Reader Request: On Modesty and Revelation

An anonymous commenter popped this question into the suggestion box:

I would love to see a post on your thoughts of modesty and self image. How much is the revealing of skin related to self-love and respect? What if a woman confidently wears short dresses and/or reveals cleavage, but may appear to others to have low self-esteem because of the skin factor? Where is the line drawn to the amount of attention you want your body to have compared to the amount of attention you want on your overall persona? I guess this turned out to be a mish-mash of ideas. My main point: What to do if one likes the look of a suggestively-revealing item for the sake of fashion, but is not modest in its nature?

Even putting aside the fact that modesty is a multi-faceted concept that holds different meanings to different people, this is a tough question to answer. My initial response is that it comes down to knowing your audience. Wearing revealing clothing because it feels good and looks good is every woman’s prerogative … but doing so at a conservative board meeting, or in a court of law, or while teaching algebra to a classroom full of high school juniors can cause quite a stir. And whether or not that stir is fair or warranted, if it arises you’ll have to deal with the consequences. Understanding the expectations tied to various settings is always key, but even more so if you want to dress in ways that might be considered revealing. You want to feel comfortable and confident yourself, but you likely want those around you to feel comfortable, too. Wearing a dress that’s cut to the navel the first time you meet your significant other’s parents is more likely to make waves than set anyone at ease. Possibly including yourself.

And yet, you can’t always know your audience because you can never know in advance who you’ll see you on any given day! You may dress in a low-cut top for a casual party at a friend’s house, but you can’t control the invite list. You may think that wearing a micro-mini to a rock show in a tiny local bar is totally fine, but how could you know who’ll turn up? And even if you could magically predict who will see you, you could never control exactly how you’d be perceived. No matter what you wear, some people will look at you and feel awful – about you and/or about themselves. Some will feel fantastic. Some will be utterly indifferent. And you will never know which is which, and you couldn’t change their minds even if you DID know.

As for how self-image ties into revealing clothing, that’s another sticky wicket. Do some women wear cropped shirts because it gets potential partners all hot and bothered, and that attention feeds ego? I’m sure they do. Do some women wear short skirts simply because they adore their lovely gams? Absolutely. Can you tell which is which on first glance? Not a chance. But people jump to conclusions more often than they take the time to investigate. And that means that if you love the look of revealing items for aesthetic reasons you should absolutely wear and enjoy them, with the understanding that some observers will make assumptions about you as a person. Which isn’t fair or just, but acknowledges that while your dressing choices are under your control, the opinions that others form based on your dressing choices are beyond your control.

So that’s all extremely vague and basically my way of saying that I don’t know how to handle this. Not in a general, here-is-my-advice-to-all way. Instead, I’ll tell you how I make MY decisions about when to reveal and when to conceal:

  • I am far more likely to wear something super short or low cut at night.
  • I prefer to wear revealing clothing to fancy occasions wherein dressing up or dressing differently from my personal norm seems fun and carefree instead of contrived.
  • I will wear miniskirts to work functions, but only in winter and only with tights.
  • I nearly always balance revealing with not-revealing. I can remember only one time that I paired a tank top cut to mid-chest with a miniskirt. Most of the time I do tight with loose, short with long, skimpy with modest.

For a variety of viewpoints, check the comments!

Image courtesy fabiogis50.

Originally posted 2010-07-19 05:18:00.

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49 Responses to “Reader Request: On Modesty and Revelation”

  1. Clare

    'You want to feel comfortable and confident yourself, but you generally want those around you to feel comfortable, too.'

    How about realising that the comfort of others around you is their responsibility? Women policing their clothing on the basis of others' reactions (which, as you point out, she wouldn't be able to control anyway), is a form of oppression I think we could all do without.

    And how about realising that the perceived 'lack of self esteem' that the 'modestly dressed' direct at a woman in a short skirt in some strange form of pity ('oh look at her showing her flesh, she must really lack self esteem') is just privileged rubbish, and in fact, none of the onlooker's business. In case you hadn't guessed, I'm a feminist, and I love clothes, but the handwringing that goes on over them, is just a real turn off for me (which is not a criticism of your post per se, as I think you're right to say there's no 'answer' to this. But there's the rub, as women we are constantly subject to these pressures and questions – too much flesh? not enough? what do my clothes say about me as a person? – and the onus is on us to get it all 'right', when the question never had a 'right' answer in the first place)

  2. jen

    I think you're right about not doing the whole outfit short, tight, and low-cut. That just screams "look at me!"

    Also, the photo here shows someone who looks comfortable. She isn't hiking her breasts up to her chin with a high-tech bra. Her hair is in a natural style. Presumably she is also not overly made-up. The shirt fits properly and isn't too tight.

    Figuring out this issue is important for me in my weight loss, I think. The first time I got to my goal, I reverted to the same kinds of clothes I wore as a teenager, which was the last time I had been that size, and I felt uncomfortable. Figuring out grown-up pretty is going to be a big part of what it will take for me to feel comfortable staying at goal next time. I've written about this on my blog but it didn't seem to inspire many comments. Is it an uncomfortable topic, or just easier for other people than it feels for me?

  3. Sophie Miriam

    Well, my definition of short is not everyone's–I think my definition of immodest is probably some people's definition of chaste. But when I wear my shortest dress (a few inches above the knee), while I recognize that the dress is more revealing than other dresses I own, when I wear it, it's all about me. I love that dress–it makes me feel like dancing. So honestly, if someone else is judging me for it? I don't really care.

    I don't wear low-cut hardly at all. You need something to show off for that. 😛

  4. fashionflirt

    I think it all comes down to attitude. You're wearing something revealing, you feel strong, beautiful, confident in what you're wearing… the people around you get a read on that. If you're wearing something revealing because you have a negative self-image, that comes through.

    Personal style is as much about the clothing as it is about the attitude of the person who is wearing it. I personally, feeling down on myself and wearing something flattering have looked horrible in comparison to how I look when I've worn something I don't necessarily look fantastic in, but am rocking with every fiber of my being because I feel fantastic.

    Similarly, I've seen girls walking down the street who are wearing amazing clothing, but they look terrible because they are constantly tugging at their clothing. I always try to, if our paths cross naturally, compliment those girls on how they look, just to give them the self-confidence boost they might be needing. I've also seen people wearing unflattering clothing, but because they're strutting and you can see how good they feel about themselves, they look phenomenal.

    Sparkles in their eyes, etc.


  5. lopi

    When I was younger, it was natural to have lower self-esteem and to experiment with more revealing clothes. Nowadays I save the low-cut, sexier stuff for when I go out with my boyfriend. I prefer it that way and he appreciates it.

  6. Peter

    I love the way you handled this question, Sal.

    Unfortunately women (and men) DO need to keep in mind others reactions to how we present ourselves — if only for our own safety! We live in a often scary world and to pretend that it doesn't matter how people react to us can be dangerous. Would that it weren't so!

    Also: we DO live in a society (just barely) and there are social norms. We may not like them and we can resist them. But most of us recognize that as members of a larger group (society, family, religion, etc.) some conformity is — if not required, expected. We cover our heads in a house of worship out of respect. We avoid profanity (sometimes) our of respect to others. Same goes revealing clothing. We don't have to buy into these norms in our hearts, but I believe we do owe something to those around us and taking into account how others are likely to respond to our choice of dress in our choice of clothing is not in conflict with feminism, or needn't be seen as such. I understand why someone would see it that way, however.

  7. Sal

    Clare: First of all, audience IS a consideration. Just as you wouldn't wear a ballgown to the dentist, you wouldn't wear a low-cut minidress to defend your dissertation. Dressing is social. You can certainly opt to leave audience reaction entirely up to your audience, and you will never be able to control their reactions in full. But your choices about dressing DO contribute to how you are perceived. That's why we bother to make choices about clothing in the first place.

    Second, I understand that policing of dress is oppressive. I am not attempting to do that here, which I hope is clear. Furthermore, I think that discouraging open discussion of controversial style matters such as modesty is a form of policing in itself. Can we not open up a conversation about what it means to wear tight, low-cut clothing without it being perceived as some form of moral judgment, anti-feministic oppression, or snobbery? Women should be able to talk about these matters and share their opinions without feeling like they'll be lambasted.

    We learn when we discuss. And so we discuss.

  8. roller coaster teacher

    I've been thinking about this topic as it relates to young adults, specifically middle school and high school age girls, because I teach at a middle school. (I hope to write a thoughtful post on my blog soon.) I just finished year 7 of teaching, and you probably don't need me to tell you that preteen and teen girls wear very revealing clothes. Obviously they look at adults (in their family, community, media, etc.) as models. Every school I know has a dress code that addresses safety AND modesty, but dress code enforcement is complicated and generally (from my POV) a royal thankless pain.

    Girls want to look sexy, and their sexual identity becomes so important to them, TOO early, in my opinion. (Guess what? Boys don't feel pressure to scream out their sexual identity the same way.)

  9. Itari

    I would love to live in the world where nobody judges people because of their clothing.

    I don't mind seeing revealing clothing. Just like I don't generally mind seeing naked people in TV, magazines or on a beach. After all, we are all human and there's nothing that could possibly surprise me.

    But I digress.

    I don't know if self-esteem has something to do with wearing revealing clothes. Some people like to be covered-up, because they feel bad in their bodies – while some show as many flesh as they can without violating the law because of the same body image issues.

    I don't wear really revealing clothes. My main concern is looking good without looking cheap or overdone. When I look at someone else, I'm not judging them because of supposed "lack of modesty".

  10. Zeynep

    I've had this topic on my mind and I've thought about making a blog post about it, but I wasn't sure how to proceed. The reason is, I'm usually totally comfortable with revealing leg. I do like my legs, and I think I can pull it off, so it makes me confident. Of course I don't wear short items of clothing to work, but on my free time, and especially in the summer (and even to class, which I guess won't happen anymore cause I graduated), I love a short dress or skirt. I also keep my top part modest when I do wear something short.

    And that's where my main issue comes in… I'm totally okay showing leg, but even if I show the slightest bit of cleavage, I absolutely cannot make it through the day without feeling completely overwhelmed with self-consciousness. A part of it might be because my boobs used to be gigantic and I got breast reduction surgery in college, so they were always a point of insecurity to me. (Also the reason I still slouch… habit after all those years of carrying that weight.) But now I keep telling myself: you got surgery, you're very well proportioned now, you could totally pull it off without the world world turning and gaping. But every time anyone looks at me when I'm wearing a low-cut shirt, I feel totally inappropriate.

    I would love to be able to pull off low-cut shirts, especially over modest bottoms.

  11. Clare

    Hi Sal – I didn't think that you were policing clothing in your post, and I wasn't attempting to shut down a discussion, but I do think that inferring levels of self-esteem from clothing is a road I don't like to go down because it _is_ frequently tied up with judgement.
    I'm not saying that there are no social codes (or even practical ones) that we follow in dressing, but that worrying about others' feelings when we make clothing decisions is another demanding task laid at the door of the dresser (and when we talk about 'low-cut' or 'revealing' items, it's usually women we're talking about, hence my feminist radar went off!)
    I suppose that is the (idealistic?) answer to the first question in your post – let's assume that clothing choices are about the dresser rather than the audience. We all have our own internal rules about those choices (and even what constitutes 'short' or 'low cut') but we should try to avoid expecting others to follow the same set.

  12. Eve

    I grew up in a strict religious faith that prescribed certain lines of modesty. One-piece bathing suits were modest, two-piece were not. The shortest of short sleeves were modest; wide tank-top straps or cap sleeves were not. And so on. As young women, we were taught that if we wore immodest clothing (defined as clothing that did not fit the prescribed categories), we would be complicit in tempting young men to sexual sin. The question from your anonymous commenter sounds like it came straight out of the Sunday School lesson manual I was taught from as a teenager.

    This is not a criticism of you, Sal. The part of the post that you wrote does set up the conversation non-judgmentally. However, the bit from the anonymous commenter is in my opinion is a harsh, judgmental opening shot. The commenter’s self-described main point is not an invitation to decide for oneself which clothing is sufficiently modest; it assumes from the get-go that certain clothing is inherently immodest: “What to do if one likes the look of a suggestively-revealing item for the sake of fashion, but is not modest in its nature?” Oh, how we religious teens anguished over the beautiful forbidden fruits of spaghetti straps and tube tops and bikinis!

    Clothing does not have a moral nature. You could say that cotton fabric is white by nature if it is not dyed, but that is simply a physical quality. A moral quality such as “suggestively-revealing” or “modest” is never, ever, ever inherent in the item of clothing itself. Individuals and society decide which clothing is appropriate in which context, and different individuals and different cultures are always shifting the lines. The nonjudgmental description is what you wrote, Sal, “cut to mid-chest” or “cut to the navel.” These are factual (well, maybe exaggerated) descriptions of where on the body a piece of clothing lands, and the opinion of whether it is “too low” or not is up to the wearer and the observers. But the anonymous commenter comes across as God on Judgment Day, with the power to determine which garments are modest in their nature and which are not. Which, quite frankly, makes me want to get a permit to run a lemonade stand across the street from a highly conservative place of worship, and after services I will offer free lemonade (“Quenches the fires of hell!”) while wearing my most cleavage-baring top and shortest skirt. I feel that would be appropriate.

  13. Angela Pea

    @Clare –

    Policing yourself is not necessarily a form of opression. I'm inclined to think of it as courtesy and respect for others.

  14. Katie from Interrobangs Anonymous

    In my own experience as a woman who dresses with an intentional amount of modesty, I have found that often (not always, but often) the way a woman feels about herself in her clothes can often be read in her body language. Constantly tugging at a garment, continuously scrutinizing herself in mirrors, always asking "Do I look okay in this?" are actions I've found to be reflections of a self who is not comfortable with the skin she put on that day.

    I would not be so assumptive as to decide that those behaviors are always the result of low self esteem, but there's usually something that's "off," something that's not reflective of who this person really is.

    Some of the newer thinkings on modest dressing define modesty not as long hems and high necks, but as whatever combination makes the wearer feel free to be herself and comfortable in her own skin. So modesty becomes subjective to the wearer and dependent upon the wearer. It's true that you can't control the environment past yourself and how others perceive you, but when the wearer of a set of clothing (whatever they may be) is happy and comfortable in their choices, you'd be surprised how many other people are, too.

  15. Maggiethecat

    Great question, and I can't wait to read the entire discussion. We've been averaging about 40ºC the past couple weeks, so I'm living in a beach town, even though the nearest actual beach is a good 45 min. drive from here. Lots of short shorts, minis, strappy tanks, and topless, buffish dudes parading the streets. I have to admit that my visceral reaction to the last is something like: yes, the view is nice, but would a cotton tee be really that much to bear, you vain and silly boy? (Not talking about road and construction workers trying not to roast while they go about their business, I mean teens and college-age kids cruising downtown sans shirt. It's still a city, albeit horribly hot and glaring).

    With this in mind I guess I must also admit to some resentment that I can't do the same without being judged (and funnily enough, my word verif is 'objette' 😕 Sorry, couldn't resist ;), though I actually have no desire to – I do revealing pretty much the same way Sal describes: balance short bottoms with longer sleeves and higher necklines, tighter tops with looser bottoms and so on. It's the double standard that rankles me.

  16. Anne

    Wow, that's a tough one for a Monday morning! I wonder about that sometimes because I wear somewhat low-cut tops a lot. Like you, I balance them out with modest bottoms, and often a cardigan so my arms are covered. I like my chest and scoop-necks or v-necks tend to look better on me. Something about it makes me feel more confident than if I'm completely covered up. I'm in a pretty solid relationship, so I'm definitely not doing it to pick up guys. Those around me might not know that, but I guess I don't really care. I like to think that I'm exuding confidence rather than sluttiness.

  17. Rad_in_Broolyn

    The whole "self esteem" and "revealing clothes" relationship was the opposite to me. When I was younger and had low esteem, I never showed any more skin than was physically necessary. I was pin thin as a teenager and would only wear very demure swim suits in summer. Now that I am older, I try, within reason, to make choices based on my comfort levels, but I don't let imagined ideas that my body is too gross, imperfect, etc. to show skin to influence my choices.
    I also think that sometimes (like a hot concert, working at at the gym, a very casual party), I don't worry about other's comfort, because we are all there to have a good time. Of course, board meetings and professional conferences are another setting, but I've worn very casual clothes to such settings too.
    While I can't stop others from judging me, I just try not to make assumptions that women who show skin have low self esteem. In fact, they probably know that there bodies are sexy, and more power to them.

  18. The Waves

    This is an important topic, for sure. I think I am with Clare on this one: it is always women who have to police their clothing, not men, and the whole issue makes me angry. Women who show skin are linked to sex, bad morals or awful self-esteem, and there is no consideration to someone wanting to wear revealing clothes "just because". "Just because" and revelation just don't co-exist. It is the same issue that makes wearing a burqa such a loud political (as opposed to individual) question. You are right though – we live in a real world where real people have to be able to function, and societies have norms, whether we like them or not. I guess that is why discussing this is so important.

  19. text machine

    I agree with what Clare and others have said re: worrying about the judgement of others. Sometimes it feels like the subtext of these modesty discussions is "you don't want to look like a…[insert derogatory term for a lady who has the sex]". This is not to say I think we should wander around our office jobs looking like we just stepped off the bunny ranch, but I worry about the ways we judge others and pre-judge ourselves for daring to feel around the boundaries of modesty. I'm speaking more about problems in discussing these issues in general, but I also wanted to note that the assumption that there's something wrong with dressing to get male/female attention begins to tread on that same territory. To me, that's just fun, not an example of my low self-esteem on parade. I agree with most of what you're saying re: context and situation, but that point hit a bit of a nerve.

  20. Rebecca

    I tend to agree with Clare and The Waves on this issue.

    I respect that some women want to dress modestly. However, I dislike the perception that women should be policing their fashion choices to make others comfortable.

    As a society we don't but these types of expectations on men as often as we do on women. Women should make others comfortable. Women should cover up. Women who wear revealing clothing should be judged negatively.

    Yes, I realize that there are social pressures and norms, but for me part of being a feminist is recognizing that women should be able to dress in ways that benefit their own comfort and goals, rather than simply dressing to appease others.

  21. La Belette Rouge

    Wowza!! This is so my topic. I wrote my graduate thesis on shame and its relation to clothing and its place in psychotherapy. What got me started writing on this topic was the notion of what people are hiding when they are revealing a lot. I am intrigued by the topic of what is revealed psychologically in immodesty and what is revealed in any of our coverings( clothing). I could go on and on… but I will suffice to say that I think that clothing,like shame,both covers and reveals a whole lot about us. Every outfit is saying something about what we want others to see and what we are trying to hide( even through putting it all out there).

  22. Cynthia

    I grew up in a very cold climate in the Midwest, and since I moved south (first to mountain VA, now to the hot part of NC) 10 years ago, I have had to go through a major readjustment. Shifting from dark to lighter colors is one part of it, coverage is another.

    People in Wisconsin cover. It’s a pretty reserved Scanda-German culture up there, and my family was especially into personal privacy. You just didn’t let people (even family) see you nekkid. Or partially nekkid. Etc.

    But also, during the majority of the year it’s just too damned cool to be very uncovered. I don’t remember teenagers wearing over-revealing clothing when I was in high school (status clothing was another matter as I posted a bit about on my blog yesterday).

    As a result (and maybe also because of some “used to be fat” issues) I have a very hard time uncovering as an adult. Showing cleavage stresses me out. Worrying about flashing someone in my short skirt stresses me out. Wearing spaghetti straps, strapless bras, going braless are all just plain uncomfortable to me. I just never developed an ease with such things because there was little opportunity for it. I like not to be stressed out by my clothing, so I am finding hot-season ways to layer and cover that keep those things from happening.

    If I were to feel pressed to uncover and wear more revealing clothes (as some kind of “feminist” statement about confidence) it would just make me uncomfortable and unhappy. Does that mean I have clothing Stockholm Syndrome? Or just that I have boundaries? Hmm.

  23. Sal

    Good gravy, I love you guys. What an incredibly varied and fascinating array of opinions.

  24. stitchywitch

    I struggle with this issue. I work with children, and I am conscious of the image I present to their parents. I wear a lot of vintage, which is sort of inherently modest, but I think it does strike them as a bit odd… but oh well.

    I used to work in a very oppressive field that wasn't exactly woman friendly, and feeling like I had to constantly police my clothing just made me insane. It culminated in the moment that a female(!) supervisor sent out an email to all the ladies with the new dress code(for women only, of course) and informed us that we were no longer allowed to wear short sleeves because "it's our job as women to make sure the men in the office aren't tempted." And trust me, no one was dressing in a way that would raise eyebrows in your average workplace. No one besides me thought there was anything sexist about such a remark. Shortly thereafter I quit, and I've been purging my closet of items from that time period ever since.

  25. lisa

    Wow, this is a lot of food for thought on a Monday morning. Sal, I love the way you approached this topic well-balanced perspective and looked at the questions that were raised from all sides.

    It's interesting to see how Clare seems to have touched a nerve with a lot of readers and commenters. I agree that it's unfair for the onus to be on women monitoring what they wear as opposed to men controlling their reactions to women's clothing. However, seen from another point of view, women's clothing could be considered a tool of power rather than an instrument of oppression. Although a woman can't control the reaction of everybody she comes across (as Sal pointed out), she can–to some extent–mitigate those reactions through what she wears. Imagine if a woman were to give a seminar presentation in front of a conference room full of male colleagues. She can wear a blouse, straight-cut skirt, statement necklace, and heels. There might be one or two leering male chauvinists in the audience who wouldn't listen to what she has to say no matter what she decided to wear. There might be audience members wise enough to know not to judge based on appearances and will listen to her because she has something intelligent to present. Then there are those who decide to listen if she looks as though she knows what she's doing. To this latter group, she projects an image of professionalism and authority. I think there is great power in that.

  26. Kelly

    I try to dress relatively modestly for most occasions. When I do wear something tighter or lower cut, it's usually when I'm doing something with my boyfriend. He's never requested that I "save" sexier things for when I'm with him (I don't even know if he notices to be honest), but I just don't feel the need to "advertise the goods" to random people and I guess I don't want to appear like I'm "on the market" when I'm definitely not.

    Sometimes I'd like to wear a top a little lower, or a skirt a little higher, but whenever I do I notice a huge change in the way strangers treat me. It has nothing to do with self esteem (or lack thereof), just frankly I don't enjoy the sort of attention I get, or the assumptions made about me, when I'm more "on display." So I make a pretty conscious decision to cover it up most of the time. I'd rather people think I cover up too much than not enough. As much as I'd like to say "to hell with what other people think! I'll wear what I want!" the fact is that the whole reason I put clothes on in the first place is because clothes send a message. Maybe I'm comfortable with how my body looks in a certain outfit, but that doesn't mean I'm comfortable with the message it sends or the responses it garners.

    Also, I don't agree with the people who say that men don't have the same restrictions. Men cover up a LOT more than women. If a man walked around in a low-cut tank top and short shorts, he'd get quite a few looks. A woman would barely get a second glance. I think women can get away with a lot more than men can.

  27. Zeynep

    I'm not so sure I agree with comments stating that men don't have to worry about this type of stuff. When was the last time you saw a guy with a sleeveless shirt on, even on really warm days? Sleeveless tops for men are generally out of the question in professional or business situations (they were actually not allowed in my high school dress code), as are shorts. And let's not forget about deep v-necks or button-down shirts left unbuttoned too low. I personally don't want to see man chest hair at work. THAT would make me uncomfortable (just as too much cleavage may make people uncomfortable in the wrong setting). There is also the "domestic violence" shirt (I hate the colloquial term). I consider myself a feminist as well but I don't see "being respectful of other people's perceptions" as oppressive.

    Of course men aren't scrutinized to the same level of women, but if you look at many religious societies, the men often cover up as well, wearing floor-length garments or religious head wear. I think there is definitely a form of "modesty" for men (subjective, not objective). They just: 1) don't have as many options as women, and 2) society doesn't sexualize them to the extent it does women.

  28. Vanessa

    I'm constantly told by my mother that I can't wear clothes like other people because of my body. I have very large breasts, which I don't try to really COVER, and whenever I show cleavage she tells me I'm disgusting. When I was younger, she would tell me it made me a slut and that it would eventually lead to me being sexually assaulted (of course, we all know style of dress isn't usually a main factor in these crimes). I suppose that makes this issue of the viewer's reaction very personal for me. Even though I've never been promiscuous, I've been judged as such for how I sometimes choose to dress and it sucks and it isn't right. If I want to show off my chest it doesn't make me slutty or anything else anyone wants to think or call me. Yes, they can think it, but I'm not going to LET IT be my problem. I understand your point and I totally get the idea of propriety and follow the rules in respect to it without any issue. However, I agree with Clare and The Waves in that I have a problem with being told others' comfort is my responsibility.

    I have told my mother before that I believe her discomfort with my clothes is more a disgust and discomfort with my body, and I think this issue often UNDERLIES our discomfort with revealing clothing. That's something I have a serious issue with. We should all ask ourselves why we really feel the need to even think "her skirt is too short" or "her shirt is too low-cut." In my experience as a young person, I can say with confidence that most of the time when someone expresses discomfort with someone's outfit they will also be more than glad to follow it with a body criticism as the REAL reason.

  29. The Waves

    Zeynep is absolutely right: yes, men do have societal limitations to what they can wear, but the major difference is that they are not sexualized in the way women are. Men who walk around without a t-shirt (they do so in Finland a lot, even in urban settings, when the weather is warm) are not considered "showing off their goods" or being labeled cheap, desperate, or "on the market". They will get noticed, some people might even be embarrased for them, but not because of sexual connotations. So yes, men have limitations, but they are not sexual in nature. Women's issues with revelation always come down to sex. It is almost as if the whole concept of modesty is made for women only.

  30. Candice Virginia

    One of the things I love about my college campus is the extreme variety of style choices individuals make.

    I love that my chem professor, for example, wears khakis patched with a button-hole stitch and half tucked in, faded striped dress shirts each day.

    I love that the 18 year old girl standing behind me in line for coffee wears a micro mini jean skirt, Uggs and a $40.00 tank top on a sweltering summer day.

    I love that I wear whatever is sitting on top of my laundry basket, which today happens to be a khaki colored shirt dress that I thrifted recently for two dollars.

    Choice inspires me. I don't see anyone as better or worse than me, or needy or confident, if they dress differently. I don't care if the person beside me is wearing a potato sack: if it makes them happy, great! More than anything, I think style is just extremely interesting.

  31. Melissa

    I agree with pretty much everything that you wrote.

    For me personally, I tend to dress modestly on most all occassions simply because I don't want to worry about whether someone thinks what I'm wearing is too revealing or too short or too tight.

    I tend to care a LOT about what other people think about me (too much, actually), to the point that I'd rather go unnoticed than be considered someone who is immodest or trying to hard.

    But then, modest to me could be too revealing to someone else. It's all a personal preference based upon how comfortable you are in your own body.

  32. nicole

    This becomes a whole 'nother conversation when you have a teenage daughter. How to discuss fashion and modesty and societal norms and school expectations without instilling shame or guilt or weird body image crap. Now it is possible to feel judged by others related to how my daughter dresses. Super fun! My high school days were the late 80s when everything was oversized and camisoles were underwear. Contrast that to now when camisoles are outerwear, shorts are super short, and jeans are skin tight. It's made me really evaluate my own views and comfort levels. I don't know what the "right" answer is. I love my daughters and I want them to love themselves and not have body image issues. But the early sexualization stuff breaks my heart. So far we (my daughters and I) haven't really had any clashes over modesty, but it may be still to come. Sorry for the ramble, but this has been on my mind lately so thanks for the conversation folks.

  33. Anonymous

    Vanessa, I can soooo relate. I am 50 and I _still_ hear my mother's voice telling me what a slut I am because of my big breats. And this is after a double mastectomy! I went from a G to a C and still agonize if the girls look too "out there."

    How wonderful to read a woman at your age (which I am assuming is less than mine) be so comfortable with your body! YAY you!


  34. LK

    Yes I agree that dress is relative to the situation. We have to be aware that there is a time and place for everything.

    But as far as how skimpy clothing make a woman feel depends largely on the woman. I feel less comfortable, less confident in revealing tight clothing. I like classy, somewhat modest fits and styles. If I show cleavage or a skirt above the knee I get so horribly awkward because Im just not comfortable that way. So for me, it would have the opposite effect it has on most women. Im just horribly uncomfortable with the way men look at me if Im dressed revealing in public. And I hate having to tape or pin clothing so my "bits" or bra dont show. That is just annoying. 🙂

  35. cindy lou

    oh my word!!! this topic really hits a nerve, especially after just sending my 21 year old daughter back to college. she hadn't been home in 6 months, and every day she was here was a vision of cleavage and more cleavage. she is very well endowed (d-cup) and has always worn fairly low cut tops. her grandfather is constantly on her case about it, and my husband and i are usually defensive on her behalf. this time, however, her tops were lower cut than ever and even my husband and i were uncomfortable seeing her expose so much of her chest. we tried to talk to her about it, but got the typical "roll the eyes at the parents" response. she has expressed to me before that she wished men would not look at her chest so much, but it is impossible to not look when she wears the clothes she wears. i agree that she should be able to wear what she is comfortable in. as the parent, though, i can't help but feel that the comfort of those around of her should be taken into consideration. i realize she will always have to deal with looks from men due to the fact that she has an ample bosom, even if she were to wear a turtleneck. almost any open necked top she wears will show some cleavage. i just wish she would not wear something so low cut that you can see the fabric of her bra in the lowest point of the neckline without her even having to bend over.

  36. Michael McGraw Photography

    To pick up on what The Waves said about men's clothing choices not being sexualized, in her example it is true–she is talking about men Not even wearing a shirt.

    But when a man branches out into bright colors, or pink, or if he wears a shirt or pants too tight, then he does become sexualized. If he is dressing for the ladies he might be called a douchebag. If he is not dressing for the ladies, or even if he dresses too nicely, his entire sexual orientation might be called into question. At least here in Minnesota.

  37. Anardana

    Cool facts! Does your love of animals and non-meat list of recipes mean you are a vegetarian?

  38. michelle

    I think you should always consider your audience when deeming something “appropriate” or not. At work, I want to be known for my character and my actions, not my clothing choice. So, my choice of work attire is never important enough to me that it would override how it might be received at work. I work in a laboratory setting, so for me this means that can be as arty as I want in my colors, prints, and fits, but nothing impractical like skirts, dresses, or heels even though there are days I could get away with them.

    I always pair something “revealing” with items that are more conservative. This way, I can show a part of me that I like, but avoid coming off as someone who wants everyone to check out her body parts.

    I think self-image is a crucial factor in a woman’s internal standard of what she feels comfortable bearing. Regardless of what society thinks about my body, there are areas that I just don’t feel comfortable showing and so I won’t. However, if another woman feels confident revealing them, then I say “go right ahead”, and I certainly don’t begrudge anyone for wearing what they love.

  39. Holly

    I so relate to the previous commenters on modesty and bigger breasts! My mother also seems to think that when your cup size goes up, your neckline needs to go up (which in my opinion is less flattering on larger-breasted women). She wears an A, I wear a DD. She doesn't understand? Go figure! Haha.

    I'm puzzled as to what Peter meant by mentioning safety as an issue. The only solid example I can think of that doesn't sound like rape victim blaming is watching that you don't wear the wrong color if you're going into gang territory…!

  40. budget chic

    I see a lot of young girls where I live that just don't give a damn and they got everything showing. I think many of them watch too many videos and way too much reality tv, and they try to emulate the strippers and hoes that call themselves recording artists and actors nowadays. I also see some grown behind fools too that really need to cover it up; but they got stuff hanging out and showing that should be against the law for anybody's eye to be assaulted by that mess.

    It's all about self-respect and showing some class. Those with very little morals don't have any problem going out showing all the goods on a regular basis, no matter the occasion. They walk out the door in stripper mode everyday.

  41. The Raisin Girl

    I think it all comes down to HOW you wear whatever you're wearing. If you put on a skimpy skirt and a low-cut top and spent the entire day attempting to surreptitiously tug one down and the other up, then you're going to look self-conscious and like you don't have much self esteem, and not because you're dressed skimpily. The same thing applies with tons of layers. If you wear a blouse, a sweater, long pants, and close-toed shoes and keep having to adjust them to feel comfortable, you look just as self-conscious and awkward.

    Now, those girls that rock the miniskirts like it's nothing at all? I always see them and think "Wow, how beautiful and carefree." That's the key: carefree. If you're not totally, completely comfortable with EVERYTHING you're wearing (or not wearing), you will look like you're trying too hard.

  42. The Waves

    I wanted to comment on Michael McGraw's point regarding men wearing pink and tight clothing, and how they become sexualized – that is a great point! What I find interesting is that those men are often labeled "too feminine", and hence get treated accordingly, just like women, ie in a sexualized manner. To me, the key point is that it is the assumed female in all of us, both men or women, that gets penalized through sexualization.

    I wanted to thank you, Sal, for raising this topic – it is all I have been thinking about for the past two days! You are such an inspiration!

  43. Kat

    I've given away most of the "revealing" clothes I used to have–most of them feel either like they're too young for me or that I'd look like I was "trying too hard" if I wore them. Not that I was ever really comfortable in them; I'd rarely wear them except around the house. What I still have is mostly more modest: mid-thigh skirts, tops that show a little cleavage but not too much.

    I have a hard time "playing it straight" in revealing clothing–I have to add some element that makes it clear that I'm not taking it too seriously: a miniskirt with printed tights, or a silly t-shirt.

  44. Monkey

    I really think context is what matters in terms of what and how much you show. As a feminist, I would rather be taken seriously at work and promoted instead of break new ground in how much skin I can get away with showing in the office. And in the workplace at least, dress codes treat men and women similarly. On weekends though, women can choose to wear whatever they feel comfortable in. I can't say that I think it's attractive when a woman (or man) is wearing something ill-fitting and too tight, but it's her choice to do so. We do live with other people though, and people are less likely to respect someone wearing certain things and that is also something to keep in mind, I think. We all make judgements about others based on what they look like and clothes are an important component of that. I'm not likely to be interested in a man decked out in gangster wear because I don't imagine we'd have much in common. I may be wrong, but we all screen each other based on superficial cues initially. And honestly, if someone is wearing an outfit that is completely inappropriate for the setting, then on some level she must desire the attention and it is not just about wearing what makes her feel good. In the end, I think it is absolutely possible to be revealing yet appropriate, you just have to know when/where.

  45. lenathediva

    I take what I wear from a different perspective. I am the mother of two. Sorry, a mother of two boys. I am very cognizant of what I wear especially when I am with them. In no way, shape or form do I ever want to embarass them or make them feel uncomfortable. I keep this in mind at all times. Also, I want to show them that a woman can still look nice and garner attention (which I do) without leaving anything to the imagination. My six year old is down with anything that I wear. My 12 year old has other opinions. My husband doesn't say anything about what I wear, but my oldest will let me know. "Mom, it's showing to much up there." Do I think it is? No, having a D-cup means that I will have cleavage. But, sometimes, I will change a shirt.

    Aside from that, I am also an elementary school teacher, and trust me, you have to dress a certain way even when teaching this age. Fifth grade boys do talk about teachers in tight, skinny jeans, revealing tops, short skirts, etc. Especially, unfortunately, if you have 13 year olds sitting in elementary school.

  46. Susie

    I'm going to come right out and say that I love cleavage. I love mine, and I love it when other women have some showing. I think that the female body is beautiful in all its shapes and sizes. My general attitude is if you've got it, flaunt it. Even when I wear high-necked shirts, they are usually pretty tight. I try to wear flattering pants and skirts. I'm not a huge fan of my thighs, so I don't usually go shorter than a couple of inches above the knees. I have been known to wear a fishtail skirt that covers my thighs, but shows off my butt.

    All that being said, I don't think of myself as immodest or trashy. I think it's possible to still be elegant and classy while wearing clothes that emphasize rather than conceal. Part of it is attitude and behavior, and part of it is choosing pieces that are flattering and are well designed.

    I work in the medical field, and I wear shirts that don't show any cleavage when I'm at the clinic because I want patients to view me as a professional. My lab coat isn't a boxy, shapeless thing, though. It has lines that flatter my shape.

    I think it's important to wear things that make you feel beautiful – whatever your definition of beautiful is.

  47. Hannah

    I know this discussion is a few days old, but I had to jump in when I saw budget chic's comment. Her assumption that only "those with very little morals don't have any problem going out showing all the goods on a regular basis" seems rather presumptive on her part. The vibe I get from her (and I'm honestly not trying to be rude here) is the same as that I get from people stating that without a religious upbringing it's impossible to live a good life.

    The fact is that we don't know the person's reasons behind dressing the way they do. I don't think clothing has a moral connection any more than food does, so assuming that a person is immoral for dressing in a way you consider immodest really shows how little consideration you are giving to their own motivations. It might be that they're not emulating the "strippers and hoes" found on TV, but may just enjoy showing what they have and are confident in doing so.

    I'm not good at avoiding judgment when I look at people's mode of dress, but I try not to translate that into judging the person based on their clothing. That's dangerous territory, and it generally leads to bad first impressions.

    That leads me to another comment, by the way. It should not just be the onus of the dresser to control the way people react to him or her, but it should also be the responsibility of the people observing to avoid making snap judgments based on appearance.

    …I've probably rambled enough now. Hope I'm not too late joining the comments party!