"Modesty is about revealing our dignity."
~ Jessica Rey
The above video is of a talk given by Jessica Rey, a swimsuit designer (who does a fabulous job of promoting her business, by the way- I just wish she didn't use such poor logic to do it!) and modern proponent of "modest" swimwear for women. She basically argues that men objectify women who wear bikinis, as opposed to more "modest" (that term is never defined) swimwear, and that women showing skin is an invention of the modern fashion world. She says that "modesty" is about revealing dignity and being seen as people, rather than attractive bodies.
Normally, I think it is a mistake to judge an argument by its source. This time, I think the correlations between and origins of this argument and a very, very similar one are significant, simply because of the implications for the status of women in a society which adopts them.
"In the ’80′s, most of the religious rhetoric about hijab that I was exposed to stressed religious obligation, as well as women’s dignity. Supposedly, hijab would protect our dignity, by focusing (male) attention on us as believing women, rather than on us as female bodies."
Substitute modesty for the word hijab, and you have Ms. Rey's argument. The only difference is the definition of modesty. The only difference between requiring women to wear full-coverage, one piece swimsuits to "avoid objectification by males" and requiring them to wear full hijab or even a burqa is one of degrees. The same logic that holds women accountable for rape, even in some cases punishing them as adulteresses if they file rape charges, the same logic that excuses honor crimes and forced marriages and domestic violence, is the same logic that the evangelical Christian world is using to regulate the dress and behavior of women. This should be a sobering thought to those Christians who in all other respects decry the mistreatment of and sidelining of women by Muslims.
Now, to unpack the other ideas here- Ms Rey cites a study, done at Princeton, as evidence for males' inherent tendency to objectify women who are wearing bikinis. For a more in-depth look at the study, try this post. Suffice it to say that this study was of a limited number of male college students. Also, the pictures they were shown were not only women in bikinis, but headless women in bikinis. The only thing the participants could see, unlike real life, was the woman's body. Even if the data from these students led to Ms. Rey's conclusions, (and I do not believe it does) this proves nothing about other demographics, other times, other cultures, or any person who has not been socialized into thinking that an attractive woman in a bikini is an object and fair game. She assumes that the reaction to the bikini is an inherent one in all males, rather than a socially conditioned one, and one which reflects ideas about women and their bodies which may not, in fact be universal. Not all men see a woman in a bikini and immediately turn her into an object. Some men see a woman who is beautiful and exposed in her beauty as the sacred living art of the Creator and as an actual person, with needs, goals, talents, and a mind.
Another thing- women can be, and are, ogled by pervs no matter what we wear. Even if all reasoning for modesty rules was legitimate- folks, it doesn't work. Whether or not I get leered at depends, not on what I wear, but on who I'm around. That's a fact. Those guys in the grocery store who were making catcalls? They would have done so no matter what I was wearing. (A loose tshirt and jeans at the time) The guys who treated me with respect and conversed with my face, not my boobs, or else ignored me altogether, when I was in a two piece swimsuit at my college gym, treated me as they did because they were decent humans, not because I was covered up. When I am objectified, it;s not my form that's at fault- it's the pervs who are viewing me as an object created for their pleasure.
What exactly is modesty, and who gets to define it? Modesty, being completely a function of cultural expectations and norms, is relative. What would be "modest" in Papua New Guinea and what would be "modest" in Norway and what would be "modest" in Lancaster county, PA are all totally different. Modesty varies from occasion to occasion, place to place, and time to time. Women showing skin is nothing new. Belly dancing costumes are little more than bikinis, and they have been around for longer than this country. In Japan, it's weird to wear anything when you go to the hot tub, no matter the company. I could name quite a few societies in which clothes were/are limited or optional for some or all normal occasions. Making the history of modern, western culture perennially normative when it comes to this or any other issue is a mistake- at best, we end up with a very limited perspective, and at worst, incorrect conclusions. I would contend that "appropriate modesty" is synonymous with practicality, a total lack of misplaced shame, and general social acceptability. The most stereotypically "modest" (covered) swimsuit won't be appropriate for a funeral, and long pants and a shirt will be horribly impractical at the beach. In a historical context, I think it's a mistake to glorify the fashion of days gone by- yes, in modern history, women were (a couple of hundred years ago) more covered in general. But- why is that automatically a good thing? Were women more respected, did we have more rights and freedoms, and was our equality more a given then? Did men objectify less, respect more, and treat us as holy sisters, or as valuable persons equal to themselves? Not exactly! I cannot think of another age since perhaps the Minoan or Natchez societies in which women have been as close (we're still not 100% there yet) to equality as in our own.