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Modern Modesty

First appeared at Meditating of a Muslimah.

Even before I was Muslim, I considered myself to be a ‘modest’ person– at least in terms of how everyone else around me dressed. I didn’t wear low-cut shirts, short shorts or skirts, and I hated to be in public in my bathing suit. And it had nothing to do with body image or low self-esteem; I just didn’t like to draw attention to myself and wasn’t comfortable with people looking at my body.

As a Christian, I had learned the importance of dressing modestly; after all, your body is your ‘temple.’ But I have realized since then that the Christian view of modesty that I grew up with was set against modern times. For example, I remember listening to a youth group leader talking to some of us girls about dressing modestly. Tips included not letting your undergarments show and not wearing a spaghetti-strap shirt if you were well-endowed. (Coincidentally, one of the main purposes we were told of dressing modestly was so that we wouldn’t lead our Christian brothers into temptation and sin —  which sounds very similar to why Muslims dress modestly.)

I have come to the realization lately that the idea of modesty is always changing and evolving, especially in recent times. What some consider as “modest” today would have been scandalous a hundred years ago. And although I’m not a history major and can’t testify to the fact, it seems that for most of human history, most societies have dressed in manners that were much more modest than today. It seems only in the past hundred years or so that we have begun wearing less and less clothing, and bearing more skin has become increasingly acceptable.

In the last few months I’ve been contemplating this issue a lot. Since the weather started warming up, of course you begin to see more and more immodest clothing. Why is it that our culture today believes that when it’s hot outside, you have to wear very little clothing? This was not how people used to feel. I get frustrated sometimes when, as dressing modestly, people ask me, “Aren’t you hot?” It seems such a silly question. Of course I’m hot– but so are you! It’s 100 degrees outside– it doesn’t matter what you wear, you will be hot. I’ve actually realized that as long as I’m wearing breathable, natural fabrics, I’m actually not any worse off than I used to be in the heat. If anything, I feel that it’s better, because the sun isn’t directly hitting and burning my skin.

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swimsuit 1855

Sketch of Swimsuit from 1855

It’s interesting to compare today’s modesty with the modesty of former times, and the bathing suit is an easy way to look at it. In their page Swim Wear History, discusses the changes over time. It seems that, although there were occasional lapses, for most of history, clothing (including the bathing suit) was very modest, covering most of the body. Things started to change around the early 1900s, with bathing suits and dress revealing more and more.

The thing most concerning to me, however, is not the trend towards immodesty, but the trend toward despising modesty. Those who choose to dress modestly — from very conservative Christians to practicing Muslims– are often looked upon with ridicule, and often times shunned. Here are some examples:

  • A few weeks ago I saw a story on Yahoo News, singling out the Duggar family from the reality show 19 Kids and Counting for wearing “Unusual Outfits While Snorkling.”
  • I was shocked to recently learn that France outlawed not only the burqa, but also the burkini (the name for the modest bathing suit for Muslim women). While most reports on the burkini law claim the reasons given for its ban are because it is “unhygienic,” others state that it is because it is considered the same as a burqa. One report I read (which I can’t find again) had a French official quoted as saying it was against France’s values for women to be thus clothed while swimming (huh???).
  • As Turkey has been in the news a lot lately, I thought it fitting to give an example from that country (and it’s not that unrelated to what the protests are actually about): officially on the law books, hijabs are banned in Turkey inside government buildings, including public universities. However, the current administration does not enforce this ban and has tried– unsuccessfully– to strike out the ban.

So, my question after all of this: when did it become a social wrong — and even at time illegal — to do something that you believed was morally right? And why is a modestly dressed woman, who would have been considered decently covered by the standards of past eras, something that is now unacceptable?