By now you’ve all probably seen the pro-modesty, anti-bikini video that’s flooding Mormon facebook profiles all over the world. If you’re one of the two or three Mormons left on earth who haven’t seen it yet, here it is:
The first thing that struck me when I watched the video was how black and white the issue was (according to Jessica Rey). Men who look at women wearing bikinis saw them as objects. Period. According to some study.
Red flags always go up for me when someone cites studies to prove their point…not that it’s a bad thing to cite studies. In fact, it’s perfect way to make an intelligent, grounded argument. But when the conclusion made by the presenter is entirely one-dimensional, I begin to suspect some convenient interpolation of the facts. And that’s exactly what we have here.
Luckily for me, Rah at Feminine Mormon Housewives has already done the heavy lifting on this and has posted a great analysis of the study in question. I encourage you to go read his post.
Instead of taking apart the video and pointing out the misleading claims therein, I want to address a few of my thoughts regarding the modesty question. First off, I want to say that I think modest dress is great. Nothing wrong with it at all, in fact, my own experience is that it’s easier for me to feel comfortable with my body and less concerned about what other’s are thinking about me when I am covered. But this video is a black-and-white argument that tells us that dressing a certain way automatically turns the men around us into misogynistic pigs ready to see and use women like tools. And it went viral. Fast. I’m concerned about what that says about us.
In case you didn’t have a chance to read the analysis on FMH (and you should, it’s really good), the study concluded that the only group of people to objectify women in bikinis were men who already had high levels of hostile sexism against women. Men who were benevolently sexist (putting women on a pedestal. Sound familiar?) and those who were not sexist at all had no such reaction. Arousal? Sure, but the same reaction would most likely apply to women in one-piece suits, little black dresses, or a picture of their own wives or girlfriends. Objectification? Nope. Just good old-fashioned attraction. Only the men who are already hostile misogynists reacted by objectifying the women.
To paraphrase one line from the video, Jessica Rey says that modesty is not about covering our bodies, it’s about revealing our dignity. I couldn’t agree more. But I think the question of what is on our bodies should then be a moot point. Dignity comes from within. It’s about how we think of ourselves, how we think of and relate to the people around us. It’s completely possible to be dignified and stark naked. Our cultural concept of modesty is defined by hundreds of years of tradition and socialization. Are the men and women of aboriginal cultures across the world who wear next to nothing undignified? Not at all. They are not ashamed of their bodies and nothing about what is or is not covered changes the sexual balance (for good or ill) between the men and women of those cultures.
What bothers me most about the video has nothing to do with men, actually. It’s all to do with how we women see each other. In my extended family, modesty has become a delicate issue. My mom, sisters and myself tend to be pretty relaxed about it. I grew up wearing sleeveless shirts and shorts well above the knee. My mom was a dancer and my dad is a physician’s assistant, so I feel like there was a healthy appreciation of the beauty of the human body in our household. My brother’s wives however, have a different approach to teaching modesty to their children. Their little girls always wear tee-shirts under their sundresses, dressing, even as babies, according to the standard of the garment-line. It’s not a bad thing and their girls look cute and fun. But when we mingle, I’m always a little nervous about what my sister-in-laws think of my underdressed little heathens. I wonder if they go home and remind their children that just because their cousins are dressed that way doesn’t mean it’s appropriate.
I often think back to a moment when I was in high school and hanging out with a few of my own cousins. They began to gossip about another of our cousins and the strapless (gasp) dress that she showed up to prom in. I immediately felt self-conscious about my own dress, which had been sleek and black with spaghetti straps. Very Va Va Voom (and the one my mom helped me pick out!), but I had felt completely modest in it, and my date had been a complete gentlemen (I certainly didn’t sense any objectification there). Now I don’t really care what my cousins or my in-laws think, but I do care about how divisive and malicious these talks can become. When we as women pick each other apart or believe that our worth really depends upon the length of our sleeves or the style of our swimsuit, when we’re getting out the measuring tape to count the inches of skin below the hemline, we don’t have time to look into each others eyes to find the dignity that really resides inside.