Standards of modesty are aspects of the culture of a country or people, at a given point in time, and is a measure against which an individual in society may be judged. Though the term can be applied to both men and women, and boys and girls, it is most commonly applied to women, and girls.
Modesty is most often rendered as humility, shyness, or simplicity. The general principles of modesty include:
Community standards of modesty are applied to children immediately that they are born. One of the first thing that takes place after a baby is born is that he or she is dressed. This is not merely to keep the baby warm. The application of the standards of modesty at an early age is most noticeable on a public beach when baby girls, even before they can walk, are dressed in two-piece bikinis.
At times of public or private emergency expectations of modesty are suspended, or modified to the extent of the emergency. For example, during the 2001 anthrax attacks in the United States, large numbers of people had to strip to their underwear in parking lots and other public places for hosing down by fire departments, often in front of TV news crews covering the events.
On the other hand, even in an emergency situation some people still insist on maintaining their standards of modesty.
Standards of modesty usually discourage the non-essential exposure of the human body. This applies to the bare skin, hair and undergarments, and especially to intimate parts. The standards not only call for the covering of parts of the body, but also obscuring their shape, by means of suitable clothing. There are also standards covering the changing clothes (such as on a beach), the closing or locking of the door when changing or taking a shower, etc..
Standards of modesty vary by culture, and vary depending on who is exposed, which parts of the body are exposed, the duration of the exposure, the context, and other variables. The categories of persons who could see another's body would include -
The context would include matters such as whether it is in one's own home, at another family member's home, at a friends home, at a semi-public place, at a beach, swimming pool (including whether such venues are considered clothes-optional), public changing rooms or other public places. So that wearing a bathing suit at the beach would not be considered immodest, while it would be in a street or an office. One's occupation is another consideration, so that the standards that would be expected of, say, a dancer while performing would not be as "strict" as those that would be expected of, say, a school teacher. Some people even argue that a school teacher should not perform as a dancer even outside of the school context. This is usually termed "bringing the profession into disrepute", but is based on notions of modesty and "proper" behavior.
Some critics refer to this type of modesty as body shame. Excessive modesty is called prudishness. As a medical condition it is also called gymnophobia. Excessive immodesty is called exhibitionism. Proponents of modesty often see it as respect for their bodies and the feelings of themselves and others, and some people believe it may reduce sexual crimes.
Modern views of modestyThe modern western view of modesty is critical of some aspects of the standards. Modern society in general supports the notions of gender equality between boys and girls, and men and women. To further that objective, many groups advocate and encourage women to be more more assertive than they had been in the past and to be proud of their intellectual and physical abilities and potential. The main aspect of modesty still not being criticized is that of exposure of the human body or sexuality, especially in public.
Cultural traditions of modesty
The specific practices of modesty vary widely between religions, cultures, occasions, and the persons who are present. Some such specific standards are examined below.
Generally accepted western norms
In general, Western culture expects intimate body parts to be covered in public at all times. Exceptions are made for situations such as public changing rooms, which tend to be single-sex venues, and saunas, which tend to be mixed-sex venues.
Traditionally, there is an expectation that shirt and trousers or dress etc. be worn in public places. In particular, it is generally unacceptable to be shirtless in most public spaces, except places designated for bathing or in the vicinity of these places (such as beaches, and on deck near a pool). However, it is common for formal spaces like restaurants, etc., to overlook a beach or pool, in which case the boundary of modesty is spatial, but not visually segregated. For example, at a poolside or beach side outdoor patio restaurant, there is usually a railing. On one side of the railing, barefoot and shirtless people can converse with those dining on the other side, and may even be part of the same group. More recently, multi-use spaces such as urban beaches are beginning to emerge, washing away even the above mentioned boundaries between more and less modest space. Thus it is now, in many places, acceptable to sunbathe in beachwear next to water play fountains located in the heart of a city or business district.
In private homes, the rules may be more relaxed. For instance, nudity among immediate family members in the home is sometimes permitted, especially in the bedroom and bathroom; or wearing undergarments casually, which would not be done outdoors. Elsewhere in the home, particularly when visitors are present, some simple casual clothing is expected like a bathrobe which can be quickly donned when full clothing is not required, or if it is unavailable nearby depending on convenience.
Naturists reject contemporary standards of modesty which discourage personal, family and social nudity, and seek to create a social environment where people feel comfortable in the company of nude people, and being seen nude, either just by other nudists, or also by the general public.
The Finnish have the custom of the Finnish sauna, in which nudity is routinely accepted, and sometimes even required. This is true even though a swimsuit may generally be required to be worn in a pool area. Saunas are quite common in modern Finland, where there is one sauna for every three people. It should be noted that men and women generally do not use the sauna together unless they are related. Children normally stop going to the sauna with their parents by age six or seven though this age has sometimes been higher in the past and has varied regionally.
Gender differencesMen and women face different expectations as to modesty. While both men and women, in Western culture, are expected to keep their genitals covered at all times, women are also expected to keep their breasts covered. On the other hand, by the dictates of fashion and societal norms, some body parts are expected to be more covered by men than women, e.g. the midriff and the upper part of the back. Also swimming pants are often larger for men than for women.
Traditional indigenous modesty
Traditional indigenous cultures, such as some African and traditional Australian aboriginal cultures, are more relaxed on issues of modesty, though how much exposure is acceptable varies greatly, from nothing for some women, to everything except the glans penis for men of some tribes (see foreskin). In some African cultures, body painting is considered to be body "coverage", and is considered by many an "attire."
Religious traditions of modesty
Religion also often has a very strong impact on practices concerning modesty. Some such religious traditions are examined below.
Islamic modestyModesty has and continues to be considered important in Islamic society, but the interpretation of what dress constitutes modesty varies. Many Muslim women wear a headscarf (hi jab) as a sign of modesty. In more conservative societies, women are required to cover everything with the exception of hands and face. A woman who choses to also cover her face and hands is said to be expressing greater "modesty and holiness". In some Islamic societies, women wear the niqab, an all-encompassing garment intended to conceal every part of the body, sometimes including the eyes. Wearing a niqab (sometimes referred to as a burqa, although this term only technically applies to an Afghan all-in-one garment) is common in some countries with a majority Muslim population.
In most Muslim countries, such expressions of modesty are voluntary, while in others, such as Afghanistan under the Taliban, they were enforced under the threat of severe physical punishment.
Likewise, according to some Islamic interpretations of Hadith, men are required to cover everything from 'navel to knee'; with some men choosing to extend this to the traditional Islamic head covering kufi, the male counterpart to hijab which closely resembles the Jewish yarmulke but is slightly larger in size. The kufi may vary in shape, size or color just as the hijab does, with many regional differences according to tradition and personal taste.
A burqini is a swimsuit designed for Muslim women that covers the whole body except the face, the hands and the feet, that enables them to satisfy the requirements of Muslim standards of modesty while enabling them to take part in swimming activities.
Jewish modestyModesty is also important in Judaism, especially in the case of women. An orthodox married woman is expected to cover her hair in public, and sometimes at home. The hair covering may be a scarf, hat, snood, or a wig ("sheitel"). Some communities have stricter standards and expect women to cover their elbows and legs, with blouses covering the collarbone and sleeves covering elbows. Skirts are expected to cover the knees. All slits in skirts are expected to be closed. See-through materials may not be used and clothes are expected not to be tight-fitting, provocative, loud in color, or display texts. Some communities apply these standards to girls as young as three.
Trinitarian Christian modesty
Although Catholics are expected to dress modestly, there have never been any "official" guidelines issued by the Catholic Church. But, from time to time the Church hierarchy, and even some popes, have given opinions on various matters; although these "guidelines" are not binding on Catholics, many tradition-minded Catholics find them persuasive. Pope Pius XII stated that women should cover their upper arms and shoulders, that their skirts should cover at least as far as the knee, and the neckline should not reveal anything. Another example is Giuseppe Cardinal Siri of Genoa, who stated that trousers were unacceptable dress for women. Many tradition-minded Catholics have attempted to further expand on this latter standard.
Some Catholics have attempted to form cohesive theories of modesty. Sometimes this is from a sociological perspective, while at other times it takes a more systematic, Thomistic approach, combined with the writings of the Church Fathers. Approaches arguing primarily from traditional practices and traditional authorities, such as the saints, can also be found.
The Church also expects men to dress modestly, but the demands are not as strict for them as for women; this is largely because men are often thought to be more inherently susceptible to sexual thoughts.
Other Trinitarian Churches
Many other Trinitarian Christians also consider modesty extremely important, though considerable differences of opinion exist about its requirements and purposes.
Church of Latter-day Saints (Mormon)
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has issued official statements on modest dress for its members. Clothing which can stimulate sexual desires, such as "short shorts and skirts, tight clothing, and shirts that do not cover the stomach" are discouraged, as well as extremes in clothing or hairstyles. Rules on modesty also include women being asked to wear no more than one pair of earrings.
The Church also requires students of Brigham Young University, its private university, to sign an agreement to live according to these standards of modesty before being considered for admission.
Modesty in the artsIn some works of art, the depiction of nudity is reduced, in the interest of modesty, by the use of:
- fig leaves
- a piece of cloth (or something else) seemingly by chance covering the genitals
- with regard to nudity in film, filming a supposedly nude person from the waist up (or from the shoulders up, for women)
- in a movie, maneuvering (turning, having objects in front) and film editing in such a way that no genitals are seen (in The Simpsons Movie, in between scenes where this is applied, it is humorously reverted when only Bart's genital area is seen through a gap in a fence http://www.screenit.com/movies/2007/the_simpsons_movie.html#sn; also Mike Myers consciously mocked this technique several times in his Austin Powers films, and decades before, W.C. Fields had done the same thing in one of his films)
- showing nudity from a distance
- in a movie, showing nudity only briefly
In cartoons, even in cases where the genital area is not covered with clothing, genitals are often simply not drawn. In the film Barnyard, showing anthropomorphized cattle of both sexes walking on two legs, instead of either showing genitals of male cattle or not showing them, the concept of a "male cow" was used, with an udder. In Underdog a partly animated anthropomorphized dog is shown with penis when a real dog is filmed, and without penis in the animated parts.
pudency in Arabic: عفة
pudency in Danish: Beskeden
pudency in German: Bescheidenheit
pudency in Spanish: Modestia
pudency in Persian: عفت
pudency in French: Pudeur
pudency in Ido: Pudoro
pudency in Hebrew: צניעות
pudency in Portuguese: Modéstia
pudency in Russian: Скромность
pudency in Ukrainian: Скромність