During last night’s Miss America pageant, the eventual first runner-up, Miss South Carolina Rachel Wyatt, told judges and at-home viewers, “Something that we’ve lost sight of as a culture is how important it is to be modest. And I think Miss America is a role model for so many young girls, and they need to know that you don’t have to wear revealing clothing or be sexy to be beautiful — you just need to be you.”
It was a curious way to position a message of self-confidence and body positivity, two things we are always all about. After all, shouldn’t you be able to “be sexy” if that makes you feel beautiful?
Now, this isn’t to say that anyone should feel disempowered by electing to dress modestly or engage in modesty culture. In fact, many entrepreneurial women are making waves as fashion innovators for designing clothing that allows them to adhere to religious standards of modesty in which they choose to engage while also celebrating a love for fashion, design, and personal style.
And for many women who choose to dress according to modesty standards outlined by their respective religious practices, such as Orthodox Jewish women and some Muslim women, doing so is, in fact, a celebration of self-identity and body positivity. It’s an assertion that, just as Wyatt says, beauty and sex appeal do not have to be defined only by a certain kind of look.
Modesty has the potential to become problematic, though, when it becomes prescriptive — not an avenue of self-expression, but a means of repression and condemnation.
After all, young women are already facing the double-edged sword of slut-shaming: being chastised for not presenting as sexualized enough, but being criticized if they appear too sexual.
Take, for example, school dress codes and the way they often body-shame young women but also perpetuate rape culture by teaching boys and girls alike that how a woman dresses determines whether or not she deserves to be sexualized — and not how a man chooses to see women and act on his own accord.
When we decide that there are right and wrong ways for women to present their own bodies — and in a way that puts the onus on them for how they are treated by others while removing all accountability from those who act on them — we reinforce the dangerous myth that only women sexualize their own bodies and that there is any cause of rape other than a rapist.
And there’s also the problem of the double standards usually applied to the bodies of women of different colors, the very standards that allow Kim Kardashian to “break the Internet” while Nicki Minaj is simultaneously told that her “Anaconda” video is not art but porn — and a disappointing display of lack of artistry.
The standards that allow the Victoria’s Secret fashion show to be the standard-bearer of primetime-ready wholesome beauty while also telling Serena Williams that, even while fully clothed, it is unacceptable for her to have nipples.
Which is why words like Wyatt’s are problematic: No woman should ever be shamed for choosing to dress modestly, just as no woman should ever be shamed for choosing to dress her body in more revealing ways. Telling women in any circumstance that there is a right and wrong way to present themselves — ways that are inherently rooted in their gender identity (after all, when’s the last time you heard a man being told that his beach attire was way too revealing) — only reinforces to women that there is something inherently shameful about being women to begin with.
- Jennifer Gerson Uffalussy.