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!