Book Review: A Return to Modesty
I used to think I understood who I was. I just didn’t like myself very much, most of the time. We’re talking self-hatred, not just low self-esteem here. I never really questioned that until I became a Christian, and I started to ask the question “What does it mean to be a Christian woman?” It didn’t take long for me to realize that the first question was “What does it mean to be a woman in the first place?” Over the past few weeks I’ve been doing some reading to explore those questions, following different threads of thought and reflecting on how what I’m reading makes sense in terms of my own personal experiences. One of the books in this sequence was Wendy Shalit’s A Return to Modesty.
A Return to Modesty is a flawed book, but one that’s well worth reading, because Shalit offers a fresh insight into a vexing question: why do men and women have such a hard time relating to each other in a civilized and mutually healthy way?
Before we look at Shalit’s strengths are, let’s get her overall thesis dealt with, because I think that’s where the weakness in the book lies. She articulates her argument in this way: “I propose that the woes besetting the modern young woman – sexual harassment, stalking, rape [...] — are all expressions of a society which has lost its respect for female modesty.”
Basically, what I see here is what I’d call the “undergraduate thesis problem,” also called, “when you’ve discovered a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” She’s identified a fascinating element of our modern culture – its immodesty – and decided that its opposite is the solution to all our cultural ills. Feminine modesty, she assures us, will inculcate a culture of civility in which women (and men) will flourish like they did in the Good Old Days.
Except that it’s not that simple. For one thing, Shalit seems to associate modesty with reticence, and doesn’t acknowledge the ways in which assertiveness can be healthy and a positive part of a woman’s psychological makeup. Shalit is very obviously not an athlete, or she’d know that women can be as competitive and physical as men and still be completely healthy females – arguably a lot healthier and more wholly feminine than those who aren’t physically active. As a formerly very shy girl, I also think that Shalit very much underplays the discomfort of shyness and the relief of being able to be assertive. Shyness can lead to women not having the same opportunities as men even when they’re equally (or more) qualified: if they don’t speak up to say “I’m capable”, then how will anyone know? Throughout A Return to Modesty I felt like telling Shalit, “A woman can have a different personality than you do and still be a healthy, well-balanced, chaste person!”
On a more serious note, Shalit does not seem to realize that feminine modesty has its dark side. When it was considered unspeakably shameful for a man to force himself on a woman in any way (whether what was unwanted was a kiss or sex), sure, it can be argued that most men generally kept their hands more to themselves. Most men. Generally. The problem is that when something is unspeakably shameful, it still can happen – and then when it does, the victim is often silenced, by others or by her own internalizing of shame into guilt and self-loathing. Cultures with established systems of female modesty also tend to have penalties for women who are “damaged” by immodesty, regardless of whether it was her fault or not. Those penalties may range from the horrific (murder or further rape of the woman in question) to simply oppressive (the woman now considered unmarriageable); but they do exist, and while the system of feminine modesty may have protected some women a lot of the time, it has been far from foolproof.
So much for the book’s flaws. Didn’t I say it was worth reading anyway?
Yep. Where Shalit excels is her illustration of what it’s like on the front lines of womanhood, speaking from her own experiences and observations.
There really is something new going on here, with our distressing epidemic of eating disorders, depression, and unhealthy sexual behavior among women. Women are struggling in this culture, and we don’t even acknowledge it, let alone deal with it. The issue almost always gets trivialized, in different ways, by both the political left and right, by both religious and secular viewpoints. Shalit lays out this problem in a passage that’s worth quoting at length:
“I want to invite conservatives to take the claims of the feminists seriously. That is, all of their claims, from the date-rape figures to anorexia to the shyness of teenage girls, even the number of women who say they feel “objectified” by the male gaze. I want them to stop saying that this or that study was flawed; or that young women are exaggerating; or that it has been proven that at this or that university such-and-such a charge was made up. Because ultimately, it seems to me, it doesn’t really matter if one study is flawed or if one charge is false. When it comes down to it, the same vague yet unmistakable problem is still with us. A lot of young women are trying to tell us that they are very unhappy: unhappy with their bodies, with their sexual encounters, with the way men treat them on the street – unhappy with their lives. I want conservatives really to listen to these women, to stop saying boys will be boys, and to take what these women are saying seriously.
As for the feminists, I want to invite them to consider whether the cause of all this unhappiness might be something other than the patriarchy.”
She goes on to add:
“…from the Left, the advice we get is, “Whatever you do, don’t be romantic,” and from the Right, “Whatever you do, don’t become a feminist.” Meanwhile, we’re not allowed to ask any questions – not any really important ones, that is.”
That’s what’s important about A Return to Modesty: Shalit asks tough questions and dares to propose an answer. I don’t find the argument for her particular answer to be workable, but what she does succeed in doing is opening up the question in a provocative (and productive) way.
The truth is that we have a cultural ideology that advocates casual sex, no-hang-up-relationships, and the ability to attach and detach without consequences. But there are consequences: serious ones, ones that don’t go away. (A topic that Laura Sessions Stepp addresses in Unhooked.) What our popular culture is doing is trying to force a change in the reality (if we act as if it’s true for long enough, maybe it’ll be true!) to match up with the ideology, rather than considering that maybe the ideology doesn’t match up with the reality.
What’s really going on here? And what, if anything, can we do about it?
I used to approach this puzzle from the secular feminist point of view, but that angle never quite got all the pieces to fit. Then I had a radical and shattering change of worldviews. Now, approaching the puzzle as a Christian, I have a feeling that I’ve gotten my hands on a couple of pieces that could change the way the whole thing fits together. I don’t know how things fit together, but it’s something I’m very interested in working through… because I need to figure out what it means to be a woman, and a Christian woman, in this culture.