Lately, Big Bang Theory actress, neuroscientist, and outspoken Orthodox Jew Mayim Bialik has been catching some heat for how she chooses to dress on the Red Carpet—not because she’s wearing too little, but because she’s wearing more than the norm. Bialik follows tznius, the Jewish code of modesty, which at its most basic requires women to have collarbone, elbows, and knees covered in public, and some have equated her choice as putting down women who don’t dress like her—a charge she has vigorously and eloquently refuted on her blog.
Although it is little talked-about, the virtue of modesty is just as crucial for Catholic men and women. And for Catholic women, especially those like myself who consider themselves feminists, the conversation about modesty can be just as complicated as it has been for Mayim Bialik, with non-Catholic feminists crying “foul” and fellow Catholics justifying modesty with problematic and simply untrue catchphrases. Here are 12 things from both camps that invariably make our eyes roll.
From Fellow “Feminists”…
1. “You’re slut-shaming”
Ok, I freely admit that lots of people throw other women under the bus in the justification of modesty, and I’ll address that in a minute. But what other women do or do not wear has literally nothing to do with how I myself choose to dress. Do I dress different than lots of other young women my age? Yeah, sure. Is that a tacit condemnation of lots of other young women my age? Not even close. It’s really none of my business what other women, especially non-Christian women, wear and why. We may dress differently, but we’re all sinners, and all life is sacred no matter what we’re wearing sooo. I’m not going to violate interior modesty by being all judgy about a complete stranger’s crop top.
2. “Dressing modestly is participating in oppression.”
This is by far my favorite, and by “favorite” I mean “it makes me wish I had a pet dragon just so I could feed you to it.” Not only because it completely undermines the autonomy and equality that feminism purports to defend, but it usually gets leveled by condescending, privileged, self-important Western “feminists” (Hilary Clinton is a good example of one) at supposed poor, unenlightened Middle Eastern or African women of all religious designations. It’s the worst parts of colonialism dressed up in Jimmy Choos, clutching a cosmo. No doubt, forcing women to dress a certain way is oppressive. Killing or arresting women for how they choose to dress is oppressive. You know what’s also oppressive? Belittling a woman’s right and ability to choose how she dresses in the name of “enlightening” or “liberating” her.
3. If you loved your body, you wouldn’t cover it up.”
Um, excuse me? Since when was it okay for anyone to presume upon my self-image? You do not get to tell me how to feel about myself. Ever. This is exactly the same thing we criticize our sexualized and misogynist culture for doing to us, and hearing it come out of a supposed “feminist”‘s mouth is almost more hurtful.
4. “Stop trying to shove your religion down everyone’s throat.”
I…what…seriously? Do you have the restless spirit of a high school troll on the Myspace religion forum circa 2004 living inside of you? Because you might want to get that looked at. I am not shoving anything down anyone’s throat. I am peacefully practicing my religion, minding my own business. If I suddenly go berserk and start screaming at the girl next to me in the grocery line for showing too much ankle, then maybe you’ll have a valid point.
5. “It’s 2016. You don’t have to dress like that now.”
I…what? Is it 2016? I could have sworn I was just in Victorian England, but I must have slipped into the time vortex. You can clearly see how quaint and old-fashioned I am from my Timberlands and undercut and black lipstick. Because I’m, y’know, obviously hopelessly old fashioned. And quaint. But this policing of my personal appearance makes me feel right at home, I appreciate it.
6. “You’re just a religious fanatic and not a true feminist.”
That’s cute. You know what religious fanaticism actually looks like? Women under ISIS rule being arrested and even killed for their veils being too sheer. Meanwhile I’m not demanding anyone dress like me. That’s kind of the whole point of modesty—taming your own pride and focus on self. Also, spoilers personal piety and feminism are not mutually exclusive.
From fellow Christians and supporters of modesty…
7. “Modest is hottest”
Due to its catchiness and flippancy this saying is a really popular expression of a preference for modesty. But guess what? It also controverts the entire concept of modesty and is just as objectifying as saying women in general look “hot” in skimpy clothing. Embracing modesty is not about looking “hottest.” It’s not about looking attractive for anyone else. If you prefer women who dress modestly, that’s great. But don’t make the mistake of objectifying them for their modesty, because that kind of defeats the whole purpose.
8. “Leave something to the imagination!”
I think this particular one gets said without a lot of forethought, but because my husband was an English major, and I was a religion/philosophy major, I tend to like to investigate the meanings of things and the meaning of this phrase is kind of icky when you think about it. It implies that a person covers up in order to be a sort of mysterious brand of sexy, enticing others to imagine what’s underneath all those clothes. It demands women be the subject of sexual imaginings, just like the wider culture does. Which, again, is not the point of dressing modestly. I don’t want to be the subject of some rando’s imagination, thanks.
9. “Modest women actually have respect for themselves.”
For a person who belongs to a religion that declares emphatically that all life is sacred, and as a feminist, this one makes me feel especially icky. Implying that someone’s self-worth or respect is tied up in the clothes they put on their body is really unfair because we have literally no idea why someone chooses to wear what they wear. A person is a person whether they are wearing a maxi skirt or a mini dress, period, and they deserve to be treated with love, mercy, and dignity.
10. “Women should dress modestly so men aren’t tempted.”
Granted, as Christians, we are called to help each other out and support one another. No arguments there. Men and women who struggle with lust and sins of the flesh deserve our prayers, support, and the mercy of the Church.
But the idea that women are responsible for the custody of men’s eyes and for whether or not they have impure thoughts is a reeeeal slippery slope down into “she was asking for it.” Jesus said in Matthew 5:28 that “everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” not “everyone who looks at a woman with lust is pretty much off the hook because I mean come on that skirt is barely covering her butt.” When Adam tried to blame Eve for giving him the fruit from the forbidden tree, God was having none of it. If my three years in the Orthodox Church taught me nothing else, it’s that in the end, everyone is responsible for their own sin before God, period. The rise or fall of your soul is up to you and your cooperation with God’s grace. Look upon yourself as the first among sinners, and ignore the souls (and clothing choices!) of everyone else. No. Excuses. Ever.
This line of thinking, well-intentioned as it may be, can also make life and legal proceedings hell for female victims of rape and sexual assault. Women often get blamed both in court and in the wider culture for being attacked because their attire may have incited their attacker or attackers, but I don’t ever recall a case in which a thief was given leniency and homeowners dragged through the mud for tempting the accused because they left their door unlocked. There is a popular Tumblr blog that exists in which women submit pictures of themselves wearing what they wore when they were raped or assaulted, to dispel the myth that women are responsible for the management of men’s sexual behavior. For every girl in a “skimpy” outfit, there are ten in sweatpants and sweatshirts, or plain jeans and t shirts. There was even a girl who had a job as a re-enactor who was wearing a historically accurate Puritan costume. Precisely what more could these women have done to “help” the men around them not be “tempted”?
The point is, dressing modestly has everything to do with the ascetic effort of the person embracing it, and zero to do with the state of anyone else’s soul or mental state.
11. “I’m not like other girls with their crop tops and booty shorts.”
If dressing modestly causes you to compare yourself to others, tear others down, and somehow regard yourself as “special” or “better” than “those other girls” then you may as well walk around nekkid for all the spiritual good it does you.
12. “I don’t need to dress slutty, I have a brain.”
Congratulations for discovering the mysterious correlation between women’s intelligence and clothing choices! Bonus points for inflating your own ego at the expense of belittling other women. You little scientific genius special snowflake, you. The world practically owes you a Nobel Prize.