The “Modesty Movement”

19 02 2009

I was browsing through Urban Outfitters’ online spring catalogue and got really upset by their advertisements, featuring topless women or just women’s bodies and not their heads.

Do these women not have faces?

Do these women not have faces?


Ahh...of course I want to buy the shirt that she ISN'T wearing.

Ahh...of course I want to buy the shirt that she ISN'T wearing.


Of course, seeing these images is nothing new to me – the objectification of women is so ubiquitous and normalized. Fashion advertisements have stopped advertising for clothing long ago and have instead showcased women’s bodies. This is also true of men’s fashion advertisements as well, like the classic Abercrombie ads.

Then I stumbled upon an article in North by Northwestern called “Girls raise their tops, lower their skirts for the modesty movement” which caught my eye.  

The “modesty movement” is made of women and girls who are not rejecting fashion but are rejecting scantily clad clothing, so no cleavage, no bras as shirts, and no super short miniskirts. More women and girls want to dress comfortably and fashionably without being (as) objectified and ogled at. Northwestern sophomore Maura Ross, the fundraising co-chair of the Northwestern College Feminists says:

I think that we are taking two steps forward, realizing that we don’t need to impress men with our bodies to get things, and [also] that we are powerful in who we are and we can step forward from the whole idea of the housewife.

Another Northwestern sophomore and advocate for the movement, Jasmin Avila, says:

People think like, “Oh my gosh, puritanical conservatives, people that want to wear turtlenecks all the time, people that wear potato sack nightgowns.” When you say, “Oh, I like to dress modestly,” people think you’re a prude, you know? It’s such a terrible perspective to have about it. I just think that, essentially, modesty is a form of self-respect.

The Modesty Movement is a form of resistance to the hypersexualized images and portrayals of women in the media. By dressing more modestly, women and girls are empowering themselves by demanding recognition for who they are instead of what they look like or what they’re wearing (or not wearing). 

However, critics of the Modesty Movement argue that it is a step backwards instead of progress. It sort of perpetuates the victim-blaming rape culture mentality, placing responsibility on women to “watch what they wear”. Dressing modestly will not necessarily make you less likely to be raped. Critics say that the Modesty Movement suggests that women can change men’s behavior by changing what they wear, which is not true. We can’t be held accountable for the (mis)actions of others.

This is also where the word “choice” comes in and gets tricky. If a woman chooses to dress provocatively, is that empowering or disempowering? I suppose it depends on her motives for dressing provocatively – if she dresses so because she is comfortable in her own body, then that could fall under empowerment. Meanwhile, if she dresses to get attention from men, then that leans more towards disempowerment. Women and men can be quick to attack women who are dressing “sluttily” but at the same time, Avila does have a point that women and men can also be quick to judge women who are dressing more modestly as uptight prudes. 

It kind of seems like a lose-lose situation. What ever women wear, they will always be under scrutiny. What are people’s thoughts and opinions?



One response

21 04 2009

I know a woman. Knew, I guess, given how long it is since we spoke.

This woman is nearly fifty, and has five grown children. She has known two lovers- her husband, and the man she fell in love with and planned to leave him for after her youngest leaves home. (Don’t think any the less of her for the affair, though- she once said to me that’s she’s always been true to the person in her heart, and unlike her husband, that’s true. Their relationship has long been over, and they both know and agree they only live together for the kids.)

This woman- this mother of five, who’s life is half-over- is stunning. It’s partly what she does to her hair. It’s partly her make-up (although she looks great without, too, she doesn’t like to be seen without). It’s partly her figure, which she’s kept. And it’s partly her very sexy clothing.
And it’s partly- largely, perhaps- her strength and vitality. This woman is a great femanist, although one might not think so at first. She’s anti-abortion- but says up-front that that’s her belief and that shouldn’t affect anyone else. She’s incredibly strong. She was a virgin until she married, but says that sexuality is not a sin. She’s GBLT friendly, and wouldn’t blink if one of her kids said they were gay, beyond regretting the oppression they may face as a result. She recognises that it’s not safe for a woman to walk home alone, late on a weekend, but that that’s not the way things SHOULD be. She is a fantastic woman.

Now. A woman like that, goes out to a club (which she does, often), who wears stunning, sexy clothing, that no doubt draws eyes but is still very tasteful; who dances with no inhibitions, and drinks, and laughs, and knows half the regulars in the club (and is recognised by the rest), and goes home happy and alone, and calls her lover on the way home to let him know she’s on her way, and texts him to say she’s in and to say goodnight, and goes to her high-paid job working for the police department the next day…

In this case? The way she dresses and dances is empowering. She never goes home with anyone. She might dance with the men there (usually those she’s familiar with) and it often looks like more than it is, but that’s all it is- a dance. She’s not looking for male attention, she doesn’t crave or need it- she just wants to look good, and is comfortable enough to dress in a way next to no women her age would dare, and dance all night in heels, and go to work the next day.
That kind of woman is incredible.

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