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The false modesty movement

August 21, 2007|Anne K. Ream | Anne K. Ream is a Chicago-based writer and founder of Girl360, an empowerment project for tween girls.

What is it about the growing "modesty movement" that makes me so nervous? On the face of it, there's a lot to like about a girl-driven "revolution" that offers an alternative to the in-your-face fashion popularized by the Britneys and Bratz of the world. When a statement T-shirt can turn a girl from a subject to an object -- "I'm blond. I don't need to be good at math" -- in no time flat, who could argue that a return to sartorial decency is in order?

Enter the modesty movement. On websites such as Modestly Yours, Modesty Zone and DressModestly.com, its adherents argue for curfews on college campuses, decry coed bathrooms and advocate a "chaste but chic" dress code for teens and young women. They call themselves sexual revolutionaries, but that might be something of a misnomer: In their world, abstinence is the order of the day and female virtue is the best way to ensure female safety.

The faith-based website purefashion.com, which encourages teen girls to "live the virtues of modesty and purity," instructs young women to be "helpful at home . . . obedient and happy." What's troubling about this language is how neatly it anticipates the findings of a Yale University study showing that men who get angry in the workplace are admired, while women who express displeasure are seen as "out of control." So much for the idea that well-behaved women rarely make history. Apparently, it's far more important for girls to make nice.

Marketers are getting modest too. Macy's now carries "Shade" clothing, created by a team of Mormon women devoted to demure dress, and Nordstrom features "Modern and Modest" apparel.

The mother of the modesty movement is Wendy Shalit, whose 1999 book, "A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue," argues that today's young women have reverted to an earlier mode of femininity, deciding that in the face of sexual excess, chastity is the ultimate 21st century rebellion.

No one would argue that the right to say no to sex isn't a good thing. And surely we can agree that talking to girls about the value of their bodies, and their selves, is a welcome cultural shift. But when Shalit argues that "many of the problems we hear about today -- sexual harassment, date rape . . . are connected to our culture's attack on modesty," she is making a dangerous leap.

It's not a lack of female modesty but a sense of male entitlement that leads to sexual violence. And the idea that we women can change men's behavior by changing our clothes is not only disconcerting, it has been debunked. As millions of women know all too well, no one ever avoided a rape by wearing a longer skirt.

One of the most vocal advocates for a return to female modesty is, perhaps not surprisingly, a man. In his book, "Manliness," Harvard University professor Harvey Mansfield argues that women, in demanding equality inside and outside the home, have created a crisis for men. According to Mansfield, modesty is one way to set right what the feminists have wrought: "Women play the men's game, which they are bound to lose. Without modesty, there is no romance -- it isn't so attractive or so erotic [to men]."

And therein lies the problem with so much of the modesty movement. Scratch the surface, and what's supposed to be good for girls reveals itself to be all about the boys: dressing in a way that doesn't over-excite them, demurring so that their manhood remains intact and holding tight to our sexuality until we find a husband who is worthy of that ultimate "prize."

What's lost in this view of the world is the power of female desire: not just sexual and sartorial but professional and intellectual. There is something liberating about a girlhood (and womanhood) that is not lived solely in anticipation of, or in response to, a man. There's something freeing about a world in which women have the right to take risks (and to get mad).

I suppose I'd feel better about the modesty movement if it had its parallel in the world of men. But quite the opposite is true. At the top of the bestseller list is "The Dangerous Book for Boys," a celebration of male derring-do that encourages boys to dive into life headfirst, taking and embracing risks along the way. The authors and publisher have made clear that no parallel book for young women is in the offing. I guess the fairer sex will have to satisfy itself with Shalit's latest tome: "Girls Gone Mild."

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