By Lindsay & Lexie Kite, Ph.D.
Originally posted Nov. 2011 and updated every time the modesty/dress code debate makes headlines! Current version: June 2017.
Women and girls are more than just bodies. We all know that, right? Well, you wouldn’t know that if you looked to media, or even sometimes well-meaning religious rhetoric, for that truth. And you wouldn’t know that if you listened to the way so many of us discuss the topic of appropriate dress, or “modesty,” today. In an inescapable media world that pans up and down women’s bodies and focuses so much attention on their parts, no wonder girls learn to display their bodies as something to be looked at. No wonder girls learn to survey their bodies at all times, and in all things they are wearing, and in all places they are going.
Today in many circles, issues of female “modesty” are very popular. From many religions’ focus on appropriate dress to schools having rules on how high above the knee girls’ shorts can and can’t be or how much bare shoulder is too much – modesty is a trending topic. While reasons for advocating modesty vary greatly, we can attest that far too much emphasis is being placed on arbitrary standards that actually have the effect of sexualizing and objectifying girls from a very young age and keeping us fixated on women as bodies alone.
If you’re pro-modesty (by whatever definition that means to you), then you can and should live it and teach it as a benefit to yourself, not to appear more or less appealing or acceptable to others.
Many cultures and religions teach perspectives on modesty that revolve around the idea that covering up particular body parts to certain degrees is crucial to respecting our bodies, which are viewed as sacred. (For LDS audiences, we have a modesty lesson plan here). Regardless of your spiritual orientation, an open discussion about modesty from the perspective of our research can get us somewhere much more powerful and valuable than the shallow “her shorts are [this] many inches above the knee” and “modest is hottest” mentality so prevalent today. Here’s the truth you can stand behind: We are more than bodies to be looked at.
If modesty is a concept you subscribe to, there is great power in changing the modesty conversation from what you LOOK like to others to what you FEEL like inside. Here are some strategies to shift the modesty conversation in empowering, rather than shame-inducing, ways:
1) Be aware of the role of clothing in girls’ and women’s rampant self-consciousness. Our research echoes that of many others showing self-objectification is epidemic among girls and women today. Self-objectification takes place when we internalize an outsider’s perspective of ourselves. We literally picture ourselves being looked at as we go throughout our days, monitoring our bodies and appearance at all times, and research shows it gets in the way of everything we do. Everything. When we have to accomplish a task while also thinking about what we look like while doing it, we’re at a major disadvantage. When we live in a state of perpetual self-consciousness about our bodies, we are left with fewer mental and physical resources to do anything. Girls and women who are in a state of self-consciousness perform worse on math tests, logical reasoning tests, athletic performance, and have lower sexual assertiveness (including the ability to say “no” when needed). Self-objectification leads to an increase in disordered eating and cosmetic surgery procedures, low participation in leadership positions, and leads girls to quit pursuits of math and science at greater rates.** Girls and women LOSE — and so do the men all around us — when we fixate on bodies.
Interestingly, there is power in clothing to alleviate self-objectification. This benefit to modest dressing can be significant for girls and women who feel fixated on their appearance. Studies on self-objectification show us that “clothing represents an important contributor to the body and emotional experience of contemporary young women” because body-baring clothing leads to greater states of self-objectification, body shame, body dissatisfaction, and negative mood***. What this tells us (and what our own experience living in female bodies tells us is a no-brainer) is that when we wear clothing that is especially revealing or emphasizing our bodies, we become very self-aware of those parts that are most visible and potentially being looked at. We self-objectify and are in a near-constant state of adjusting our clothing, fixating on what we look like, and looking at other people looking at us. It’s OK to like being looked at, and even to like attention from others for our looks, but if it’s distracting us and getting in the way of progress, happiness, and health — as so much research confirms it is for many — we’ve got to be conscious of the role of our clothing in holding us back mentally. Research shows a level of modesty (that may vary from person to person since modesty and comfort in clothing are subjective) can be an important tool in safe-guarding ourselves and our daughters from being in a constant state of self-objectification.
2) Skip the well-meaning references to modesty making girls “hottest.” Catchy phrases like “modest is hottest” — in a sneaky, fun-sounding way — teaches that girls should dress modestly to look good and receive approval from others, and not for themselves. What if we took to topic of what modesty looks like to outsiders viewing you off the table? What if we promoted the message that it doesn’t matter what anyone — including boys or men at school — think of what you look like, and what does matter is that you don’t exist to be looked at or evaluated or consumed? What if we prioritized how girls and women feel in their own bodies and clothing? What if we helped girls and women consciously consider the way their clothing affects their self-perceptions and self-consciousness rather than the way others might or might not perceive them?
When you teach a girl she is more than a body – that she is capable of much more than being looked at – then she might dress differently than someone who perceives her value comes from her appearance, or the amount of attention she gets from others. Someone who sees herself as a capable and powerful person with a body that can help her achieve great things might act differently than someone who exists solely to look “hot.” She might treat her body differently and think about it differently than she otherwise would in a self-objectifying mindset. If she can be taught that her power comes from her words, her unique contributions, her skills, her mind, and her service, then she will be less likely to seek fleeting attention and power that revolves around her appearance. What this looks like in action, including in clothing choices, is for each woman to decide for herself.
3) When discussing or teaching modesty for girls, leave boys and men out of the conversation where possible. So much talk of modesty includes the effect women’s clothing choices have on males. Many discussions of modesty, from diverse cultural or religious perspectives, revolve around the idea of keeping tempting female bodies and body parts from the gaze of others — particularly men. This privileges the male gaze, in a backward sort of way, and puts females at a disadvantage for being the ones in control of what others think or feel when seeing their bodies. When we speak of modesty strictly in terms of covering our bodies from the sexual gaze of others, we are keeping the level of discourse at the shallow waters of women and girls as bodies to be viewed.
We have very little control of what other people think when they look at us. Even in cultures where women are required to or choose to cover up a great deal, there is still an incredibly high incidence of rape and sexual violence. Covering up has no bearing on men’s ability to control themselves or respect women. We would warn that this perspective on modesty creates a very dangerous and slippery slope that puts full responsibility for males’ inappropriate thoughts – and even their actions – on the shoulders of girls and women. This happens regardless of whether or not those girls or women believe they are dressing appropriately or modestly. If we are teaching the girls in our lives that the primary objective of modesty is to keep themselves covered so boys and men don’t think sexual thoughts about them, then we are teaching girls they are responsible for other peoples’ thoughts and they are primarily sexual objects in need of covering. (See our thoughts about the massive debate on leggings and school dress codes here). No girl or woman’s body is sinful, and no one should be taught that.
Know this and please help us teach this to girls: you could never be clothed perfectly enough to ensure everyone perceives you the way you intend to be perceived. You could never obscure your shape or essence or beauty enough to prevent someone from having inappropriate or sexual thoughts about you and then blaming you for those thoughts. What constitutes “revealing” for one person or family or culture might be fully accepted as “modest” by another person, family, or culture. (We’re referring to definitions of appropriate that can vary significantly but still fall within legal, common public attire and that fit dress codes for certain venues.) Other cultures and religions might perceive your definitions of modesty as being vulgar or far too revealing for their standards. We each must work to define what constitutes modesty for ourselves and our families, and allow all others the same freedom, free from our judgments and comments.
We see why suggestions regarding the length of hemlines and the depth of necklines are important, because we live in a world where studies show girls as young as 6 years old are sexualizing themselves because media messages show them being sexy yields rewards. As we‘ve written about before, people use the excuse that “sex sells,” but we’re buying more than we bargained for. And when we try to teach and enforce appropriate dress by fixating on the inches of skin showing, we are missing the point.
When we judge girls and women for the skin they are or are not showing, we are minimizing them to their bodies and repeating the same lies that females are only bodies in need of judgment and fixing. We are even perpetuating the shame-inducing belief that female bodies are sinful and impure, and must be covered to protect boys and men who can’t be held responsible for their thoughts or actions.
It’s time to stop shaming girls and women into covering themselves and instead start teaching empowering truths that everyone needs to hear: we are more than just bodies to be looked at. When we really begin to believe that, female progress in every imaginable way will move forward. We will spend less money on cosmetic surgery (up 115% since 2000 with 92% of the surgeries performed on women) and every other product we need to “fix” our flaws. We will spend less time hiding and fixing and obsessing over our insecurities beneath our clothes. We will spend less time emphasizing and obsessing over our parts on display in our clothes. We will perform better academically, athletically, and in our careers. We will love other women more and feel more compassion toward them because we will not be judging them as bodies in competition with our bodies. We will feel greater self-love, life satisfaction, and power to live authentically chosen lives. We will pass along all of these truths to the girls growing up and then women growing older in an increasingly objectifying world.
Illustrations by Michelle Christensen
Need more help developing body image resilience that can help you overcome your self-consciousness and be more powerful than ever before? Learn how to recognize harmful ideals, redefine beauty and health, and resist what holds you back from happiness, health, and real empowerment with the Beauty Redefined Body Image Program for girls and women 14+. It is an online, anonymous therapeutic tool that can change your life, designed by Lexie & Lindsay Kite, with PhDs in body image and media.
**For a comprehensive list of self-objectification’s many negative consequences, see the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls.
***Tiggemann, M. & Andrew, R. (2012). Clothes Make a Difference: The Role of Self-Objectification. Sex Roles. Vol. 66 Issue 9/10, p.646