Clarifying the subjectivity of modesty


  • behavior, manner, or appearance intended to avoid impropriety or indecency
  • the quality of being relatively moderate, limited, or small in amount, rate, or level


  • based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions

These are DICTIONARY DEFINITIONS, people. I am not making these definitions up. I copied them right offa Google.

Now, take a good hard look at “intended to avoid impropriety or indecency” and tell me that what constitutes impropriety or indecency isn’t dependent on cultural context. Go ahead. Just know that I will be ROFLMAO inside, even if I otherwise maintain composure. “Objective” modesty doesn’t even make any sense, considering that “modesty” is a concept that only exists inside people’s minds. There is no Department of the Physics of Modesty that decodes the eternal rules for modest dress that apply to all humans in all places at all times out of the vibrations of the celestial bodies and the triangulation of the aurora borealis with the moon’s reflection at high tide on the equator at midnight on the equinox every hundred years, although it would be pretty cool if there were. What standard given by an indisputable and universal authority has decided and communicated to us how much give one has to have in one’s pants waistband to qualify as “modest”? Same question for the length of your kilt and the height of your socks and how much spandex you’re allowed in your nylons, etc. And no, you can’t just make something up and call it objective, no matter how good your reasoning, because at the end of the day your personal and cultural assumptions and feelings are still going to color your entire logic chain I will return to objectivity at the end, however.

As a visual illustration, let me give you some examples of what I mean when I say “modesty is subjective” before going on

And that, dear audience, is just a paltry few examples of images of various cultures’ clothing that does not even go into different clothing being appropriate for various tasks, events, celebrations, castes, age groups, locations, etc. I even left out the totally naked except-for-jewelry African woman carrying her child out of the water and the women wearing jet-black burqas with netting over even their eyes. Do I need to do a historical slideshow of the last 200 years, starting with that hideous stuff people wore in the eighties while they listened to that awful noise they called music, just to make it super obvious that what constitutes appropriate dress even in the same culture changes drastically? (Yes, that is some tongue-in-cheek poking fun at the eighties.)

What has been defined as proper and acceptable dress has varied not only through time and geographical location but also varies on a daily basis for people in our own time and culture! Some people go to work or school and wear required uniforms. Appear in those locations to work or learn without the appropriate uniform, or with unauthorized changes to the uniform, and you will be punished for impropriety! AKA, a breach of modesty. Even if the clothes you’re wearing are perfectly modest for a trip to the store after work.

Are we all agreed now that when I say that modesty is subjective I am actually telling the truth about a facet of human existence and not just making shit up? No, you do not get to quibble about the dictionary definition of the words as I’m using them here because you have a different (incorrect!) meaning in mind. By the powers granted to me as a minor minion of the Evil League of Evil, I will reach through the pixels of your monitor with a crisp copy of Merriam-Webster Unabridged, and give you the death of a thousand papercuts while assaulting your ears with the war-cry of the Grammar-Nazi Harpies that drives men to madness and weeping and shatters their fillings, sending them to the dentist as undead zombie corpses starring in ridiculous tween chick flicks, if you try. It is a lot of work and takes a great deal of preparation, which I probably have notes on somewhere around here in a pile of junk, so I would really appreciate it if you would not do that, mkay? The piles are kind of precarious and there might be a rabid paperclip or two in hiding that I’d rather not disturb.

Let us return to “objectivity,” as I promised.

Now, since you’re already in a culture that predates your existence – presuming you’re not a hermit nor a leader of a creepy cult – does the subjectivity of that culture’s determination of modesty (the sum total of all the individuals’ personal preferences interacting and thus creating social guidelines) with reference to all possible types of clothing and rules for modest dress that have ever existed or ever will exist mean that “The Local Rules” for modesty in that culture don’t objectively, i.e. really and truly, exist? OBVIOUSLY NOT. You have to be very highly educated indeed to believe something that idiotic and contrary to the daily existence of basically all of humanity. Or possibly you could be the main character of an Ann Leckie award-winning novel, in which case, you have my sympathy for your disability, and please take my word for it that this principle is obvious to normal people, who know very well that flouting “no shirt, no shoes, no service” or the local public indecency regulations will result in close encounters with cops – and possibly being put on a sex offenders registry, and no amount of whining about how they dress in far away places is going to get you off the hook.

The boss at the job site or principal of the school (or the government of the locality) has the entirely reasonable authority to institute standards and to create actual, objective measures for what will be considered modest clothing. Heads of families likewise. Then, and only then, can you even begin to say that modesty has an objective measure, but only because some limited human authority sets the rules for a particular time and place. And those rules are indeed “based on or influenced by [the] personal feelings, tastes, or opinions” of the authority who makes those rules, who is in turn affected by the “personal feelings, tastes, or opinions” of mentors, friends and neighbors, his parents, etc. which I sum up in the concept of “cultural context.” Therefore, subjective. Not “invalid,” not “phony,” nor any other word connotating “disqualified”; subjective. 

MODESTY. IS. SUBJECTIVE. The reason that this is important is because in an age of unprecedented geographical mobility, with people moving about all over the place and thus ending up in different local cultures than the one they’re used toit’s important to keep in mind that what is considered immodest by one subcultural group may well be considered perfectly acceptable modest dress by another cultural group. I read The Manual and there was definitely no detailed list of what clothing is acceptable in what circumstances for America in 2015 that everybody’s shepherds can use as an infallible guide, so I would appreciate it if the limited human authorities would kindly recognize that their authority has limits and that Christians may have honest disagreements with each other about this issue without one side or another being damned to eternal Hellfire for being wrong about hemlines.


About pancakeloach :)
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