A Modesty Proposal


"I have no sympathy with moralists who frown at the increasing crudity of female provocativeness. These signs of desperate competition fill me with pity."

~ C.S. Lewis

For some time I have watched with great interest the body image war taking place with women, and not completely from the outside. In the name of liberation, women are encouraged to put themselves first, put career before family, and fight for the right to abort their child. But nothing says "You've come a long way baby" like the "If you've got it, flaunt it" attitude promoted all over the media by magazines, billboards, television, and of course, other women. The competition is fierce. The latest example in the battle of body image is a new show on Lifetime that premiered January 4th called "How to Look Good Naked." The show is described as one that "teaches women of all shapes and sizes how to go from self-loathing to self-loving without resorting to interventions like extreme dieting or cosmetic surgery" making the claim that "four out of five American women today say they are dissatisfied with their bodies." I took advantage of Lifetime's offer to view the premiere episode at their website. The young woman in the first episode, Layla, is taken through a week long face-your-fear "therapy" and put in front of a room full of mirrors and asked to strip down to her bra and panties. She in fact spends most of the show in her bra and panties. She then proceeds to describe, tearfully, all of the areas she hates on her body. She uses words like "disgusting, huge, hate." The show’s host takes her through a variety of exercises to deal with her self-perception including projecting a giant-sized image of her body in bra and panties (not showing her face) on the side of a building for onlookers to see and critique while being taped for the show. Layla is shown both male and female passersby making comments like, “She has a nice rack/hips/legs." She is given a makeover, taught what to buy for her body-type in the way of clothing, and then asked, (manipulated really… She says "no" several times before finally giving in), to pose nude at the end of the show as proof of her new self-accepting, self-loving attitude. By her account, her attitude is changed. She and the host take to the streets for her final test. Her nude image is projected on the building where the old image of her in bra and panties was previously. Seeing herself up there, since the host did not ask her first, initially shocks her. She is then instructed to ask onlookers if she looks good naked. Her crowning compliment was given by another woman who states emphatically, "I think you look like a hot piece of a-s!" to which Layla replies while hugging the stranger, "Oh thank you!"

My question to all of my readers is this: If being bombarded with images of other scantily-clad women is causing comparison, competition, and self-loathing how is more of the same going to actually help?

The focus that women place on their bodies in this culture is unhealthy and imbalanced. When I turn on the radio in my car I hear numerous commercials selling Botox, cosmetic surgery, anti-wrinkle creams and tanning spas all to encourage the vain attempt to preserve and "beautify" what will inevitably wither. Self-hatred is rampant in the lives of women. The pressure to be considered "hot" is immense. Yet the prevailing logic is that the body is really no big deal; that shame and embarrassment are archaic notions; that those who've got it should flaunt it, and those who don't got it…should learn to love flaunting it anyway.

However, the body is important, and it is a big deal. As with all attempts to deny reality, there are consequences. Why else would uninhibited exposure be causing so many emotional and self-esteem issues for so many women? The reality here is that the embarrassment and inhibitions one feels about being insufficiently clothed in public serve many purposes in a society. These feelings communicate that covering up serves a purpose. It's what we therapists would call a boundary. It's okay to have boundaries; it's okay to cover up. It's ok to save one’s sexiness for the bedroom.

The young woman mentioned above, Layla, when discussing her issues with her body shared tearfully that she felt so bad about her body because she didn't measure up to the models shown on countless magazines and billboards. Images of near-naked women in sexy poses with "photoshopped" faces and bodies are everywhere such that one can hardly escape the pressure. Lifetime's solution then is more of the same… if you don't like how you look naked, learn to like it. But they are missing the whole point. Of course women should learn to like how they look naked, but not for the goal of being objectified ever further. Not for the goal of being called a "hot piece of a-s."

I propose a different solution: modesty. Yes, modesty. What is modesty? In Wendy Shalit's book A Return to Modesty, modesty has a tandem definition: first, humility, or a realistic view of oneself, and second, "damping down of one’s allure." If women used to be oppressed by being forced to cover themselves, act subordinate and self-effacing, we are now oppressed by having fallen off the horse on the other side: a "you go girl!" mantra complete with plunging neckline and a skirt that makes the whole world your gynecologist. True modesty would strike an easy balance. "Damping down ones allure" might mean covering up, but covering up does not mean denying sexual charm or physical beauty. Rather it is recognition and respect of the very power of our sexual and physical appeal, and choosing to reveal it later. Wendy Shalit points out, "Women who dress and act modestly conduct themselves in ways that shroud their sexuality in mystery. They live in a way that makes womanliness more a transcendent, implicit quality than a crude, explicit quality."

Widespread practice of modesty in dress would serve to pull the sensual out of the gutter and give it the reverence and respect it deserves. And there are other benefits to modesty. Female modesty in particular acknowledges that women are of great value, so great in fact that they need to be protected. Shalit points out, "A society that has lost its respect for female modesty is not just one which no longer teaches men to be protective toward women, it is a society which treats its women as some kind of a joke." Not just a joke… but the star in the joke of a show called "How to Look Good Naked."

For some good resources and discussion on the topic of modesty see these websites:

January 12, 2008