Monday, January 28, 2008

What determines modesty?

I've been having an interesting discussion on another group about women covering or trying to reveal as little as possible of their breasts while breastfeeding.

There seems to be quite a large cohort that feels that thinking a woman should try to be as "discreet" as possible is an innately "anti-breastfeeding" view. Some even think that by covering up while nursing, women are prolonging the culture's view that the act or at least the body part is somehow dirty or shameful.

This has got me thinking about modesty in general.

Modesty varies so much from culture to culture, and obviously from gender to gender. In some cultures showing one's hair or an ankle is considered racy, while in other cultures nudity is the norm and is not considered sexual at all.

I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on a few things:

1. What determines modesty in a given culture?

2. What factors bring about changes in the culture's standards of modesty?

3. Should we, in general, try to remain within the standards of modesty of the culture in which we find ourselves, or are there sometimes good reasons not to do so? What would be some examples of good reasons not to, if you think they exist?

4. Is there ever an absolute right and wrong for standards of modesty (i.e. are some standards wrong because they result in abuse or discrimination or because they are simply unreasonable and/or unfair, or is showing certain body parts always wrong regardless of culture)?

5. How much does context determine whether showing a certain body part is appropriate or not, within a given culture? Does the attitude, reason and intent for showing a body part make a difference, or is there purely a clinical, quantifiable standard based on what body part is being shown? Are there situations where unavoidable or necessary exposure of a particular body part would be fine, while purposefully and unecessarily exposing that body part would not be ok? If so, where and how would you draw a line?

6. Why do you, personally, make the choices you do when it comes to modesty?

If you have any other ideas of points to discuss on this topic, feel free to add them. BTW, I'm not necessarily discussing law so much as common practice or what people think "should" be done, but I wouldn't be opposed to a discussion of the ethics of legislating modesty.

12 comments:

Kevin said...

Ah, breasts -- my second favorite subject. kidding! It's my first favorite. kidding! :)

In the interest of modesty of speech, I shall be deleting this comment maƱana plus one day per laugh it receives.

MamasBoy said...

Kevin,

HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA!

MB

Kevin said...

Thanks, MB. :)

Kevin said...

PK,

Thanks for your surge of posts and keeping things moving here.

Modesty is hard for me to nail down. I guess it is akin to "balance" and, as such, considering the extremes may help us find it. In terms of body modesty, the extremes are (1) nudity, with issues of sexual arousal, distraction, privacy, devalue, and sanitation, and (2) covering (a la burqas), with issues of shame, repression, oppression, and function.

In answer to your questions:

1. I think how we choose to solve the issues from the two extremes I mentioned above determines modesty in a given culture.

2. Reactions to the problematic issues of each extreme bring about changes.

3. It depends upon the specific standards and context, but, generically, by the Golden Rule, it seems reasonable to generally avoid offending when we can. Of course, it may be justified in the case of civil rights, necessity, etc.

4. In the abstract, neither nudity nor covering are wrong. However, in practice, I think that they are statistically correlated with moral issues, some of which I've implied in the extremes' lists.

5. Context is central (e.g. doctors office, showers, bathroom, etc.), and necessity and intent seem like good moral lines to draw.

6. Habit. Comfort. Respect. Considering the reaction of others, and my goals.

I tried to be terse in my answers, so please let me know if I missed something.

Regarding your example of breastfeeding, I wonder if those who advocate against discretion may have broader and more immediate goals than general acceptance of public breastfeeding. It seems prudent to pick your battles, and I'd hope it is possible to not feel ashamed while also being reasonably discreet, based upon context.

Kevin

purple_kangaroo said...

Kevin, thanks for the chuckle . . . and for sharing your thoughts.

Most of your thoughts on this topic seem to line up pretty well on my own.

As for the breastfeeding issue, I can certainly see the point to some extent. The whole "only if it's discreet" thing has been used too many times to try to keep women from nursing in public places at all.

Discretion is in the eye of the beholder, and some people think that the only way to breastfeed discreetly is to make sure that nobody else knows it's happening--in other words, go in the bathroom or leave the building to do it. Neither of those options is reasonable. (Would you want to eat your dinner in the bathroom with toilets flushing and germs spraying all around you? I wouldn't.)

There are also scenarios where, for one reason or another, using a blanket is a less-than-ideal solution, and some women find it quite impossible to nurse without showing a significant amount of skin.

Supposedly, statistically more women get harassed for breastfeeding when they are using a blanket than when they're not, simply because the blanket over the shoulder draws attention to the fact that they're nursing.

So there's the whole question of what, exactly, is "discretion".

I don't think we should have any kind of law requiring discretion or modesty, because that would leave a loophole for the wierdos who think they have a right to never be aware that a child is eating in their presence.

I actually did experience this once, where someone was so uncomfortable with the idea of me nursing my baby that they didn't want me doing it in their home, even if they couldn't see it. I had to nurse out in my car. I honored their request, but I'll most likely try to avoid being in their home again until I no longer have a nursing child.

I don't think women should be required to cover. I do, however, think that they should, within reason, do whatever they can without sacrificing comfort and practicality to accommodate the sensibilities of those around them.

For me, that means I try to avoid giving anyone a direct, long look at anything more than the back of the baby's head, and try to position myself so that any momentary accidental exposure will be screened from anyone who might be bothered by it. I've had people come up to me and compliment me on my beautiful baby without even realizing that she's nursing.

But I do understand that, for a number of reasons, it's much easier for me to do this than it is for some other mother-baby pairs.

So there's really no "standard" where I can draw a line and say "this much skin is ok, and that much isn't." To me it's more about intent, attitude and context than about mechanics.

Kevin said...

PK,

I agree with you completely. Moreover, my own opinion is that breastfeeding is normal, natural, and healthy, and should be welcomed and accomodated. I think it's appropriate if our culture would change in the vein.

I do not understand at all the irrational fear that you can't breastfeed anywhere in someone's house. Nevertheless, we often try to accomodate one another even if we can't understand their concerns, as you did. That is the context in which I intended my last paragraph.

I do recall one time when a friend began breastfeeding her child in front of me. I stared. I'd try not to, but I did. It was curious and unusual. But eventually, during the course of the conversation, I got used to it and made little more than a glance after that.

Good point about bathrooms, et al. As might be imagined, I have no sense of the practicalities of breastfeeding.

Kevin

Anonymous said...

From an old lady's point of view
1. Modesty - My question becomes to the woman and rarley man - why are you exposing so much. If it seems to show off what they have or trying to entice, I am offended. I am a very straight woman and somethimes it is even hard for me not to stare at some of these women with their booies hanging out!
2. breast feeding I am from the era where we had to go in the bathroom or excuse ourself to another room (yes, even in my own home) because it was not acceptable to feed MY BABY in front of others men! This gets me so riled up even now. My daughter has babies now and I strongly encourage her to breast feed in public. Once on a trip to in the hot Oklahoma summer we stop at Cracker Barrel and she fed the baby on the forch in their rocking chairs. I could not beleive the STARES EVEN TODAY in our society. She had covered the baby's head with a blanket, which pissed me off. TOO HOT UNDER THERE. Fed your baby with pride let them hang out!!! At least you are not giving them a bottle with welfare money!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I work with women that were offend when a mother fed her baby in a church servie. Neeless to say I was offend at them for being I am not even sure what the word is.
Thanks for allowing me to vent.
a over 50 mother who loved breast feeding - a very special time with my babies.
So MEN ENCOURAGE AND SUPPORT Your women who breast feed. Beside there is extra benefits for you there also.

steviepinhead said...

1. What determines modesty in a given culture?

Lots of factors: climate, technology, history, religion, past culture...

2. What factors bring about changes in the culture's standards of modesty?

People closer to the edge or the permissible--authors, artists, photographers, film-makers, advertisers--push the boundaries for all sorts of reasons. Here, more particularly, the boundary pushers are women just refusing to be squelched and marginalized. Perhaps not quite as dramatic as refusing to ride at the back of the bus, but "boundary pushers," nonetheless.

3. Should we, in general, try to remain within the standards of modesty of the culture in which we find ourselves, or are there sometimes good reasons not to do so? What would be some examples of good reasons not to, if you think they exist?

The principal reason to stay within the standards is simply the pragmatic need to avoid negative responses, whether that is hassle, rude comments, social ostracization, punishment... Clearly, there is no discernible "correct" moral code that applies to the degree of coverage. So conformity is for all the usual practical reasons. Not upsetting others, however silly and pointless their "standards" may seem. Vanity (heh, heh--what I was willing to expose as a 21-year-old and what I'm willing to have seen now are two very different things!). Avoiding even more practical problems like sunburn, scratches, splinters, toxic plants, and so forth...

4. Is there ever an absolute right and wrong for standards of modesty (i.e. are some standards wrong because they result in abuse or discrimination or because they are simply unreasonable and/or unfair, or is showing certain body parts always wrong regardless of culture)?

In an ideal world, showing--that is, not going out of one's way to hide--certain body parts ought never to be "wrong," in the sense of actively punished, regardless of culture.
However, we now find ourselves--I would suggest in part because of stifled and prudish childrearing practices--in a situation where certainly "showing" body parts of minors is very problematic, and would expose them to dangers. While other ways of fending off these dangers can be imagined, they would be difficult (and probably illegal) to implement in the current climate.
Restricting our discussion to persons of a certain age, then, I would say that there really is no absolute standard, other than whatever the majority or a sufficiently loud minority is able to impose and enforce.
In effect, for most purposes, we no longer have an enforecable standard in the U.S. as to graphic content--one can certainly obtain whatever image one wants of adult body parts, without effective societal intervention. And, in at least some states, there really is no effective societal ban on, for example, display of the female breast, even "live" (as opposed to in imagery)--my impression is New York is such a state.
This doesn't mean that it's a very good idea to just wander around with one's parts hanging out--if one needs to be employed, or doing almost anything else besides dealing with major and minor harassment of all kinds. There's still an unclear line in much of this society about what is private (under your own control), what is private (clearly under someone else's control), and what is "public forum" (under some unclear degree of personal, other-personal, governmental, or social control). Even if it's legal in New York, for example, for a woman to bare her breasts in "public," there's a considerable practical difference in doing so as between, say, a strip joint, a beach, a park, a sidewalk, a beauty salon, a grocery store, a church... Even though at least some of those places might be thought of as places to which all members of the public ought to be able to resort without discrimination/intervention by others...
But, again, the main "standards" are to my mind quasi-cultural, quasi-pragmatic ones, rather than any sort of absolute "moral" ones.
There is something to be said for most people most of the time sharing a generic cultural "skin." This enables people to meet on common ground in a given context without distractions from that context. School dress codes or uniforms; "business clothes"; business "casual"; go-to-meeting clothes (wedding guests; church attendees, perhaps; court witnesses or staff...) It's already hard enough for an obese or disfigured or obvious-religious or racial minority individual to submit themselves to public judgment and ridicule, and expect to be treated fairly and evenly on the merits, without having to further display their folds, scars, skin, or other religio-cultural "marks."
But there should, at a minimum, be places where the opposite is true--where no one should expect to have their prejudices or cultural preconceptions coddled: the "Vegas"es of the world--nude beaches and tropical resorts and nightclubs and theater and rock concerts and what-all. Your own home, if your predilections are known...!

5. How much does context determine whether showing a certain body part is appropriate or not, within a given culture? Does the attitude, reason and intent for showing a body part make a difference, or is there purely a clinical, quantifiable standard based on what body part is being shown? Are there situations where unavoidable or necessary exposure of a particular body part would be fine, while purposefully and unecessarily exposing that body part would not be ok? If so, where and how would you draw a line?

Well, as I hope is clear by now, in most public/public accomodation contexts, if it were up to me, no such line would be drawn (but obviously no one would be forced to undress or display more than they were comfortable with, either).

6. Why do you, personally, make the choices you do when it comes to modesty?

Pure pragmatics, although I have probably pushed the line at many times and places when I thought I could get away with it--whether on certain types of beaches or isolated terrain, or in my own home, or NEAR my own home (the dash for the mail or the paper, without too much regard for how dressed I might be). I prefer comfortable aired-outness to stifling clothedness, personally, so long as it's neither too hot, too cold, too buggy, whatever out. If I can't get away with skin, I'll try short sleeves, or casual, or ... almost anything other than endless, boring business dress. But my employers, family members, fellow students, and neighbors have not always allowed me to fully exercise my strange predilections!

Public breastfeeding is fine. Even if, on the rare occasion, the observer is somehow convinced that the woman is using the occasion to flaunt her assets--which seems to me to by an almost-ridiculous assumption to defend (rather like there being some supposed social advantage for a teenage boy to "pretend" to gayness)--then the observer has a guaranteed remedy. Look some other way!

Speaking of babies, that Super Bowl commercial with the talking, stock-trading baby was hilarious, at least the first couple of times around. Though it could get old quick, I imagine.

MamasBoy said...

1. What determines modesty in a given culture?
Depends. If a certain amount of exposure is considered to arouse the sexual interest of the opposite sex, then that typically is considered immodest. This is especially true if the primary purpose of the said exposure is sexual arousal.

2. What factors bring about changes in the culture's standards of modesty?
How much a certain type of exposure is associated with sexual arousal in the culture at large plays a big role in this. I think a big reason breastfeeding is considered immodest is that is so infrequently encountered as a normal part of daily life. With the decrease in family size, many people can't remember their own mothers breastfeeding and were not exposed to it growing up. For many, their only exposure to breasts has been sexual, and many like it that way. They don't know how to think of breasts any other way. As one coworker of mine put it when the topic of breastfeeding in public came up at the company Christmas party (that was an interesting evening), "I like my breasts sexualized." I have met a couple CCL NFP teachers who have had husbands of women in the class tell their wives that they think their wives breasts should be reserved for their pleasure and that they are uncomfortable with breastfeeding in general. That is truly bizarre in my mind, but not completely unexpected given the type of media exposure breasts get in this culture. It's as if we as a culture have forgotten what their primary biological purpose is.

3. Should we, in general, try to remain within the standards of modesty of the culture in which we find ourselves, or are there sometimes good reasons not to do so? What would be some examples of good reasons not to, if you think they exist?
Yes and no. We should not try and tempt those around us, but sometimes a culture can get out of whack and feeding one's baby is a good reason to push those boundaries. Regarding reasons in general, I would err on the side of caution myself, but good health (e.g., doctor visits and brestfeeding) seem like really good reasons. When one considers that many/most families on this planet reside in one room homes, if they have one, then the modesty hangups we have in western culture become even more evident.

4. Is there ever an absolute right and wrong for standards of modesty (i.e. are some standards wrong because they result in abuse or discrimination or because they are simply unreasonable and/or unfair, or is showing certain body parts always wrong regardless of culture)?
I would say, no to the absolute standard question. At the same time, I have a tough time conceiving of a culture that can tolerate complete nudity in personal dress without sexualizing the experience. Art is another story. In my mind, paintings and sculpture can portray naked people without sexualizing them. I think that would be more difficult to do with personal interaction, but perhaps it would be possible in a culture that was less sexualized than ours is.

5. How much does context determine whether showing a certain body part is appropriate or not, within a given culture? Does the attitude, reason and intent for showing a body part make a difference, or is there purely a clinical, quantifiable standard based on what body part is being shown? Are there situations where unavoidable or necessary exposure of a particular body part would be fine, while purposefully and unecessarily exposing that body part would not be ok? If so, where and how would you draw a line?

I think I've answered that above, somewhat. In my mind, it depends on whether the person is being sexualized or considered as a mere commodity for the enjoyment of others. If a person can be treated witht he same level of respect without certain clothes on as with certain clothes on, then there seems to me to be no inherrent reason to cover up in that situation.

6. Why do you, personally, make the choices you do when it comes to modesty?
I dress in such a way as to not arouse the sexual interest of others and try to look away when others are not doing so... at least that's the goal.

Chris West had a good article on the tragic nature of how our culture views breastfeed and how sad it is that we would even be having discussions like this.
http://www.theologyofthebody.com/03-16-07.asp

MB

Kevin said...

This thread and my comment have been on my mind.

On the one hand, I think it is good to temper flaunting breastfeeding that is intended to flout people's sensitivities since that might add an unnecessary obstact to the goal of making breastfeeding socially acceptable.

On the other hand, it seems plausible that you cannot shift culture in this direction without offending people, and perhaps discretion can also be counterproductive in this vein.

Kevin

purple_kangaroo said...

Thanks for the great input and thoughtful comments, everyone. Mamasboy, I enjoyed that article--thanks for sharing it. Kevin, I get what you're saying. Anonymous, welcome to the discussion--I hope you'll pick a username or tag or some sort to identify yourself by, and stick around to engage in more discussions. Stevie, your examples of modesty varying by situation were useful, I think.

purple_kangaroo said...

Here's a link to an article about a woman who was harrassed and told she couldn't breastfeed in a public place when she had her nursing baby covered by THREE blankets!!! Ugh.