On (Im)modesty

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If we accept the premise “horses sweat, gentlemen perspire, and ladies glow”—then that makes me a horse.

Far from looking dewy and slightly sparkly, like the semi-adolescent models in fitness magazines (what do they use on those girls? vegetable oil and craft glitter?), I swelter, exude, lather. I drip. I’ve come close to doing myself an injury in fitness classes, slipping on my own self-made puddles of sweat. The puddles don’t glow, nor do I.

For that reason, when I work out, I try to strike a balance between satisfying our laws of public decency, and wearing as little as possible so as to ensure maximal evaporative cooling. Which is why I was really irritated when I tried out my new sports bra. If you’re any bigger than a 32A, finding a sports bra which keeps your breasts comfortably strapped down without creating breast-like lumps elsewhere on your body becomes an ongoing obsessive quest; so when I found one that fit decently, on sale! I bought it in hurried triumph. I noticed in the dressing room that the cups were padded, but had assumed that I could take the foam out (possible with many major brands). But no: not only was that padding completely sealed into the bra’s architecture, an extra little tag chirpily drew my attention to the “extra petals, for modesty!” Petals?? I read this tag when it was in one hand, and the bra in another—meaning that I couldn’t take it back, and that I was, as a result, doomed to be weighted down by an overheated, extra-sweaty, saturated, but petalled, bosom—all for the sake of modesty.

But whose modesty is being (forcibly) protected here, and why?

It’s a confusing time to have a chest. On the one hand, my gym’s ad campaign dares us all to bare it all. The shameless co-opting of actual activism for the sake of marketing garbles more nuanced meaning, but the more crude point for the female consumer is that somehow our empowerment and authority depend on being more or less topless in public, as long as we conform to traditional expectations about beauty, combining the radically political with the radically fit and hot. To the barricades! Fight for liberation and freedom… with all the spare time and energy that you don’t have because you’re doing a triple-header of spin, conditioning, and yoga every day and have given up sugar!

If you can manage to get cut, then gym culture is happy to encourage you to parade around as nearly naked as possible—except not completely. Your lycra should look like a second skin, asserting the fact of your body very clearly, while also pretending that you’re not completely, dangerously human and female. You have to be vigilant about the fit of the crotch in those yoga pants, and you must definitely have modesty-petals in your sports bra, so that your gender and sex are as anatomically and socially accurate as Barbie’s. You pay a lot of money for workout clothes and evening wear and bathing suits which make it clear (to whom?) that your milkshake can bring everyone to the yard—and then go through contortions in the change room, putting your bra on over a towel, so that no-one ever sees you actually naked.

Meanwhile: a state representative in New Hampshire has the temerity to defend women’s right to breast-feed in public, and is attacked with stunning vitriol by her fellow (male) elected officials; Fb has a tendency to censor confusing and upsetting images, such as women feeding babies, or bare chests which would be completely unproblematic on a cis-gendered male body, but which suddenly become provocative on a trans-gendered person; young feminists campaign to “free the nipple!”; older feminists hesitate to say the word out loud in their classrooms for fear of getting in trouble with human resources; we’re taught to be terrified by breast cancer (though no-one can tell us when to get mammograms); we feel rather edgy with our Save the Ta-tas! t-shirts in support of breast cancer awareness; but we get embarrassed mentioning them in polite, mixed, non-sexual conversation, even though we count on the girls to get us into impolite, mixed, sexual conversation (and HR reminds us that neither is ever acceptable in the workplace). We know that we make our chests, along with rest of our bodies, targets if we foolishly take the risk of going out—to work, to a bar, to a political rally, in the street, on the train—anywhere really, where our chests could give us away as female, and incite everything from catcalls to assault, which is always our problem, for calling attention to ourselves and not keeping harm at arm’s length. 

If we’ve grown up with a chest, we’ve learned to be simultaneously obsessed with, afraid of, and humiliated by our own bodies, all the time.

What’s wrong with us? We’re not born this way. Plenty of us have now-mortifying pictures of ourselves at 5 years old, topless on the beach—and no-one cared: not the other children, including boys, not our parents, not the authorities, not politicians, and—because those were the blissful prelapsarian days before a heedless parent might put a photo like that on Fb, and then have it commented upon in every vile crevice of the internet—not random pedophiles and misogynists and Mrs. Grundys. No—there is a time in life when a chest is just a body part, and not a source of angst or agita to either onlookers or its owner. If you’re born male and stay that way, generally speaking that time lasts your whole life—your chest can be any size or shape, but there’s really never any external pressure or judgement on you to do anything about it. Yes, I know, men suffer from body image pressures too; but as horrible as a man might feel about his body, he still has the social and legal rights to be cold at the office, or to go topless and petal-less at the beach, or at a nationally-televised sporting event, if he wants to. For female people, the time when they can be carefree about their chests is pretty brief, ending somewhere after that mortifying beach photo—somehow, we all agree that that chest becomes increasingly problematic, and stays that way for most of a female person’s conscious life.

Well obviously, you might say—you can’t let little girls/teenage girls/adult women/breastfeeding mothers/sun-worshipping seniors run around naked in public, where every terrible pervert could stare at them and plot vile crimes or degrading sex acts or just made somewhat uncomfortable…But we’ve just established that male people can run around in exactly that condition at any age. Why is it different for female people—with the notable exception of when people are paying them to do exactly that? Feminist author Caitlin Moran has an easy test that applies here: “You can tell whether some misogynistic societal pressure is being exerted on women by calmly enquiring, ‘And are the men doing this, as well?’ If they aren’t, chances are you’re dealing with what we strident feminists refer to as ‘some total fucking bullshit’” (How to Be a Woman).

Please don’t worry—I’m not advocating letting anyone’s 8 year old run around topless! —because unfortunately we do live in a world where they would be leered at, and coveted by perverted people, who would then blame the little girl for inciting their perversion. But that’s exactly my concern:  we’re teaching children to be afraid of and for their own bodies for the rest of their lives, all so we can keep them safe from the perverts, or protect “good” (male) people from their own base desires. Isn’t the real problem here the unequal, oppressive, irrational, hateful, and generally-messed-up relationships that organize our culture, of which perversion, sinful temptation, and base desire are the ugly result? Why are adults fetishizing children? why are men (often the same ones who think that they deserve to drive and vote by virtue of their superior reason) so weak in the presence of the demonic female body that they need to cover it from head to toe (while also depriving it of the right to drive or vote), or stone it into submission?

While children anywhere, or disenfranchised, oppressed women almost everywhere, can’t be faulted for not making this their fight—those of us living in relative freedom can. If a woman wants to nourish her child in public the way any mammal, by definition, would, then the only correct response, if you feel you need to make one—and unless you have some direct stake in the feeding of the child you almost certainly don’t—is “can I get you a more comfortable chair?” If an adult person of any sex or gender makes an informed decision about what to do with his/her/their body, which might include taking their top off at the beach, or cutting the damn petals out of the sports bra, or practicing modest dress and a covered head as a sign of humility before their deity—then you just let them do it. If you’re in public and you happen to notice that a person’s body seems female, no matter how covered or uncovered it is, whether you find it attractive or not, whether you find yourself overcome by desire, or disgust, or confusion—you simply leave it alone. You don’t touch it unless invited to do so, you don’t judge it, you don’t comment on it, and you certainly don’t hurt it. It’s not our job to keep you at arm’s length, to cover ourselves in embarrassment or fear, to pretend that we don’t have a body, to be disgusted or afraid of it on your behalf.

Socially, legally, sexually, theologically, economically, medically—in general, the only body with which you have a right to meddle is your own. Not mine, hers, his, or theirs. It is not the job of those of us walking around in female bodies—however we came to inhabit them—to protect you from what we are. 

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