From childhood, females are taught to dress and act “modestly”. They are told to cover up, to close their legs, and to quiet down.
Modesty is a term that holds religious roots. Orthodox Judaism typically requires woman to dressin skirts to their knees, tops that cover the collarbone and long sleeves that cover the elbows. In the Islamic faith, modesty is considered an important aspect of the religion that is required in both dress code and demeanor. The Church of Jesus Christ of of Latter-Day Saints urges worshippers to ask themselves if they would feel comfortable with their appearances, or say certain words or participate in activities in the Lord’s presence.
However, the idea of modesty didn’t always refer to the same kind of demure that it is considered today. Katharine Kittredge, faculty in the Women and Gender Studies department at Ithaca College, feels that the norms of modest dress vary depending on the time period and are culturally determined.
“Different times have tolerated, accepted or desexualized forms of display and [at the same time] made others seem hypersexual or suggestive.”
“A lot of my work is in the 18th century. And in that time, they had such different ideas of what was modest and what wasn’t. So you’d have somebody who had a very low cut dress, to point that they had to worry about their nipples sort-of slipping out—things that would be considered for us really risque—was fine,” she said. “But at the same time, if you showed your ankles at any point that would be sort-of scandalous.”
The idea that a woman should dress modest is an inherently patriarchal ideal. Teaching a woman to dress modestly implies that women are inherently sexual beings that must cover themselves up for the sake of men, in order to not encourage males to have “sexual thoughts” about them. It reinforces the idea that it is a women’s job to police her appearance, as to not disturb the man.
This can be displayed by dress codes. It has been argued that these strict dress codes, often implemented in middle and high schools, interfere with the students’ right to express themselves through dress. These dress codes intend to provide a safe environment for the students, yet they end up making women their main targets. They label common female dress, like tank tops and shorts, as inappropriate or distracting. Boys, however, typically are only restricted by the kinds of the logos they can have on their clothing. Dress codes teach young woman that their body is something to be monitored and regulated by a patriarchal society.
Today, a female’s dress is an important part of the how the world perceives her. It is implied that others will deem a woman as sexually “easy” if they are dressed provocatively, and in a patriarchal world of slut-shaming, policing of women’s dress even perpetuates rape culture. This furthers the vile idea that if a woman who was dressed scandalously finds herself the victim of a sexual assault, that her revealing clothing may have provoked her attacker. This is called “victim-blaming.”
Kittredge also noted the physical danger that clothing can put woman in. “You might see celebrities on the red carpet in quite scantily-clad clothing, but they’re in a highly protected space. They’re surrounded by bodyguards, it’s understood that they are not in normal space. And if someone wore that to say the grocery store, it seems like they would be likely to be harassed and people would see that as ‘they’re breaking a rule’.”
However, there is also a certain stigma in Westernized cultures against dressing too modest.
In France, beginning in August 2016, Muslim women were banned for wearing from “burkinis”, which cover the whole body except the face, hands and feet. French officials justified this ban by referencing the growing terror concerns in the country.
“Somehow, we take this [dress] as a rejection of us and of our culture,” Kittredge said.
Modesty crosses into realms beyond dress. Women who are quieter and more agreeable tend to be the most respected by men, whereas women who are tough and loud may be considered bossy, rude, annoying or the ever-popular “bitch”. A woman who is confident and strong-willed may be painted as pretentious and narcissistic, especially in the workplace. Yet, this often occurs because women may feel they have to overcompensate in the male-dominated workplace in order to be taken seriously.
Kittredge feels that the media shapes society’s image of powerful woman. “I think it’s because we haven’t seen enough images like that. It’s still very unusual to see depictions of powerful woman in the media- both in fiction situations and that there are very few women in the top one percent running, like, Fortune 500 companies. And the ones that are there we may not know.”
In fact, according to 2016’s Fortune 500 list, only 21 on the list are run by women. This makes up a mere 4.2% of America’s 500 largest companies.
Kittredge also feels that the idea of a powerful women has also become a stereotype. “I think there’s so few women in power that there starts to be a stereotype of them. The very well-dressed, high-heeled very pulled together, thin very feminine woman is the image we get. Whereas, we don’t see a range of different sizes, and styles, and different ways of being in the world or anywhere in the media,” she said.
These stereotypes are portrayed in the media, with films like The Devil Wears Prada and Sandra Bullock’s character in The Proposal. Even the 2016 presidential election was rich with stereotyping of powerful women, which was made clear by Donald Trump calling Hillary Clinton a “nasty woman”. Furthermore, fellow female and NYT columnist, Maureen Dowd, wrote that Clinton is a “granny” who “can’t figure out how to campaign as a woman”.
In theory, women should be each other’s biggest advocates, but in a patriarchal society that isn’t always the case. According to the Fabric of Internalized Sexism published in the Journal of Integrated Social Sciences, internalized sexism is when an individual enacts sexist actions and attitudes towards themselves and people of their own sex. Also called “internalized misogyny”, women may act sexist towards other women because they’ve internalized patriarchal ideals.
Kittredge believes this criticism stems from a personal insecurity. “You want to use your appearance to stand out, to express your identity and walking that line is so difficult and so stressful for woman most of the time, that I think throwing out these negative comments towards other women is partly a way of checking and saying ‘I’m okay.’ If I remark on someone and say, ‘Oh, that skirt seems a little short’, and the people around me agree with me, I’m like ‘Okay, I understand this rule’.”
Internalized misogyny can be seen in the media, as well. Recently, olympic gymnast Aly Raisman posed topless in Sports Illustrated, and faced criticism from other women because she is a role model for young girls. “I did the issue because I love my body. I can express myself in any way that I want. But that doesn’t give anyone the right to judge me. I think being a role model is about being a kind person...It really made me realize women do not have to be modest in order to be respected,” she told Motto.
Ultimately, a woman's worth should be untangled from her dress or her demeanor-- entirely separate from how she presents herself physically to the world. All woman, modest or otherwise, should be respected for the simple reason that they are a living, breathing human beings.