Jul 22, 2010
Have you heard? It's modesty week on the blogs. Well OK, here and here; are there others?
I wanted to say a few words on my own virtual real estate about this juicy topic. Just to reiterate: this is one man's perspective and not an attempt to dictate or to change minds. So here goes...
I couldn't care less about the amount of skin a person shows, male or female.
This whole modesty debate seems primarily focused on women, and the degree to which exposed skin leads to/invites/condones (unwanted) male attention. And there's tremendous difference of opinion. Revealing one's body is seen by some as an expression of lack of self respect, by others as flagrant narcissism, and by others still as a sign of healthy self confidence.
It can be all any of these things and more. We all have a body and we all have different feelings about them depending on what culture we were raised in and what we were taught to believe. If you were told that there's something "sinful" about bodies and their natural functions, well, sure, you're likely to judge harshly those who put their own on display and read all kinds of meaning into it. If you were taught the opposite, you might make assumptions about those who choose to conceal.
I can say with confidence as an American that American culture is conflicted-bordering-on-pathological when it comes to women, sex, and bodies. We're bombarded daily with highly sexualized images used to sell us everything from jeans to automobiles. Our political leaders routinely spout views consistent with religious orthodoxy as if we didn't have separation of church and state, and fear reprisals -- with alarming and increasing good reason -- if they do not.
I am not religious and wasn't raised religious. I don't believe our actions or way of dress honor anyone other than ourselves, our loved ones, or our communities. I don't buy the argument that not focusing on the outer allows you to focus on the inner, as if it were either/or. You can dress like a cloistered nun and still be an idiot.
That said, I am not particularly comfortable with immodest behavior or dress. I grew up believing that a confident person conceals rather than displays. Today, I have ambivalent feelings in this regard. I often judge a person whose look I interpret as highly sexualized or consciously seductive -- and this can be someone who's completely covered btw -- as a little over the top. Certainly there's a time and a place for everything, however, and it shouldn't matter. But it does to me for sure and it's not just about skin or no skin.
What I'm more interested in than modesty is elegance, another highly subjective term. We all have our own sense of what elegance is and how an elegant person acts or dresses, also based on how we were raised and where. For many of us, celebrities or the wealthy set the standard for us, rightly or wrongly.
For me, there is an element of modesty in elegance. Part of elegance is restraint: suggesting as opposed to trumpeting. I think that's why many sewers (and those who love them) are taken with vintage style. There's an element on self-conscious play -- even art -- involved as well. The operative word here is conscious. Some people are born with what we consider an elegant carriage: they have a beautiful walk, or a way of using their body that seems effortless and natural. I'm not talking about them.
I'm talking about being aware of one's tools and of trying to create an effect -- perhaps even through what can be interpreted as modesty -- that is meant to please both others and oneself. We all have the potential to be elegant, it's a question of how much it matters to us.
Poor Britney. I hate to pile on her; she doesn't deserve it. She's dressed relatively modestly here for her, but elegant? No. But she's just shopping and a suburban parking lot is not Fifth Avenue.
The late Ann Miller might be the opposite extreme but gee, doesn't this outfit suggest that she is consciously aspiring to elegance? She cares. And you know she probably dressed this way when she went out to the 7-Eleven too.
Elegance is like seeing a window box of beautiful flowers as one walks down the street: it's totally unnecessary but it's beautiful: a sign that someone cares to make an effort to do more than the minimum. It shows a respect for one's environment as well as for oneself.
That's important to me, not the amount of (male or female) leg or breast one shows . If you live in a city where there's not a whole lot of private space, this kind of thing really matters. It's all about the public realm. Maybe we're all in curlers and pajamas at home but we make an effort when we go out.
Elegance celebrates everything that makes us humans special, with none of the body shame instilled by authoritarian, generally patriarchal institutions like church, family, or even state.
It says, this might take some effort on my part, but it's worth it. I do it for me and -- as importantly -- I do it for you.
It seems many of us, scarred by the battles for equality perhaps, are loathe to admit doing something partly for others' pleasure, as if we were in some way contributing to our own objectification.
Thoughts, wise readers?
Labels: clothing and culture