Modesty and Immodesty

I don’t generally post email correspondence verbatim, but this exchange merits reproduction in its original form. Reader Wendy emailed me with her thoughts on the concept of “modesty”:

I am a young woman and a long time (6-year) reader of your blog. I love the content, the writing style and the personality that is evident in your writing. However, there’s one thing that’s been irking me for a long time, and I’d like to tell you about it.

I really hate your (and other people’s) use of the word “modest” to mean “covered up”. I understand that it describes a style preference that is sometimes under-served by the mainstream fashion community. However, this is an incredibly judgmental word. What is the opposite of “modest”? It’s “immodest”–a word that is imbued with moral judgment and shaming. To describe skin-covering garments as “modest” implies that everything else is immodest, and that the women wearing those “immodest” clothes are immodest. This feeds into misogyny, sexism and the rape culture.

Judging from your writing and opinions, I would have expected you to recognize this problem already. However, I do not recall seeing any attempt to find a more judgment-neutral word, or a discussion on the implications and impact of this word.

Finally, a lot of the “modest” clothing these days don’t even conform to the same standard of “modesty”, so this term is pretty useless for its lack of specificity. For example, a “modest” clothing designer you showcased a few years ago produced beautiful long-sleeved, floor-length gowns that were slinky and body-conforming. In the conservative community where I grew up, something like that would have been considered absolutely scandalous and as bad as a mini skirt. A woman wearing that would be shamed by strangers and harassed by police for being a suspected prostitute. In [a recent] Lovely Links link to the story of Amaiya Zafar, her leggings would not have been considered “modest” in many conservative communities even now. My point is not to say that these examples are not “modest”, but that “modest” is such a subjective term that whatever “benefit” there is in using this term is outweighed by the negative impact. (I recognize that the word “modest” for the Zafar story was in the title of the article, not by your choice.)

Instead of the nebulous and damaging “modest”, why don’t you use words that actually describe the clothing? e.g. “skin-covering”, “chest-covering”, “leg-covering”, “long-sleeved”, “flowing”, “opaque”, or even “conservative”? Yes, “conservative” can have slight negative connotations in some circles, but “immodest” is strongly negative in all circles.

If you’ve read this far, thanks for reading. I hope to see a discussion on this topic with your community. I’m not an active commenter, but I would love to see what other people think.

She agreed to let me post my reply to her – a couple of clarifications have been added:

Thanks for your kind words and for sticking with me for so long!

Thanks, too, for your thoughts on the subject of modesty. Clearly this is a topic that stirs strong emotions for you.

A quick search shows me that the majority of my posts containing the word “modesty” are reader requests, though the word and topic certainly come up organically on occasion. This older post is a response to a reader’s question about modesty and self-image, and provoked a lively discussion. I also recently interviewed a group of observant Jewish women about their dressing practices for The Riveter, though the article hasn’t been posted yet. I’ll definitely link to it when it goes live. Certainly a topic worth re-visiting on the blog, too.

While I agree that modesty is a relative term, the argument that calling something modest is tantamount to calling everything else immodest is a fallacy. By that argument, calling one woman beautiful implies that all other women are ugly, calling one vocalist’s performance skillful implies that all others are amateurish, calling one type of shoe stylish implies that all others are passé. It’s not that simple. And although a segment of the population may have that dichotomy in mind when they deem certain clothing to be modest, it’s unreasonable to assume that all do. Or that misogyny, sexism, and rape culture are driving every woman’s choice to wear clothes she calls “modest,” or to contemplate concepts of modesty for herself and others. Just as it is a choice to reveal, it is a choice to cover, as evidenced by some responses to the French burqa ban. [EDIT: Meaning that choices can be driven by many unseen factors, including ones we might not expect due to limited personal experience.]

As you point out, “modest” is an incredibly subjective and relatively vague term. But I get reader requests for “comfortable” shoes, “stylish” skirts, “formal” dresses, and all of those terms are equally vague. I do agree that more specific terminology could be used in place of the word “modest,” and appreciate you pointing that out – I’ll keep it in mind moving forward. And I agree that the concept of modesty is a loaded one that’s often tied to policing of women’s bodies. But the words we use to describe clothing constitute an opinion-based shorthand, which leaves them open to interpretation. In my view, this can be quite healthy. The fact that my idea of what is “comfortable” or “formal” may clash with the ideas of others means that both parties are forced to consider differing perspectives on a single concept. Even if that consideration is made in private and not in an open comment section, it reminds all parties that our perspectives do not exist in a vacuum.

I would never argue that all discussions of modesty are free of misogyny and judgment: The concept is definitely used to censure women, to victim-blame, and to concoct shame under certain circumstances. But modesty is important to a wide variety of individuals, groups, and faiths. I feel that wholesale dismissal of the term as damaging fails to account for and respect the breadth of ideas it represents and people to whom those ideas are significant. [EDIT: Meaning that while I see the value in using more descriptive terminology myself, I am not comfortable insisting that everyone who uses the term “modesty” should be forced to do likewise, regardless of what the word represents to them as individuals.]

But I’m sure plenty of people will disagree with me. I’d be happy to open up a discussion on the topic using our correspondence as a jumping-off point!

Wendy wrote back:

Thank you for your thoughtful reply. I feel that there is still much to be explored, so this email is pretty long.

Firstly, I’m not sure why you interpreted my arguments as criticism on women’s choice to cover up. I also did not speculate why some women prefer to cover up, nor did I minimize the importance of observing dressing guidelines for personal reasons. I wonder if you are projecting your own bugbears onto my email. My email was focused on problems with using the word “modest” as a category of clothing.

I recall reading that 2010 article but not the comments, which I read just now. The word “modest” was used by many commenters, with the same vagueness that I am complaining about. In fact, when one commenter said “I balance [low-cut tops] out with modest bottoms”, I literally don’t know what she meant. Is she talking about any loose bottoms, trousers, floor-length skirts, or (quoting another commenter) “more modest mid-thigh skirts”?

Back to your reply, I really like your statement “the argument that calling something modest is tantamount to calling everything else immodest is a fallacy”. I think this is the crux of the issue. I agree that the words “beautiful” and “skillful” imply spectra of beauty and skill. Unfortunately, the word “modest” as I have experienced is in fact used as a binary metric. The message in conservative cultures as I have experienced is “be modest”, which means “meet these standards” not “move in this direction”. Let’s focus on my experience for a moment. In my personal experience (in three countries spanning wide ranges of religiosity/secularity, liberalism/conservativeness, and multiculturalism), the word “modest” in the context of clothing is usually used to judge, not just to describe.

For example, in my personal experience, women who describe their own style as “modest” often use this word to promote their religiosity or respectability. I have heard these phrases expressed by female friends: “I prefer to be modest, not have bits hanging out like a whore”, and “I dress modestly because I have self respect”. One teen friend’s mother even said, “[friend] wears modest clothes because she is a good Christian”. In these examples, the word “modest” is definitely intended to be judgmental: positive for the subject and negatively for others who don’t meet the standard. In contrast, the women I know who respect other people’s choices do not actually use “modest” to describe their own styles. Those friends would say things like, “I prefer to cover up”, “I’m more comfortable not showing my legs”, and “I don’t show my hair as a way to express my faith”. Of course modesty is important to these women, but they also recognize that it is a personal definition that may not apply to others, so they stick with the specifics.

Does my experience apply to your broader readership? Evidently not, since there seem to be many readers who like using “modest” as a clothing category. Do they live in a homogenous community where the definition of “modest” is already agreed upon? Is the majority of clothing in their environment so skimpy that anything covered-up is “modest” by comparison? Are they surrounded by wonderful people who never use this term in a judgmental way? Do they prefer this term because it makes them feel virtuous about their clothing choices and life choices? Without open discussion, I won’t know.

You are absolutely right in saying that the interpretation of opinion-based shorthand can encourage readers to consider different perspectives. Indeed, I’ve been thinking about this topic for several years, prompted by some of your posts and two “modest fashion” blogs I used to follow. Anyway, that’s enough blathering for one day. Thanks for being open to discussion.

So let’s discuss: Do you feel that the term “modesty” is overly judgmental and potentially damaging? Is it a word that’s important to you as an individual or to your community? Is it important to use more specific or descriptive terms in place of “modest,” or does the word serve a purpose in and of itself?

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40 Responses to “Modesty and Immodesty”

  1. Maria

    I agree with Wendy that using the word “modest” sounds like it’s feeding into sexism (but I also don’t blame you if a reader chose to send in a question with that word).
    However, I don’t think it has a positive connotation at all! Immodest also has a negative connotation, but I would never want to describe my style as “modest”, even though it probably is. I’m wearing long pants and a sweater most of the time because it’s cold in MN, and wearing a t-shirt instead of a tank top in the sun so my shoulders don’t get sunburned. But if I say I’m “modest,” it sounds like I’m doing all of that only because the patriarchy says women need to cover up.
    (Of course, there’s also societal pressure that women shouldn’t cover up TOO much, because you need to look pretty for the male gaze….That’s a whole other problem/balancing act..)
    Disclaimer: I’ve never lived in a very conservative place. Therefore, I’ve never interacted much with the sort of people who really think “modest”=good, and that’s probably affecting my opinion. I guess I see that the word is used to judge, but I don’t feel bad if they’re judging me as immodest–Rather, that makes me have a lower opinion of them for their being judgemental in a sexist way.

  2. Zaianya

    Just so that my comments are perfectly clear, let me say that when I think of this word I think of the dictionary definition: “unassuming or moderate (in the estimation of one’s abilities or achievements) OR relatively moderate, limited, or small amount.”

    So: do I think the concept has been appropriated by many groups in order to exercise control over women? Sure. Do I think the word itself is problematic? No.

    Language is a complicated thing, and words get appropriated all the time. As a result, modesty is perhaps not as precise a term as it could be, and more loaded than it should be. But the answer isn’t to throw the word out, at least in my opinion. Instead, I prefer to allow it to spark discussion–the onus is on me, as a listener and reader, to open a dialogue with someone when I find a term vague. So I ask: “Exactly what do you mean by modest?” Then I can determine if they’re making a moral judgement, or if perhaps they just don’t like sequins (because let’s not forget modesty, in the fashion sense, doesn’t just refer to the amount of skin you’re showing–it can refer to color choices, flashiness, and so many other things).

    I guess what I’m getting at is that precision of language involves more than just the person who employs the word–it’s up to all of us to further dialogue by asking follow-up questions that create a more precise framework for understanding.

  3. jdc

    Hm, I can give my own responses here. I’ve always referred to tops I prefer as “modest” – meaning to me, specifically, that they don’t show cleavage. I’m totally uncomfortable with showing cleavage. I have no problem with others showing theirs, and I don’t think that this “immodesty” really matters. I guess I don’t have the same value judgement with this word as you do.

    1. “Do they live in a homogenous community where the definition of “modest” is already agreed upon?” Nope
    2. “Is the majority of clothing in their environment so skimpy that anything covered-up is “modest” by comparison?” I did live in Southern California for most of my life, so maybe.
    3. “Are they surrounded by wonderful people who never use this term in a judgmental way?” I’ve never heard any of my friends use this term in a judgmental way.
    4. “Do they prefer this term because it makes them feel virtuous about their clothing choices and life choices?” Nope, it just seemed like an easy word to use, rather than “covered-up. Again, I don’t really have a value judgement with this word.

    Hope that helps. I suppose differing backgrounds make this terms mean slightly different things to different people. My own microculture doesn’t really judge women on what they wear, and my friends dress pretty much all over the map. I’ve never used the term “modest” to suggest that I’m better or more virtuous in any way (I’m certain I’m not).

  4. hmbalison

    This an interesting conversation but I don’t feel there is a problem using the word “modest” on your site. This is a mainstream website created by someone who has her personal style. You are not promoting yourself to be anything but this. If this blog was called “There is Only One Way to be Pretty” or “The Modest Voice for What is Pretty” then I could see how it would be possible to see modest as a loaded word. I’m a writer and make my living with words. There is a fine line between thinking carefully about the words we use and censorship.

  5. oohlookasquirrel

    When I hear the word “modest” when applied to clothing, I definitely think of the idea that modest women are covered up in loose clothing (because they are modest and don’t want to show off their bodies) and immodest women show a lot of skin or wear form-fitting clothing (because they are immodest and thus proud of their bodies and want them to be visible to others). I cringe whenever I hear the word applied to clothing, and I do think it’s inherently misogynistic to describe women’s clothing choices as modest or immodest. People who use these words may not be doing it with the intention to shame women who are proud of their bodies, but a lot of cultural baggage comes with the words we use. I wish people would stop talking about clothing and women’s bodies in terms of “modesty,” even if people don’t intentionally mean any harm by doing it.

  6. leenyc

    Interesting discussion. As a long ago graduate of 12 years of Catholic school, to me the use of the word modest definitely implies control, judgement and denial of healthy sexuality. It makes me cringe. I don’t wear tank tops, low cut blouses, short skirts, etc. but would never describe my style as modest. With the polarity current in the US, “non-modest” dressing certainly has a subtext of immodest and shaming.

  7. beate @ bahnwaerterhaeuschen

    i totally agree with wendy!!! sadly my english is not good enough to really join the discussion. xxxx

  8. poodletail

    While I don’t have anything to add I’m loving the heck out of this discussion. Thanks, all, for your articulate, thought-provoking exploration of this topic.

  9. Mostly Caffeinated

    I feel that the term “modest has a connotation of almost being religious in origin – I.e. observant Judaism. When I search the Internet with the term, I am expecting covered elbows and knees, opaque, loose-fitting garments. While I do not practice a religion with clothing guidelines, I am a parent and was a teacher, and was/am looking for those types of garments on purpose.

    • Joan Redwing

      Me too – I think the opposite of “modest” dress is “secular” dress.

  10. Patricia Jernigan

    Words are so subjective and everyone will find different meanings in the words they hear based on their personal experiences, education, religious beliefs, even their geographical location. So, is it really fair to expect this blog, which is a “personal style” blog written by one woman based on her own experiences, etc., to change the way she writes to meet everyone’s individual standards and definitions? She is writing about subjects and issues in a manner that is general enough to appease a large portion of her readers. When I read Sally’s articles, I know that they are informational and that I am the one to decide how and if I choose to use that information. I don’t always agree with what she says but I don’t expect her to change to cater to my own feelings or opinions. I enjoy reading different opinions from different cultural, religious and educational viewpoints and feel that it makes me more understanding of differing lifestyles from my own.
    As for whether the word has any sexist or misogynist undertones, I think if you let them take on those meanings, then the word is controlling the way it makes you feel rather than the other way around. I guess I don’t think that should be the case.
    With regards to the dichotomy, the opposite of modest is immodest, what about everything in between? It is not black and white, and I know that when modest is used to describe something it can cover many areas of a spectrum. Just like immodesty will mean different things to different people. Are we really expecting everyone to have the same, exact opinion? That’s just not possible. So, long story short, I think everyone will have a different opinion about what they read in Sally’s writing but I for one, don’t expect her to change her OWN words to please me or anyone else. No disrespect to anyone.

  11. Ginger

    Your writer has broached an interesting topic!

    I am a follower of a Kuwaiti blogger who ascribes to “modest” clothing, and am sometimes confused as she decks herself out in high-fashion outfits and accessories that cost more than I even care to think about. Even though she’s not displaying a lot of skin or hair, the extravagant display of material goods is, IMO not modest.

    I don’t hold against the blogger, she’s got to make a living like anybody else and I’m sure the pay for pitching expensive wares pays more than for hawking for Forever 21 (who really knows?) , but I do see some issues in the language that’s used.

  12. Joan Redwing

    I think it is strange to get up in arms about the term “modest” dress and assume the alternative is “immodest” dress. I lived for awhile with a Rabbinic student roommate in NYC (female) who was studying the Talmud. Even though she was Reformed, we tried to keep to conservative Jewish laws and kept our apartment kitchen Kosher and practiced humble/modest behavior and dress as in Micah 6:8. It was very interesting for this Lutheran from Minnesota to experience this rich culture! There are similar rules modesty/humility for both men and women in the Babylonian Torah. There is a series of laws that form a code of modesty called Tzniut – check it out here

    So, now when I think about the alternative to modest dress – I think secular dress…
    In my humble opinion, I think these 5000 year old rules are the origin of the concept of Modest Dress. Interestingly, each Jewish community interprets the laws differently. I interpret it for myself these days as covering my collarbones, knees and elbows (as I was taught in NYC), but I don’t think about modesty much anymore – I am much more interested these days in looking slimmer than I am haha! Sadly, that often involves covering my knees and elbows in some kind of black schmatta. (Yiddish for ragged cape, indicating that I am older now and way out of shape for form fitting outfits at this time…)

    I am a big fan of alreadypretty – you have inspired me to add some spice to my wardrobe!

  13. Froggy

    I interpret the word “modest” as a word that means being decently covered up. In each culture it will look a little different and certain things will/won’t be acceptable as “modest.” In the religiously “conservative” environment that she refers to, it’s obviously a hot topic that does stir strong emotions, at least with her. I understand some of the view point from personal experience, but do not believe that trying to change how a word is used is worth it. It’s really just another person being offended by certain words–haven’t we all had enough of that????? The year 2015 has been dubbed “The Year When Everyone Was Offended by Everything.” It’s tiresome. I will, however, be very interested to hear what you have to say about Jewish women and their clothing as I’m headed to Israel in the near future.

    • marsha_calhoun

      To whoever dubbed this year the one when everyone was offended by everything – I’m a fan. Thanks!

  14. Jessica M.

    I agree with several other posters that “modesty” for me is a positive and significant value. That is, I regularly think about an outfit’s modesty when deciding whether to purchase/wear it, and I see this as a way of expressing who I want to be rather than as a way of limiting who I can be. For me it means emphasizing simplicity and avoiding ostentation, which includes in part not being ostentatious about my sexiness, but also avoiding big logos, flashiness, and visible expense in general. (given that benchmark, I personally find swimsuits aimed at athletes, sleeveless shirts and most shorts to be adequately modest, so I doubt anyone would look at me and go “Oh, she dresses MODESTLY!” anyway) But, perhaps because the way I think about modesty is personal, complicated, and broad, I rarely use the word “modest” to describe clothing; in fact I don’t usually talk about modesty at all unless someone asks. Certainly it would not occur to me to judge someone else’s choices as “immodest.”

    When I do see/hear others use “modest” to describe clothing, I definitely don’t assume that the alternative is “immodest” – for me, depending on context, the antonyms that come to mind would be either “revealing” (which would not necessarily be negative) or “not particularly focused on modesty” (which would not necessarily be either negative or “revealing” – just that modesty wasn’t a particular priority or guarantee).

  15. Connie Turner

    What I think is that women waste too much time worrying about how the world sees them and what they should do about it. It doesn’t matter what you wear or don’t wear our culture sees women as somehow wrong and needing to be shut up or shut down. They will blast you if you are modest or not.

    • crtfly

      So true Connie! There will be a group of folks ready to criticize a woman no matter if she wears a skin tight dress and spike heels, a floor length loose fitting dress that covers neck to ankle or anything in between.


  16. Stephani

    I think that your correspondent has some very valid points. Unlike “beautiful,” “comfortable,” or “stylish”, “modest” is an incredibly loaded word. While it’s textbook definition doesn’t focus one iota on the moral aspects applied to it, in social contexts, it usually carries those connotations. Not always, but usually. “I dress modestly” isn’t often a statement intended to convey that the speaker has a small wardrobe or dresses to fade into the background, which would align with the dictionary definition. Sure, to many people, such words as “beautiful” “comfortable” “stylish” may also be loaded because of their personal experiences, but not with the rigid moral implications of “modest”.
    Words have whatever meaning we give them, and that meaning can change depending on the place, time, and person speaking. I do think it’s important to recognize that the word “modest” for many comes freighted with generations of moral and religious judgment, and that it is almost always used against women alone.
    However, in a broader sense, with no–or fewer–religious and moral overtones to the conversation, “modest” is pretty common shorthand for “covered-up,” which is less loaded with judgment. This is your blog, and it is entirely up to you how you choose to apply definitions of the words you use. But perhaps it would be helpful to some readers if your definition or understanding of certain words you know to be negatively loaded were made clear. You can take back “modest”!

  17. loubeelou

    This is totally fascinating and a great discussion! At a minimum, I think this letter-writer has unearthed just how loaded this notion of modesty is and I’m certain she’s not alone in experiencing a rather visceral reaction to it. I appreciated her examples in the second letter of how she’s heard that word come from a place of subjugation and misogyny. I am very aware that modest dress is a thing for many women in religiously observant communities – and that experience can run the gamut from empowering to oppressive. I don’t feel drawn to the argument that we should all out ban the term because I don’t think it’s universally used or predominantly understood as oppressive (certainly many commenters seem to use it as a synonym for “moderate”, which perhaps is equally vague, if less loaded). In fact, I’d say it can definitely lead to useful discussion of the clarifying sort – “what does modesty mean to you?”

    I’m trying to think of a comparable word situation to see how the argument carries over. “Articulate” can be similarly loaded. To call someone an articulate speaker could very simply mean that they’re good at getting their point across. But I’ve also heard it used like “You’re so articulate!” with the subtext being “I don’t expect people from your race/gender/class (mostly race though) to speak in a way that I perceive as intelligent!” The word on its own is innocuous, but it has been imbued with such a level of negativity that I would rarely use it to describe someone, except perhaps a toddler with a surprisingly large vocabulary. But – certainly if someone used that word, it could be an opportunity to push the conversation a bit deeper. At which point the person might clarify, “I think it’s cool how you are so good at bringing everyone’s disparate ideas together into a unified statement everyone can get on board with”. Oh, OK thanks!

    On a side note, I once was in a gift shop in a town heavily visited by tourists visiting a nearby historic Mormon temple, and they were selling a t-shirt that said in big bold letters “Modest Girls are the Hottest Girls”. So yeah, I’d say the term deserves at least a little bit of scrutiny.

    • Stephani

      What’s funny–not funny ha-ha–is what your last anecdote says about the culture of “modesty”. That even women who dress ‘modestly’ are subjected to the male gaze and inspire lustful thoughts. Sigh *shakes head* The hypocrisy inherent in that t-shirt slogan is overwhelming.

  18. what not

    I too cringe when you use the term “modest” without comment, because I don’t believe we’re capable of ignoring the context that our culture creates for our language and behavior.

    Your blog consistently addresses head-on the fact that women are expected to look a certain way, and you work to reframe our choices as, well, our choices, even if they’re not made in a vacuum. You even have a caveat at the bottom of most style posts acknowledging that “figure flattery” and “rules” are just guidelines, because you know we’ve been told our whole lives that we have to follow certain appearance codes, and you don’t want to contribute to that without question.

    So why the lack of acknowledgement that “modesty” has a context? Of course we cover for many reasons, warmth especially, but no one says they need long sleeves or a hood in their down coat for “modesty”, because “modesty” is about something very specific. The word has its roots in humility and restraint, and applied to women it’s always meant being quiet, pleasant, and out of the way, adapting certain clothing and behavior as the only way to gain the approval of a society (whether the larger one or our own religious or personal community) that would otherwise dismiss and degrade us as undesirables.

    The fact that many women are currently willing to do so (in dress if not in other ways) is completely understandable in this context, and it’s a reason to hate the game, not the players, but I’m not going to use the term “modest” myself as though it doesn’t carry centuries’ worth of baggage. Of course it’s your blog and you can use whatever terms you wish, and I enjoy so much of what you have to say! I’ll just keep cringing at “modesty” and move along.

  19. Lauren

    Interesting. I have largely the same connotations as Wendy. I grew up in a conservative evangelical Christian family/church/region, and for me too, “modesty,” though it should technically and ideally have been rooted in biblical ideas of not being showy or conceited or whatnot, was almost entirely framed as hiding your body from the potentially lustful eyes of men and boys. It is all of course extremely subjective, but the standards I was held to permitted for shorts, but not shorter than mid-thigh (preferably just above the knee, though practically speaking that was hard to find), sleeveless shirts but not tank tops if they were too skimpy up top (spaghetti straps were definitely banned), one-piece bathing suits only (even though, being longwaisted, I would have been much more decent in a tankini than a stretched-out one-piece), and necklines that didn’t show cleavage even when I bent over, and required clothes not to be tight (where “tight” meant being the proper size). Trying to shop in the juniors department was an extremely frustrating experience as there was basically nothing available in the late ’90s made for people my age that I could buy and wear without a fight. But of course I know people who were required to wear ankle-length skirts and keep their hair long, so it obviously varied. But I’m not sure I’ve really ever heard anyone in real life use the word “modest” to refer to clothing outside of the context of religion. I’m sure they do (as several of you above have personally attested), but for me it’s always been bound up in religion and the more controlling aspects of it that I always chafed against.

    I’ve noticed recently that my clothing choices now would almost entirely pass as “modest” by the metrics of my youth, but I would never say that without putting “modest” in quotation marks. Because modesty is not a thing I think about outside of that context, the power and control and dressing-room arguments and “Do you *want* people to look at you that way?” shaming. My choices now to wear looser clothing and higher-waisted pants and to cover up more of my chest and legs are more about physical comfort, caring less about being seen as attractive as I age, caring less about fitting in, etc. (and presumably at least partially just that clothes that are stylish now tend to be more oversized or fluid than the short, tight t-shirts and low-slung jeans of the late ’90s). Or, honestly, a lot of it is actually about hiding my body so that random men on the street won’t think to assess it verbally to me, but that’s a personal choice and decision to hide it, and to protect me rather than them. Whereas most of “modesty” culture as I’ve been exposed to it is parents and other adults telling or forcing their tween/teen/young-adult daughters to dress in a way they don’t want to in order to maintain their purity/reputation and to protect the men and boys around them from lusting after them. That’s very disempowering.

    Which isn’t really to make an argument one way or the other for using it on this blog, just that Wendy is definitely not alone in having these connotations or this visceral reaction. I personally don’t tend to chafe at the word when it’s being used by people who I know aren’t saying “God wants you to hide your body because it and its inherent sexuality are damaging to the men around you,” but I do always still *notice* it.

  20. Liz

    I’m glad Wendy brought this up. It’s not a topic I’d spent much time thinking about, and my experiences aren’t as as extreme as hers, but I found myself identifying with most of what she said.

    “Do you feel that the term “modesty” is overly judgmental and potentially damaging?” Clearly not for everyone, and I’m glad of that. But in my experience it’s always at least mildly judgmental.

    “Is it a word that’s important to you as an individual or to your community?” Not any community I’m still involved with. It was for a couple of communities I used to associate with, and for a variety of reasons those communities were not very comfortable for people with different perspectives.

    “Is it important to use more specific or descriptive terms in place of “modest,” or does the word serve a purpose in and of itself?” If you are trying to convey a specific set of rules to people from a different background than yourself, then it’s more useful to give the actual list. Several commentators described what they consider ‘modest’ and brought up stuff I would never have considered.

    Background: In or near the American bible-belt my whole life and friends with many women who don’t show knees and/or cleavage in public but also would never describe their own style as modest.

  21. Versatilestylebytracey

    As a mother of 3 sons I consciously chose to not show cleavage, but I would never use the term modest, as in my experience it’s only been used in strict religious communities that I feel keep women in strict control with limited roles. I do cringe when I hear others use the term, but know it is my poison view of the word and would never deem to compose a lengthy communication regarding someone else’s choice to use the word. I am so tired of the offense people take to things and think they should have a platform to fire off about it. I just read a post from a Facebook friend who was chastised for making a joke about her difficulty in throwing away a pair of flip-flops because she did so yesterday on the day of a mass shooting. Seriously we can pick anything apart if we have the mind too. I guess my threshold is higher than to care of others use of the word, modest.

    • WW

      Hi, Versatilestylebytracey. This is Wendy, writer of the letters. I absolutely agree that my views are colored by my experience, and Sally’s reply helped me realize and explore this bias. I made sure to include several disclaimers in my second email.

      I am curious about the second half of your comment. Did you feel unhappy with my letters because they are long and emotional, or because I actually wrote to Sally? As I said in my first email, “I hope to see a discussion on this topic with your community. I’m not an active commenter, but I would love to see what other people think.” I find this discussion absolutely amazing, and I feel that I have achieved my goal of writing to Sally.

  22. marsha_calhoun

    The issue is that this word has two different meanings, or so it seems to me – one is not associated particularly with the female body, and in the noun form is a clear virtue – modesty as opposed to hubris, pridefulness, arrogance. The other meaning has traditionally been associated with the female body, and is also considered a virtue – modesty as opposed to exhibiting oneself, encouraging others to look at you by displaying particular sexual parts of the body. The weird part is that the first meaning (when applied to any sex) doesn’t lose its charm for me, but the second meaning is repellant because in order to be modest, the individual must go to certain lengths to prevent bits of the body from being seen by the opposite sex. I might see this differently if there were discussions devoted to the issue of male modesty (in dress, that is), but I don’t see many of those. So when the body is concerned, modesty is seen as a concern/responsibility of women, when it is the men who are doing the looking. Weird. Am I missing something?

  23. disqus_XNoXjKZyrg

    I don’t think that the word modest is overly judgmental, or that describing something as modest necessarily implies that anything else is immodest. But I do think applied to clothing that the word connotes clothes that intentionally do not emphasize (or de-emphasize) a woman’s sexuality or womanly assets. Whether it’s used judgmentally depends on the speaker and the context, but I don’t think it’s ever used just to mean that the clothing uses more fabric or reveals less skin (e.g. you would never describe a full-length skirt as more modest than a skirt that falls at mid-calf because it’s longer). There’s always that connotation attached to it.

  24. Reilly

    I am happy to read this discussion without adding too much to it, but just so we can collect as many diverse opinions as possible:
    I would agree with other commenters that I do not think referring to clothing as modest suggests that other ways of dressing are immodest and that a better antonym might be “secular”. That being said, while I might picture a “modestly” dressed woman as one with a kerchief over her head, a long sleeved shirt, and a floor-length skirt, I have also heard the word used a lot in regards to how older women dress (or how they are told they should dress, or they want to dress and feel is appropriate, and so on). In the latter context, again I feel that this does not project shame or judgment onto the other, but rather the recipient of the term “modest” — if women feel that their arms or their knees or their necks or their stomachs are unattractive, etc., then dressing “modestly” is how one would avoid censure and judgment.
    Lots to think about here. Thanks Sally!

  25. crtfly

    How interesting this discussion is. My Mom was somewhat conservative in the religious sense yet she was open to people wih beliefs different than hers. She never used the words modest or immodest to describe clothing. She did use the word modest to describe a woman or a man who downplayed her/his abilities. There was a slight negative connotation because she didn’t think the person was getting her/his proper due. “You’re being too modest! You worked so hard and did and excellent job.”

  26. mmelaprof

    I agree 100% with Wendy on this. Many thanks to her for her beautifully clear explanations.

  27. Vildy

    I usually think of modest appearance as incorporating or emphasizing an idea of not flaunting oneself or one’s taste or wealth or status or even creativity. Not craving to be the center of attention. In other words, if you’ve got it, don’t flaunt it. This definitely doesn’t describe me, who dresses conservatively but as my own way of being provocative but, hey, I don’t claim to be spiritually perfected.

    ETA: In my Jewish culture, “modest” dress strictures apply equally to men.

    • Kb

      I would like to hear more about the specifics of this. Does modesty really get applied equally harshly to men? Can you share stories? My experience has been that men get lip service that modesty is good, but it takes a lot more to really cross that line. And that the penalties are not as harsh if they cross it. And that the definition of modesty cuts men off from less of the world and their lives than women. I would love to hear counterexamples though.

      • L10

        I’m of the Jewish culture, brought up quite religious. It is completely, and I do mean completely, FALSE that “modesty applies to men”.

        Sure, men are encouraged not to dress flashily (particularly Orthodox men), and they’re not supposed to wear really short shorts or sleeveless in general, but all it takes is a quick search of Orthodox Jewish summer camp or day school rules for both boys and girls to see that the restrictions are completely one-sided.

        And this is also supported by certain “texts” – which is to say, assuming of course total heteronormativity and constant sexuality, as these religions do, that women are considered “not as distractible or sexually focused as men” so that’s the alleged reason for the disparity.

        The actual reason, of course, is the control of women’s bodies as property and to ensure lack of full personhood. Those who claim otherwise are indulging in apologetics. There are of course religious Jewish and other people who do not want to hold women down – these are the people who resist the clothing control, not make excuses for it.

  28. L10

    I completely agree that “modest” is used often in controlling/shaming contexts, and also that it is incongruous for Sally to use it when she always reminds us not to listen to controlling/shaming expectations. I’m also ok with Sally not harping on this, though, if some reader writes in to ask for more “modest” fashion ideas (thought there still is the question of vocabulary clarity).

    Personally, I never use the word and I find it a bit embarrassing/offensive when other people do (particularly parents of girls). I am from a controlling/shaming religious culture where the word is used exactly as Wendy describes.

    However – I really, really like it when people who aren’t in controlled/shamed cultures use the word “modest” to describe things like “a modest mid-thigh skirt” or “a modest V-neck” or “a modest bikini line on that bathing suit” that would never make the “modest” cut in a controlling/shaming culture. It makes me happy that those cultures can’t own the vocabulary.

    • Dust. Wind. Bun.

      I really like your last bit – I grew up in an environment where that was really the only meaning of “modest” in terms of clothing, distinguishing between something more extreme in one direction or another and something kind of “medium” or middle-of-the-road. So, you could have a deep v-neck, a modest v-neck, or a high v-neck, a high-cut bikini, a modest-cut bikini, or a boyleg-cut bikini.

      I’m lucky in that my parents only judged my clothing choices in terms of “is it appropriate for what you’re going to do/where you’re going” (aside from wrangling over my love/my dad’s dislike of NEON GREEN). By their standards, a tiny bikini wouldn’t be appropriate for band practice, but completely appropriate at the beach, because that’s where bikinis are for; strapless tops aren’t really appropriate for school, but would be fine for prom, and tight jeans aren’t appropriate in the summer, but are fine in the winter, because then you won’t melt in the heat. I suppose it also helped that at the height of my teenage WAIT HOW I DO
      THE SEXY phase, I favored either tight or skin-showing, but not both at
      once, just by personal preference (I am a bit weird about where tight
      fabrics etc touch my skin), so they had less to react to?

      At any rate, unless I hear someone using “modest” for appearance in a shaming (or religious, though I don’t mean to conflate the two) context, I tend to assume they mean this kind of thing, like the clothing-structure equivalent of “median”. So on the uncommon occasions I hear Sally use it, that’s what I hear.

  29. Kb

    Yeah, I agree with the original emailer. Show however much skin or shape you want or don’t want. My body my choice does not just apply to things like reproduction. If you don’t like showing cleavage like jdc then don’t, and having that as a clothing priority isn’t wrong by any means. But calling it modesty reads as judge and shamey. And anti-woman. Because when was the last time that a man, any man, was told to be modest? Particularly with regards to clothes and body visibility? I’m trying to think of a time where you could say that modesty /not modesty are presented as both reasonable choices and I honestly can’t.

  30. Thursday

    When first encountering the use of the word modest in a style context on your blog, Sally, my foremost connotations were of religious dress. That didn’t cause me any issues until I realised the term was not being used to discuss style choices for women who choose to adhere to religious conventions of dress. Now, as someone who believes the whole spectrum of choices is valid – from skimpy bikinis to all-encompassing loose dresses – as long as it is a choice, this is somewhat of an unexpected tension. Describing below-knee skirts and cleavage-free necklines as “modest” completely rubs me up the wrong way, because of many of the loaded meanings unpacked by Wendy. I don’t think it’s as simple as the modest/immodest dichotomy, but I do tend to read it’s use in a religious context as being more able to be free from judging others’ choices than in a secular context, if that makes sense. This is not to say adherents to religious modesty don’t judge others for their choices, but I cannot read it’s use in a secular context without hearing a judgmental undertone.

    Part of my views on this word are also that in many ways, I adopt “modest” styles – I never wear a skirt above the knees, prefer sleeved to sleeveless tops, avoid plunging necklines. Although these are not rigid rules I impose upon myself, just preferences. I am still going to wear that cotton halterneck sundress that exposes my shoulders, arms and back when it’s 40C. However, I would never describe my dress as modest because I would feel I am by implication saying those who expose more of their bodies are immodest. And I want to deliberately avoid any kind of judgment of others’ choices and any sense of trying to shame them. So, personally, I would love to see this word drop out of use for any discussion about more covered clothing options where the topic is not strictly religious conventions.

  31. WW

    Hi, everyone. This is Wendy, author of those long emails. I didn’t realize that my exchange with Sally has already been posted, and I’m absolutely delighted by the ensuing discussion. I have read every comment that has been posted, and “liked” all the ones that have brought up points I have not previously considered or explored sufficiently.

    Firstly, I’d like to explain why I emailed Sally. My personal thoughts are definitely shaped by my experiences (thank you to Sally for helping me realize and acknowledge this bias), but my decision to try to start a public discussion on Already Pretty was because I felt that this is a friendly and respectful forum where readers can debate complex topics without resorting to ad hominem attacks, derogative comments or worse. Thank you for making this possible.

    Secondly, I learned a lot from your comments. I learned that I was missing an entire dimension of this discussion, which is the use of the word “modest” outside of the context of clothes. I also appreciate the points made about the changing usage of “problematic” language and context in which words are used. I find the framework of “modest” vs. “secular” clothing really fascinating, because my childhood environment (where a woman in a covered-up but body-conforming dress would be harassed) was very secular, while my teenage environment (where the word “modest” was used by some friends in very judgmental ways) was very religious. I think some standards of “modest” dressing transcend religious and cultural boundaries. Lastly, I really appreciate the comments that “modest”, even in the context of clothing, could just mean “middle of the range”. I love that usage.

    Thank you again for a very respectful and productive conversation.