On Modesty

A few days ago, I clicked on a YouTube ad for a video by Classically Abby. The video was about being newly married or a 10-things-you-should-know-before-getting-married vlog. I was intrigued because, based on this woman’s youth, I had the feeling she couldn’t have been married for very long. What type of woman would give advice with visibly little matrimonial experience under her belt?

The video didn’t disappoint. The woman–with A-game eyebrows I might add–gave the most basic advice, which you could easily already know after being roommates with anyone for a year. Whilst the advice wasn’t horrible, it also wasn’t enriching, nuanced, or invigorating. Regardless, I couldn’t help but delve deeper into Classically Abby’s channel. The next video I watched was about dressing modestly.

Aside: I am pretty sure curiosity is both one of my strengths and one of my weaknesses.

Well, I watched the full video and then amused myself by also reading the comments. People of the Internet are equal parts inane, cruel, compassionate, and hilarious. The comments section never disappoints. Of course, all of this got me to thinking about modesty.

As Classically Abby explains in her video, women must dress modestly because–and here I’m paraphrasing–you don’t want men to be distracted by your body; If you are scantily clad, the men folk will only see you for your body and not for your other merits. Men are visual creatures, according to Classically Abby, and they cannot be blamed if, upon seeing your cleavage, they discount you as an intelligent human being and objectify you.

This is an extremely old and tired–and frankly, disproved and boring–argument. Conservative women should really find a new playbook. I thought to myself that I could spend time exposing the logical fallacies here, which several women took time to do in the comments, or I could instead explore what is modesty. I find the latter far more interesting because understanding what modesty is might better inform our understanding of what it means to dress modestly.

The definition of modesty starts with the word moderation, which means avoiding extreme behaviors or to be calm and temperate (mild). Modesty is also defined as neither bold nor self-assertive, as being unpretentious. The etymology of the word is moderate, but more at the word measured (taken from the Latin modus). It’s important to understand the definition of words before you can begin to use them to address or redress others.

With this definition of modesty, in particular its etymology, we might begin to grasp what might be meant by dressing modestly. Because at the heart of the definition is the word measured, we can exclude haute couture from being modest, since anything created by excess or expense cannot be modest. But what else might we exclude from being modest now that we know what the definition is?

Let’s think about how our clothes are designed and made these days. Most of what we buy is not made at home anymore nor by seamstresses in the United States. We tend to buy off-the-shelf fashion, which is imported mainly from China, but also from India and Mexico. Are these all made moderately without excess simply because we can purchase them for $13 at Walmart?

From the films and documentaries exposing this part of our fashion industry, especially from the revelations about the warehouses in China, where young girls are propping their eyes open with clothespins to work through the 15th hour of their 18-hour shift, we could ascertain that the expenses and excesses used in our fashion are the bodies of young girls from the poorest parts of the world.

Every pair of jeans or blouse or dress we put on costs in bodies rather than dollars. We might pay $13 for a dress, but that dress came at the expense of a teenage girl’s actual blood, sweat, and tears. In some cases, it might have been paid for with her life, since these factories are locked tight and sometimes burn to the ground with everyone inside it.

Is not the torture and enslavement of young girls for cheap, off-the-shelf clothing the definitive excess of capitalism? Is this not a high cost for the clothes we wear? Could it be then that nothing we wear here in the United States, one of the main beneficiaries of the Global Economy, is modest? Based on the definition of modesty, I would say that the clothing we wear is too pretentious, extreme in its making, and immoderate to be so.

Perhaps, if we were very concerned about modesty, we might rethink how we get our clothes, how we can defend the rights of the workers who make our clothes, and how we ourselves might be more moderate in our purchase patterns for clothing instead of worrying about how much the clothing covers of our bodies. Just a thought.

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