Sexy Closets, Double Standards: The Faulty Rubric of Modesty Culture

This post is a quickie, because I have homework I’m ignoring. But I have Things To Say that are too long for a Facebook status, and would take up so many tweets that there wouldn’t be enough left for anyone else. 

It’s the author’s comment in this blog post (yes, yet another Modesty Rules For Young Ladies post, those never get old) that bothers me the most, I think. She illustrates her blog post — a post telling young women that they need to stop posting selfies of themselves in their bedrooms or wearing pajamas, because that will make young men think of them sexually and once the boys have thought about them that way they “can’t unsee it” — with photos of her teenage sons on the beach, wearing swim trunks and no shirts, making muscle poses. Which, you know what? Besides the double standard she’s exhibiting, those photos are FINE. There is NOTHING WRONG with posting photos of your kids on the beach (with their permission, of course, assuming they’re old enough to care about what you post about them online).

But when a bunch of commenters pointed out the double standard that was evident — some because they agreed with her and didn’t want to see her undermine her message, others because they saw the double standard as evidence of the underlying flaw in her argument — she responded by saying,

“[D]o I think those family pictures are in any way sexual? No. Am I surprised that people might think they are? Yes, actually. … [T]he pictures I refer to in the post, as I mentioned, are ones taken by young ladies in closets, bedrooms, and closed-door private places. In the hundreds of fun teenage-girl summer photos we see (many at the beach), these bedroom pics are notably different and more provocative, even to the casual observer. Do I think this is a different situation than a photo taken with your siblings, or your dad, on a public beach? Why, yes.” (emphasis mine)

But here’s the thing. Maybe this one writer truly doesn’t think that photos of young women at the beach are “immodest,” and photos of young women in their closets are. Because closets and bedrooms have doors, and that makes them private and therefore sexual. But regardless of whether she herself finds beach photos inappropriate, there is a whole internet’s worth of blog posts out there with other writers making the same argument — that women need to cover their bodies so that men don’t see them sexually — specifically ABOUT swimwear. The specific clothes a woman is wearing or place she takes her picture in isn’t what’s relevant — the underlying message of modesty culture is, Women’s bodies are sexual and must be hidden from men, or it will make the men have sex thoughts and that is bad. The message is, If a woman is showing skin/bedroom/evidence of her own embodiment or (gasp!) sexuality, she is being sexy AT men. 

The message is, A woman’s body is so powerful and dangerous and offensive it can make men do things they don’t want to do. 

And frankly, the fact that one blogger may say, Bathing suits are immodest!, and another says, No, bathing suits are fine, it’s closets that are too sexual! — this is all evidence that this whole rubric is flawed. There is no set of rules that will make a woman’s body acceptable. Some find two-piece bathing suits too much exposure; others one-piece suits; others pants. In this game, the only way to win, the only way for a woman’s body to be acceptably modest, is for her to cease to be visible.


Going back to the blogger’s comment: “[D]o I think those family pictures [of my sons on the beach] are in any way sexual? No. Am I surprised that people might think they are? Yes, actually.”

Of course she doesn’t. Why would she? Our culture has taught us that it’s female bodies that are inherently sexual at all times. Male bodies get to have context. A man on the beach may be showing as much skin as Channing Tatum did in Magic Mike, but the man on the beach isn’t automatically viewed as sexual, as having his “business all up in your face.” At its core, our cultural double standard is that men’s bodies inhabit a whole variety of spaces and purposes, while women’s bodies are always sexual. That’s the alchemy that makes a closet into a “private place” — a closet doesn’t lend some kind of closet-sexuality to a photo of a young woman; the young woman’s presence transforms the closet into a sexual space.

And this is what our culture means when we say that “men are stimulated by sight” (as one commenter in the FYI post insisted as a way of justifying the photos used in the post). Of course they are — they’ve been taught from a young age that whenever they see a woman, regardless of context, they are seeing something primarily sexual. For us to perpetuate this way of seeing women under the guise of protecting our daughters’ dignity and saving our sons from lust is wrongheaded and doomed to fail.

No, the only thing that will do that is if we abandon the rubric of the modesty rules altogether —

if we teach our sons to honor the humanity and imago Dei — which includes sexuality as only one facet of humanity — in the young women around them, to recognize that every person they see is unique and multifaceted regardless of what they are wearing or where they are standing, and to understand that experiencing sexual attraction, when it does happen (and it will!), is neither a moral failing nor an excuse to take what isn’t expressly given to them; if we teach our daughters to fully inhabit their bodies, to own their sexuality, to strive for the freedom to wear the clothes and do the activities and take up the spaces that make them feel the most fully themselves, that their worth is far greater than whether they are judged as visually pleasing.


15 thoughts on “Sexy Closets, Double Standards: The Faulty Rubric of Modesty Culture

  1. Yes to all of this!

    I have a different reason to be sad when girls post the pictures of themselves in their undies in front of their closet mirror. It’s because they post them with words something like “Do you think I’m ____?” She’s asking the world for something they can’t give her- love of herself. That’s why I don’t like it when young girls post those pictures. It’s because they’re asking for acceptance based solely on how they look and it makes me sad. 😦

    Note: Totally different if it’s posted with the words “I LOVE this outfit on me!” 🙂

    1. Yes! It’s two sides of a coin — you have one aspect of our culture insisting that women are only valuable as long as they’re sexually attractive, and another aspect of our culture insisting that for women to present themselves sexually is devaluing; and what both sides are really saying is, a woman’s worth is dependent on how she presents herself to be seen. It’s completely lose-lose.

  2. Nope.
    First let me say that the blog your referring to is an idiot. Context matters, but not that much. The only time that PJ’s in the bedroom is more sexual than a string bikini is if the PJ’s are negleje.
    Modesty isn’t important because men are raging rape monsters that can barely contain themselves. Modesty is important because how YOU choose to present yourself to the world is the primary factor in how you will be perceived by the world. If you make the choice to present yourself as a sex object, you will be seen as a sex object. Women are not treated as sex objects because men objectify women as a matter of course. Women are treated as sex objects because women present themselves as sex objects. Modesty is important so that women learn how to not present themselves as sex objects. We need to train women to respect themselves enough to present themselves as people. We don’t need to try to train sexual desire out of males.

    1. Nope! Your argument is just as flawed as the one this post is talking about. Judging people on appearances causes a lot of grief in our society and should be eradicated as a practice.

      Women should dress for themselves, as should all people of all genders! If you look at a woman or anyone else and see a sex object instead of a sexy person, the fault is yours. You’re the one who needs to be taught how to not objectify people.

      Attraction and objectification are not the same thing; you can think someone someone is sexy without seeing them as a sex object. If you can’t, again, that means you need to be taught yo act and trest people differently; it does not mean other people need to dress differently.

      1. So are you saying that women are objects because the choices they make are irrelevant or are you saying that women are objects because they don’t have the ability to understand the affects of their choices?
        I’m saying women are people and the choices they make, like what to wear, really do matter and women can understand the affects.
        You are the one the one denying the efficacy of women’s ability to make choices.

      2. I am saying women are treated like objects because misogynists choose to objectify them.

        I have been treated like an object by men (who mistakenly read me as a woman) in sweatpants and no makeup. Because objectification isn’t a consequence brought on by the choices of women (or those of us incorrectly seen as wome); it is a consequence of someone choosing to see another as a sexual object rather than a sexy person whose sexiness is one aspect of the whole person.

    2. It’s been a busy few days for me and I’m only just now getting to your comments.

      First: Please don’t name-call here. You are welcome to disagree with the author of the blog post I quoted, but in this space you must limit your critique to her words, not herself.

      Second: Women don’t need to learn how to present themselves as people; women already ARE people, and this is enough. Modesty culture tells women that their personhood is subject to their appearance, clothing choices, self-presentation, etc., and this is false and damaging.

      Third: I’m not arguing that we need to “train sexual desires out of males.” Sexual desire isn’t the problem; objectification is the problem. Sexual desire can exist quite harmoniously alongside seeing the person one is attracted to as a person.

      1. You’ve linked to these posts already, and it seems you’ve made your point as well as you’re going to. A cursory look at your links indicates that your arguments are 1. that “gender equality” means that male dress should be normative in the workplace, and 2. that a woman’s clothing choices only and always communicate a meaning imposed by the male gaze. You are repeating yourself and derailing the conversation, and you need to go away now.

  3. Modesty is BORING and IDIOTIC, it is based on man-made religious principles used for the purpose of controlling women…nuff said. Wonderbar article! 🙂

  4. Thank you. So much. It’s breaking my heart to see the number of mothers, teachers and mentors so excited about this FYI post without any regard for what it’s actually teaching. And as a “product” of that teaching, trying to find and live in freedom, I have to thank you for your post that I will share and hopefully at least encourage those mentoring women to think twice about what they are reading.

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