Is Modest Culture Toxic?

By Alexandra Holden 

I can remember the exact moment that I realized my body was a sexual object. I was thirteen years old, sitting cross-legged on the floor of an empty sanctuary at bible camp. Next to me were the other girls volunteering that summer, excitedly waiting to see why we had all been gathered. We thought maybe it was a game since the boys had been gathered elsewhere. Instead, our camp director walked in and proceeded to tell us the camp rules about how to act and dress modestly.

Modesty is defined as “behavior, manner, or appearance intended to avoid impropriety or indecency” (Oxford English Dictionary). Most commonly discussed in conservative communities, it is considered the barometer of a woman’s worth. Modest women are more godly, more attractive and more innately good. While the definition includes behavior and manner, appearance tends to be what modesty is hinged on.  

In our camp meeting, at the young age of thirteen, I was told to focus on God, not the male staff. Obviously, this was a huge blow, because forget the experience, the adventure, and the friends: the only reason I volunteered to spend my entire summer in the woods was to flirt with sweaty boys who bragged about being able to play “Wonderwall” on an acoustic guitar.

We were then told exactly what we could wear. Shirts had to cover our collar bones because nothing says “summer vacay” like a turtleneck. Want to swim in the lake? Think again! The long-sleeved, baggy t-shirt over our one-piece that we would be required to wear would likely drown us. Essentially, lest we were dressed like elderly colonial women, we were being immodest.

It was perfectly acceptable for the boys to have half of their boxers showing in their low-riding jeans or run around shirtless on hot days, but God forbid a single bra strap should be seen. The entire talk consisted of making sure we all understood we were dark temptresses of the night who were the reason the boys were addicted to pornography and were all chronic masturbators. Speaking of the boys, what did their modesty talk consist of? A game of basketball. That’s it. Just basketball.

That night was the first time I looked in the mirror and saw legs that weren’t long enough, hips that were too wide, arms with too much hair on them, and a tummy that wasn’t toned. I no longer had a body, I had a figure, meant to attract and please men. I had been forced to consider how my body looked from the male gaze, and now that was all I could see.

That summer I wrestled with the paradox of wanting boys to see me as beautiful, but not wanting to be one of those girls who tempt innocent men with their bodies. I wanted to be godly, but I also strongly believed God wouldn’t want me to die of heat exhaustion in my turtleneck sweater. I both rejected this new fate as a ridiculous limitation of the female body and accepted it as a reality if I wanted to be good and pure wife-material.

Most of all, I couldn’t help but wonder, ‘why is it my responsibility to make sure some gross twelve-year-old isn’t aroused by my shoulder?’

This is modesty culture. It is the concept that it is up to women to stop men from gazing lustfully at them. If a man stumbles, it is the woman’s fault. From modesty, culture breeds many other damaging sub-cultures, such as purity culture (the idea that your worth is tied to your sexual purity), rape culture (the idea that if you were raped you were somehow asking for it), etc., etc., etc., etc., etc..

Modesty culture is toxic. It tells men that they have absolutely no control over their sexual desires. It debases them to being mindless animals. It tells women that they are at fault for receiving unwarranted sexual advances. It sexualizes the female body, which is particularly disturbing when this happens with young girls—children. It tells both men and women that their value to the opposite sex, God, and society as a whole is solely determined by how much skin they are revealing.

Not only have I been burned by modesty culture, but I have participated in it. I once sat in a mock prayer circle with other girls as we all laughed and prayed for another girl’s “slutty soul.” I was upset about the problem of modesty culture but I was the problem. I am so ashamed of the times I have condemned others in the name of modesty. If you go back to the original definition of modesty, by shaming others for their alleged lack of modesty, I was being immodest. After all, was my “behavior”, not “indecent”?

To this day I struggle with the concept of modesty. I fight against it at every turn. I challenge dress code double standards, encourage women to dress in whatever way makes them feel most empowered and advocate for the end of sexualizing people’s bodies altogether—especially young peoples. And yet I still find myself making automatic assumptions based on what people are wearing, and nervously walking into church with leggings on.

The problem is that modesty culture has been so ingrained into us that it is hard to escape. In our movies, the mean girl is always wearing a low-cut blouse. In our sex education classes, we are taught what not to wear so we don’t get assaulted. In our churches, we are given strict dress codes. In our relationships, we are taught to look sexy enough to attract our partner but not sexy enough to attract the attention of others. In our schools, we are sent home, because a covered collarbone is more important than our education.

So where does that leave us? What can be done about the toxicity of modesty culture?

We need to remember that the concept of what constitutes modest behavior is completely subjective; it is different for different people. It is also not our job to police the modesty of others. Go ahead and dress as conservatively as you want if that is what makes you feel strong and powerful and beautiful. Be respectful of the environment you are in, but at the end of the day, you do you!

That summer at bible camp I did my best to follow their rules on how to act and dress modestly. Truthfully, it was easy. I worked in the barn all summer, so jeans and a long-sleeved shirt was standard fare. 

Still, one of the young wranglers would lasso me and tell me I was his. He would corner me in the barn daily and ask me to go on private horse rides with him. He would put his hand on my lower back to pass by me. He tried to kiss me while I was holding a saddle and couldn’t push him away. I remember ducking under stall doors and around horses to avoid him because guess what?

He didn’t give a damn about what I was wearing. It didn’t matter that I had manure on my cowboy boots and dust on my camp sweatshirt once he decided that I would be the target of his unwanted sexual advances. Modesty didn’t protect me, and the camp’s message about women didn’t inspire him to see me as worthy of respect.

My modesty was irrelevant.

Editor Note: To follow up on more of Alexandra's stuff, follow them on Instagram @alexandraalydia or visit their website, www.alexandralydia.com.

Love what you read? Support Funky Feminist on Patreon!