn't such a nice thing to do to someone'.
    The idea that someone wearing a short skirt should take 'personal responsibilty' and just put up with getting cat-called is abhorrent to me for the exact same reasons as above and in the post. It is the MEN's responsibility not to cat-call! It is their responsibility to think 'I wonder if this demeans that woman and makes her feel reduced to that size/shape/state of her body. I wonder if this makes her feel harrassed, embarrassed or annoyed. I wonder if she's going to be inconvienced by this to the extent that she decides to walk a different way to work.' I reserve the right to wear whatever I want and NOT BE HARRASSED. Y'know?
    I wrote a post about this very topic not so long ago; http://bit.ly/baUAPi
    Thanks for a thought provoking post!

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  55. I don't usually leave comments, but I love this post. Very well said, and something women, as well as men, need to remember! Go Gertie!

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  56. Advanced BeginnerJuly 21, 2010 at 11:34 AM

    Let me start by saying that I didn't mean to imply that I commend men on the street for being more respectful towards me if I'm dressed in a vintage style.


    --I realized eventually that you were simply making an observation, nothing more than that.


    The idea of modest dress is inextricably linked to religion and culture, and the last thing I want to do is offend anyone based on their beliefs in that area.

    --I wanted to add that my comments the other day were not intended to offend anyone, but I felt I had to address the issue raised by the reader who was apparently a convert to Islam, and decided to wear the hijab. She said she didn't understand the reaction of some women in London to her form of dress.

    I don't have time to add more, and I clogged up your band with with triplicate posts the last time (again, sorry about that), but yes, absolutely, modest dress when prescribed by religious dictates is inherently sexist.

    If a woman who is independent intellectually, emotionally, financially and physically decides to dress modestly, that's a true choice. Women in ultra-religious communities led by men can not be said to be exercising a choice.

    Ironic aside: On another blog, I got into an argument with a woman who claims that women should be able to dress anyway they like in the workplace. If their cleavage is down to here and their skirts are up to there, who cares? Don't look. I (and other people) said that was ridiculous. Women should dress sensibly and professionally in the workplace. Needless to say, I wasn't advocating dressing like a nun, just for the exercise of a little taste and judgment.

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  57. @Amanda Re: 'you chose to look that way'. Rape is not about sex. Rape is not about attention. Rape is _forcing_ sexual contact on someone against their will. It's not just 'looking'.

    So, if a woman goes out dressed in a short skirt and plunging top: maybe it means she likes the clothes (maybe she even made them herself!), maybe she's just lost (or gained) weight and loves her new figure (or maybe she gained weight and her clothes don't fit right any more). Maybe she does want attention or is even looking to attract a man or a woman for a relationship or for casual sex. 'Wanting attention' or even 'wanting to attract a sexual partner' is not 'wanting someone to rape you', and I completely disagree with conflating the two.

    I agree with sewistafashionista and Peter that a discussion of healthy sexuality and clothing would be really interesting; I think my conclusions would come to the same thing: we probably all have different attitudes to sex and attractiveness, which reflect the greater or lesser extent to which we buy into the dictates and stereotypes of our culture and our own feelings. I think that if nudity and sexuality (particularly that of women) weren't as taboo as they are, practicality, comfort and self expression would be the only attributes we'd invest in our clothing and modesty or appropriateness wouldn't even factor in. That would be awesome, because I have some really kickass outfits that I would then be able to wear to a job interview :)

    This conversation has given me a lot to think about!

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  58. Gertie, this is my favourite post so far! Thank you for writing it! I was only sad it was so short.

    I don't even know how to organize my thoughts on this matter, but I know I'll be thinking of it for a long time to come now. I think female dressing-modesty might be too broad a topic to tackle... It is so tied up in religious/political beliefs in the morality realm, but also so informed by female fear and feminism and self-esteem. Far from being offended by less modest women than myself I often find myself admiring their bravery and confidence. I generally think of myself as someone who is ok with her body, but when dressing to go out for a night on the town often find myself dressing more modestly even than I would normally because of body insecurity. When I'm dressed more modestly I often feel more confident and less in-danger. I'm saddened to recognize this fear in myself which is so un-feminist, but on the other hand, my pragmatism is screaming out for me not to be stupid. It's an awful truism that society (women as much or more than men) have a she-asked-for-it attitude. Up here in Canada recently there was a big legal battle about a woman who was fired from her job and was suing her employer because she thought it was because of the way she dressed - it was apparently distracting the men?!?!?! I'm so ambivalent about this case. As someone who admittedly enjoys a certain amount of tamer cat-calling (perhaps because I don't get a lot of it), I recognize that maybe she felt that her career would be helped by this sort of attention.

    I think that I dress with relative modesty because I'm afraid of what other women will say about me as well.

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  59. Yay for Peter's comments! Not all sexual attention is unwanted...

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  60. wow, hot topic. Great post, Gertie.
    I really enjoyed Bottom of the League's and Binkydoll's comments.

    I (like Casey and a few others) was raised in a ultra-conservative Christian environment, and was spoon-fed the notion that I must help my "brothers in Christ" keep from "stumbling" (lust) by dressing modestly. While I think conservative Christians waaaay exaggerate a man's inability to control his thoughts/reactions, I don't believe that we as women should be afraid to take some responsibility for the reactions that we get (from both sexes) to the clothing that we wear. Isn't making some sort of impression the whole point anyway? We all want to project an idea about ourselves with our clothing choices. I absolutely vouch for freedom to wear or not wear whatever you want; however, I also believe that we need own our responsibility for our choices, and recognize that people do "judge a book by its cover" (sorry about the cliche).
    Sorry this comment is so rambling and nonsensical---still on first cup of java.

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  61. From a conservative Christian standpoint, all this discussion about putting the onus/blame on women, suggesting that men can't control themselves so it's up to women to do it for them, etc., is simply irrelevant. While it's not possible to be a real Christian without being concerned for what's best for the other person, ultimately we are only responsible for our own behavior. Responsible to God, that is. And you will never find a higher standard of behavior than God's standards. So the Christian motivation for modest dressing is first about respect for God, and much of the rest of the talk on this subject falls into a category that ranges from secondary to meaningless.

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  62. Appropriate clothes in 3 generations: My grandmother was born in 1885. Around the time she married she would not have dreamed of showing her ankles, but she managed quite nicely in the 1930ies. She reached her personal limit in the mid-calf 40ies although she lived into the 60ies. My mother was a young adult in the mid-calf period and managed mid-knee skirts in the 60ies. Me, I wore mid-thigh skirts when they were in fashion, I did not go shorter, because you have to think how you move and anyway my upper thighs never looked nice enough. Now I've made the half-century I do not wish to inflict the wrinkly upper part of my knees on the world so that's what my skirts and dresses cover.
    We change. Society changes. I am fascinated by change! What a species we are! That is why most kinds of nostalgia irritate me and 'modesty' dressing that harks back to bygone eras gives me the screaming heebie-jeebies. We can change, but we cannot turn back the clock.
    And I'm sorry bottom of the league, but while (young) women are killed by their relatives, because they chose to adopt the dress and lifestyle of the country they live in (be it Canada or Germany) I shall look at the hijabs I see with suspicion. Of course I cannot know why the woman beneath it covers her hair. Because it is 'done'? Because she has made a highly informed decision? Or because her life is threatened, if she leaves the house without it?

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  63. Hoosiermama, I'm glad that it's irrelevant to your faith. But judging by the dominant dialogue on the subject, it can't be dismissed so easily I think.

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  64. Really thoughtful post! It's both strange and fascinating that what we wear as women can be so powerful.. and have such a massive impact on how the world sees us. It's just not that simple for women to get dressed anymore. So much pressure! Are we professional enough? Are we in style and up-to-date with what's in fashion, and are we reflecting our personalities? Are we appropriate for the situation, and are we comfortable? And now.. are we enticing men by accident? Gosh. So much to worry about, no wonder we make wrong decisions now and then!

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  65. Great post. It wasn't that long ago that we were still hearing about judges in this country using the rational that the woman was at fault for her own rape because of the way she dressed.

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  66. Just a note regarding head covering: Orthodox Jewish women must cover their hair--some follow this edict with a scarf, others with a wig.

    As long as it is a personal choice, I don't really care if some people reveal cleavage, or cover themselves head to toe. But we've all had those "oh, honey. no." moments when we've seen more of some young women and men than their doctors have. Just sayin'.

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  67. Funnily, my boyfriend prefers me to dress in vintage because for me it means dresses and skirts more than anything else. And that means that he gets to see my legs and silhouette. My everyday wear is a more modest jeans, t-shirt, and cardigan ensemble. I get catcalls weekly when just in t-shirt and jeans, but notice more heads turning when in a dress. However, I think it mostly has to do with my neighborhood... we have equal numbers of covered and uncovered ladies of the night.

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  68. I can't believe how many comments this already has! Wow. I'm not going to say too much except that I just looked at that survey and WHAT?Are you kidding? On the american spectrum, I think I fall towards the more consverative end, but those questions. Apparently a girl can't do ANYTHING without it being a "stumbling block" to a man. Excuse me? Putting on lipgloss? Are you kidding me.....

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  69. Great post Gertie! Have you seen this news story?

    http://www.golfrepublic.org/lounge-f9/too-hot-for-citibank-t5922.htm

    Ive always struggled with the clothes modesty issue- Im a busty girl with parents with roots in a culture that has different modesty standards than where I live and grew up---which has led to all kinds of confusion (pant suit covers more, skirt suit more traditional-what is more 'appropriate?' for being a lawyer, office worker, woman on the street?)



    Ultimately, it has lead me to a place where I hate being "modest," bc it feels oppressive to treat my body as something to hide-whether its because I look too good in something, or too bad in it (people go on about covering up their bodies because they dont have the figure they want)-so I try to ignore this factor in clothing unless I really cant (work, extended family, etc.) Bring on the hotpants!

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  70. I think modesty is always relative to the regional standard of dressing. Something you didn't adress though is how much more modest men are supposed to dress compared to women in many contexts - in a business setting e.g. men aren't supposed to wear short sleeves, open their shirt collar, wear open shoes... the only skin you see is face and hands. Or take a wedding - the bride can show cleavage, the groom - nothing. I don't see a special pressure on women to cover up. (I live in Europe, though.)

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  71. I've been dropping by all morning to watch this discussion 'grow'. It might be interesting to a few to know that this subject is fairly well covered in academic papers and published. These tend to be based on studies, where opinions are less important that the 'facts' that research data can provide.
    Easily available: "The Face of Fashion, Cultural Studies in Fashion" by Jennifer Craik might be a good place to start.
    (You can be sure my students will be reading this post next semester--great food for a lively seminar!
    This is where being a 'fashion major' in college or grad school becomes interesting.)

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  72. So thoughtful, these comments. I'm especially drawn to the keen observations Bottom of the League made about narcissism and its role in clothing choices.
    Whether you are male or female,
    you dress according to how you wish to be perceived, according to the standards of your culture. Cultural standards do change over time, and they change because people challenge them. If you think you can change culturally-embedded perceptions by dressing counter to expectation, then by all means, go for it--but like all pioneers, you have to be prepared to take a few hits.

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  73. Advanced BeginnerJuly 21, 2010 at 3:12 PM

    I'm glad this blog recognizes that it's virtually impossible to discuss fashion in any intelligent way without at times also addressing issues like culture, history, and sexism.

    I used to read a blog called "The Sewing Divas." Some of the posts about garment construction are good. But soon after Hillary Clinton became Secretary of State one of the authors of the blog wrote a post that criticized HC's manner of dressing in a very catty way. Some readers complained that the critique was very sexist -- you simply don't see male leaders criticized that way.

    The blog author got very angry and defensive, essentially saying, this was just a sewing blog. But her posts did get more moderate after that.

    To me, writers who say No Politics Please We're Seamstresses to people who offer civil criticism are trying to reinforce an idea that women are limited thinkers with no place in the public sphere.

    Moreover, fashion writers who focus on the shallowest marketing aspects of the field only end up trivializing it.


    "The Face of Fashion, Cultural Studies in Fashion" sounds interesting. But why does it have to be $50 in paperback?

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  74. I think purpleshoes illuded to an interesting angle, tying modesty to privacy. It's wonderful that the women that came before us worked so hard to challange the rules about how a woman must dress. But Twitter and Facebook, et al have created this false belief that EVERY aspect of our lives should be put on public display. So anyone that wants to dress even slightly modestly is seen as a prude. Which is a real shame. Retaining a semblance of a private life (including what you look like under your clothes) is an option no one should have to be ashamed to exercise.

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  75. I agree with Peter that most of this is about fear of sex, specifically fear of women's sexuality. And sorry, but Islamic countries routinely beat and MURDER women for adultery, beat women for wearing "immodest" clothing, allow "honor" killings and, oh, yes, a women's word is only worth half a man's in Islamic courts. I could go on, but suffice it to say that the burka is not about "empowering" women, but about erasing them. Let's not take the road of cultural relativism -- it's about as dangerous as moral relativism as far as human rights and quality of life for women around the world is concerned. The fear of sex, of course, exists in American christian society, too. I recall my conservative Christian neighbor telling me, "I'd far rather have my kid on drugs, than having sex." I was floored. I said, "I believe sex is part of a normal healthy human life, and you would rather have your kid taking toxic substances?" She didn't answer. If you look at many northern European cultures, where nudity is not stigmatized and considered natural, you find much more equality between the sexes as well as far fewer crimes against women. There, topless women on a beach are not immodest, they are enjoying the same physical freedom and sensory enjoyment of their environs as men are. Go ahead and wear your hajibs and your burkas if you want to in the U.S. -- but don't claim that it's a matter of a happy modest choice for most women who wear them -- they have no choice.

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  76. I don't so much have an issue with praising the idea of modesty as a character trait, to be honest.

    But I DO think that saying things like "the modest are the hottest" makes the wearer/maker look ridiculous - it's a contradiction, if you look at what being a modest person actually is.

    I also took a look at that interview/survey thing - and really it's more of a list of things that turn guys on - and by guys, are we talking probably college age and younger? - I suspect so. That age groups tends (usually) to have a higher libido - might it be reasonable to say that in that age range the list of turn ons might be longer?

    We as women can't account for taste. Hetero males are going to be turned on by SOMETHING - whether it be a V-shaped necklace, or the veriest idea of what's under your berka.

    Ideals in every faith, social class and culture and era will be different, and shift and change. I would rather raise my daughters to be the very best people they can be, and leave the labels.

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  79. As a “conservative Christian”, I might be an odd-woman-out in this discussion! However, I wanted to put a few thoughts forward coming from a different perspective.

    First off, I’m sorry so many of you have had bad experiences with Christianity. I have too. The Christian faith strives to live a life that honors God, blesses others, and imitates Christ. Unfortunately Christians often forget that Christ taught righteousness as an outpouring of love for God and for one another, and vehemently opposed the attitude of moral superiority that so many of us have experienced in church and in Christian circles. Christ loved—he did not shame. I’m sorry we do not do a better job at emanating that.

    Secondly: the infamous survey. Although I am a big fan of The Rebelution and their ministry, I had similar feelings to many of you when I read the survey results. The Rebelution seeks to inspire young adults to rebel against social norms and low expectations and “do hard things” to make a difference in the world. The attitude that men are essentially “wired” to be crazy, lustful, out-of-control animals seems quite contradictory to “do hard things”. Part of doing hard things is practicing personal responsibility. It is unfair to pass that responsibility to females by asking them to walk around in potato sacks! While I don’t wish to cause my brother to struggle by wearing overtly exposing clothing, I am not ultimately responsible for his thoughts and actions—he is.

    We all act, speak, and dress according to our worldviews and personal convictions. The way that I choose to dress reflects my desire to focus more on inward than outward attractiveness, and to fully embrace the way that I am created (I am a woman, and I love it!). I love to see ladies dressing modestly and classily out of a sense of self-respect and value. However it is not my place, nor anyone else’s, to shame or slander another based on their clothing choice.

    That turned into quite a novel! Thanks, Gertie, for a thought-provoking post!

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  80. Goodness, I feel silly. Apparently I posted my comment about a million times. Sorry Gertie--I think I cleaned it up! :p

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  81. Bottom of the LeagueJuly 21, 2010 at 5:13 PM

    Anna R. I wasn't going to comment again and I thought that the topic was modesty, not a generalized attack on Islam, but ho hum......

    Your accusations are pure propaganda and projection again. Domestic violence and killings over jealousy and 'honor' do occur, of course, but in Turkey it was the current 'religious' ruling party (as opposed to almost 70 years of preceding so-called "secularist" parties) that repealed the law that allowed "honor" to be used as defence in cases of murder. So it was the religious party that rejected the notion of patriarchal "honor".

    In fact the murder rate generally (you know, it DOES matter when men and children get killed too), is much higher pro rata in the United States than in any country in the Middle East. The US is an exceptionally violent society (both inside its borders and outside). And yes, I have lived there, in the apartheid state of Texas.

    It's nonsense about the courts and women's testimony - the "half value" only applies in one very specific circumstance, and it's to make sure the woman cannot be intimidated or cajoled by family members in a business deal.

    Honour killings have nothing to do with Islam, are forbidden in the Qur'an ("They will ask you for what they were killed") and as often or not the people carrying them out are not Muslims, you just think that everyone from the Middle East is a Muslim, every Arab is a Muslim. Not so. Check out honor killings by Alevis, Hindus, Sikhs and Marxists (yes, a lot of Marxists in the Middle East, esp Kurds and North Africans) if you don't believe me.

    Anyway, why don't you compare the (actually small) numbers of women killed in the ME in the manners you outline and the numbers killed in domestic incidents and by sexual serial killers in the States? I think the US will score higher as always. Come to that you could count the missing boys too.

    We don't have those serial killers over here it seems, perhaps partly because we notice immediately when our relatives go missing. Or maybe that kind of sexual pathology is just not common here. Perhaps something cultural at play.

    But I really don't think it's got anything at all to do with modest clothing. It might, of course, have something to do with the fear of sex that Peter detects....


    What's wrong exactly with the US and European society that it produces so many of those serial killers.....? And people write books about them and make films about them. So other people can be ENTERTAINED by them and start to feel it's kind of normal.

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  82. This is a VERY interesting topic (handled with your trademark eloquence, Gertie). It's particularly pertinent to me because of some of my own experiences, including the fact that I currently have a Muslim boyfriend. I question him often on his religion's attitudes towards women, and the necessity for women to cover themselves. His answer (though he is extremely respectful towards women, and considers Islam to encourage respect for women) is that it is to protect women from men's evil eyes, because apparently they can't be trusted when faced with temptation.

    Re cat-calling, I'm not really about that - I'm delighted if someone takes the time to tell me I look lovely (as people occasionally do), but hearing a shouted compliment not addressed to me directly makes me feel selfconscious - not so good.

    Sadly, most societies are basically sexist. I've experience of western Christian/agnostic societies, Buddhist, Hindu and Islamic societies, and sexism - as applied to dress, among other things - is ever present. And like you, I have struggled with both societal and my own internal attitudes to modesty in dress. As I usually put it to my boyfriend, "I don't WANT to go out in hotpants and a bikini top, but I like to feel that if I DID want to, I could - without being judged or arrested." (He's from Iran, where the wearing of a headscarf is enforced by law).

    xx Charlotte
    Tuppence Ha'penny Vintage

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  83. Really great comments, everyone! Don't worry if you accidentally double-post; blogger is a little wonky lately and I can delete any repeat comments. :)

    Again, let's just be careful not to point the finger at any one religion. I hope I didn't do that myself by pointing out the Christian survey. It's really hard to discuss this stuff while being culturally sensitive, but you have done a smashing job. Thanks for being awesome!

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  84. Well Bottom, I don't live in the U.S. I wish you the best with the red herring tactic. But back to modesty . . . of course, in Iran, the clerics recently claimed women's immodesty increased earthquakes. "Many women who do not dress modestly ... lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which (consequently) increases earthquakes," said the respected cleric, Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi. How's that for rational Islam. Good luck with that story.

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  85. I want to step aside from the whole religion thing, because I think it is only part of the topic.

    Personal judgement, regardless of religion, has been briefly touched upon above but is extremely relevant. We all pass judgement based on immediate appearance, whether intentional or not and when we don't have enough information or experience of that appearance our resulting judgement is based on stereotypes or social conditioning (which does include religion).

    I have also witnessed women make nasty comments simply because they are bitter at someone with a good figure or because they attract men (kind of harping back to the Gertie post discussion about whether woman dress for men, other women or themselves). I personally find men cat-calling and making explicit comments rude and disrespectful even if they mean it as a compliment. It does seem to be the nature of some men though. When I was 8 months pregnant I walked into town wearing a full skirted, below knee dress, shrug, hosiery and court shoes, and I still got heckled half a dozen times and offered a phone number?!?

    I don't think the meaning of modest has been defined in this debate but I agree with the comments about what is deemed "appropriate" as determined by occasion/situation. I too have never thought it suitable for people to do their shopping or attend parties in beachwear but I am not entirely sure why? (Except that I don't want to witness the effect the chillers have on a woman in a bikini top). Maybe its because I believe in "social etiquette" which seems to make me out-dated (hey, maybe my personality is vintage style as well as my taste in clothes!) and conformity (if clothes are designed for the beach or pool this is where they should be worn).

    Then again, I am beginning to realise perhaps I am not that bothered about how immodest/inappropriate something is as long as it looks good on the person (I would probably be shocked to see a naturist in my supermarket but I wouldn't be disgusted unless s/he got too close to the fruit and veg). If a woman wants to wear close-fitting clothes or have bare midriff and legs and she has the gorgeous figure to carry it off, then I don't mind that at all, I would actually find her rather beautiful. Unfortunately in the UK it seems the majority of people who wear exposing outfits are the kind of people who's skin (and rolls of blubber) you really don't want to be seeing!

    I do have to agree that baring of some areas of body, even in the heat of summer, still carries sexual connotations even if that is not the wearer's intention but the viewer's perception. For that reason I feel uncomfortable at mid-teen girls wearing very short skirts or "push-up" bras as this image of "maturity" is coupled with the awareness that they are portraying a sexually alluring image but they quite probably lack the ability to get themselves out of difficult situations. I don't mean rape per se, simply that a guy might chat them up because they look attractive and the sexual aspect suggests to him they are above legal age. Sadly so many UK teenagers seem to equate sex appeal with popularity and security.

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  86. Sorry for the double post, Google playing up Gertie can you remove it please? Fankoo!

    I also wanted to add to my post we have not really addressed men at all in the idea of modesty, what is immodest dress for a man? I think they can get a way with a lot more self-exposure than a woman can and the reason again seems to be related to sex. Women don't expose their breasts in public because they are considered sexual. I wonder what opinions the men in the survey would have about a woman breastfeeding public, is that immodest too?

    The results of that survey were strange, a few times I found myself saying "you've got to be kidding me!" but what I did notice from the men's comments that what they and their sisters are fundamentally being taught is to respect the other sex and I think that is to be admired even if I don't agree with the way it is taught and promoted.

    I liked this answer to the question of the difference between attractive and immodest "Something that is immodest is something that is designed to arouse lust within me. Attractiveness is a far more mysterious quality, a mixture of spirituality, personality and physical beauty." Except that they say arousal like its a bad thing, if lust didn't exist would we bother to procreate?

    I also noted that they felt it modest for a woman to cinch in her waist and wear full skirts which again reminded me of Gertie's post on whether men found vintage sexy. Evidently these men wouldn't see the sexiness in New Look but would wholeheartedly approve of it.

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  87. I totally agree that the modesty survey is disturbing.

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  88. If a woman wants to wear close-fitting clothes or have bare midriff and legs and she has the gorgeous figure to carry it off, then I don't mind that at all, I would actually find her rather beautiful. Unfortunately in the UK it seems the majority of people who wear exposing outfits are the kind of people who's skin (and rolls of blubber) you really don't want to be seeing!

    Molly, interesting that you say this. I recently read an article that mentioned something like this as it related to to positive self image, self-acceptance, and setting a good example for young girls. To paraphrase, the author questioned how she could tell her child to love herself at any size or shape if she couldn't do the same for herself. This was in reference to wearing bikinis on the beach and saying as many of us have probably said before, "Nobody wants to see my body in a bikini." If however, the woman enjoys how a bikini feels on her body, how it feels to have the water on her bare belly, or wants to get a tan on her abdomen, why should she deprive herself of that experience. Is seeing that really going to make anyone lose their lunch and if so, is that really the bikini clad woman's problem?

    In that case, it is about being comfortable in one's own skin and the clothing that one chooses to put over that skin. As long as the clothing fits, fine; it may not be my choice, but more power to her.

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  89. Thank you for this intriguing post an thanks to all the comments for equally engaging comments. I have so many things I could say that this comment is in danger of becoming an essay, so I will just say that I think it's great that this topic has been raised.

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  90. Could not agree more! This post really hits home in the culture and state in which I live. Many women here dress modestly for the sake of religion and feel that those who show a little more skin than them are truly asking for it from a man. Interestingly enough, where I live, the prejudice from woman to woman is so thick! Ahhhh! It makes me crazy!

    It shouldn't matter how you dress, you should be valued for the person and character that you are. period.

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  91. In my home growing up, my mother expected all of us, boys and girls, to dress modestly. Our definition is not as strict as some, but you'd probably notice on a very hot day (I'm the one with sleeves). My brothers were not allowed to go shirtless on summer days, the way many of their friends did.

    I agree that "modesty" only has any real meaning or value in the context of deeper religious or cultural significance. We dress modestly in my family to protect and respect our bodies as the temple of our spirits. We were also expected to behave modestly in thought and action, which means, in part, that no matter how another person may choose to dress, it is OUR responsibility to control our thoughts and behaviors.

    That some individuals or cultures claim to embrace modesty, then twist the concept to degrade or attack others, is very disturbing. To ogle, cat-call, or behave badly because someone is not covered up seems very immodest to me.

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  92. "I wasn't going to comment again and I thought that the topic was modesty, not a generalized attack on Islam, but ho hum......"

    Maybe this isn't an attack against Islam, more an attack against the narrow and abhorrently sexist interpretation of the Koran that a certain sect of Muslims is trying to force upon the world as the only true Islam. I live in a very ethnic/ Muslim community and I can happily say it isn't representative of all of Islam yet.

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  93. Unfortunately in the UK it seems the majority of people who wear exposing outfits are the kind of people who's skin (and rolls of blubber) you really don't want to be seeing!

    Molly, on the one hand I agree--there are people whose skin I don't want to see.

    On the other hand, as I mentioned in my earlier comment, I have psoriasis -- an immune-mediated skin disease for which there is no cure. It is not contagious, but it also isn't pretty. On me, it's mostly on my arms and legs, which means that people are going to see it unless I wear long sleeves/long pants year-round.

    Now, in addition to the fact that I don't want to dress that way, I also live near Washington DC, where it is 95 F/95% relative humidity through most of the summer. Long shirts/long pants would be hell. But when I wear skirts (knee-length, usually) or short sleeves, people see the plaques, and I get either the grossed-out stare-and-look-away routine, or I get stupid questions about my 'terrible case of poison ivy' so I have to explain that no, hydrocortisone cream isn't going to make this clear up.

    So I'm very sensitive to the 'I don't want to see your skin' issue. You know what? I don't want to see my skin either. It's very hard sometimes to maintain a positive self image when you have psoriasis. But I'm also not going to wear coveralls in August to make other people feel better about the fact that I do have a chronic condition. On the contrary, it's very important to me to be able to wear things that make me feel pretty, because often it feels like that's the only other thing people do see.

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  94. "When I read the comments I feel like we have gotten mired in deviant sexual expression and are ignoring normal sexual impulse.

    ...What I am throwing out is could something as simple as dressing modestly, small in itself, ping on some very ancient impulses, the dress itself becoming symbolic for both the man and woman and allowing them to negotiate some tricky territory?"

    I agree with sewistafashionista ~ I am not sure that the modest/not modest debate is important for idea that women are allowed to own their own bodies and dress them any way they want to, because we all know that we have the choice to do that.

    I feel that if both men and women thought more about the processes of interaction with each other {including dress for both sexes ~ I do not know about you ladies, but I personally find sleeveless shirts on well~built guys very distracting!} that there would less misunderstandings between the two.

    Both genders share the same planet so why can't we work together to help each other out? And why is suddenly such a bad thing when a man acts more like a gentleman?

    It is never alright to disrespect anyone, but if dressing like a lady affords extra respect from a man, the big question is why?

    Is it because the man is rude, or is it because there is something wired inside of him {like sewistafashionista suggests} to respond to what he seees as lady~like figure. I do not understand how such behaviour is then labeled as "chuvanistic"; simply because someone shows you curtesy.

    If a girl opens the door for you, you would thank her because that is polite. But I have known women who would snap the head off any guy who 'presumed' to do that, and then complain that they are not being treated equally.

    Well, what about the guy? Is he being treated fairly? I hardly think that being cross when he is being polite is fair treatment.

    Prehaps he does it more for a well dressed {modest if you like} ladies, than ladies dressed more revealingly, because he is more sure that the well dressed lady WILL be polite and thank him for his effort.

    And I am not sure how that is a problem. If your dress evokes more politeness and common curtesy isn't that a good thing?

    Of course, the alternative question is then ~ why does so called 'immodest' dress aparently evoke a completely different set of manners from guys. Is just them though?

    I think it would make an interesting study whether or not different kinds of clothes on a woman create different behaviour patterns.

    I don't think there are any easy answers to a topic like this, but thank you Gertie for posting a thought~provoking question.

    xox,
    b. of Depict This!

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  95. "When I read the comments I feel like we have gotten mired in deviant sexual expression and are ignoring normal sexual impulse.

    ...What I am throwing out is could something as simple as dressing modestly, small in itself, ping on some very ancient impulses, the dress itself becoming symbolic for both the man and woman and allowing them to negotiate some tricky territory?"

    I agree with sewistafashionista ~ I am not sure that the modest/not modest debate is important for idea that women are allowed to own their own bodies and dress them any way they want to, because we all know that we have the choice to do that.

    I feel that if both men and women thought more about the processes of interaction with each other {including dress for both sexes ~ I do not know about you ladies, but I personally find sleeveless shirts on well~built guys very distracting!} that there would less misunderstandings between the two.

    Both genders share the same planet so why can't we work together to help each other out? And why is suddenly such a bad thing when a man acts more like a gentleman?

    It is never alright to disrespect anyone, but if dressing like a lady affords extra respect from a man, the big question is why?

    Is it because the man is rude, or is it because there is something wired inside of him {like sewistafashionista suggests} to respond to what he seees as lady~like figure. I do not understand how such behaviour is then labeled as "chuvanistic"; simply because someone shows you curtesy.

    If a girl opens the door for you, you would thank her because that is polite. But I have known women who would snap the head off any guy who 'presumed' to do that, and then complain that they are not being treated equally.

    Well, what about the guy? Is he being treated fairly? I hardly think that being cross when he is being polite is fair treatment.

    Prehaps he does it more for a well dressed {modest if you like} ladies, than ladies dressed more revealingly, because he is more sure that the well dressed lady WILL be polite and thank him for his effort.

    And I am not sure how that is a problem. If your dress evokes more politeness and common curtesy isn't that a good thing?

    Of course, the alternative question is then ~ why does so called 'immodest' dress aparently evoke a completely different set of manners from guys. Is just them though?

    I think it would make an interesting study whether or not different kinds of clothes on a woman create different behaviour patterns.

    I don't think there are any easy answers to a topic like this, but thank you Gertie for posting a thought~provoking question.

    xox,
    b. of Depict This!

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  96. Wow, great post and very thought-provoking discussion. I have always dressed more modestly because that's what I am comfortable with, not because of religious mandates and at times in opposition to the prevailing cultural norms. I also have a highly defined sense of privacy, and I suspect the two are related for me.

    These comments have focused on modesty in dress, but what about modesty as a personality trait? Is modesty, in either form, simply a means of expressing a desire not to call undue attention to oneself? Not to be invisible, I don't mean that, but to briefly accept recognition and move on.

    I will be thinking about this for a while, I know.

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  97. oh my, whoever said that opportunity only knocks but temptation leans on the doorbell...

    To all of the women who trotted out the old pony (in some nice new dudes, I must admit) of 'you must allow/tolerant/not question any immodest clothing women wear or you are just apologizing for rape or defending sexism...' isn't he tired yet? Honestly, it has been at least 30 years he's been driven around the range here; is one little break to much to ask?

    Most of the women here are ignoring Little Black Car's story about her friend PURPOSEFULLY wearing a short skirt for the attention and then resenting it. Why? Is it to sidestep having to honest about the WHY Little Black Car's friend and women wear short skirt, plunging necklines, and other very attention getting clothes?

    And, please, not the equally tired sidekicks of it's coooommmmfortable or it's self-expression (which are two other rants; one being a lie -- so is a muumuu, and the other...well, duh, all clothing is self-expression).

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  98. Strongly concur that we should all respect each other regardless of dress or lack thereof.

    I live in a city where it's perfectly legal to be naked in public and there are organized (and unorganized) nudist events all the time. The naked bike ride just wheeled past my house a few days ago. There's a naked run every year in a different part of the city. Exhibitionist? Perhaps. Sexual? Honestly, not at all. The men & women participating in this stuff (and there is a fairly even gender balance) are not "asking for it." In fact, one of the ideas behind these events is to demystify what REAL naked bodies look like, making them less of a combined fetish object/source of disappointment (after all, none of us measure up to the airbrushed images of nudes in movies/media). The idea is to be comfortable in your own skin, and lessen the stigma of nakedness in society in general. Our bodies are where we live all the time, not just when we're having sex or engaging in the build-up to having sex (cruising/courting/foreplay).

    I don't participate in these events (and can I just say OUCH to the naked bike ride), but more power to those ladies & gents, I say. If we could all become used to seeing an unusually-attired body now and then, be it a naked person or someone in a burqa, without getting all offended or interpreting it as license to disrespect the naked/burqa-clad person, we'd have come a long way.

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  99. @bottom of the league,

    Come on... serial killers? What utter nonsense of statistics you are coughing up. Your assumptions on "we notice immediately when realtives go missing'" in relation to serial killers are the dumbest thing I heard in a long time. I'm sorry but that sounds even more stupid than blaming islam for honor killings.
    And be entertained by serial killers? Maybe it's like in certain countries people get entertained by public executions?

    Get real lady! There is no perfect society, not in the US, not in Europe, not in the Middle East not in India nor in Rwanda. We as humans all try our best and obviously fail on many occasions.
    Why are you so defensive and persistent? I always wonder why converted people seem so aggresively want to make their point? If you were truly confident in your choice of life you could do without that.

    You made some interesting points in your first comments,but now it's like you kinda diggin' your own grave in the discussion. You use the same silly arguments as the ones you are blaming.

    And frankly, who is "bottom of the league" anyway? To me it is s as anonymous as "anonymous".

    Gosh, I wish you could lighten up and see the many sides of any culture or country.
    A place where you can take a bikeride with your fellow nudists without any consequences other than laughter, you can applaude to.

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  100. @Hoosiermama well said.

    I think in general there is a misunderstanding of the survey. please read through the explanations carefully. The statements that you read are NOT prescriptions nor are they supposed to be. They are statements to which the guys reacted, nothing else.

    In general tough, modesty goes both ways, and yes, women do have a responsibility, but so do men. I would like to see a survey done for girls, but at the end of the day what will it accomplish? Is it only about respect, or is it about relationships?
    Unfortunately many religions have been slated for "oppressing" women with dress codes and there will never be an answer to those questions it raises - ever! So, as an individual we all need to decide where we draw the line as well as stop judging each other for having different standards. That is where we all can make a difference....

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  101. Personally, angelindisguise, I don't think there is any misunderstanding about the survey at all. The questions are all phrased in a manner that is loaded and which encourages a specific set of responses - and those are exactly the responses they got. Manipulative (and pretty loathsome in my view) maybe, but effective...

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  102. This is a great post, and although I agree that men should not be treated as poor babies who can't control themselves, I know that us woman sometimes like to use the power of our outfit to get what we want - you know in a controlling/manipulative way. I think what Christian guys refer to mostly are girls TRYING to make it hard for guys who aren't THEIR guys. There are definitely two sides to the coin, and I can say that because I used to be one of those girls who got a rush when I saw that I had that effect on a guy. Now, being married, I realise that I don't want to "advertise" what I have to offer to any passer-by anymore. Just a thought! Still not feeling sorry for those guys who can't control themselves!

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  103. Bravo Gertie!

    Nathalie and tanisitis, I'm totally with you. All this assumption of cultural blindness in 'Western' feminists is bs. If we have to stereotype each other, I'd say it's often late-converted Muslims who grew up in Western countries who blather on about how the veil is good for women, not the Muslim women who grew up with that kind of restriction in Muslim countries, and who rip it off gleefully as soon as possible. The latter make most 'Western' feminists look like tame poodles, when they get to a real fight. Muslim fundamentalists however are often quite well-versed in using a well-meaning Western desire not to be racist for their sexist purposes, as we see demonstrated so ably here.

    Luckily for women, most Muslims aren't fundamentalists.. not any more than in other religions, who all have their share of that scourge alas (just look at that Christian survey). Nor are most men rapists, also luckily. But still women get stuck with the duty to defend themselves against both extremes, so far.

    Toby Wollin, your post does point out a dilemma common to all minorities - is the best strategy to get ahead assimilation or hanging on to your differences? The pendulum swings back and forth without a clear winner emerging so far :-). But I know that the women who you see now wearing 'feminine' suits in corporate settings wore navy blue 20 years ago. The times have changed, the successful women have changed with them. Still, personally I think it's because guys like Peter wear dresses that some of you can stand your butch-but-gay colleagues more easily now than in those supposedly rosey 50s. So don't be afraid of a little extremism once in a while, even if your supposed allies scream that you're making them look bad.

    Let me point out as an aside that it's a mistake to equate 'modesty' in dress and in behavior. Peter is totally right in that all this modesty stuff hides a deep fear of sex and attendant disgust, as well as more specifically a desire to control women's sexuality. Emily is also right to dissociate so well nudity from sexuality. I usually dress with more coverage than most young women do now, in part out of a feminist feeling that my worth lies neither in my body parts nor in my willingness to display them. But I behave a whole lot sluttier than most of them can even imagine :-). And I'm not the least bit ashamed of it. So there.

    Moreover, in my experience most people who flaunt it are really boring and conventional deep down, they dress to compensate.. Which is not to say that the ones who cover up ostentatiously are at all sexy should you ever succeed in getting their clothes off. As in so many other areas of life, there is a point to moderation..

    But as Jen O and Advanced Beginner said, this is not the first time that all these issues have cropped up in the context of textiles. Read up, people!

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  104. This was so interesting. I agree that what is considered modest varies according to the culture, religious views, and personal views of the individual. I agree that regardless of the level of modesty that a woman chooses, she should still be shown respect. It shows a lack of character in the man who gawks or makes advances at a woman inappropriately. I don't think you even have to be showing too much skin to get this reaction from some men. I've had this happen to me when I was wearing the loosest sloppiest garments. Some men are just going to make comments no matter what a woman is wearing.

    Trudy
    www.sewingwithtrudy.blogspot.com

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  105. Ahh yes, those evil,horrific men again. Making our lives miserable. Why is anti male bigotry so acceptable from people who claim to favor equality?

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  106. The biggest reason that the whole "she wore that, what did she expect" argument has to do with my job. Well, one of my jobs. I work part-time at a nonprofit. They can't afford to hire me full-time, so the rest of the time I work as an artist's model for various schools around the city I live in. Most of the work is for life drawing classes, so yes, it is nude. I work as an artist's model not because I am some "free spirit" or nudity enthusiast, but because I did the math and figured that I could either work retail and barely make enough to live hand-to-mouth, or I could work as an artist's model, make a higher hourly rate, and have a bit of money to save. I don't model because I am trying to pick up men or because I want to invite objectifying behavior. And mostly people understand that. Even still, I run into a lot of people who make my job a lot harder by either treating me as a sex object (usually men making comments or bugging me with personal questions) or just as an object (people of either sex who think it's ok to poke me, grab me to correct my position, or make comments as if I can't hear them - while I am naked). No thanks, please. And when I object to this kind of behavior, I am very frequently faced with the attitude of "you're working as a nude model, what did you expect." Actually, every single contract I've ever had with a school has specifically stated that students are not to touch me - a lot of them specify that students aren't even permitted to talk to me. My job definitely doesn't entail showing off my body for people's sexual gratification, nor does it entail serving as an inanimate object on which people can focus their entitlement issues. Curiously enough, my job entails holding poses for various lengths of time so that art students can further their studies of drawing and anatomy, and that's all!

    That's what I think when I'm subjected to objectifying harassment or treatment in my life outside of working in the art schools. If it's not part of my job as an artist's model, it's not part of my job as a woman either - and I'm not asking for it.

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  108. Very interesting post, Gertie! A lot to think about.

    I've read through the comments here, and am frankly disappointed by some of them. Though, for the most part, they discuss how it shouldn't matter what women wear, I did see a bit of snarking regarding women who wear more than some feel they should. The idea of "oppression" has come up a few times.

    I'm Jewish. And I consider myself fairly observant. Jewish law requires women to cover their chests, knees and elbows. It also requires women to cover their hair upon marriage. Is this sexist? Some may think so, but no. There are certainly sects within Judaism that take it too far and clearly do oppress women, but at its core, the modesty rules are not. Men are required to dress modestly just as women are. Men are required to cover their heads from the age of 3. Both are required to act modestly.

    I do not like to show my skin. I personally feel it is inappropriate. I enjoy covering my hair. Am I oppressed? I've been told so. And this is what I find most insulting. That I cannot choose for MYSELF how I will act and dress without someone telling me there is something wrong with me. And those insults almost always come from women who claim to be feminists. If they really were, they would have respected my choice rather than shove their ideas of how I should dress/act/be in my face.

    If a woman feels more comfortable in shorts and a tank top. Great! Good for her. How in the world does her clothing affect my life? It doesn't, so I don't really care how she dresses. Just the same, if a woman chooses to wear a tichel or hijab (because yes, it's ACTUALLY possible for that to be personal choice), who cares? It's bad enough when men treat a woman poorly for how she dresses, but even worse when we treat each other poorly for our attire. This snarking is only adding to the difficulty in gaining the respect we deserve in society.

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  109. LOVE what you have to say. This whole discussion in Blogland this week is thrilling me!

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  110. Love it. Linking to it. You discussed this issue so much more coherently than I ever could. I always get so dang MAD thinking about it, because I was taught the "women should be modest to protect men from their own hormones" line all my life in church, and I saw all the cute slogans like "Modest is Hottest," etc. So I get pissed and incoherent trying to talk about it. But you...your clarity astounds me.

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  111. Thank you Jana. <3
    No one should assume they know about your life and motivations for wearing what you wear just from looking at you. I am often shamed by girls my age for not wearing shorts and tank tops and I am sick of it. I respect them and expect the same in return.

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  112. Yes, yes, yes, exactly! Great comments from everyone that I've read too (only made it down to about 20 though!)

    I did a post about this a while back too. here:
    http://orangesapples.blogspot.com/2010/01/modest-dressing.html

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  113. This post is why I love to follow your blog, Gertie!
    Your writing is so articulate and you have a knack for navigating around complex ideas like modesty, as well as being a kick ass seamstress.

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  114. I had a serious illness and the first thing that happened was everybody wanted to know: did I do this, did I do that.... I'd like to think they were concerned about me, but truthfully I felt like they were trying to lower their own odds. It's not quite blame the victim, but it's close.

    Your last sentence encompasses everything I've felt. We all deserve respect, not matter what!

    I wish we always acted that way and could send this around to the rest of the world as well.

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  115. Yeah, that Modesty Survey made my headspin... but then I read the "open discussion" section and the question of "As a guy, what is your responsibility in this area? What is your role in guarding your eyes and mind (as opposed to the women's role of dressing modestly)?" and all of the answers I read explained in one way or another that everyone is solely responsible for themselves and their own actions. One poster even said that you must treat a woman with respect regardless of whether you think she's dressed modestly.
    That set of responses made me feel better. :)

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  116. I thought the elephant in the room in the original post was class, not just modesty. Vintage clothing is often more formal and hard to take care of than modern clothes, so wearing it makes you look richer, if in an unexpected counterculture way.

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  117. Wonderful post - wonderful discussion with so many valuable insights.

    As many have stated, this is a complex issue. The presentation of self, of gender. The politics of power and sex. Immensly interesting.

    One aspect of dress has not been mentioned explicitly though, but skirted around here and there. Dress and body adornement (along with body modification) as a means of separating Culture from Nature, Human/People from Animal and Us from Them.(Since "They" are often construed as "Not Properly Human" - it's the same thing, really)

    Fat and sweaty bodies, hairy bodies, bodies engaged in sexual activity (even if it's sending a bit more overt signals) poor and unclothed bodies, naked bodies for sale can all be construed as Nature and as such not acceptable for Us Proper People. (And thus "asking for it"). This Nature is often seen as an intrusion in society and the workplace - what some anthropologists call "matter out of place" and therefore dirty, unclean and undesirable.

    This is not to say that the same culture that views uncovered bodies in this way can not also *at the same time* have a romantic notion of nature.

    Now, this way of viewing the issues of modesty is just one way, mind. Thought I'd throw it out there.

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  118. That website is appalling. It's making me want to call off work today for fear of what the mean looks from customers REALLY imply.

    Eck.

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  119. I'm appalled, as well, but not at the young men, they're just being brutally honest about their feelings and urges. I have a young son who is often confused about how to feel about women dressed revealingly or even seductively because the reaction of his body is so strong and he's unaccustomed to it, puberty being new and all. I just wonder if this is an American phenomenon or if these attitudes are global in males. If global, is it instinctual, and if so, can we really be so upset about the fact that they are experiencing these reactions to our bodies? I've experienced a strong physical reaction to a stranger before and had to sort of rein the instincts in... I've had the "mama bear" instinct to hurt a person that hurt my child, that of course had to be reined in, but I still experienced that desire and it was powerful; to experience it regularly and daily would be debilitating. Is a man's reaction to a woman's body just as strong?

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  120. Thank you for tackling this subject. I have just recently become aware of the modest dress movement. I deplore the idea that men cannot control themselves and place the blame on women for "seducing" them. That is slippery slope that can end up with women still being dangerous even if they covered head to toe...their eyes could be wanton.It should be a woman's choice but she also needs to be aware of how she will be viewed and whether she is comfortable and capable of handling the attention.

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  121. Men, as everyone has said, are certainly responsible for controlling their actions. No man has a right to disrespect or victimize a woman, nor to blame women for being disrespected or victimized.

    But kids are being asked to control their very thoughts. A lot of young men and women are raised to believe that just THINKING something is sexy is a serious thoughtcrime.

    That poll is so tragic because it’s a bunch of young men and boys imploring young women and girls to shoulder part of the Sisyphean task set before them of controlling what they either can’t control at all, or can’t control without spending an inordinate amount of time and effort on it. Think how much more energy those kids and young adults would have to spend on learning to be kind, to be patient, to treat all others with equal respect, to visit the sick, to help the poor, if they didn’t have to spend so much time thinking “If I look at her boobs or his butt, I’m going to hell!”

    “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”—Matthew 5:28

    Having been raised strictly Catholic, I tear up when I think of how much joy and life this statement has stolen from the world, and particularly from the young.

    --Juniper

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  122. Wonderful post, very thought provoking. I've talked to several of my male friends and while they always treat me well and are generally good guys anyhow....I have noticed that when we come across a woman who dresses in what would be considered a cintage modern style, they act a little different, more repectful, with more manners. When I pressed the issue we had some great conversations, modesty had nothing to do with it, for them, that was a "female myth." Seeing vintage styling reminded them of vintage mannerisms whether is be from movies or older relatives, it brought them out of our general culture that has gotten less formal and more rude, and like most humans, they felt the need to conform. I was pretty comfortable with that, but I did challenge them to keep the manners up all the time.

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  123. The reason modesty is prevalent in religious cultures...especially Christianity goes back to the verse, "Do not cause your brother to stumble." That is one reason we dress modestly because it does help men if they aren't shown flesh with wreckless abandon. Sure there will always be those men that are very sick in the head and will undress you with their mind no matter what. But for the men who truly struggle with their impurities, it is our job to assist them. I mean you wouldn't sit a bottle of wine in front of an alcoholic right? Or a joint in front of a drug addict? So why parade your flesh around in front of men?

    I don't feel like it is anti-feminine to cover up appropriately. It is a respectful gesture that many men appreciate as per the survey you referenced. I'm sorry that made you sick, but it was guys telling the truth. You can't take the thoughts and the inclinations away from men. I do believe many a rape could be prevented if we adhered to stricter modesty in today's culture. Many could also be prevented by women not putting themselves in compromising positions with men. I do feel that a woman should shoulder some of the blame if her dress/actions are inappropriate. If not, then none of the blame.

    I guarantee you that if women started dressing more modestly and acting more feminine/more polite/etc. that more respect would be given by men. More than you could ever garnish from trying to take it by parading around half naked....that's not having respect for yourself. Respect is earned. Lack of respect towards women didn't come around until the feminist movement. Women were respected...that's why doors were held open, men didn't swear in front of ladies, etc. Then we demanded to be their equal and now our youth are in constant rebellion cause they have no home life cause the mother works 24-7, men are becoming more like women/women more like men, there are no gentlemen or ladies anymore, everyone is rude and unkind to one another because there is no decorum, no respect...it's truly sickening. Women don't raise ladies anymore...they raise girls. Men don't raise gentlemen....they raise boys. And here we are...more teen pregnancies, more abortions, more sex, more divorces,...how can this be a good thing?

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Thanks for your comments; I read each and every one! xo Gertie

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