One thing we notice immediately is that Shalit can’t decide whether her own modesty zone site is tongue in cheek or not. Really, labeling a section “shamelessly earnest poetry and essays” has an air of pointing fingers at one’s contributors. And in the store, $13.95 buys you “Mirror Spray: With a push of a nozzle, turns your body into a giant mirror. If people insult you, press it, and lo! They only insult themselves.” There’s no doubt that Shalit wants her push for modesty to be taken seriously, and at the same time she seems to be deflecting a certain style of criticism with a sweet, “Oh, pshaw! You know I didn’t really mean that, sir!” tone.
Also in the store you can buy a “coverall” full-body towel that makes us think of the Japanese “modesty towels” which women are supposed to keep with them at all times in the single-sex public baths, so that their genitals never show.
Amanda takes the site at face value, and calls clear attention to the underlying truth:
… the problem I have with this whole modesty thing–from Shalit’s book to making women wear burquas–is that it’s just as much objectification of women’s bodies as nothing but sex objects for male use as the flaunting of Britney Spears, etc. that Shalit objects to. It’s like women’s bodies are nothing but valuable objects like diamonds and the only debate is whether or not to store them in safes or flaunt them at parties.
As Amanda implies, the socioreligious justification for modest dress in women is not that women’s bodies are disgusting, but that women’s bodies are provocative. A religious Jewish woman never shows her hair to anyone but her husband because her hair is her crowning glory. The premodern concept that women were more sexual than men, that women were the keepers of the sexual energy, is not gone, it’s just reformulated. Women’s sexual energy is both a danger and a delight to men. In this model, women are left with the binary choice of “modesty” or “exhibitionism.” Hide it or flaunt it.
And neither choice is a solution. Hide it and you will not only get a certain degree of social stigma (see Shalit’s August “Rebel of the Month” page), but you can also get yourself beaten or worse by men who believe they have a right to see what you want to hide. Flaunt it and you’re still forced to play by their rules: just ask Janet Jackson how much you can flaunt, and under what circumstances.
As Amanda says, “I want that paradigm smashed completely. … embrace a view of women’s bodies that is like how we view men’s, where sex is just another function, and one that belongs to the woman herself and not really up for debate about whether it’s only “for” her husband or ‘for’ the public at large.”
We’d take that one step further: as long as the social model (for many men as well as almost all women) is to judge our bodies by how they look to others, rather than by how it feels to live in them, we’ll be stuck with this dilemma.
We all spend at least some time relating to our bodies as the source of other people’s judgments; do you ever get away from that and into just being in your body as a source of sensation? If so, what helps you do that? And when you’re there, do modesty and exhibitionism relate to what’s happening to you, or not?