David Cruz-Uribe has posted an interesting discussion of modesty in the context of feminism, applying the feminist concept of the male gaze in connection with various approaches to modesty, including one particular discussion between two Christian women bloggers about
an incident in which a male friend of hers goes clubbing and encounters a woman with a very low cut top and large breasts breasts which she has covered with glitter infused body oil. Or, as she trenchantly puts it: “she had glitter on her tits.” The woman catches the man staring at her breasts and calls him out. The question quickly became how to interpret this event.
His summary and analysis of the discussion between Sarah over the Moon and Rage Against the Minivan is very clear (so you should go read it — I’ll wait), but I believe it overlooks something important.
In a laudable attempt to grapple with the realities of human sociality and sexuality, informed by the concept of the male gaze, while avoiding the reduction of “the virtue of modesty to a dress code for women,” he affirms the concept raised by Sarah that “dress is communication”, and the contextualization of the interaction within the broader social context. He writes:
Sarah in her first post makes the point that dress is communication, but then fails to follow through: communication cannot be separated from the milieu in which it occurs. Rage, on the other hand, correctly wants to position the meaning within a broader social framework: she also rejects the male gaze as normative, but realizes that men will indeed look and that they will do so in a social setting which defines beautiful and sexy in certain ways. . . . Dress is communication: whether explicitly, as in the case of the prostitutes of Calle Montera, or implicitly, when men and women just follow the latest fashions as they get ready to go out on a Friday night.
Here’s the piece I see as missing:
Staring is also communication.
The male gaze is a pervasive social influence that conditions art, fashion, beauty, and how women and men experience themselves and each other in the world.
A specific man’s gaze in a specific moment is an act of communication, which must also be considered in its social milieu and in the context of the verbal and non-verbal conversation in which it occurs.
In our society, there are situations in which it is unconditionally unacceptable for a man to stare at a woman’s breasts (eg, a professional office or classroom setting); situations in which it is unconditionally acceptable (eg, a sex scene in a movie or an intimate encounter between lovers); and situations in which it is conditionally acceptable, conditioned by the interaction in which it occurs (eg, nightclubs or the beach).
Dress is a communicative act. Staring is a communicative act. Responding positively (verbally or nonverbally) to the stare is a communicative act indicating that it is welcome and thereby acceptable. Responding negatively (verbally or non-verbally) to the stare is a communicative act indicating that it is unwelcome and thereby unacceptable. Continuing to stare despite a negative response is a communicative act, and one of the things it communicates is that you’re either socially inept, or obnoxiously rude.
If you missed or misinterpreted the response, you’re socially inept. If you are simply ignoring the response, you’re obnoxiously rude.
This is as true in this situation as it is in any other communicative dance: it is, at best, rude and obnoxious to persist in an interaction that is not welcomed by the other party. At worst, it is potentially dangerous, predatory behavior, “feeling out, as an explicit or unconscious strategy, how far they can push boundaries (sexual and otherwise) without consequence”.
David closes with an interesting question about modesty:
How can we make modesty a beautiful virtue for both men and women while leaving behind this notion that women are passive and men define the terms?
In part, the answer to this question depends on how we conceive of modesty in relation to the other virtues. Is the virtue of modesty fundamentally protective against the vice of lust, and therefore most closely related to the virtue of chastity? This is the dominant narrative, and it’s interesting to me that it doesn’t get to a companion virtue except by going through its opposing vice.
Or, is modesty most closely related to the virtue of humility? This strikes me as a much more fruitful approach.