A lot of people have commented that I dress “modestly.” At first, I was surprised by that. Modesty, as a goal in itself, has never been a real focus for me. I wasn't raised with any particular religious or moral admonitions on how I should dress. In fact, in my opinion, I’m unusually comfortable with my body for an American- there are photographs on the internet of me in lingerie, for pity’s sake! Sure, when I showed up at the Star in a Bra photoshoot, my outfit choice showed significantly less cleavage than many other contestant’s clothes... but I was there to be photographed in my underwear, anyway!
When the word “modesty” is on my radar, it’s usually because I’m fuming over yet another person talking about how some women “deserved” sexual violence because she wasn't dressed right. Modesty is a really complicated issue- a whirling mess of religious beliefs, rape culture, slut shaming, moralistic lecturing, and so on. It so often feels like an impossible tightrope line to walk- it’s that old, overly idealized false dichotomy between “slut” and “prude.”
What is modesty, anyway? The definition isn't even very clear. Yes, it’s generally connected to women‘s sexuality and hiding it or not, but that’s still very vague. Some people would argue that anything beautiful or attention-gathering is immodest. They would say that if you even try to wear pretty clothes, you’re being immodest, because you’re drawing attention to how you look. By this definition, even bright colors could be seen as immodest! Others would argue that maybe pretty colors are okay, but the clothes should not reveal your shape. And others would say that modesty is about how much skin is showing, and nothing more.
I believe that when people call me modest, they’re using this definition, as I love beautiful colors and prints, and regularly wear clothes that are fitted to the shape of my body. However, I tend to only show a small amount of cleavage, wear skirts that come to a minimum of a few inches above my knees, and I prefer higher waisted pants and skirts.
Comparatively speaking, I was lucky that my upbringing included as little body shaming as it did. I did have my share of body image struggles, but I think that they were more about my overall self esteem and self image, and that my body image was a manifestation of those issues. As such, my body image journey has been more about learning, literally, to be comfortable in my own skin, and happy with who I was, such that I could feel confident enough to express my personality through my fashion choices. That, perhaps, is why I haven’t been so specifically focused on being “modest” or not.
As a teenager who was depressed, bullied, lonely, and who hated myself, I wore baggy clothes from Goodwill that hid my shape. Even though I practically dressed like a bag lady, I still got in trouble several times at the high school I attended for dress code violations- I was not only already curvy, I was tall, and at the time low rise jeans and short tops were in fashion, which meant that it was nearly impossible for me to find shirts long enough and pants with high enough rises, so that I wouldn't show midriff when I lifted my arms at all.
I think that lots of curvy women have similar stories. For many of them, showing skin is empowering- a way to take control of their bodies and their sexuality. I think that’s wonderful! I support everyone in making the fashion choices that make them feel beautiful and happy and powerful. However, just because showing skin can be empowering for some women, and just because people need to learn to mind their own business and not be judgmental or victim-blaming about a woman’s fashion choices, doesn't mean that I should have to show more skin than I feel comfortable with in the name of protesting these issues.The whole point of feminism- at least the model that I espouse, is about having the power to make personal decisions that feel right for the individual person. For me, my preferred choice is to cover slightly more skin. I think that there can be a big difference between covering up out of shame, and covering up out of a place of deliberate choice.
As to why I prefer to dress this way, here are some of my thoughts on what has influenced me to prefer it:
My personal style is sweet, girly, and heavily vintage-inspired. I often feel like I was born in the wrong era, fashion-wise. While many of my fellow bloggers and curvy women love the pin-up inspired fashion, the actual street fashions of women in the 50’s and earlier covered much more skin. I love the way that styles back then revealed a woman’s curves... while still covering her up. To my eye, this is just a prettier, more balanced, and even sexier look. I also feel like by showing a little less skin, I’m making the statement that my breasts are not my only attractive feature, and I don’t intend to treat them that way, and forget about the other parts of myself I like. I try to bring attention to my face in several ways- for example, I've gotten very interested in the past year or so in personal color analysis (something I want to talk about in future posts.) My overall goal is to have the focus be *me,* not the bright color I’m wearing, not my cleavage, but my overall personality, essence, and features.
I also feel more comfortable in “modest” clothes. When I wear more revealing clothes, I feel like I have to be hyper-aware of my physicality and movements. Suddenly I’m stressing about flashing somebody my underwear when I move my legs the wrong way, or leaning too far forward and giving somebody an eyeful I didn't intend. Clothes with more coverage stay put better as I move. Again, there are other choices I make that are related to this preference- I also never wear really high heels, I have a strong preference for fabrics with a little bit of stretch, and I prefer flowing skirts to stiff pencil styles. I want to feel like I can move around in my clothes, and be prepared for whatever adventures that might come up.
My family upbringing, of course, was an influence for me. While I mentioned that I wasn't raised super religiously or conservatively, my family was definitely still a factor. My family on my mother’s side is French. It would be poetic here to write all about my grandmother’s utterly fabulous style, all silk scarves and fancy perfume, and how it inspired my current fashion love while I was still a wee tot digging through drawers to play dress-up... However, she has never, to my knowledge, been nearly as glamorous as the American legend of the Chic Parisian. In fact, she prefers wandering about her garden in stained cargo pants and a wide brim hat to prancing around city streets looking chic or whatever fashionable French women are supposed to do.
However, I certainly picked up a few tidbits of French culture in my upbringing, and one thing my mother told me is that for French women, a little mystery is considered far sexier than revealing everything. It always made sense to me. It’s a well-documented psychological phenomenon that the body parts considered “sexy” vary by culture and by what tends to be covered most of the time. The Victorians considered ankles to be erotic, because they were always covered. In cultures where women are expected to cover their hair, their hair becomes seen as far more sexual than it is in cultures where their hair is not routinely covered.
So, in a certain way, covering more skin is my own way of taking charge of my own sexuality. I get to choose when and for whom I’m going to reveal my body. In the end, what matters the most is that you feel powerful in your clothing choices.
This blog is one of many that is participating in the Modesty Panel Series….Please check out the following links to read more great posts about Modesty!
I really connect with a lot of what you say here - I don't wear high-heels and don't generally wear things that most people would find "revealing" (what the subculture I grew up in might think is a different story...). The popular "pin-up" styles just aren't me at all, and I don't really do dresses. I tend to really dress for comfort most of the time, although I've been gradually trying to spend more effort into looking "put together" as of late. I think one effect of the Modesty Culture that I lived with growing up was that I developed the ingrained thought that looking nice was somehow a bad, attention-seeking thing, and it's hard for me to get past that sometimes.ReplyDelete
I don't really have a fully-developed "established style" as of now, but you're definitely a style inspiration for me (even though our styles (what there is of mine) may not be quite the same)!
I've always enjoyed your style posts because you have a great eye for outfits and silhouettes. While I'm not especially tall, I've heard similar stories from taller friends who were bullied because of their height or continue to struggle with finding clothes that fit properly. It was great being able to read a little more about your personal style and how you came to develop it!ReplyDelete
I had the same problem in Middle School, with the trendy short shirts and low-rise jeans. I wasn't really "tall," I just started very short (maybe 4'10 or so) and had a big, fast growth spurt up to my current height of 5'5. Not only that, but I have a similar bone structure to you, so my small waist made me look more curvy than I actually was. So I was always getting in trouble for my clothes not fitting me "right," or looking "too revealing," which was frustrating to me because I wasn't even TRYING to be "sexy" at all. I was one of those middle schoolers who thought that trying to dress sexy was stupid, so being accused of it made me feel like I had no control over how I presented my body. I always thought it was so unfair, I even wrote a letter to the principal about it and got some leeway. So I suppose that experience has helped shape me into the feminist I am today, haha.ReplyDelete
Anyway, lovely post as always--I dress quite differently from you, but I love hearing about all the different fashion perspectives everyone has.
Check out this comic: http://bustygirlcomics.com/post/26561844702/double-standardReplyDelete
This is how I always feel dressing for work. Do I wear loose clothes and have that bag lady look as you described? Or do I wear form fitting clothes, which show off my very busty/hourglass shape? Compounding that is I work in IT and don't even have any other women to try to get some ideas from what they're wearing.
I can totally understand your frustration! It's unacceptable that what you're basically being told is that your body is inappropriate for work. I would take a look at what the guys are wearing, and just dress on the same "formality" level. Is it the kind of IT where everyone gets to wear jeans? Great. Just wear what they were. Is it the kind of IT where you at least have to wear dress pants? Great. Just wear some business casual clothing. Is it a kind of IT where you have to be in suits all the time? Okay, wear a suit. My best advice is to wear something that *fits* you. It doesn't have to cling, and it doesn't have to bag. Just wear something that fits. You can wear a baggier blouse and cinch it in with a skinny belt at the waist.Delete
Ack. Wear*. I wish I could edit comments!Delete
What a fantastic post! I LOVE your words and the modesty campaign, I agree there should be no judgemental and if everyone embraces who they are and how they like to dress then we would be empowering everyone!ReplyDelete
The flow is so much better when we all empower each other!
I agree that modesty depends a lot on the culture that surrounds you. In this country the issue of modesty is rather curious. Growing up I was on the tall side, 5ft, 9 inches and on the slender side. As I grew older I put on a lot of weight and was 205 at my peak. Clothes have been a problem as I could never really find some that fit and like many girls I knew modesty was and wasn't an issue. There were no short skirts, cleavage revealing tops but I wore shorts like most in the summer. There just wasn't much of a focus on what I wore or didn't wear. Now I am much more focused on what I wear but find that fashion is so much more unfocused. No rules, no real limitations or at least that is how it seems to me. I am anxious to read how other women dealt and deal with the issue with modesty on the modesty panel as it is clarifying my own thoughts on the subject.ReplyDelete
Bless this post! I personally feel more comfortable in "modest" clothing because I'm notorious for not thinking before I decide to cartwheel down the quad, and it's nice to hear someone else shares my sentiments. While I was raised religious, my parents always instructed me that "While it's always the man's duty to look away, many guys won't be raised right, and we must not lead each other to even possibly thinking sinfully." The same went for my brothers, who are also required to dress within reason (no boxers will be seen above waistbands in our house! ). I actually find it more empowering to be reasonably covered, as I'm in control of who sees what and when (especially important because of my GAD and self-esteem issues); it leaves a little mystery to my persona. :)ReplyDelete
I have been following all the various bloggers 'modesty' panel comments and really enjoyed this one too. It is such a minefield with so many polarised opinions which is so difficult to sum up well but I love the comment, "a whirling mess of religious beliefs, rape culture, slut shaming, moralistic lecturing, and so on". I think that sums it up well. There really is no way to please all the people all the time.ReplyDelete