I don’t generally post email correspondence verbatim, but this exchange merits reproduction in its original form. Reader Wendy emailed me with her thoughts on the concept of “modesty”:

I am a young woman and a long time (6-year) reader of your blog. I love the content, the writing style and the personality that is evident in your writing. However, there’s one thing that’s been irking me for a long time, and I’d like to tell you about it.

I really hate your (and other people’s) use of the word “modest” to mean “covered up”. I understand that it describes a style preference that is sometimes under-served by the mainstream fashion community. However, this is an incredibly judgmental word. What is the opposite of “modest”? It’s “immodest”–a word that is imbued with moral judgment and shaming. To describe skin-covering garments as “modest” implies that everything else is immodest, and that the women wearing those “immodest” clothes are immodest. This feeds into misogyny, sexism and the rape culture.

Judging from your writing and opinions, I would have expected you to recognize this problem already. However, I do not recall seeing any attempt to find a more judgment-neutral word, or a discussion on the implications and impact of this word.

Finally, a lot of the “modest” clothing these days don’t even conform to the same standard of “modesty”, so this term is pretty useless for its lack of specificity. For example, a “modest” clothing designer you showcased a few years ago produced beautiful long-sleeved, floor-length gowns that were slinky and body-conforming. In the conservative community where I grew up, something like that would have been considered absolutely scandalous and as bad as a mini skirt. A woman wearing that would be shamed by strangers and harassed by police for being a suspected prostitute. In [a recent] Lovely Links link to the story of Amaiya Zafar, her leggings would not have been considered “modest” in many conservative communities even now. My point is not to say that these examples are not “modest”, but that “modest” is such a subjective term that whatever “benefit” there is in using this term is outweighed by the negative impact. (I recognize that the word “modest” for the Zafar story was in the title of the article, not by your choice.)

Instead of the nebulous and damaging “modest”, why don’t you use words that actually describe the clothing? e.g. “skin-covering”, “chest-covering”, “leg-covering”, “long-sleeved”, “flowing”, “opaque”, or even “conservative”? Yes, “conservative” can have slight negative connotations in some circles, but “immodest” is strongly negative in all circles.

If you’ve read this far, thanks for reading. I hope to see a discussion on this topic with your community. I’m not an active commenter, but I would love to see what other people think.

She agreed to let me post my reply to her – a couple of clarifications have been added:

Thanks for your kind words and for sticking with me for so long!

Thanks, too, for your thoughts on the subject of modesty. Clearly this is a topic that stirs strong emotions for you.

A quick search shows me that the majority of my posts containing the word “modesty” are reader requests, though the word and topic certainly come up organically on occasion. This older post is a response to a reader’s question about modesty and self-image, and provoked a lively discussion. I also recently interviewed a group of observant Jewish women about their dressing practices for The Riveter, though the article hasn’t been posted yet. I’ll definitely link to it when it goes live. Certainly a topic worth re-visiting on the blog, too.

While I agree that modesty is a relative term, the argument that calling something modest is tantamount to calling everything else immodest is a fallacy. By that argument, calling one woman beautiful implies that all other women are ugly, calling one vocalist’s performance skillful implies that all others are amateurish, calling one type of shoe stylish implies that all others are passé. It’s not that simple. And although a segment of the population may have that dichotomy in mind when they deem certain clothing to be modest, it’s unreasonable to assume that all do. Or that misogyny, sexism, and rape culture are driving every woman’s choice to wear clothes she calls “modest,” or to contemplate concepts of modesty for herself and others. Just as it is a choice to reveal, it is a choice to cover, as evidenced by some responses to the French burqa ban. [EDIT: Meaning that choices can be driven by many unseen factors, including ones we might not expect due to limited personal experience.]

As you point out, “modest” is an incredibly subjective and relatively vague term. But I get reader requests for “comfortable” shoes, “stylish” skirts, “formal” dresses, and all of those terms are equally vague. I do agree that more specific terminology could be used in place of the word “modest,” and appreciate you pointing that out – I’ll keep it in mind moving forward. And I agree that the concept of modesty is a loaded one that’s often tied to policing of women’s bodies. But the words we use to describe clothing constitute an opinion-based shorthand, which leaves them open to interpretation. In my view, this can be quite healthy. The fact that my idea of what is “comfortable” or “formal” may clash with the ideas of others means that both parties are forced to consider differing perspectives on a single concept. Even if that consideration is made in private and not in an open comment section, it reminds all parties that our perspectives do not exist in a vacuum.

I would never argue that all discussions of modesty are free of misogyny and judgment: The concept is definitely used to censure women, to victim-blame, and to concoct shame under certain circumstances. But modesty is important to a wide variety of individuals, groups, and faiths. I feel that wholesale dismissal of the term as damaging fails to account for and respect the breadth of ideas it represents and people to whom those ideas are significant. [EDIT: Meaning that while I see the value in using more descriptive terminology myself, I am not comfortable insisting that everyone who uses the term “modesty” should be forced to do likewise, regardless of what the word represents to them as individuals.]

But I’m sure plenty of people will disagree with me. I’d be happy to open up a discussion on the topic using our correspondence as a jumping-off point!

Wendy wrote back:

Thank you for your thoughtful reply. I feel that there is still much to be explored, so this email is pretty long.

Firstly, I’m not sure why you interpreted my arguments as criticism on women’s choice to cover up. I also did not speculate why some women prefer to cover up, nor did I minimize the importance of observing dressing guidelines for personal reasons. I wonder if you are projecting your own bugbears onto my email. My email was focused on problems with using the word “modest” as a category of clothing.

I recall reading that 2010 article but not the comments, which I read just now. The word “modest” was used by many commenters, with the same vagueness that I am complaining about. In fact, when one commenter said “I balance [low-cut tops] out with modest bottoms”, I literally don’t know what she meant. Is she talking about any loose bottoms, trousers, floor-length skirts, or (quoting another commenter) “more modest mid-thigh skirts”?

Back to your reply, I really like your statement “the argument that calling something modest is tantamount to calling everything else immodest is a fallacy”. I think this is the crux of the issue. I agree that the words “beautiful” and “skillful” imply spectra of beauty and skill. Unfortunately, the word “modest” as I have experienced is in fact used as a binary metric. The message in conservative cultures as I have experienced is “be modest”, which means “meet these standards” not “move in this direction”. Let’s focus on my experience for a moment. In my personal experience (in three countries spanning wide ranges of religiosity/secularity, liberalism/conservativeness, and multiculturalism), the word “modest” in the context of clothing is usually used to judge, not just to describe.

For example, in my personal experience, women who describe their own style as “modest” often use this word to promote their religiosity or respectability. I have heard these phrases expressed by female friends: “I prefer to be modest, not have bits hanging out like a whore”, and “I dress modestly because I have self respect”. One teen friend’s mother even said, “[friend] wears modest clothes because she is a good Christian”. In these examples, the word “modest” is definitely intended to be judgmental: positive for the subject and negatively for others who don’t meet the standard. In contrast, the women I know who respect other people’s choices do not actually use “modest” to describe their own styles. Those friends would say things like, “I prefer to cover up”, “I’m more comfortable not showing my legs”, and “I don’t show my hair as a way to express my faith”. Of course modesty is important to these women, but they also recognize that it is a personal definition that may not apply to others, so they stick with the specifics.

Does my experience apply to your broader readership? Evidently not, since there seem to be many readers who like using “modest” as a clothing category. Do they live in a homogenous community where the definition of “modest” is already agreed upon? Is the majority of clothing in their environment so skimpy that anything covered-up is “modest” by comparison? Are they surrounded by wonderful people who never use this term in a judgmental way? Do they prefer this term because it makes them feel virtuous about their clothing choices and life choices? Without open discussion, I won’t know.

You are absolutely right in saying that the interpretation of opinion-based shorthand can encourage readers to consider different perspectives. Indeed, I’ve been thinking about this topic for several years, prompted by some of your posts and two “modest fashion” blogs I used to follow. Anyway, that’s enough blathering for one day. Thanks for being open to discussion.

So let’s discuss: Do you feel that the term “modesty” is overly judgmental and potentially damaging? Is it a word that’s important to you as an individual or to your community? Is it important to use more specific or descriptive terms in place of “modest,” or does the word serve a purpose in and of itself?

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