This post is brought to the world courtesy of two related events this week: the burkini ban in France, and photographs of Lena Dunham modelling “Lonely Label” underwear being labelled risque. (Sorry, but too much of Lena Dunham’s tatted skin is not likely to inspire anyone to take risks.) Both events have been chalked up to being “provocative” and being violations of somebody’s modesty, but really…one has to wonder.
See, when it comes to photographs of women in their underwear, in the USA, such pictures are considered to be immodest no matter how covered genitalia and nipples are in the picture. Call the same underwear set – or something even more revealing – a bathing suit, and NO PROBLEM. Same thing sort of goes for men.
Head to the beach, and those same bathing suits are, for some religious groups, immodest. Personally, as a practicing Catholic and someone who has more skin than she would like, my own swimwear does not expose the midriff, or much cleavage, and flowing cover-ups are always part of the outfit. It’s my choice, and really, no one has a problem with that. In fact, what I wear is less cumbersome than what some hard-core, it’s my way or the highway, Catholics insist is actually modest. (Frankly, the get-ups that have been developed for swimming smack of showing off, but the people who actually dress that way will never be objective when discussing it.)
Over in France, muslim women who adhere to their “religion’s” dress codes invented swim wear known as the burkini. (As a former lifeguard, unless those things were made of lycra, pulling out anyone who is in distress would not be an easy task.) Could they be like the Jewish girls who go to segregated pools, and wear skirts in the water with a cap while at the beach? No. Of course not. They had to invent a new outfit that matched the rest of the uniform.
This would have been a nothingburger had France not outlawed the outfit on the beaches, thus making a nun in full habit – which covers just as much – legal and a muslim woman in her get-up not. And that is where the two definitions of modesty and provocation collide.
Personally, this writer couldn’t care less who is more modestly dressed (translation in this sense, who has more skin covered and fewer curves outlined), but the reality is that with the burkini ban, France set up a double standard that ended up being a trap. As soon as some muslim woman flaunted the ban, more or less bullying the police into asking her to disrobe, she became the “victim.” (It’s kind of sneaky, actually.) In that way, the police were essentially provoked, thus the word “provocative” in relation to the action.
As far as modesty goes when it comes to the burkini, at a certain point, what women wear is meant to draw attention no matter what it is. In a predominantly Christian nation where traditional modes of Christian dress (technically, we girls for Jesus supposed to be covered as well) have fallen to the wayside in favor of modern fashion, a burka, or burkini is going to stand out. (To an extent a nun’s habit does as well, I know, but the motivation is different.) So it is that wearing a burkini, at heart, is immodest when flaunting the law no matter how much skin is covered.
And that is where the whole argument on modesty has gone off the rails. There are two ways to be modest: in attitude and in mode of dress. In concentrating on the mode of dress, we have forgotten that the pride one takes in being covered from head to toe may not be inviting male admiration, but in effect it is still immodest. So is intending to draw attention.
Confusing, yes, I know. But, there it is.
In my own faith, Catholicism, technically, the rules for modest dress were laid down by Saint Augustine of Hippo, actually, in the 4th or 5th century and reinforced over the years by a number of men and women who went on to be canonized. For women, that means covering past the elbows and knees, at least, with necklines no lower than the width of two fingers past the pit of the throat. Skirts are more than preferred. Clothing is not to be too close to the figure and no undergarments should be discernible. Hardly anyone actually adheres to that anymore, and it isn’t simply because of hot weather. Women wear skimpier and revealing clothes now because it is the fashion. (Yeah…about that….)
Does that make a woman proud of her body? Not necessarily. Does it make her provocative in the eyes of males? Probably, depends on the man and his preference, but most likely given male testimony. Does just about anything that hints of being provocative get condemned in the eyes of society? Hardly. Is this massively confusing given that masterful artwork of nudes is tagged as pornographic quite often?
[Stop the world, My head is spinning.]
To say that the argument over public modesty is loaded with contradictions is an understatement. To mistake provoking a reaction for being provocative is just plain dumb. That is what happened in France with the Burkini argument no matter what J.K. Rowling tweeted. And to call a matched set of lace lingerie immodest when more of the body is covered than what the itsy-bitsy-teeny-weenie bikini walking down a Paris runway hides is the height of lunacy.
It’s really time to have a national conversation on all this…if we can get over the juvenile tittering first.
Food for thought: a while back, a painting titled “Origin of the World” was tagged by American search engines and self-appointed arbiters of all things moral as “pornography.” It’s a paining of a bare woman from upper thigh to about her bust lying on a bed. And it would be out of bounds by a lot of modesty standards.