Is Modesty a Thing of the Past?


How do you feel when someone looks at you as if you are an object rather than a human being? Do you feel valued or loved or even beautiful?

In 2009, Princeton University conducted a study on how the heterosexual male brain reacts to seeing women in different types of clothing. The ‘guinea pigs’ were shown a sequence of pictures while scientists scanned their brains to determine which areas were most affected. It was found that images of scantily clad women ‘lit up’ the same part of the brain associated with using tools, like hammers and screwdrivers, while in some men, the part of the brain which defines objects as humans showed no reaction at all. When asked to make word associations with the visual stimuli, men observing looking at ‘underdressed’ women tended to use first-person action verbs like I grab, I push, I handle.

In contrast, men observing more modestly dressed women responded in kind. They saw the women as ‘human’ and someone to interact with, not something to use. They also associated women with third-person action verbs like she grabs, she pushes, she handles.

In the late fifties, a French designer named Louis Reard released the first bikini designs. His aim was to expose the belly button and, therefore, a whole new side of women. Reard looked high and low, but no model would wear such an outfit because it was considered indecent. After a long search, he opted for a willing stripper to debut his new creation. Louis Reard famously said, “It’s not a bikini unless it can be pulled through a wedding ring.”

Before the bathing suit came bathing costumes. These were a thick layer cloth fitting somewhat like a large tank top or t-shirt with knee length shorts. At the time, costumes were considered scandalous because woman never wore anything skimpy. The use of bathing costumes gave rise to a bizarre invention, the bathing machine. A woman would climb in the bathing machine to change, and then people or horses would drag the machine down to the water where the women would discreetly enter the water.

When the bikini made its debut, it was not an immediate hit, as one can imagine. In 1957, Modern Girl Magazine said, “The bikini was hardly necessary to waste words on, because no girl with tact or decency would ever wear such a thing.” Over the course of a few decades, women’s bathing garments were scissored down from 3.6 sq ft of fabric to 36 sq cm of fabric. Truly riotous.

In light of the evolution of things like the bikini and celebrity shock-value publicity stunts, one might query, Has Modesty flown out the window? Modesty is defined as behavior, manner, or appearance intended to avoid impropriety or indecency. Thinking on this made me wonder about (not excuse) all the rape and sexual issues associated with the male psyche, and about attacks against women and how sexualized our world is becoming. It made me wonder why I wore evocative clothing and bathing suits, attire that encouraged others to look at me as an object or that might suggest I did not respect myself.

Maybe it had something to do with respect. Respect can be defined as esteem or a sense of the worth or excellence of a person, a personal quality or ability, or something considered as a manifestation of a personal quality or ability. Did I truly respect myself if what I was wearing led to an objectification of women or worse? Or should women dress with wild abandon?

My gut suggested that exercising a bit of modesty might be the way to go.