The Problematic Subliminal Message of Modesty


I’m usually not one to sermonize my convictions through my personal blog, but when I think my opinions might bring awareness to an issue, I have the perfect platform to educate others. Today, I felt convicted to respond to an article my friend posted on Facebook in the spirit of shedding light on and opening dialogue about an issue. And I decided to write it out – I communicate more clearly in writing than by speaking. I ask you to bear with me, read the whole thing and keep an open mind.

Some Background

Before I jump into it, you should know what the hell I’m talking about. A woman recently wrote an article on her blog about her decision to cease wearing leggings (those skin-tight, well, tights). According to an article on conservative site The Blaze, the blogger received criticism for her decision.

I want to caveat by saying that this post is not intended to comment on the blogger whatsoever. She can wear, or not wear, whatever she feels is right. If her choice makes her feel more confident, more supportive or overall better, then you go girl!

Rather, this post is my response to The Blaze article. My post is, in essence, my way of educating others as to why the article (and the views it propagates) are problematic.

The Issue

Growing up in a religious environment (I say environment because it included home, church and family friends), I was taught quite a bit about the concept of modesty. More specifically, people should dress modestly because failing to do so is an affront to your brothers and sisters. By wearing low-cut shirts and tight pants, you subject people to temptation, which wasn’t very thoughtful or careful.

This is the stance the article takes. The religious view of modesty overwhelmingly seems to posit that being immodest, and therefore tempting those around you, is wrong. Basically, dressing a certain way rests the blame on you for causing another person to be lustful.

I have a problem with this view.

The Consequences of Seemingly Innocent Views

Initially, the idea of dressing modestly to prevent others from feeling tempted – no, let’s make it even simpler – uncomfortable is perfectly fine – I wouldn’t want to stare at a shirtless co-worker all day. However, stopping to think about this line of logic, I began to see issues arise.

Know what this looks like? It resembles victim-blaming and rape culture in a way that’s, frankly, frightening.

Lately, society has given sexual harassment a lot of thought, which is good – it needs to happen. More people are standing up for individuals who have borne the weight of the atrocities of others. However, some people still ask “What was she wearing?” after hearing a story about harassment, assault or rape. The thinking there is that she must have been dressed immodestly, which tempted the poor guy, who is, after all, incapable of controlling his lust (in reality, we should give men more credit).

Now, let’s breathe and step back. Do you see that? The assumption is that failure to be modest caused the incident, to which I say, no it did not. The assailant is the sole cause of the harassment, assault or rape, not the way the victim looked. The assailant chose to act.

Unfortunately, the mindset that modesty is important because it prevents temptation is the early, seemingly innocent version of victim blaming. To say “You have to dress modestly so people don’t look at you lustfully” is the precursor to “You have to dress modestly so you don’t get assaulted.”

By raising people with the problematic modestly mindset, we have created this culture in which what you wear bears just as much scrutiny as the actions of others. The two carry the same basic line of logic, and that’s why religious modesty can be (but certainly isn’t always) harmful.

The Effect on Our Psyche

Imagine you’re told your whole life that you have to dress modestly, lest you tempt the lust of others. So you follow the rules, dress righteously and behave in a way that your religious brethren would praise. Then what if you were assaulted or worse? You’d likely wonder what went wrong? Were your efforts not enough? In an already psychologically damning situation, you have to contend with guilt put on you by the modesty mindset.

I’m not saying this happens all the time or that religious modesty is the cause of victim blaming. I’m just saying we need to be aware of the effect the modesty mindset has on people. In reality, it can create and cultivate undeserved guilt.

And Then There’s Confidence

What’s more, modesty, or the impulse to cover our bodies, can cause people to feel ashamed. It posits that your body is evil because it’s tempting, and, therefore, it should be concealed. Perhaps some of our society’s body-image issues stem from the ingrained belief that the human body is something of which to be ashamed.

Spoiler: It’s not.

The human body is beautiful, incredible and worth admiration. I’m not even sure where we went wrong, even if you’re a Christian. Adam and Eve were naked and proud in the beginning – they were a beautiful creation, after all! But then, they became ashamed and covered up. See? It’s there! Shame. If shame came after sin entered the world, then is shame itself not sinful? What’s more, Adam never told Eve to cover up because she was making him lustful.

Something Else that Gets My Goat

The writer for the article said this:

“So, yes, women (and men) shouldn’t be walking around in spandex, particularly married women (and married men, God help us). At any point in human history, up until just the past couple of decades, this code of conduct would be so plainly self-evident that you’d question the sanity of anyone who felt the need to say it out loud.”


I would respond by saying that this is simply not true. Ancient peoples (see Greek garb) bore their bosoms proudly. Garments actually couldn’t close all the way because we didn’t know how to sew yet, which meant tons of side boob.

Also, look at indigenous tribes around the world bearing their bods. Saying that “at any point in human history” we thought baring skin was bad is false.

In Conclusion

All my rambling thus far has been to show you, how a thought, a worldview, a mindset, what have you, that’s seemingly harmless and well-intentioned can contribute to a society in which victims are blamed for a crime committed against them.

Fortunately, we’re starting to pay attention to this wrongful accusation. For instance, this Tumblr allows women to document the outfit they wore when they were catcalled, harassed, assaulted, etc., in an effort to show that dress does not provoke attack. (I challenge you to read submissions).

I’m not saying all this to conclude that religious modesty is totally terrible and should be abandoned – if dressing a certain way makes you feel you’re serving your community or your god, and makes you more confident, so be it. I just think we need to re-examine the logic here. What are we really saying beneath the veils of righteousness? It seems we’re treading on dangerous territory and we need to rethink our course or at least be mindful of its implications.

By being aware of the effects of modesty (which, let’s not forget, comes from a patriarchal history), we can prevent ourselves from unwittingly contributing to rape culture and victim blaming.

Think before you prescribe dress and always be aware of the messages (however subtle) you’re sending to those around you.





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