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Forgiving Modesty

November 19, 2008 | NeW

The title of Chapter 5 in Wendy Shalit’s book, A Return to Modesty, begs a question. It is “Forgiving Modesty.” Is there a reason that society needs to forgive modesty? Has modesty failed us?

First, before even considering this, we need to define our terms. Shalit gives a couple definitions of modesty. She says there are two kinds of modesty. The humble kind and the sexual kind. Since dictionary definitions seem to fall short of explaining it correctly, Shalit goes back to the Latin and the Greek to see what they had to say.

“In Latin: modestia means a respect for decency, restraint (the opposite of superbia, or haughtiness), and pudor refers to a consciousness of what is decent regarding sexual behavior or dress. And the ancient Greeks? Not only did they have sophrosyne for self-restraint and hagneia to refer to a concern with purity and chastity . . . but there was also aischune  for the shame in dishonoring man made codes and aidos for shame or awe in sexual matters.”


Back to the question: Has modesty failed us? I think the answer is “no,” we have failed and turned a deaf ear to the codes of modesty. In dress, fashion comes and goes. However, we have thrown modesty out in regards to our behaviors and mindsets.

Shalit says we could pick up the October 1996 issue of Harper’s Bazaar to see what is happening about modesty in our culture.

“Two women write in because they were offended by the August cover, which featured a modal wearing a see-through blouse and no bra. Both letters demand immediate cancellations of subscriptions. One writes that an exposed breast and nipple is just too ‘outrageous’  to be on the cover, another wonders simply, ‘What happened to elegance and glamour?’ No matter that one of these women has subscribed to Bazaar  since the 1950s; the editors feel no need to condescend to engage her point . . .”
In response to these letters, the editors wrote back:
“The barely revealed breast on our August cover wasn’t meant to offend. It was meant to celebrate the beauty of the female form. Bazaar believes that women should feel comfortable with their bodies and toward that end we’ve printed “Breasts: An Owner’s Manual” . . . we sincerely hope that all our readers will take a good, long, unembarrassed look.”

Shalit’s following commentary is provoking. She reasons that according to the editors if you plainly do not like seeing bare breasts on the covers of national magazines, you just need to “bombard yourself with a greater number of such images until you are
numbed to their power.”

The last four words in this part was the fodder for discussion at our last meeting. The idea that there is a type of power in revealing and covering one’s body. However, if everyone just lets everything hang out to secure “comfort with your body.” Then, this power seems to be lost.

How do you feel, as a woman, living in society today? Do you feel that you have to dress a certain way to wield your power over guys because that is what everybody else is doing? Are we hurting ourselves when we dress to impress, i.e. to get an up-down from guys’ eyes? Are we respecting ourselves and others when we do this? Is respect a lost virtue as well?

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