As y’all know, I get very testy indeed when society dictates what I should wear. I bitch loudly at the idea that to be feminine and attractive, I need to get dolled up in patriarchy-approved high heels or “miracle” bras or anything else that’s meant to put my body on display. I can also be found ranting furiously against patriarchial demands that women cover up their sinful, tempting bodies, whether it’s the mullahs in Saudi Arabia or the rabbis in Borough Park. These two rants may seem contradictory, but they are not.
Which is why a recent article in the college magazine “North by Northwestern” about the “return to modesty movement” caught my attention. Citing the prevalence of nude women in advertising by, among others, Urban Outfitters and American Apparel (the pervy one above is courtesy of AA), and the general sexification of clothes for young women, it quotes a number of pro-modesty women as they talk about their quest to create—and buy—clothing that is fashionable and hip without being overly revealing. “Our world kind of preaches the message of, ‘It’s all about being hot and sexy and that should be our life’s mission,'” Sharman said. “I think a woman has a lot more to offer to the world than just being hot and sexy.”
Amen, my modest sister. Can you really disagree with that? I think it’s completely healthy to say “enough” when it comes to too-tight, too-sexy clothes, particularly on teenage girls. Personally, I like short skirts, but I don’t reveal my midriff or cleavage unless I’m on a beach. I dislike the attention it attracts, and the sexist assumptions people make about me when I show a lot of skin. I’m vain enough to ant others to find me pretty, but I don’t need them to find me fuckable (unless I’m on a romantic date in which case, I might break out a bombshell dress.) I’m not alone in that:
“There’s the idea that girls and women are moving towards a state where they dress to feel comfortable, not wanting to be objectified.” Avila defines this tendency as dressing attractively, rather than dressing seductively.
“One is more of ‘I have a purpose [to] attract people to me and get to know me because I’m a cool person,’ whereas dressing seductively is like [wanting to hear] ‘Wow, she is like, oozing sex,’ and I just don’t think that’s a healthy thing,” Avila said. “If that’s the only thing they think of when they are getting ready to go out, in the end they’re just going to see themselves like objects – sex objects.”
At the forefront of this movement is Wendy Shalit, a baal tshuva—i.e. born-again Orthodox Jew–and author of A Return to Modesty and Girls Gone Mild, both about how young women should rebel against the “bad girl mindset” by ditching the slutwear and rejecting the “OMG, let’s make out for YouTube!” hook-up culture. While Shalit’s argument is rooted in her religious conservatism–something I’m generally allergic to—I think she makes a valid point. Good old feminist “sexual empowerment”, which used to mean enjoying our sexuality and having sex without shame, has morphed into “empowerfulment”–the right for women to have no shame at all, degrading and humiliating themselves as barely clad, frequently drunk, booty-bouncing sex objects in music videos, “Pussycat Dolls,” “Rock of Love” or nearly every other MTV or VH1 reality show. When Shalit calls modesty the “fourth feminist revolution”, she’s talking about a healthy swing of the pendulum back towards demanding self-respect and exhibiting self-control, and I’m ready to get behind that.
“I think that we are taking two steps forward,” said Weinberg sophomore Maura Ross, the fundraising co-chair of Northwestern University’s College Feminists. “Realizing that we don’t need to impress men with our bodies to get things, and [also] that we are powerful in who we are and we can step forward from the whole idea of the housewife.”
That is, you don’t have to buy into the notion of being a lady or a tramp. After all, both are stereotypes established as a way to judge and control women’s behavior. By wearing what makes them comfortable, beautiful and dignified, young women are rejecting both the chauvinist notions of demure and virginal while also giving a hearty “fuck off” to the porn-y stripperwear that Big Fashion seems determined to push on so many young women. It’s about feeling attractive and being genuinely confident and in control of your image, a feminist goal which I think too few women, particularly young women, realize these days.