Modesty Blazin’

It took us a few days to get to Pandagon‘s Amanda Marcotte writing about Wendy Shalit’s new website,

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?

8 thoughts on “Modesty Blazin’

  1. Things that help me feel myself/my body as a source of sensation rather than an object to be looked at are exercise–not the result thereof, the muscles and such, but while I’m exercising, while I’m focusing on the weight I’m lifting or counting repetitions–and massage. Whether it’s a professional massage therapist or my good friend who does massage, that focus is definitely on muscle and skin, not appearance.

    Conversely, when I’m sick or injured, I tend to focus on the specific part of my body that is having difficulty: the knee that hurts or the running nose or the overall tiredness is an internal thing. (Although, when I fell some years back and hit my head on a concrete bench, I was very aware of the reactions to the matching black eyes I got from that.)

  2. Mmmm. I almost feel like this post should be locked “for women only” or something but schmucks rush in…

    For about twenty years I felt utterly uncomfortable with my own body. Not because of others’ opinions, but because I had this almost surreal idea that I had somehow been issued the wrong one. (Lengthy discursion on cartesian splits — make mine with marshmallow sauce, thanks — implied but omitted for sake of sanity.) I eventually got over this, largely by getting over the entire concept of “me” as somehow something different from “my body,” but it left me with a lot of concerns about how one relates to oneself _as_ a body.

    Today I’m not completely comfortable with my own body, but there is no doubt in my mind that it is my own body. My discomfort comes from externals (plus some semivalid health concerns): assumed “averages” that make it impossible for me to find comfortable seats on public transportation, the implicit/express judgment of others that I am a “fat slob,” etc.

    I don’t accept that the attitudes of others should override my own. But I also reject the — to my mind, solipsistic — idea that the attitudes of those around me (or of “society,” an artificial construct whose value I question but accept provisionally) are nothing more than an imposition on my”self,” on the grounds that the “self” is at least partially a construct of interpersonal relations. So it seems to me that an approach of simply rejecting the judgments and assumptions of others is counterproductive; what is desirable (it seems to me) is an approach that confronts those judgments and assumptions, without antagonizing those who hold them.

    I am not sure that such an approach is entirely possible, however.

  3. T’ai Chi gets me more in contact with my body, but I still tend to feel as though I should be more in contact. All those other people can feel their internal organs, and I bet they can feel their lower backs even when they don’t hurt–why can’t I?

    The current issue of Real Simple has three women writing about beauty–the second one is especially interesting because she’s lived in a bunch of places in the US and was perceived extremely differently from one place to another. Unfortunately, the article doesn’t seem to be online. (I was going to email you this bit through your website, but I got a “this doesn’t work” message when I tried.)

  4. I’m not sure that it would be so good to women to substitute attitudes about men’s bodies for attitudes about women’s. I get the impression that what men can do with and think about their bodies is pretty rigidly constricted and it takes a lot of work for them to approach their bodies in more comfortable ways. (Actually, part of where I get that impression is by reading Familiar Men.)

    As for “being in your body as a source of sensation” – well, there’s moving in my body, and there’s feeling pain. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking of “how others see my body” and I’m not sure why I don’t, but I suspect that at an early age I decided my body was never going to be attractive so I never spent much time on trying to enhance my physical attractiveness.

    This is both a good and a bad thing. I vividly recall a writing workshop at a fat acceptance conference where we were supposed to write about what we liked about our bodies, and I wrote about parts of my body that worked well and gave me pleasure; just about everyone else wrote about parts they thought were attractive-looking. That surprised me, and I was pleased that I could think of how my body worked and not just how it looked. On the other hand, I’m now aware that some folks do find me attractive to look at, and I have few skills to apply to pleasing those folks more.

  5. Nancy,

    I’ll look for a copy of Real Simple. The idea of regional
    perceptions of beauty is familiar, but I’ve never read of it being explored individualy this way. Clearly beauty is not only in the eye of the beholder but in their location.


    I share the experience of being very present in the sensations of my body in excercise, dance etc.

    It happens to me also, when I’m just walking and looking at the world around me. A strong visual involvement with my surroundings tends to place me in my body.

  6. Dan’l, first of all, this is absolutely an appropriate issue for men (for anyone with bodies, i.e., anyone, actually). Secondly, while I completely take the point that rejecting the judgments of others can be seen as solipsism, I would personally argue that living in my body is one of the very few things which is completely and utterly personal to me. Other people’s judgments or responses might be of interest to me, and I might choose to take them into account, but I’m the only one who lives here, and I’m the only one who knows what it’s like. Your mileage may very reasonably vary.

    Stef, the point I believe Amanda was making was not about individual men’s attitudes toward their own bodies, but about generalized social attitudes toward men’s bodies. I agree with you completely (unsurprising, since I’m one of the writers for Familiar Men) about individual men’s attitudes toward their bodies. In the culture, however, there doesn’t seem to be the same sense that men’s bodies are publicly owned as there is about women’s bodies. You rarely see commentary on what men “should” or “shouldn’t” wear, on men’s responsibility to protect people from seeing their bodies, etc. (What is more commonly conceived as publicly owned about men has to do with their work lives, rather than their bodies.)

  7. When I was in downtown San Francisco yesterday, I saw a Muslim family walking on Market St. (Tourists, I think.) The two teen age daughters were in black hajibs with scarfs – only their faces were revealed. They had black lace cuffs with glittery sequins that covered their hand, with bits of skin showing through the lace. It was an interesting contrast in modest and provocative.

Join the Conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.