Wednesday, June 4, 2014

On Rihanna Teaching Me to Say No to Modesty Culture

I immediately fell in love with Rihanna's outfit for this year's CFDA Fashion Awards! I do not know much about fashion but the outfit reminded me of the 1920s. It heralded back to Josephine Baker.

I also loved her acceptance speech for the "Style Icon Award" where she spoke about the meaning of fashion to her life. She talked about how she used fashion as a buffer against the meanness of others, as a way to elevate her confidence and feel good about herself.

Rihanna was sending a message to women that extends far beyond the realm of fashion. She was speaking to the importance of self-defining and doing what it takes to feel worthy and confident and not asking for permission to do so. This is directly in contrast with modesty culture and patriarchy derived male entitlement.

Not everyone liked Rihanna's outfit. Her outfit has gotten her labeled as a "ho" and "slut." Folks (particularly men) have taken to social media to proclaim that if a woman is dressed like that she has no right to refuse male attention or sexual advances. Some "hypothetically" threatened violence if she were to refuse their advances.

Modesty culture is a ruse. More specifically, it's a ruse that a man has the right to sexually violate a woman if she is not modestly dressed. It's a ruse because women are not assaulted based on how they are dressed. We are assaulted because we are women living under patriarchy. It does not matter whether a woman wears a long potato sack or if she is nude. She is not safe from victimization so long as there are patriarchal men.

So then what is the purpose of modesty culture if it does not indeed protect women from sexual violence?

Modesty culture is a distraction. It allows women with internalized misogyny trick themselves into feeling safer than they actually are. It allows folks to put down women and girls. And it allows male violence to be excused as it argues that it's inevitable and out of their control.

Modesty culture does a lot. But it doesn't protect or uplift women.

However, modesty culture has other implications. It promotes the idea that women do not own their own bodies. Our bodies are instead held captive by misogynist notions and by every individual man who has eyes to view us.

Recently, I've gotten into crop tops. My mother was not very happy about this and her reason was that I did not need to show my stomach to the world. I told her that I want to show my stomach because I like how I look when I show my stomach. She told me that I would garner unwanted male attention and I told her that I don't dress for men. I dress for myself.

At that point I think I lost her.

Not too many people think that a woman can dress "non-modestly" and do so for her own happiness and benefit. If a woman shows her breasts or her stomach or wears shorts it is viewed as always being for male attention.

This especially plays out to the detriment of teenage girls who are held hostage by often arbitrary and humiliating dress codes by their schools. They are made to feel ashamed of their bodies because they are told that boys (and grown adult men) are sexually turned on by them. The teenage girls are viewed as being at fault and not the boys and men who have been indoctrinated by patriarchal notions of women's bodies.

This all makes sense because we live in a world where women's bodies are pornographically manipulated to sell products, to confirm male supremacy and women's weakness, to objectify us.

In our culture, a woman's body is a product. It is the vehicle by which male supremacy is justified and upheld, where violent male fantasies are projected. And every dress choice we make is said to either titillate or repel a man.

Modesty culture tells us we're supposed to find the magical "in between" where we're the "good girl" who is not an ugly prude. Of course, what is modest (but not repelling) is always changing based on context and men's whims.

And then what? Where does that leave our ability to self-define? Nowhere.

Modesty culture tells us that when women dress conservatively they are freeing themselves from male objectification. But it's modesty culture which renders every clothing choice a woman makes as being a part of male objectification.

It is in this frame of thinking that I viewed Rihanna's outfit in. She did not wear it for men who took it upon themselves to label her a "ho" or "slut" or discuss how they would violate her if given the opportunity. She wore it for herself. She wore it because she felt powerful in it. Because she felt happy in it.

Male entitlement extends far beyond women's clothing choices. But perhaps clothing and fashion is one front where misogyny can be saliently challenged and deconstructed.

And it's for this reason that I praise Rihanna. I praise Rihanna for doing her own thing at the CFDA Fashion Awards in spite of all the social forces which encourage women to shrink themselves in favor and in fear of men.

Related Articles:

  • FYI, I Cannot "Demand" Respect From Men so Stop Telling Me That!
  • Why am I So Nice to "Nice Guys"?
  • The Good Black Girl Complex

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    1. What a beautiful post! Rihanna did look stunning the other night, and I applaud her for showing herself off for her own sake. However, it's obvious the male critics calling her a 'slut' and/or 'ho' were fapping to photos of her wearing that outfit, so they can take ALL OF THE SEATS. Also, until this article, I hadn't thought of anything like "modesty culture". It's very insightful, and definitely something that's made me think. P.S. You rock those crop tops!

      1. Thank you for the comment!

        I think that's precisely the point... that the people who called Rihanna sexist pejoratives did so because they viewed her in an hyper-sexed lens... specially the men who commented... they said that they were sexually attracted to her & because of that she owed them her body/ owed them sex.

        That's where the issue of male entitlement/patriarchal ideology overlaps with modesty culture... the idea that if I happen to turn on a man then I owe him my body. I think it's important to challenge that idea and say that women can dress for themselves & that we're not responsible for the way men look at our bodies because how they're looking at us is informed by a hyper-sexualized pornographic culture anyway that has less to do with me being in a crop top or Rihanna being covered in sheer diamonds & more to do with the prevailing idea that women are objects.

    2. You give me hope for the future... thank you for sharing your insight

    3. Thank you... I love how concise and well-constructed your logic was when explaining these truths. Sometimes ideas that are outside of our accepted frame of understanding are difficult. Clear discussion helps people understand.
      I saw where you mentioned the idea of women brainwashed by misogynism, but sometimes I feel that women actively promote modesty culture and misogynistic demands even more than men. We need to accept our role in order to change it.

      1. Thanks for the comment! I think it's difficult to say if women are "even more" into maintaining patriarchy than men. I think that people of all genders can be and are patriarchal, The only difference is that only men actually benefit from it.

        But for sure... modesty culture in particular is pushed by women. I think in part because many women believe that a lack of modesty is truly the cause of sexual assault. That's the lie put out by patriarchy. When in truth women are being attacked no matter what they wear. So I see women pushing modesty culture more out of a false sense of protection than because they truly believe that women's bodies need to be covered.

    4. Josephine Baker is right! And I love the idea of dressing for oneself rather than for how others will interpret (or more likely misinterpret) your intentions. The modesty/purity culture is neither modest nor pure, that's for sure.


    5. That outfit is beautiful. However, I struggle with my thoughts about appropriate dress in day-to-day life. I am old enough to remember a time when only prostitutes wore certain types of clothing and admit it is hard to rid myself of that association. On an intellectual level, I see the validity of your points, but the gut reaction is still to encourage my daughter and my nieces to be 'classy' or to not pick dresses that look 'slutty'. The discussion about modesty culture is very enlightening and worthwhile.