Modesty & Real Beauty

Two conversations I had this past Saturday evening reminded me of some of the troubles I have with the concept of modesty. The first, a side conversation as part of a longer conversation on working to create women’s space in an environment of traditional, gendered Judaism, a friend told me that sometimes what the community holds to be the standards and what actually happens when she wears certain outfits are two different things, so she moderates what she wears more strictly in her current community than she would in other communities. It’s not that she finds them telling her that she’s dressed inappropriately, but rather she gets unwanted attention from immature eyes, and would rather not experience that. Later that evening, after my husband and I viewed the movie “Juno” on TV, he was trying to Google pictures of Jennifer Garner and Ellen Page to show me how he thought they looked alike, and had the events in Juno been real, he bet that they could have passed a child produced by Ms. Page as Ms. Garner’s child. Just a good old flight of fancy, but what it produced were a shocking number of pictures of Ms. Garner in her underwear, something R had not been expecting.

As we are all aware, sex sells, so it shouldn’t have been too surprising. However, R felt it was disturbing, since it seemed like another way to objectify these beautiful women – show me a still image of her in a string bikini rather than let me get to know her on a personal level. There’s another part of my brain though that says, hang on, but shouldn’t women be proud of their bodies? Isn’t there something powerful about having women be proud of what they look like and not being afraid to show that off? Clearly, not just the Jennifer Garner’s of the world, but for instance, the recent Campaign for Real Beauty by Dove, proves that the world does need more models of women taking pride in their bodies.

Maybe this seems a little weird given the topic of modesty, to be discussing a campaign in which women are in their underwear. The point though, is that women should take pride in their bodies, and that can take many forms. In my opinion, most of those ways are modest, dressing in a way that takes pride in your body without being showy or over sexualized. Dressing with pride with a style that looks good for you, rather than for the opposite sex or some other reason. It can be tough – but it seems to me, worth it.

There’s another aspect of the Dove campaign – sometimes it’s about changing the ways in which we identify things. As the picture above says – wrinkled? or wonderful? This can be true about sexualization as well – is it beautiful? or sexy? I also wonder if our focus on modesty sometimes makes things sexual that aren’t – the proverbial ankle in Victorian times. Rather than being over-sexualized, maybe most of society has made nothing sexual – until it is. So we reclaim that space, but we have to be proud as well. A careful, careful balancing act.

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