August 17, 2005

On Modesty

The last fifty years have given us a common argument about modesty that is largely unsound. We are worried about nudity because we are ashamed of our bodies. We are ashamed of our bodies because we think our bodies are bad. Therefore, we are worried about nudity because we believe our bodies are bad. If we didn't think our bodies were bad, we'd stop worrying about nudity. The argument here is valid, but is an unsound one, since the third premise, that we are ashamed of our bodies because we think our bodies are bad, is false. In this essay, I will explain different reasons other than believing our bodies are bad for us to be ashamed of our bodies.

First, let me define shame. By shame, I simply mean embarrassment, the emotion that can make us blush or giggle. We are embarrassed when something we wanted to remain private about ourselves becomes public. Hence, shame is the emotion properly attendant on the public revelation of something we wished had been private. It is not automatically true that shame means that I believe something is bad. It simply means that I believe something is private. This can include thoughts, feelings or parts of our bodies, parts that we think are properly ours and nobody else's to know of, look at or touch without our permission. When these things are revealed to those from whom we would rather not reveal them, we are ashamed or feel embarrassed.

Why then are certain parts of our bodies something of which we are ashamed? To address this, I'd like to reflect on Scripture. I'm not making an argument dependent on Christian faith here, though. I am just using the story for its psychological insight. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve are naked before the Fall. They are without original sin and without the tendency to sin created by original sin. However, after their Fall, one of the first things they do is put on clothes. Why? Somehow the Fall has given them shame in their own bodies. Before the Fall, nudity was properly public. After the Fall, nudity was properly private. Somehow the tendency to sin is the cause of this difference. This is the psychological insight to which I was referring.

I'd suggest there are two ways in which the tendency to sin has created shame in our bodies. First, it has created the need for us to defend our bodies against unwanted sexual attention. Since fallen people now have inappropriate sexual desires, we are better able to interact with them if they are not distracted by our sexual characteristics. When we deal with people, we would normally like to be treated by them first as people, not as sexual objects. This is easier if we cover our most overtly sexual characteristics.

Second, it has created a need for privacy with respect to our own sexual desires. Our bodies, in various ways and especially for men, reflect our level of sexual arousal. However, since we now have inappropriate sexual desires at the inappropriate times, it is better for us to keep those desires private. It is good to be able to keep these desires private; in fact, a good deal of human courtship depends on keeping them private. With most of our inappropriate desires, this is not quite so clearly reflected in our bodies, but we can fairly easily hide the most overt signs of this arousal by wearing clothes. Therfore, we hide our bodies.

In conclusion, the psychological insight of Genesis is a profound one. We do not wear clothes because we believe our bodies are bad. Rather, we wear them as a result of sinful or unruly sexual desires. For these reasons, modesty is a good thing, as our sexual characteristics are best kept private. It protects us from sexual objectification and from the revelation of our own inappropriate sexual desires.


Kyle said...

Great post. I enjoyed this topic because it was not something I had thought about very often, but is deeply important to the way our society operates.

I was wondering how you went about defining the word "shame." I understand that words sometimes have different implications to different people, but the way I use the word is significatnly different than how you do.

Thanks for the post, I appreciate all your writing. It is kind of you to put it on the net where people can read it.

Daniel said...

Thanks for your reply, Kyle. I'm glad you enjoyed it. It's always fun to do philosophy about ordinary things.

There's nothing wrong with using words differently. I just have a preference for older meanings of words, partly because I find them more precise and partly because I read a lot of old books. I think because we want keep our sins private from others, "shame" has picked up some of the content of "guilt". However, "shame" has been traditionally used as the virtue of trying to keep things private that ought to be private (as well as the feeling for when you fail, for some reason). I like using the word that way, since I can't think of any current word that captures this idea.

web_loafer said...

Great post, and remember what God said to Adam and Eve after they had made themselves covering for what they thought needed covered. God looked at them with their coverings, and ask them why they were naked. So God's standard is not like mans standard.

Daniel said...

Thank you, Web Loafer. That's what I'm trying to get at with this post. Nudity is not in any way per se bad. Certainly God is not offended by it, and I'd guess we won't need clothes after the resurrection, either. The insight of Genesis is that the need for covering naked bodies is a consequence of the Fall.

Dr. Forbush said...

First of all I'd like to say that I enjoyed reading your blog. I may not agree with it completely, but you make some interesting points.

On this particular subject though I am a bit confused. You use the words "bad" and "ashamed" in very similar ways. It seems to me that you are coming up with an argument to change vocabulary, but not change the meaning.

You say that someone should be ashamed of being naked. Then you say that this is a result of becoming aware of the possibility of sinning.

I would like to offer a counter argument. Native Americans living in warm areas didn't always wear clothing. Native African women didn't wear tops. Native Australian aborigines were also scantly clad. These people didn't feel shame until missionaries demanded that they should be covered and feel shame.

I offer you that idea that nudity is a cultural construction not a natural psychological state. The shame that you talk about is taught in the culture from the first year of life when the father demands that his daughter be covered or the mother feels her own culturally taught shame to instruct her children to be covered.

From personal experience I don't feel shame when I go to a nude beach. However, back when I was a bit overweight I would be a bit more ashamed just going down to the pool in my bathing suit. Perhaps that would be because of my guilt from the sin of gluttony.

Daniel said...

Thank you for your articulate and thoughtful response, Dr. Forbush. I don't think I used the terms "shameful" and "bad" interchangeably, though. By shame or embarrassment, I meant blushing and giggling, not any emotion related to disgust, like guilt.

As for the issue of social construction of nudity, I have two responses. First, there are often different mechanisms for fulfilling the same social need and shame at nudity is just one of them. Shame, as I suggesteed, prevents unwanted sexual attention and hides sexual stimulation. Cultures that wear less clothing tend to have very strong gazing prohibitions. Imagine the prohibition our culture has around looking down low-cut tops and multiply it by ten. Even at a nude beach, staring at someone's genitals and staring at someone's ear have different levels of acceptance. Also, cultures that have less clothing tend to use habituation to prevent the problem. That is, repeated exposure to sexual characteristics breaks down our attraction to these characteristics. I'm not sure this is a good thing; it seems like a form of surpression. So, there are mechanisms in place even in cultures with less clothing to protect against unwanted sexual attention and hide sexual stimulation. Clothing is just the most efficient and least surpressing of our own sexual reactions, which is why almost every culture uses it.

Second, variation in a mechanism does not mean that the mechanism itself is a mere social construction. There are different positions about what constitutes nudity in different cultures. I'd suggest there are two reasons for this. The first is warmth. In hot and especially humid cultures, the culture is making a real tradeoff between comfort and modesty. Often, those cultures will have some combination of clothing, gaze prohibitions and habituation depending on the circumstances. The second is that the language or semiotics of sexual enticement changes from culture to culture. In different cultures, different bodily parts as well as genitals will come to signify the other sex or sexual attractiveness. There's usually a limited set of these, buttocks, chests, ankles, hair and necks. This language of sexual enticement is very real and provides real sexual stimulation to members of the culture. As such, these characteristics as well tend to fall under the category of modesty.

Well, that was a long response. Thanks for the objection. It really got me thinking.