In Defense of Modesty

Ok, so there’s been a recent wave of modesty stuff going around on Facebook (again, I think this is the third time this topic has gone viralish.)  It seems to have started with this video:

Jessica Rey – The Evolution of the Swim Suit

And then got criticized with this blog:

Whosoever Looketh on a Woman

Basically, Jessica Rey’s video talks about how immodest swim suits have become. She also cites this article to try to strengthen her argument against such revealing swimwear:

This article was misused earlier by another video on the same topic.  I believe that was the first wave of modesty stuff I ever saw engulf my Facebook feed.
I think that Jessica Rey comes up with a decent conclusion, but makes lots of errors to get there.  Those errors are pointed out fairly well by the blog follow-up, but the blog then comes to an erroneous conclusion:

“wear what you want, like, and feel comfortable in, not for its effect on other people, but so that you can be happy and free as you go about doing many good things in the world.  And stop judging other people for what they wear as they go about living their lives, because it’s none of your business and it’s not about you.”

I have another post coming later about two-way bandwagons (where everyone hops on in one direction, then immediately hops on the wagon going in the opposite direction at the first drop of criticism), and this is definitely shaping up to be one.  So in the spirit of Thesis>>Antithesis>>Synthesis, maybe I can grab the Synthesis (and thus, start the process over.)

Dimensions of Action

Here, I’m going to borrow a framework used in business strategy to help manager differentiate a product.  Basically, every product has a functional, social, and emotional aspect to it, and it’s important to know what the balance is of your particular product to know how to bring it to the market (for more on that, see this video.)  This trifecta is used in business because of how well it reflects reality.  Let’s apply this idea to the reasons for using clothing.

Functional

There are plenty of functional reasons for using clothes.  I thought of a few:

1. Protection from nature
2. Protection from people
3. Enhance or facilitate an experience
4. Bring comfort


1.
 There are plenty of natural things that we need protection from, such as the weather, plants, animals, or insects.  To deal with all of that, we use jackets, umbrellas, snow pants, long sleeves and pants, and thicker clothing.  We may also wear gardening gloves or shady hats.

2.  To protect ourselves from other people, history has seen mankind use a wide variety of clothing.  Shining armor, hardened leather, Kevlar, camouflage, chain mail, shields, and plenty of other inventions.  As we saw in The Dark Knight, Batman even wore an electrical charge to prevent people taking off his mask (another item of clothing used, at least partly, for protection.)

3.  Clothing provides many functional benefits to special experiences.  This is where swimsuits get started.  Swimsuits are specially designed to facilitate the experience of swimming and getting wet.  Lots of other clothing helps facilitate experiences, such as wet suits, snow suits, hazmat suits, and space suits (mostly suits it turns out.)  Without this category of clothing, many activities wouldn’t be possible or healthy.

4.  Finally, sometimes clothing serves little more purpose that bringing comfort.  Think sweatpants.

Social

There are a few social reasons for wearing clothes.  Off the cuff, I came up with two:

1. Signify some sort of group you’re a part of
2. Get noticed or spark a conversation

1.  Lots of types of clothes signify some sort of group you may be a part of.  Luxury fashion signals that the wearer is part of the wealthy, perhaps that 1% group that people keep talking about.  Nazi arm bands clearly signified what side of the war those troops were on during WWII.  We’ve all gotten some sort of club or camp t-shirt, or perhaps have had to wear a school uniform of some sort, or perhaps gone around in a white shirt, tie, and black name tag for a couple years.  All of these items of clothing send signals (intentionally or not) about the social circles to which one ascribes.

Google Glass
Excuse me, what’s on your face?

2. We can wear different things simply to get noticed or spark a conversation, such as t-shirts with interesting or offensive quotes, cool shoes, a lapel pin, an oddly colored tie, or some sort of high tech whatever (I’m sure Google Glass will get many wearers noticed for a while.)

Emotional

Some studies (like this one) are suggesting more and more that emotions play a larger role in our decision making process than we sometimes like to think.  This category of purposes for wearing clothes has strong implications as a result.  I thought of a few emotional reasons to wear clothes:

1. Feel exclusive (not simply signify exclusivity)
2. Feel comfortable (emotionally, not physically)
3. Ignite sexual desires

1.  Indeed, much of the social aspects of clothing probably funnel well into the emotional aspects.  People don’t generally simply want to signal their membership in an exclusive group, but want to feel what it means to be exclusive.  Fashion that few can afford can quickly add strands to one’s “web of significance.”  Pins of clubs or fraternities that only members own can make one feel special as well.  Tribal tattoos would do the same, though they may not necessarily count as clothing.

3.  I couldn’t really ignore the sexual side of clothing, especially when modesty and related issues is the topic of the day.  Lingerie and highly revealing clothing usually are designed for the purpose of igniting sexual desires.  I would say that most clothing that doesn’t fulfill a primarily functional purpose will have some aspect of “looking hot” built into the design.2.  This point was addressed in both the video and the blog that started this whole thing.  The girl in the “itsy bitsy teenie weenie yellow polka-dot bikini” certainly wasn’t dressing for emotional comfort.  But the person wearing a top-of-the-line suit is probably more comfortable in the display of pride and decadence.  As are many people who feel comfortable in the dignity they experience through modesty.  The blog ended with the conclusion to wear whatever makes you comfortable (in an emotional sense.)  Hopefully you can already see that there’s more to the picture than this one point, but I think this issue goes deeper than simply missing other reasons to wear clothes (as I’ll address in a minute.)

Dimensions of Reaction

As you look through all the purposes listed above for wearing clothes, you may notice that a lot of it has to do with people besides the wearer.  Clothing probably always has been, and–bar any drastic changes–probably will always be significantly about other people.Weird fashion

It’s easy to say “wear what you want and don’t worry about what others wear, but actually doing so isn’t really possible.  We’ve learned (indeed, it is an important part of who we are) that certain clothing has certain ideas and symbols attached to it.  Let’s be real, bikini’s are nearly invariably portrayed as being particularly sexy, and that association doesn’t just go away because we want it to.There will always be social implications based on what we wear.  There will always be emotional implications attached to our wardrobe.  Regardless of what we wear or don’t wear, as soon as someone sees our choice of fashion, it’s going to have an impact on another.  The effect may be great or small, conscious or unconscious, but it will be there.

So here’s at least one more reason why modesty is a good thing:

Courtesy

Modesty, at least in part, is about recognizing that whatever we wear will have an effect on others.  It’s about taking personal responsibility for the messages we subject others to, and ensuring that they don’t distract others from the lives they may want to live.  It’s taking initiative to be kind and respectful not only in word, but in deed.

Obviously, regardless of the message you send, it’s the responsibility of the receiver to decide what to do about it.  Someone that sees another person in a bikini isn’t justified in then treating the bikini wearer as sexual object, but by seeing the bikini wearer, the viewer is then forced to make the decisions that will enable him or her to act decently.  This decision may be easy or difficult for the viewer, but the decision must be made.

Keep Yourself In The Picture

I also want to point out that you will also interpret the symbols projected by your own clothing.  This is essentially what’s going on people say to “wear whatever makes you comfortable,” meaning that you should wear whatever sends messages that you interpret as “good.”  The odd thing about this idea is that it’s used to justify both sides: scantily clad advocates saying that others should accept them since they’re happy and comfortable with their decisions, and modesty advocates promoting the good feelings of dignity and self-respect that comes with their wardrobe decisions.

Here’s where your own comfort can be useful: don’t wear anything that makes you uncomfortable.  I think that’s decent, although not foolproof advice.  You have been raised to interpret the meanings of clothing in the same way as those around you (unless you have done some country hopping,) and if it makes you uncomfortable, it will probably make those around you uncomfortable as well.

The issue is that not everything that you feel comfortable in will avoid making others uncomfortable.  I’m not trying to make the point that, since you will always send signals you should dress as conservatively and boringly as possible, I’m trying to make the point that, if you want to be curious and kind to others, you have to think beyond yourself.

Anytime anyone tells you to do whatever you want because that’s the best, be wary.  Heck, it was another instance of such an idea spreading that got me to finally create a blog and hammer out my first blog post.  Just for fun I tried to come up with a universally good “do whatever you want” topic, but even “breath all the air you want” can be bad in certain situations (such as cities with high pollution, or gas chambers.)

Metal mario in defense of modesty

We can’t all have metal suits in toxic areas

So to reiterate, I want to be clear in saying that this conclusion:

“wear what you want, like, and feel comfortable in, not for its effect on other people, but so that you can be happy and free as you go about doing many good things in the world.  And stop judging other people for what they wear as they go about living their lives, because it’s none of your business and it’s not about you.”

is deceptive.  Whatever you wear will have an effect on others, and as a follower of Christ, I’m going to seek to strengthen others with my actions, not weaken them.  Yes, you should stop judging others based on their choice of clothing, but you can’t escape the fact that your choices have an impact on others, and it’s the Christlike person (or even just the decent human being) that tries to make their ripples in this sea of people constructive rather than problematic.

A Note To My Fellow Mormon Friends

Just for the record, I was surprised at how many seemed to buy into the deception from the blog above.  We already have the answer: modesty is good.  We’ve had the spelled out by modern prophets and apostles, and even have the nifty “For the Strength of Youth” pamphlet to spell it out more clearly than we could ever hope for.

We have been given a lot of answers.  Our job usually is not to find the answer, but to follow it, and find out why the answer is what it is.  Hopefully I’ve added something constructive to such purposes for modesty.

Keep seeking truth.

You may also be interested in:
How to be Sensitive to Spiritual Promptings
Ethics and Snowden
Dating and Game Theory

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3 comments

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  1. Peter M. 14 December, 2014 at 16:59 Reply

    So true! I’m so glad I discovered your blog Kyle. I’m going to throw away my bikini right now. 🙂 Ok but seriously, I really enjoyed and resonated with these thoughts.

  2. Chandler B 18 September, 2015 at 09:12 Reply

    Just found this post after reading your post on the Supreme Court decision. Love the arguments made in both places!

    As I get older and wiser, it can be hard not to laugh at how hostile/virile people can be when they discuss topics that they feel strongly about. There’s always more than one perspective to see. I think a big problem with the modesty discussion is the difference between men and women and how we think. It is common knowledge in medicine and psychology that men and women think differently (this is a pretty funny talk on this subject https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SWiBRL-bxiA). It seems to me that “good/decent” men want women to cover up because they don’t want to be distracted. On the other side, women don’t seem to like being told that they can’t wear certain clothing simply because a man is going to be distracted: “it’s a man’s job to keep his own thoughts clean”. I think you hit it on the head when you talked about how we have to make decisions about how we are going to think about others when we see their dress.

    My own conclusion is this: we should wear what we feel comfortable in, but we should not be offended when someone else reacts in a way that we did not expect/desire.

    I don’t know why we don’t talk about this more openly. The whole rape culture discussion seems to me to be moving in the direction that women should be able to wear a bikini, but they are not liable for the creeper who is aroused when he sees her. I feel like we need to teach people that immodest clothing can have an adverse effect. A decent man may simply turn away from a bikini wearer, but an indecent man may have a hard time controlling his actions when he sees so much skin.

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