Modesty Shaming

As such, “modesty shaming” means to be the opposite of “slut shaming.” But it’s not really the opposite. The “virtue” of modesty reconstitutes women as sexualized beings (in contrast to sexual beings), a fact that must presuppose the act of covering the body to avoid shame. Hiding the body in this way is not merely reifying and amplifying an initial act of sexualization; by drawing attention to the sexualization of the body inherent in the act of covering it for this reason, the practice of modesty functions as a statement condemning immodesty, which by definition includes those who remain to some degree uncovered (the ultimate standard of modesty being to dress in a bag of some sort or to live in a box). 

Thus the cartoon that tries to accuse the West of hypocrisy by portraying a woman in a niqāb and a women in a bikini looking at each other with ethnocentric gazes, represented with thought bubbles containing statements condemning the manner of dress, creates a false equivalency. To be sure, the sexualization of women showing cleavage, in bikinis, or women with no clothing at all, is also the product of the patriarchal gaze; but this is not something given by the manner of dress, but rather something that resides in the sexualized eye of the beholder. A woman dressing in a way that displays the sexualized regions is refusing to be covered. The woman forced – by this we usually mean shamed – into covering herself (as we see even in the act of breastfeeding in public) by definition cannot or finds it very difficult to refuse the sexualization of her body from confining her freedom and self-expression. Moreover, to suppose both are the victims of patriarchal pressure is to suppose that all cultural systems are equally unfree. The woman in the burqa could not wear a bikini if she wanted to.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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