Hello there, gentle readers! I know I have been neglecting you recently, and for that I apologize. I will have a post up tomorrow explaining what has been going on and all that is in store (so much!) as I get back to a normal schedule this week, but first, I had to get this up. You see, I recently joined a fabulous group called the Bosom Bloggers, and last week we held a sort of online round-table discussion about the issue of modesty, which we’d all been meaning to talk about but had never gotten around to. A bunch of us agreed to post our thoughts between the 13th and 17th of May, and to call the group of posts The Modesty Panel. Obviously I missed the deadline, but better late than never, right? The other bloggers all have great posts written, and I’ve linked to each at the end of this post. Please take some time to read through them if you are interested in this topic; their experiences and backgrounds are extremely varied, and they have diverse opinions and ways of expressing themselves that are well worth exploring.
In the meantime, I really hope you enjoy my thoughts here. Please be advised that this post contains strong language, hearty feminist sentiment, and references to body parts that some might consider inappropriate for younger audiences (or for themselves, if they are particularly conservative). It also may be a little bit trigger-y on issues of bullying, body image problems and shaming, and sexual assault, so please read with caution if these issues might bring you any discomfort. I also wish to say up front that I am not an expert on any of the issues discussed herein, and that I apologize if any of this comes across as hetero-normative. I also regret that this piece does not discuss LGBTQ issues and particularly does not discuss the difficulties trans individuals face with regards to dress, which are tremendous. I do not feel qualified to speak on those issues, but I am looking into getting some resources together to link to as an appendix at some point. This is written from my perspective as a heterosexual cis-gendered white woman, and I don’t claim to have written something with as much intersectional perspective as I would have liked to. Still, I hope that it can resonate with and be helpful to some of you.
When I first heard about the Modesty Panel a while ago, my main thought was just that I enjoyed taking part in discussion with the always engaging Bosom Bloggers, and that I knew some of my readers were interested in the topic, so why not? As the week approached, though, I realized that taking on my feelings about modesty was no light endeavor. I count myself as a feminist, and the issue of how women’s bodies are perceived and the judgements placed upon how we adorn them is thorny for me. I also have a long and storied past of my own struggles to decide what style of clothing was right for me, and of being oft derided, dismissed, preyed upon, or just cast in an inaccurate light because of it. I fiercely believe in individual liberties (of all sorts, for people of all genders, races, sexualities, economic statuses, etc.), and I find the idea that someone else’s inability or lack of desire to control the reactions of their hormones and genitalia should limit one’s own choices of dress offensive and outrageous. I’m a moral relativist, with the deciding factor in my ethical reasonings based on the causation of harm. If it genuinely hurts someone and is unnecessary, don’t do it. Obviously there is a lot of grey area there, but the root is that the balance in any situation should be on the side of not causing suffering. I don’t consider being offended due to an arbitrary set of social norms or religious mores to be suffering, and therefore have no desire to curtail my clothing habits on anyone else’s behalf. I find the idea that one person’s dislike for another’s choices should be cause enough to limit said choices repugnant. And so. Modesty.
I am, as should be obvious to all of you, gentle readers, not very modest. I would say I am almost entirely lacking in modesty, to the point of feeling pretty sure that I am the farthest on this end of the spectrum of all the Bosom Bloggers. I absolutely support the choice of any woman to dress modestly for whatever reason she likes, and encourage all my readers, no matter what they prefer personally and whatever reasons they have for doing so, to support the clothing choices of every one else. But yes. I like to show some skin now and again. I grew up mainly living with my mother, a true hippie who wandered around in the buff often enough that I nicknamed her [NameRedacted] the Naked, and for a while we had nudist neighbors who were dear friends and were frequently spotted in their birthday suits in the backyard or unclothed in the doorway, looking to borrow a cup of sugar or the like. No, I didn’t live on a commune or something. This was in the heart of a city. Sometimes you just find places like that.
Anyway, nudity and bodies in general just didn’t seem like a big deal to me as a child, and it wasn’t until puberty hit rather unexpectedly (at the ripe old age of eight, as I recall) that bodies, and *my* body in particular, gave me occasion for pause. I admit it was only in retrospect that I understood the first gasps of the interest in me that were bubbling under the surface of the elementary school social scene, evidenced by requests that I jump up and down (which I did, because who doesn’t love jumping?) and other such things. By fifth grade, though, the taunting and questioning was in full swing. I remember someone I had im the past considered to be a friend being the ringleader of a group of kids intent on getting me to admit to stuffing my bra, the irony being that I was still refusing to wear a bra at that point because I was in denial about my rapidly changing physique. There is a video somewhere of me at a school concert running up to my parents, newly formed and oddly pointy breasts bouncing wildly enough I’m surprised they didn’t shake the rafters.* Watching it recently made me intensely sad and somewhat mortified. I also remember trying to push my nipples back into my body every day, and taking my parents razors to shave my nether regions. I can still distinctly feel the horror with which I regarded my ten-year-old body, alien to me and a target to my friends.
*Disclaimer: My mother was trying to buy me bras, and I would apparently literally run out of the store when she wasn’t looking. So it’s not her fault at all.
Sixth grade (age 11) meant a new school, and as it was in a different school-zone than my elementary school, entirely new classmates. It also meant gym class, which required changing into uniforms in locker rooms with all the other girls. Because of this, all the girls were getting bras, which meant I finally ended up feeling like I needed a bra. For those of you who don’t know, my bra size now is approximately 28K in UK sizing, and my ribcage measures about 27 inches. I was of course smaller then. The first bra I wore was a 34C, courtesy of K-Mart. Based on that, my guess is that I would have needed a 26-band if I had been properly fitted, which means that I entered middle school at age 11, probably needing a 26F bra. Think about that. Think about an eleven year old child with 26F breasts and no idea what that meant in the world. Think about what it’s like to go into middle school, especially in a new place, and to navigate through the murky waters of the adolescent social scene. And what is it hard to be in those terrifying depths? Different.
Having breasts and curves is not the sort of different you can hide easily. You can try – and oh, did I try, wearing large men’s sized shirts and slouching weirdly from the middle of my back in a way that caused posture issues I struggle with to this day – but ultimately, especially on a relatively small frame, people will see that you have Big Boobies. The reactions ranged from the continuation of accusations – “You stuff your bra!” “You walk on purpose in a way to make your boobs jiggle more!” etc. – to the assumption that I was a slut, to the (completely bizarre to me to this day) feeling that my breasts were somehow public property, to be commented on and even touched by people as they pleased. I remember being asked how I walked without falling over. I remember men on the street following me in cars as I walked in my neighborhood, offering me rides. I remember being in my room with a classmate who told me if I moved it meant I wanted him to touch me, and being poked at by him till I moved involuntarily, and I remember bruises the size of ping pong balls on my breasts the next day. It was not because I dressed immodestly. It was because my body has been, since adolescence, undeniably exaggerated in the areas considered sexual by most people, and apparently that gave them the right to sexualize me, even though I was a CHILD. I was a child.
My mother tells me stories – familiar as most of this probably is to those of you who developed early – of being harassed by school staff for dress code violations despite wearing nothing the other girls weren’t.1 I believe she had to threaten to sue them for sexual harassment before they stopped, and that they literally instituted a new rule in the dress code the following year to make sure they could better enforce their body-shaming, bullshit “standards of decency” without being sued for “correcting” girls with bodies like mine. Because modesty isn’t just one standard – it’s a policing of women’s bodies that goes right to the individual. It’s saying that because my body type produces desire, or jealousy, or discomfort, or *whatever* in you, I should have to cover it up, disguise it, alter it, distract from it, change the way I move it, change the way I interact with the world… For your benefit. NOT for my benefit. Not for my comfort, or my sense of who I am as an individual in a world full of beautiful individuals with beautiful bodies all their own whose experiences I don’t know and wouldn’t presume to quantify.2
But I am getting ahead of myself. Going back into my middle school memories has been tough, but I will say that things got better. Somehow – and I’m honestly not sure how I made this transition or I would write more about it – I managed to become easy going about my figure, to be the first to make the jokes, to be sassy and outspoken about pretty much everything (this had already been the works for a while), and, in doing all of this, I largely took the power back. Yes, my breasts were still the focus of undue amounts of attention and yes, my identity in most people’s minds seemed to be tied inexorably to my bust size, but at least I at that point felt like I was in on the joke, and that a lot of it was on my own terms, or at least being framed in my own way. It also led to some of the girls in my class coming to me for advice about their own bodies and their budding feelings of sexuality, and I took it upon myself to become as educated as I could and to help them, which began a lifelong love of sharing sex- and body- positivity. Is it okay that at age 13 my choices were to hide and be harassed constantly or to be the narrator of my own movie, The Girl With Giant Boobs? No. There should have been a third option. Still, I am glad that I chose the latter, and that it worked for me. It doesn’t for everyone.
Me, in high school:
I’m going to leave off the direct personal narrative here, but my intention in including it so far has been to provide you for the setting in which my views on the body as the object of the gaze were formed, and that in doing so, the way my views on modesty have developed might be made more clear. Becky W. Thompson has said “Embodiment that allows a person to know where his or her own body stops and another’s physical body begins may be at the root of a person’s capacity to know him/herself as simultaneously unique and connected to the world.”3 In that way, I lost myself – there was no more private Miss Shapen, and that sense has stuck with me through adulthood in a way that makes me uneasy, unsure of how I would feel now about my body and the way I want others to interact with it had I not made those choices so long ago. I know no other way to feel now, and while I don’t dislike the way I comport myself, I do dislike not knowing if it is a natural outcome of my personality or a continued response to early torment and lack of control.
So yes, let’s fast-forward through high school and college, during both of which my breasts were a running gag and personal space basically didn’t exist (in my last high school yearbook, one guy wrote that he took pride in being “the only person in our class who hasn’t touched [your] boobs,” and it wasn’t meant as any sort of slut-shaming at me, just a commentary on the way things were); through the birthday surprise video at 18 where one of my friends’ secret message to me was “all my friends know you as the girl with the big tits;” through dressing to hide them, dressing to show them off, and everything in between; through more accusations about the way I dressed and one boyfriend who complained that I didn’t dress sexily enough(?! “You can be kind of attractive when you try, but you just look dumb in that.”); through the disrespecting of my physical boundaries that I will refrain from speaking of in detail here… Through all kinds of things. All about my boobs, parts of me that I didn’t choose and couldn’t get rid of if I wanted to, and parts of me that, to bring things back around to the topic at hand, never stopped being focused on no matter what I wore. My style has been all over the place. Dressing more modestly and sometimes not taking any time at all with my appearance whatsoever never stopped people from feeling like they needed to personally interact with my breasts, be it through leering, “accidentally” brushing up against them, bragging about having touched them after breaking up with me (that was a special time), talking about them loudly within earshot of me, making comments to and catcalling at me, offering unsolicited and often wildly inaccurate advice on how I could dress better to hide them, etc. Perhaps for someone with a figure other than mine, dressing modestly would change things. For me, on the fundamental levels of how the world chooses to see and interact with me, it doesn’t. And I am awfully tired of caring.
The truth is, if I wear an even slightly low-cut top, I get cleavage that people stare at, and it looks like I have huge boobs. But you know what else? When I wear a really high necked top, they look *even bigger.* It’s what I call boobloaf, that vast uniboob expanse between waist and neck that the high-necklined tops give most of the time. Are there tops that have enough room for my boobs, nip in at the waist, and provide JUST the right necklines to achieve the least of both of these looks? Sure. But they’re few and far between, and usually expensive. Usually things big enough to fit my boobs that aren’t fitted hang off me and add thirty pounds to my frame, but heaven forbid I wear something stretchy and tight that shows off my figure – someone might think I were slutty! (Because that would be their business obviously, and of course it’s not solely a woman’s own concern how many people she chooses to be with over any given amount of time.) Sometimes (often!) I want to wear a goddamn T-shirt and jeans. From Target. With a messy pony-tail and a goofy grin and whatever the hell else I want, and it should be fine. Even if the top fits like a second skin, or has a deep V-neck, because that’s what was on sale or what didn’t need to go in the laundry or maybe, just maybe, because that’s what I feel like wearing that day. I don’t even mind your peeking some extra glances at my tits, because hell, I know I would. They’re gigantic! It’s surprising, if nothing else. I don’t fault people for feeling like the way I dress might be attention getting. But here’s the thing:
The fact that I have your attention does not mean I am desperate for it, and the fact that you want my attention does not mean you are entitled to it.
You can look at me appreciatively without leering.
You can desire me without acting on it.
You can appreciate my figure without commenting on it.
You can notice that I am sexy and not assume that I have no other qualities worth noticing.
You can see that I am a woman and not feel the need to control me.
You can guess that I might be fun to have sex with and not think that I am good for nothing else.
You can see me and feel threatened/titillated/offended/whatever by my amount of cleavage and still know that you don’t get to dictate my life choices.
You can realize that it is your right to be offended by my style but not your right to demand that I change it.
Look away if you have to. This is my body, and these are my clothes, and whatever I choose to do with them is my affair. It is intended neither to affront you nor compel you, but if it does, you are in control of your response to that. Look away, tell your mother about it in hushed tones later this evening, wank to your memory of it, whatever, but leave me out of it. I accept well-meaning and non-lewd compliments – limited to one if you are a stranger – and that’s about it. The rest is your business, and how I dress is mine. And really, it’s not my clothing that’s immodest anyway; it’s my body itself. The same tank-top on a smaller chested women would be fine, but on me, it’s indecent. What is really being said, then, is that my body itself is indecent. That showing the shape that I have is indecent, because that shape specifically might cause sexual thoughts in someone, and We Just Can’t Have That. But I won’t hide myself. My body isn’t just decent, it’s a work of art. There are curves all over it, lovely ones – the small of my back, the intake at my waist, the slopes of calves and thighs, the breasts and butt out of a Renaissance painting… It’s all curves. And I like them. These last few sentences bely the sometimes serious body image issues I have at times, mostly related to weight and such, but even when I am at my most self-critical, I love the curves. And nobody gets to tell me, or any women for that matter, that our bodies are indecent. It’s sexist, cruel, and selfish, and it causes life-long issues of shame and self-loathing for many people, in addition to limiting how free they feel to express themselves.
In closing, I am not a penis receptacle, nor a penis deflector. I am not in competition with other women, nor am I here to be a temptress for men. It is not my job to help you police your genitalia, or to curb your insecurities (although I would so love to help you conquer them!), or to feel bad about or ashamed of myself so that you can feel good about yourself (I think you’re beautiful, and I want you to, too!). I am not going to cover myself because you think I should, or because your religion tells you I’m a sinner, or because your political party thinks I am inviting sexual assault just by not obscuring the shape I grew into. I spent my childhood hiding from my body and trying to will and force it to not be what it is, my adolescence and young adulthood not knowing how to protect it and not even having a concept of what I wanted to do with it and have done to it, and now is my time to enjoy it, free of judgement or double-standard social constructs of decency.
So look away if you have to.
Me, nowadays. Some days I’m all sexified. Some days I’m not. And that’s fine.
1This sort of thing is actually pretty common, and is certainly still going on today. Please see this article about the disgusting way the dress code at Stuyvesant High School in New York is being carried out: http://www.feministe.us/blog/archives/2012/05/28/students-at-stuyvesant-take-issue-with-dress-code/. Here is an excellent quote from the article: “the Stuy dress code enforcers also appear to fall into a common problem with dress codes generally — defining an “appropriate” body. As the students quoted in the Times article implied, some of them technically met the dress code but were still told they were “inappropriate,” not because of what they were wearing, but because of how it looked on them. I don’t know what those students look like, but I’m going to guess it comes down to boobs and butts. Flesh is what’s often considered “inappropriate” — B-cup boobs in a turtleneck are fine, but double-Ds are not; straight hips in a pencil skirt are fine, but curvy ones are not. It’s the body that’s being policed, not the clothes.” I found this after having finished my piece, or I probably would have worked this into the body of the text. Alas. Same thing with the post in the next footnote.
2 There is a post that I found to be excellent at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nolongerquivering/2012/12/modesty-body-policing-and-rape-culture-connecting-the-dots/. This article comes at the issue from a specifically religious perspective (and I actually originally found it through Boosaurus’ lovely piece for the Modesty Panel; she comes from a religious background and her post is a great read for a take on this subject from an entirely opposite upbringing from mine), but the author and I have nearly identical takes on the Modesty as Body Policing side of things, and she writes about it more eloquently and in more depth. Highly recommended.
3 Thompson, Becky W. A Hunger So Wide and So Deep: A Multi-Racial View of Women’s Eating Problems. Minneapolis/London: University of Minnesota Press, 1994