On Men and Modesty

In a world of padded bikini tops for 8 year olds, why a hijab, shietl or burka is still not the answer.

As a parent of a 11 year-old girl I am constantly astounded at how the march towards the sexualization of young girls continues and seems to accelerate every year. In stores there are padded bikini tops for 8 year olds. On the cover fashion magazines of there are pre-adolescent girls in porn-inspired poses. There were bikini-clad profile photos of my daughter’s 11-year-old classmates on Facebook. My 4 year-old daughter was told by a classmate that you need lipstick to make you beautiful. I often feel surrounded with no place to turn for appropriate models for my children. A friend of mine joked that the pressure is enough to make you want to enroll your child in an Orthodox Jewish school with a strict uniform or encourage her to wear a hijab. To some degree I see the appeal of escaping the constant barrage of messages telling girls that the most important thing they can be is attractive, and specifically sexually attractive. As a mother of a 11 year old, I see these religious girls and their freedom from the intense anxiety of middle-school dressing is appealing. Both a Muslim feminist who championed the hijab (but not the burka) and Orthodox Jewish women have pointed out to me that modest clothing and hair-covering forces the people you interact with to focus on you as a person and not as merely a sexualized object. Their eyes (and perhaps their thoughts) cannot drift somewhere distracting.

Even as I struggle to find non-sexualized and appropriate clothing, and movies and books for my children, I just cannot embrace religious-based modesty as it is currently practiced. The problem with most religious based modesty restrictions is that they are much stricter for women than they are for men. I have seen Jewish Orthodox couples in the extreme heat where the man is wearing pants and a t-shirt and his wife is wearing an ankle-length skirt, long stockings, sleeves below her elbows, a sheitl (wig) with a hat on top. I have seen the male half of a Muslim couple in similar heat wearing wearing shorts and a t-shirt while his wife was covered from head to toe in a black burka, including a face veil. There are the obvious unfair advantages of freedom of movement and freedom from heatstroke, and in the case of the burka, the safety hazard of no peripheral vision. But worse is the disturbing message this gender-imbalanced modesty sends to boys about the men they will grow up to be. The message that men only think about sex is a troubling as the messages hyper-sexualized images of women in the mainstream culture send to girls and the women they will become.

If women are covered and men are not, it is because of the implicit (and sometimes explicit) expectation that men are hyper-sexual beings who are so unable to deal with their sexual desire that they will at best be inattentive to the issues at hand or inappropriate and at worst, physically force themselves on women. It also suggess that one wrong look or touch from a women will arouse a passion so great in a man that he will be unable to control his urges and will be violent and possibly destructive. (This is the major theme of Twilight, which my daughter’s fourth grade class was into). This practice of covering one gender and not the other suggests that men they cannot manage their desire as one facet of their humanity, noting their feelings and moving on when there are other aspects involved like listening to a lecture, conducting business or conversing with friends. This is not a self-image I’d want my son to have.

Unbalanced modesty also views male bodies as non-sexual, or not attractive to women and suggests women either have no sexual desire or never act on it or initiate sexual contact. Thinking there is no danger women will act on sexual desire is why men in traditional societies can cover less of their bodies without worrying about unleashing the possible damage of uncontrolled female sexuality. I can vouch for the fact that women (and of course some men!) do indeed find male bodies sexually attractive in and out of clothing and that male hair is sexually attractive (at least my husband’s is).

If young women grow up viewing only men as sexual beings, they may feel shame for the sexual desires or their sexual contact with men (even their husbands). Covering only female bodies says only women are inherently and primarily sexual and in need of hiding from public view. But the idea that the female body is sexualized and the male is not is what my friend was trying to escape in the first place, by grasping at the solution of religious-inspired modesty. It is in fact, the other side of the same coin. “Women are sexy- work it baby!” is not really different from “Women are sexy- hide them”.

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