Modest Is…Oh, Come On

There can be mixed messages in Saudi Arabia about what is and isn’t appropriate:

Wine QuestThat shot comes from my TV, where we’re watching a show through our local satellite provider called “Wine-Quest,” and yes, those are Arabic subtitles. In a country where alcohol is illegal. So illegal, in fact, that you can get a hefty fine if you get caught with vanilla extract in your luggage. Pork gets the same treatment. A friend of mine is an English teacher here, and reported having to go through books as a class, with students equipped with black markers, marking out all pork-related words. (“Page 358, third line, where it says “bacon. Cross that out.”) Meanwhile, in Dubai, a friend took this picture:

The Pork ShopWell, fine, then! Release the customs agents! Bring on the bacon! All you need is an instructional sign! Or a few:

qatar dress codeThis, obviously, is not from Saudi Arabia. I could only dream of such freedom. (If you’re puzzled at the third one, those are leggings, which are “not pants.”) No, this is being distributed in Qatar, where they’re preparing to host the World Cup in 2022, in 120-plus summer heat. Now, I might consider going as a break from oppressive dress codes, but Western football fans are freaking out about it. How ridiculous! How dare they tell me how to dress!

I’ll tell you how:

  • FIFA is corrupt and there’s no explaining why they awarded the hosting privilege to a place with such temperatures, such slave-like labor laws, such unwelcoming restrictions to place on guests. But they did. Debate closed.
  • Qatar is one of the eccentrics that lives on the global block, who has invited you over to spend an evening. If you’re in Weird Wally’s house, respect Weird Wally’s ways. Or don’t go. Your call.

But the Middle East is not the only place with a modesty problem. I seem to be tripping over a new story every day of American schools wrestling with dress codes and their enforcement; with the backlash to calls for modesty from women who are sick of being told they’re responsible for male behavior; with people claiming you can have it all with the slogan “Modest is hottest!”; with people from fashion police to modesty police trying to define what the term modest even means.

Time for my one-cent worth: Modesty is a token of respect. If you’re modest about your mountain-climbing accomplishments, it means you respect others around you enough to keep your yap shut when somebody else wants to shine. If you keep a modest home it means you don’t put a Venetian fountain in the front lawn in an effort to make your neighbors feel inferior. And if you wear a modest dress to your cousin’s wedding it means you want the show to be about the happy couple, not you.

If I respect the place where I am, the people I’m with, and my own dignity and humanity, I will refrain from saying and doing things that draw attention away from them. I won’t be loud, obnoxious, or badly dressed. Out of my respect for the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, I won’t yell to my friend across the building. Out of respect for my friend, I won’t wear yoga pants and a t-shirt to her bridal shower. Out of respect for my own mind, I won’t walk up to strangers in clothes that say, “Look at my boobs!”

Because this, surprisingly, is the part of the modesty discussion that I never seem to hear: Appearance is communication.

I’ve seen countless people argue on makeover shows (I do love me some What Not to Wear marathons) that others shouldn’t judge them based on what they wear. The hosts usually gently suggest that yes, it’s a shame, but it happens and you have to address that reality.

What they don’t quite say (not that I haven’t yelled it at the screen a few times) is that the problem isn’t with people making unjust judgments based on what they see. No one will say I don’t have a right to evaluate someone based on what he says. Why, then, am I not supposed to evaluate him based on what he wears? It is a puzzling line of reasoning that says “Why do people judge me before they even talk to me?” Answer: Because you start communicating long before you open your mouth.

You choose what they first see, and with that choice you start communicating from the moment you make your first appearance–what you think of yourself and what you want others to see in you. Your metal-studded, off-putting clothes combined with the multiple facial piercings and barbed-wire tattoo are doing the job: No one ever will take the chance to discover your wonderful personality. Not because they’re judgmental and wrong, but because you told them that you’re angry and prickly and difficult.

But what’s more puzzling to me is the way people pretend they don’t know this. If we know enough to put on decent clothes for a funeral to communicate our empathy, our understanding of the seriousness of the occasion, why don’t we know enough to put on decent clothes for school? Girls who argue that they should be able to wear Daisy Dukes and camisoles “because it’s hot” are lying. It’s equally hot in the equally air-conditioned mall, where their boss at The Buckle would send them home in a heartbeat for dressing so unprofessionally. And nobody would bark about it. While we’re at it, it’s equally hot for the boys, who for fashion reasons would NEVER wear short-shorts (but would get sent home from work for their own sagging pants or ripped t-shirts). Why is it so hard to simply say that school is a place of business, and you should dress accordingly, not in your play clothes?

No, if tiny clothes communicated poverty or terrible taste or an embarrassing allergic condition, the girls wouldn’t wear them, no matter the temperature. Modest is hottest? Hardly! Girls wear tiny clothes because the cool girls are, because it says they’re young and fit and fabulous, because patriarchal culture has made male attention a currency they’re supposed to deal in, because only dorks don’t, because it’s the momentary thing to do. So let’s not kid ourselves–they know clothing is communication. The Herculean task is to get them to believe they have something more important, more valuable, more real to offer than their bodies so they will communicate that, instead.

Where I live, women typically walk around looking like this:

abayas2If fabric had an elastic power to control men’s behavior (“Abby’s Abayas: Extra yardage for more control!”), I wouldn’t see so many suggestions of ways for women to feel safer in Saudi Arabia–add female security guards in public places, don’t hail a taxi on the street, don’t travel at night, don’t ever be alone, keep single men out of shopping malls. No one would feel the need for actual, literal modesty police to enforce separation of the sexes and complete coverage for the women. And I wouldn’t have ever seen this study, reporting that a substantial majority of Saudi men believe a fully covered woman is “asking for it” if she wears eye makeup.

No, clothing is communication, and a black-draped form says “Please don’t look at me. Please don’t notice me. I just wish I could hide. I’m begging. Please look away.” From what I’ve seen, this communication makes the wearer more vulnerable, not less. But within this culture, not wearing it says “I hate you. You’re stupid. I know better than you.”

Clothing is communication. So when I’m here, this is what I look like:

Old Town Ruins - 448And that, ordinarily, is how I’m received. With warmth and good humor. I love living here, and because I’m the visitor, here by choice, I would never behave with such disrespect, such a lack of modesty, as to not honor the wishes of the kind people who want to live their own way in their own country.

“Modest is hottest” is a lie, proven false in about a day and a half by any girl who tests it. Modest it not hottest. Because that’s not the goal. No, modest is kindest. Modest is sensitive. Modest is respectful of others and of yourself. The minute you’ve got that figured out, what to wear takes care of itself.

25 thoughts on “Modest Is…Oh, Come On

    • margocatts says:

      By being honest, saying “I know what you’re doing, and so do you. Is this what you really want to say about yourself?” Of course, “seeing” and “doing” are completely different things!


  1. hannah little (@hd_little) says:

    Very eloquently stated! Though as a fellow KSA expat, I’m tempted to make a joke about how modest literally is hottest. As in “head to toe in black polyester and it’s 105 out,” hottest. But summer isn’t even fully cranking yet, so I’ll refrain!


    • margocatts says:

      Yes! Around here modesty is WAY hotter. Though at summer temps, the whole goal is to just get inside no matter what you’re wearing. Good to hear from somebody else in the trenches. Thanks for the compliment!


  2. britt says:

    i was so hesitant to read this because i’m tired of commentary on modesty that forgets the whole picture of what modesty means. It is a kindness and a selflessness to wear something that indicates that you are not the center of everything and that you have a personality and brain that can stand for itself…it does not need las vegas style neon to get attention.


  3. Beth says:

    I think I have finally read something that fully articulates how I feel about modesty, and why I will continue to teach modesty to my children (both male and female). When I lived in Egypt in 2004, I made it a point to cover my hair because I wished to conform with the Egyptian standard of modesty. As a result, I had Egyptian men come up to me and tell me that they would beat up anyone who bothered me. I had earned their respect.

    I think modesty is an important principle, but I don’t think the argument that it is primarily to “protect men’s thoughts” is appropriate or helpful.


  4. Jeanne Towns says:

    I love you. 🙂 Seriously though, I despise the term “modest is hottest” and you have put into words how I feel. THANK YOU!


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