On ‘modesty’, the purpose of breasts, and other things.

A while ago, I read an article about the evolution of breasts. I’m not terribly interested in breasts, but the article nicely confirmed my suspicion that evolutionary psychology has very little do do with evolution or science in general and everything with the worldview of the researchers. Apparently, for decades, research in this area consisted of male subjects rating pictures of naked women because obviously breasts must have evolved to please men. Only after twenty years of picture rating, in the late 80s, did it first occur to someone that women might have breasts because, you know, they might benefit the woman in some way. It’s funny and a bit sad at the same time and it’s yet another example of the privileged (I realise this word might be kind of… itchy to some people, but it’s so incredibly useful) naturally assuming that Everything Is About Them.

The huge purity/modesty debate that’s going on in the (post-)evangelical blogosphere at the moment (Preston Yancey has an overview) made me think about this again. ‘Modesty’ and ‘purity’ have never been as huge an issue for me as it apparently was for many of the contributors; I never went to a school that measured the length of skirts and I never went to a church or youth group that made me sign a virginity pledge. But they were issues nonetheless. I remember how some fellow students – male and female – argued for separate Bible study groups, so the guys wouldn’t be distracted from the Word of God by the cleavages of their sisters in Christ. I remember us – male and female – judging every expression of female sexuality as evidence of a ‘lack of self-respect’. I remember a Facebook friend, who, not that long ago, wrote a status update telling girls they would never be treated like princesses if they behaved like whores.

In all these cases, the underlying assumption is that it is All About The Men. How a girl looks, how she behaves, what she wears, the fact that she exists in the first place – it’s all about men, about pleasing men, tempting men, distracting men. Whenever we talk about a girl as pure, or modest, or ‘girlfriend material’, or as a prude or a slut or a whore, we’re denying her an existence independent from male experience. We’re denying her her own motives, her own individuality, her own story.

All of this is a lie. Dear men: women do not exist for your benefit. I do not exist for your benefit. I do not wear whatever I choose to wear to tempt (or avoid tempting) men. I wear it because I feel good wearing it. If you look at me and see a sexual being, that’s not because I want to send you a message, it’s because I am a sexual being. If it looks like I’m showing off my body, it’s not because I am insecure or lack self-respect – on the contrary, I’m probably enjoying one of these rare days where I am not insecure about my looks and just feel happy being me. If I appear in public makeup-less and with unshaven armpits I’m not doing it to deliberately repulse you, I probably just forgot or didn’t care to shave. If I don’t smile at you or flirt with you I’m not insulting you, I just have other things on my mind.

And my breasts are probably just a fat storage.


About hannadevries

University lecturer (in linguistics/artificial intelligence) with occasional opinions on religion & social justice-related stuff.
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13 Responses to On ‘modesty’, the purpose of breasts, and other things.

  1. Ash Ghinn says:

    i agree with some of your points but your rant is a little hard for me to bear Hannah. I hear your anger and frustration but I am a man, so you address me when you write “dear men” and I do not – along with many other men – fit your insulting generalisation. I have no doubt that some men actually think women exist for their benefit, but some women believe this too, and it is careless and biased to simply blame us men for our society’s ills. In doing so you are denying each man his own motives, his own individuality, his own story.

  2. violetwisp says:

    I guess Ash has a point and is entitled to feel a little injured. But from a fellow female point of view, I thought it was great! And even if Ash doesn’t fit the mould, I’m sure he can acknowledge that pretty much most men do. Off to read Everything Is About Them …

    • hannadevries says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting! 🙂 I guess my most important point is not that there is a mold and individual people can fit it (in which case this post is relevant for them) or not (in which case it isn’t), but that there are certain patterns in society as a whole that everyone is involved in and influenced by, male or female. But since the particular pattern I’m talking about here (and of which I have experienced and am still experiencing the consequences) has everything to do with male privilege, I felt justified in addressing ‘men’ at that point in my post. (But I took care to write almost the entire post in terms of ‘us’ and ‘we’ because there are no good and bad guys here – male privilege is perpetuated by men and women alike, and mostly they’re unaware of it.)

      • violetwisp says:

        “male privilege is perpetuated by men and women alike, and mostly they’re unaware of it” So true. It’s completely ingrained in our societies and we *all* go along with it to varying extents. But, on a positive note, we’ve come a long way in 100 short years!

  3. Ash Ghinn says:

    Can I acknowledge that “pretty much most men” fit the mould of believing that women only exist for their benefit? No I can’t. Are there far too many men who do believe this? Yes there are, and I have been trying to understand this problem for years..

    Here in the UK I have frequently heard accounts of (and occasionally witnessed) vile and abusive behaviour from men towards women. Such incidents seem to suggest that such perpetrators believe their victims somehow “owe” them something, or that girlfriends or wives somehow “belong” to them – like a car or a phone. But common and vile as these incidents are, they don’t represent the majority of men.

    Whenever I witness such stuff, I feel a surge of anger. Some of that anger is a self-righteous indignation, knowing that I’d never treat anyone like that. And while I can be so enraged by the attitudes and language of sexist men, I think that what drives both me and them is more similar than I’d like to admit: I confess I am tirelessly attracted to and thrilled by women. To gain a woman’s trust and confidence means far more to me than gaining a man’s trust. Even a woman’s smile can make my whole day.

    Such yearnings admittedly seem tragically disproportionate to their social or biological function, but I’d never ask a woman to give me a smile – as if I should expect or deserve a smile from anyone. For a start I don’t want anything if it is coerced or demanded. I may pathetically long for a woman’s love, trust, touch, etc. But only if it is free. To make such demands would stifle the very intimacy I crave.

    It is my view that deep down most of the abusive men I have met want something similar, but know nothing about how to get it. Having no experience or role models and knowing nothing else, they continually abuse and pester women, as if their insulting and demeaning method will sooner or later result in a loving relationship. Some have such a warped idea of their male “identity” that they are noticeably more abusive in the presence of other men. I wouldn’t want to swap lives with them.

    I am still thinking about Hannah’s connection of abuse with privilege. It is worth comparing the idea that “male privilege” generates abuse with the superior or privileged position most adults hold over children. It certainly seems that the broadly accepted view of adult superiority legitimises abuse. I have witnessed thousands of examples of abuse to children, but my complaints are usually dismissed or ridiculed. “She’s my child – I’m entitled to call her naughty” is a common retort from fathers and mothers, showing the same old entitlement / ownership problem we often see in male abuse of women.

    I have digressed – and I’ve gone on too long! Sorry!

    • hannadevries says:

      Thank you so much for this Ash! and you’re right about the child abuse, I think. Accepting or not realising that a certain group of people is still treated by ‘the system’ as superior or ‘default’ in some way (not just men – heterosexuals, whites, adults, followers of Western religions, city people, skinny people, able-bodied people, you name it…) opens the door to accepting hierarchies in other areas – as soon as you accept that some humans are superior to others, there’s no limit to the number of people you may start feeling superior (or inferior!) to. And then of course child abuse is intimately connected to the patriarchal idea of the father as head of the household who always knows what’s best and who can’t be questioned (by wife or children).

      Funny fact: since I’ve started developing my, erm, feminist tendencies, I became much more sensitive about other kinds of privilege (that I was previously unaware of because as a white middle-class able-bodied heterosexual (etcetera) I’m part of the majority in practically every respect). Especially in the annually recurring Dutch ‘Black Pete’ debate (short version: it’s kind of racist but it’s a nice tradition), I suddenly recognised all the familiar patterns – invalidating the other’s emotions (they’re overreacting, they’re irrational), pretending the other’s experience doesn’t matter (they’re just misunderstanding our tradition, we got over slavery a long time ago and so should they, they’re wrong to feel insulted because we don’t mean to insult them), pretending the other is holding on to out-of-date dichotomies that simply don’t exist anymore in modern society (WE stopped seeing colour a long time ago! we just see people!)… and these were all arguments I would’ve made a while ago, but suddenly they just seemed ridiculous to me. If your behaviour or tradition makes people feel insulted and inferior, then you should take them seriously, not dismiss them and keep on doing what you’re doing.

      Now I’m going on too long as well. But luckily we can talk about this as much as we want over coffee/alcohol/curry in London this weekend! ❤

    • violetwisp says:

      Hi Ash, sorry for jumping in here. I get that your own personal experiences with women can be at times painful. But I didn’t understand the main thrust of this post to be about the difference between being respectful and open abuse. It’s about the societal norm that the male perspective is the default setting. It’s something that women have to put up with in every aspect of life, and what is written here I’m sure will resonate with most women. What you seem to be describing is much more obvious and generally reviled abuse that, I agree, only a minority of men commit.

      • hannadevries says:

        yes! thank you 🙂

      • violetwisp says:

        Ooops, should have held my tongue another two minutes … Hanna’s response is clearly much more relevant!

      • Ash Ghinn says:

        @ violetwisp, I don’t know where I implied this, but you are right that I have had painful experiences with women – but I would never say it was because they were women. Regarding whether my last response drifted off-topic, I’d say it probably did a bit! I guess I was trying to focus on what creates harmful divisions between the sexes (to me an underlying problem in this debate) more than which sex has the greater influence in society.

        I have experienced and witnessed the abuse of power in many forms, and observed various attempts to redress such injustice. I worry at the way we almost instinctively polarize such struggles into “us” and “them”: Palestinian v Israeli, rich v poor, adults v children, pro-life v pro-choice, men v women, etc. It’s all terribly understandable, but it grieves me, because we’re ALL IN THE SAME FAMILY and any fix involves all of us changing! It’s hard because it feels deeply unjust to suggest that the subject of abuse change their behaviours or attitudes, but I think it is key to any real solution.

        I guess it is normal for anyone who has been reviled to revile the reviler. It seems so legitimate, but this actually perpetuates the problem we are claiming to solve. Worse, anyone abused by say, an Israeli, blames not only that individual, but also their “Israeliness”, and therefore to some degree, all Israelis. Revolutions are often triggered by an uprising against an abuse of power and privilege, and end up being little more than a transfer of that power, with the new group abusing their new privilege all over again.

        What if burglary was at epidemic levels and it could be proven that in this country a black person was statistically ten times more likely to burgle your house than a white person? We’d have a big problem, but I don’t think it would ever help for a white person to say “Blacks, my house is for me to live in and not here for your benefit”. It would be true, and it may help a burglary victim to boldly affirm their rights to their homes and the injustice of burglary. But addressing blacks subtlety makes blackness the problem.

        From a strongly underprivileged position, Martin Luther King was able to plead for unity not division between black and white skinned people, and dream of a world where people aren’t judged by their colour. I think people like him, Jesus and Ghandi teach us a lot. They certainly all frustrated their followers for seemingly not fighting for the cause, but each had a way of avoiding the “us” v “them” mindset and ignoring the “privilege” rules.

        I love this thought provoking dialogue! Thanks for hearing me out, and trying to understand me! I was initially particularly struck by Hannah’s observation that by labelling a girl, “we’re denying her her own motives, her own individuality, her own story”. I think this a useful yardstick in all our interactions, and counters our tendency to measure a person by their gender, race, religion, age, class, etc, whether privileged or unprivileged.

  4. violetwisp says:

    I agree with some of what you say but there’s so much generalising with what seems like en vogue social work terminology that I’m kind of seeing wool. I’m afraid I don’t see the way women are, and historically have been, treated and regarded in our society as boxable with the other situations you mention. (sorry for sounding rude, I appreciate the discussion, I’m just a bit blunt)

  5. Ash Ghinn says:

    Honesty and bluntness are good, so don’t apologise violetwisp. But if you really value this discussion you’ll have to expand on your objections so that I can either correct your misunderstandings or stand corrected. I am personally deeply irritated by anyone who tries to pull wool over anyone’s eyes, or by anyone who would rather sound “in vogue” than grapple with the real issues – especially on such an important subject. But no harm done… other than a dent to my pride!

    I certainly wasn’t trying to “box” or lump examples of privilege together as if there were no differences between them. However, I would argue that making comparisons and finding common threads is actually vital to understanding any issue.

    • violetwisp says:

      No, I do need to apologise. I temped in a social work office a few years back and the empty buzzwords that get thrown around drove me crazy! It tends to make me glaze over and get a bit ranty. Your style of expressing yourself reminded me of those sorry days but I guess I have to understand that’s just the linguistic culture some people are steeped in. I’m sure there’s lots of vocabulary I use that many find less than delightful!

      You are, of course, right that it’s useful to make comparisons to understand any issue. I’m just slightly wary of attaching too many of the same labels to a whole range of complicated situations. I also agree that it’s important for people on the receiving end of discrimination of any kind to attempt to be be thoughtful about their reaction – there’s no sense at all in making an unpleasant situation worse.

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