Which is Worse: Objectification? Or Modesty?

Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke at VMA Awards

Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke at VMA Awards

Little girls grow up idolizing Britney Spears, The Spice Girls, and Hannah Montana, who grows into tongue-flashing Miley Cyrus twerking to “Blurred Lines.” Little girls can even buy Hello Kitty thong panties to match their Hello Kitty lunch pails.

No surprise then that someone once told me,

When I was ten years old plenty of my friends would wear “big girl lingerie” that they got from Abercrombie and the like. I felt pressured to constantly push to be sexier, or more desirable. At ten years old, who exactly am I trying to attract?

By the time young women get to college being hot can seem like the most important thing in the world.

By then, too many of us are reduced to one-dimensional sex-things.

Then the modesty movement comes along pushing chaste but chic and curfews for college women. Is this really about modesty? Or is it about creating an obedient underclass that complies to other’s demands – via learning to dress to others’ dictates? 

Amidst Middle Eastern mass coverings, one Egyptian woman posed nude, protesting that modesty objectifies. After all, modesty sexualizes everything that is covered.

So it turns out that women can be objectified whether showing skin or covering up.

burqa_blueThe modesty movement typically comes courtesy the religious set. Yet Deborah Farmer Kris takes a cue from (of all people!) the Pope, and gets a new spin. As the Pope modestly carries his own bags, washes the feet of young women and men in juvenile detention, and asks to be addressed in the familiar “tu” form — and not “Your Excellency,” he excels at recognizing and respecting the dignity of each person, and protecting their intimate center.

Except for a loincloth, a tribal woman may be completely naked. A young American woman may wear a T-shirt and jeans. Or a mini-skirt. An Iranian woman may walk about in overcoat and headscarf.

Who cares what’s she’s wearing? What counts is recognizing the worth and dignity we each hold.

Respect for the person means “Looking not on outward appearance, but looking on the heart,” says Ms. Kris.

She adds — since we’re on a religious roll here — that when Jesus was asked by a group of men why he allowed a sinful woman to anoint him, he said, “Do you see this woman?”

Really see her?

So you’ve got your zealots objectifying women through modesty even as mass media zeros in on our peeled back lady parts.

But clothing… modestly… moral misjudgment? They all miss the point.

How do we see one another?

Related Posts on BroadBlogs

Sexual Objectification, What is it?

Modesty Objectifies Women Says Nude Egyptian

About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on March 12, 2014, in feminism. Bookmark the permalink. 22 Comments.

  1. Shelley Greenaway

    i did and why should women suffer because some men can’t control themselves?

    • Women shouldn’t have to suffer because men can’t control themselves. Because men can, and do, control themselves!

      But that’s a different issue from the fact that women often end up suffering because of objectification or modesty. I feel like your comment is meant to be a disagreement with me but I can’t figure out how you think we see things differently.

  2. Shelley Greenaway

    why both extremes, there’s nothing wrong with wearing a mini skirt and not degrading yourself!

    • Sure. And wearing a mini skirt isn’t necessarily objectification, is it? And being modest isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either. (I usually dress in ways that most people would call modest, and I don’t think it’s harmful.)

      And yet, both objectification and modesty CAN have bad outcomes.

      Did you get to the paragraphs, below, before commenting?

      Except for a loincloth, a tribal woman may be completely naked. A young American woman may wear a T-shirt and jeans. Or a mini-skirt. An Iranian woman may walk about in overcoat and headscarf.

      Who cares what’s she’s wearing? What counts is recognizing the worth and dignity we each hold.

      Respect for the person means “Looking not on outward appearance, but looking on the heart,”

  3. Raised in a religious home I was always taught that skirts were for women and pants were for men. As a teenager, I always felt out of place because of the way people would stare at me. Even though I knew what I believed in I was always tempted to wear different clothes behind my mother’s back. After I graduated from high school I was more so determined. I know this seems like a joke, but in that point in my life in my mind I had already registered that if I ever wore pants I would be condemned to hell. It wasn’t until I got hired to work at a daycare that I finally grew the courage to wear pants. I felt very uncomfortable wearing a skirt when I had to squat down to make sure I was at the child’s eye level. To my surprise, the day I finally told my mother that I was going to be wearing pants she was completely okay with. I write all this to say that in that moment that I made that choice I realized that just because I was changing my outer appearance it did not mean that my inner appearance had to change. I was still the same person, with the same beliefs but I had definitely developed a character I hadn’t had…courage.

  4. Just like how body language can give off a a message, clothing can give off messages as well and people can misinterpret them as well. I do not find myself dressing moderately or mature and sexy. I find the way I dress to be in between. I do not want to be walking around in clothes that reveal so much. It can give off a bad message to men. But I do not want to be walking around in clothes that reveal nothing. By doing that, I see it as I would be uncomfortable with myself. I am not the most secure person, but I find ways around it where I can feel comfortable in clothing that is not too moderate and not too sexy. I wear clothes that make me feel comfortable. Some people are very religious and cover up completely because they follow the rules in their religion, but sometimes I questioned whether or not they actually want to. I do not have anything against women who do cover up, but it just makes me curious as in if they want to and if they are comfortable. Because I believe that people should wear things they are comfortable in. If someone is comfortable in wearing very little clothing then by all means let them do it, but there does come time where it should not be acceptable. But we cannot go around judging people for what they wear because they could be extremely comfortable in it.

  5. It seems like some men in every culture can find a way to objectify women, regardless of what they wear. At the same time though, I do agree that if women were allowed to wear whatever they wanted to or show as much skin as they want, that those parts of the body would not be as desired or lusted after. Not every religion requires modesty, some can just require gender roles. Men and women dressing in their appropriate clothing according to old society norms. Such as men wearing trousers & button-up shirts, while women are expected/required to wear long dresses/skirts.

    But getting back to the objectification argument, it starts with what is popular & how society shapes young boys/girls minds. They learn about how they should treat each other. That can also include what they witness with their friends and family as well. If women were treated with respect and not treated as one-dimensional sex objects, it might not matter what a woman “decided” to wear. Whether modest or exposed, respect isn’t too much to ask and shouldn’t be decided by any women’s wardrobe.

  6. I personally have had experience with being criticized for not looking good enough. The sad part about it, was the fact that i was in elementary school. The younger generations are trying to grow up too fast and be something that they are not. I have seen girls at my old high school who dress in what some people might consider to be “mature and sexy”. I know that while i grew up and got to college level, i didn’t try to be something that i wasn’t. I didn’t try to impress guys. Why would a girl dress in such suggestive ways and have such sexual behavior? In the end they might end up provoking a boy and get herself in a situation that she might not have wanted to be in. This is extremely troublesome in my eyes. What has our world come to….

  7. I think pushing modesty on girls IS objectification. Have you heard of the Modesty Survey? It’s a few years old but it was run by an Evangelical website for teens called the Rebelution. A few of my more conservative friends had linked to it as a good guide for girls so I checked it out. And was subsequently horrified. The Modesty Survey had teen boys and younger men chime in about what kind of clothing they found “too tempting”. Obviously bikinis, mini skirts, and strapless tops were pretty high on the list of “tempting” articles of clothing, but I was surprised to see things like tops with see-through sleeves, shorts above the knee, and bra straps (the horror!). The real problem, to me, is obvious. These boys are not being taught to see girls/women as people first. They are being taught that women’s bodies are not human bodies, but sexual objects that must be covered up. And nowhere in the Survey was it noted that boys ultimately have the only control over their own thoughts and feelings, or that they have a responsibility to behave decently towards girls regardless of how they dress because girls are actual people. I found the survey to be incredibly objectifying in its focus on modesty.

  8. I think this is so personal for each woman- what might be liberation for one woman, may be modesty for another, or self-objectifcation for another. What most needs to be fixed is the cultural conditioning that makes objectification of woman as object okay. A woman should be able to wear what she wants-not have to regulate because of what might arise in another at the sight of her.

  9. Some times I wonder if men are hardwired or just simply taught to look at women as one-dimensional sex-things. It really doesn’t matter what women wear, men will always find something about their bodies to sexualize. I believe modesty can be worse than showing skin. Leaving things to the imagination of men can cause men to objectify everything about her. I think this idea is slowly changing but not fast enough. We (women) are people not objects to gawk at or possessions to own.

  10. I find that so weird and creepy with how girl’s clothes are sexualized today like you said for ten year older girls or early teens. Most of society shuns pedophilia and such and I obviously find it disgusting. Yes, these clothing moguls are selling and producing revealing clothes for little girls? What the hell. Seriously, are all thee ceo’s and upper management behind these companies frickin pedophiles or something? Seriously that’s messed up.

    Both ways are bad. Though some strick middle eastern counties that have or want women to wear modestly might be a little worse considering these women CAN’T wear what they want without punishment and don’t have the freedom. In America women can wear most clothes other than one’s that show their nipples and vaginas. They might be judged wearing something so revealing in public places that aren’t for skimp clothes but for the most part, they don’t have to wear certain clothes to abide by religion or culture.

    • I’ve been on both sides, having grown up in a conservative religion. I’ve felt peer pressure both ways, but much more strongly in the religion than in the larger culture.

      I felt like women were less objectified by the religious folks, but also held as more inferior.

      • Having also been in a(n overly) conservative religion, I’m not sure that women were less objectified. I agree that “modest” women were less objectified for their sexuality, but were often reduced to their fertility or other features. Women who in some way transgressed were instantly objectified for their supposed sexuality. I remember being in a particularly conservative neighbourhood and a literal crowd of children forming around my feet, pointing and calling me naked, and calling for adults, because I wore sandals without socks. Certainly at that moment I was seen as an object. I am glad to be in a branch of that religion now that cultivates an almost aggressive apathy towards clothing except as regards whatever ethical/labour issues in its production. Whether or not such an apathy is honest, I think it leads to more thoughtful behaviour towards one another.

      • I definitely think that modesty objectifies women, as I say in the post. And I think modesty can objectify Women more than revealing skin does.

        But in my particular case I felt like the guys I knew in my religion objectified women a bit less than the guys outside of it. Maybe it was just the guys I knew, but they came across as less obsessed with glaring at the female form. Of course, it’s possible that it was just less obvious and overt.

  11. This subject can get me going for days. This article goes on really interesting topics that are ultimately confusing because of the extremities, yet they share a mutual patriarchic element. Coming from a Muslim background, I know that many families do indeed wear the hijab based on modesty. Some do it for status to prove how “modest & compliant” one is to God, and others are pressured by their family to wear it. In Algeria, women are filling up universities, getting better grades, and as a result getting better jobs. Does the hijab have any contribution to this? To be completely honest, I have no idea. What I have concluded is that are not objectified to a mere body in countries like Algeria, like they are in the West here. Algeria is certainly not equal in terms of women’s and men’s rights, however they do not objectify us to a sexual object like they do here.

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