Modesty, Value, and Virtue

By Geneva Wright ’14

The term “modesty” generally conjures up one of two ideas. The first is what the Merriam-Webster online dictionary calls “freedom from conceit or vanity.” It is the absence of pride or entitlement in your achievements, an endearing commitment to the small and simple over the showy. It is considered to be highly commendable. A basic search for the word within the Daily Princetonian archives turns up dozens of articles describing the accomplishments of various athletes, speakers, and other students, using that very term to present them as down-to-earth and likable.

I think it is safe to say that modesty defined as humility and a lack of pretention—particularly at Princeton, where high levels of achievement lead to equally strong reactions against “being a tool”— is a valued quality in our culture. But there is a second, more controversial meaning. That is physical modesty—modesty in dress and behavior.

We tend to think of physical modesty, particularly for women, as simply not wearing tight-fitting or see-through clothes and not showing a lot of skin. However, it is important to keep in mind the cultural context in which it operates. Merriam-Webster defines this type of modesty as “propriety in dress, speech, or conduct,” which serves as a reminder that standards of modesty have always varied from culture to culture and time to time. What hasn’t changed is the existence of these standards, and the social necessity of adhering to them. As C.S. Lewis pointed out, “A girl in the Pacific islands wearing hardly any clothes and a Victorian lady completely covered in clothes might both be equally ‘modest,’ proper, or decent, according to the standards of their own societies.”

Now, by the standards of the past decade or so, everyday clothing in the United States circa 2012 may not be outrageously revealing. There are plenty of transparent blouses, low necklines, and short shorts, but there are also lots of loose, flowing fabrics, lace, and trends toward structured dresses which hide more than they reveal. The envelope is pushed harder in the media, where ads for Victoria’s Secret feature voluptuous models in push-up bras lounging provocatively in front of big glass windows. And let’s be honest, what woman doesn’t want to do that?

But this article isn’t about measuring hemlines. It is about our acceptance or rejection of modesty as a virtue in itself, something that is beneficial to the practitioner in a practical, emotional, and yes, moral way. Our society has unwritten rules and assumptions about what constitutes decent dress, just like any other. The point is that we too often tend to see these rules as restrictive and dispensable, not elevating.

Dressing modestly is often considered a matter of pragmatism: “If you don’t want those kinds of comments, don’t wear something like that.” “If you dress like a prostitute, you’re going to be treated like one.” Human nature being what it is, there is some truth to that—though an unfair truth, which removes the responsibility to treat everyone with equal dignity and respect. The point is, all girls struggle to discern what is and is not appropriate in any given situation. What is acceptable at home or a party is not necessarily appropriate for the office, for example, because it might create a distracting workplace. Most people wouldn’t show up to lecture wearing a bikini or go to church in a mini dress. That’s what the Street is for—a place for guys and girls to loosen up and show a bit more skin, knowing that a distraction is exactly what they want.

There’s something very different about aspiring to modesty. This attitude stands athwart the prevailing “Girls Gone Wild”/ “California Gurl” culture, arguing that certain areas of the human body are far too special to be seen by just anybody. When taken as a standard for living, this looks prudish and repressive. It conjures up images of stiff Victorian petticoats and Mennonite dresses, things irrelevant to our lives. Being concerned with dressing modestly, according to critics, is a relic of a time when men were threatened by female sexuality. As a society, we have moved beyond all that. We are no longer repressed.

Besides, modesty looks boring. Guys pay attention to girls who dress provocatively, and we have been trained by the media from birth to believe that “sexy” is the only kind of beauty that counts. It is the source of a woman’s power and an indicator of her value. How many movies featuring a “makeover” scene, leaving the heroine more beautiful, more confident, and on the arm of a gorgeous new boyfriend, end with her wearing more clothes, not less? (All right, maybe “Pretty Woman,” but that is probably an exception that proves the rule.) To give up that power of commanding desire seems like stifling your potential.

So while emotional modesty is a highly valued brand of humility, according to many voices within our culture, physical modesty involves a sense of shame and self-doubt, robbing women of their power. Where these critics go wrong, however, is that they fail to consider how the two meanings are connected. At their best, both depend on a strong sense of self-confidence. Modesty is not about putting yourself down; instead, it is about feeling secure enough in your abilities that you don’t need to trumpet what you have. Not insecurity, but assurance.

There is a scene in one of my favorite movies, the 1959 western “Rio Bravo,” in which John Wayne’s Sheriff John T. Chance tries to recruit teenaged gunslinger Colorado Ryan, played by Ricky Nelson, to help him take down a dangerous gang. Colorado’s skills as a gunman have been praised highly by Chance’s friend, but when they talk Colorado stays notably cool, saying that he intends to mind his own business.

“Wonder if he’s as good as Wheeler said?” Chance’s deputy asks after the boy leaves.

Chance is disappointed, but his face shows a grudging respect. “I’d say he is,” he says. “I’d say he’s so good he doesn’t feel he has to prove it.”

That is modesty summed up in one line. It is not weakness or incompetence, but the awareness that you have something special and the deliberate choice not to flaunt it for attention or cheap admiration. It implies a respect for the feelings and sensibilities of others, and respects yourself by trusting that your deeper qualities will shine out all the more when the externals are no longer on display.

It also isn’t gender-specific. Because men tend to be more visually stimulated I have framed the issue primarily in terms of female modesty, but male physical modesty is a legitimate area of thought. An interesting reversal is the music video to Carly Rae Jepson’s earworm song “Call Me Maybe,” in which the boy is sexualized more than the girl. Translated into physical terms, modesty means dressing in a way that emphasizes you as a person, not you as a set of curves or a mass of muscles.

Styles change. Sensibilities change. But the value of respect for oneself and the sensibilities of those around you do not change. Modesty in its most ideal form is not prudish or boring, and it certainly does not demean. It is not a sign of resignation, but a virtue. It challenges us to the utmost confidence in our own worth.

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