The Politics of Modesty

I usually really appreciate posts at Vox Nova, which is why I put the site on the Catholic Conversation’s blog roll.  So, when I feel they’ve gotten something wrong, even if it is only in tone and style rather than in substance, I feel the need to call them out on it.  And that is what this post does!

In highlighting recurring gender double-standards associated with the virtue of modesty, Kyle Cupp conducts a detailed interpretive analysis of a you-tube video entitled “Virtue makes you Beautiful” that has recently gone viral.


Starting with a line from the song, he writes:

“Baby you light up the world like no one else by the way you speak and respect yourself.”  If that line wasn’t judgmental enough, the singing gentlemen leave no doubt about how little regard they have for most women: “Girls with integrity are hard to find these days. You gotta know. Oh. Oh. You are so beautiful.” No translation needed: if you don’t measure up to their standard of modesty, then you have no integrity and no self-respect. They’re not just expressing their discomfort with “immodest” dress; they’re morally judging the women whose attire and behavior make them uncomfortable, as if women’s integrity were inversely correlated to their display of bare skin. (emphasis mine)

Notice that Mr. Cupp is in fact doing a LOT of translating here.  I did not hear these boys say those things explicitly… it could certainly be interpreted that way, but there are other ways of interpreting it as well.

Indeed, one of the top comments for the video is from a girl who writes:

Love this song! its true us girls need to respect ourselves and wear modest clothes. its not just hard for guys to find modest girls, its hard to find good guys these days! especially without body piercings or tattoos and such. this song goes both ways and I LOVE it!!! <3

Let me say this, though: Kyle’s interpretation is a reasonable one.  For instance, a different commenter writes:

I like the message, but I hope to teach my daughters to be modest as a way to respect themselves, not because “good boys” like that sort of thing. I feel like it’s kind of demeaning to force a girl to be modest to find a boy that respects her. A girl’s self worth should not be wrapped up in what a boy thinks about her good or bad.

And this is why the substance of his post—about the gendered nature of modesty in our society and the double standards that it often creates—is insightful.  This is his insight:

…in practice, this results in a double standard: because boys will be boys, the onus falls on the ladies. Women need to be virtuous so men don’t sin.

Unfortunately, his post fails to acknowledge the multi-vocality (or multiple interpretations) available for this song.  Even more importantly, the attitude and tone of the piece fails to recognize the reality in many teen worlds—teens are looking for attention and social approval; in their dress, in the way they speak, in many other things.  If these boys do not shape their culture to signify who and what will gain approval, others will.  Indeed, I interpreted this video as an attempt to battle against the ever present consumer culture that commodifies female beauty as bare skin and bountiful bosoms, not as an attempt to “impose modesty” on “those girls.”  I saw these boys as arguing for a larger vision of beauty that does NOT narrow itself just to “showing skin.”  The phrase “virtue is so beautiful” need not be narrowly understood as solely referring to modesty.  All of the many interior virtues are where true beauty lies.  These boys ARE trying to assert their power, but not over women, rather over and against the culture within which they live their everyday lives—of course, as Kyle points out, the gendered way that these boys assert their cultural power could easily have negative consequences (which they may NOT even intend).  This is why his post could potentially be so useful for these boys (and others like them) to read.

But that is why I argue that Kyle got the tone all wrong and why it is a big problem.  Instead of recognizing positive aspects of the video and then highlighting potentially problematic aspects, (my interpretation of) Kyle’s tone was “I’m so beyond that! That was like half a lifetime ago. ”  Smug condescension will not a convert make.

Maybe that was not Kyle’s intention, but he wrote a piece that was certainly open to this interpretation, and he ended his post by saying:

There are good and bad reasons for showing one’s flesh or speaking one’s mind. I’m not against modesty, but I am against the double standards and sweeping disparagement that often accompany its promotion.

My response after reading the post was:  Who’s engaging in sweeping disparagement, now?  Tone and style matters.  You can do better, Vox Nova.

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