Modesty is an incredibility important quality. It allows us to regulate our self-perception and maintain self-esteem. However, while it is a while known and appreciated quality, I suspect that it is also widely misunderstood. People often confuse modesty with how we dress, rather than with how we regard ourselves, and tend to associate it with sexual promiscuity. In addition, this belief tend to negatively effect women far more often than it ever effects men. Modesty is definitely a problem in society but problem lies instead in our confused understanding of it and the unequal way in which it is applied.
For many, modesty comes down to how we dress. The more we cover up, the more modest we become; conversely, the more of our body we expose, the more immodest we become. It is understandable why provocative forms of dress are commonly thought of as immodest, since fashion as we know it is predicated on attracting attention from others, but I am strongly disinclined to regard clothing as the final or only manifestation of modesty. Modesty is hardly the only concern we consider when we choose our outfits. We dress to fit in, express personal aesthetic sense, and, or, to protect ourselves from harsh weather. With this in mind, we cannot conclude from a person’s appearance alone whether they are, in actuality, modest or not. Therefore, we must consider modesty for what it is—an attitude.
In Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, modesty is defined a “nondefensive willingness to see the self accurately, including both strengths and weaknesses (Peterson and Seligman, 2004, p. 463).” Modesty is fundamentally about attitude and not, as it is widely believed, about how we dress. It involves an unreasonable belief that one is better than others and deserves to be admired for it. The immodest person is one who boasts, exaggerating their skills and accomplishments, and is eager to put others down if it means making themselves look better by comparison.
In contrast, a modest person is someone who can knowledge their “mistakes, imperfections, gaps in knowledge and limitations” but without utterly putting themselves down. Furthermore, they place less importance on their ideas, opinions, and moral perspective; and can appreciate “the value of all things, as well as the many different ways that people and things can contribute to our world (Peterson and Seligman, pg 462).” They are neither prone to boast about themselves nor reject praise when it is appropriate, and because they are comfortable with their strength and weakness, they feel little need to prove themselves at the expense of others.
This brings me to an important aspect of modesty and it regards gender differences. Whether you like it or not, acknowledge or deny it, modesty is a double standard. Women are expected to be modest, while men generally are not, and when women fail to meet these standards, they are punished very harshly. In the minds of many, modesty is more than what a woman wears. Wearing revealing clothing becomes a sign of promiscuity and the women bearing it are denigrated, regardless of their actual character or lifestyle. When it comes to the way women are perceived and judged, modesty is not really about unreasonable pride but about sexual control. However, contrary to the popular perception that women are immodest, research has consistently shown that men tend to score higher on measures of narcissism than women (Grijalva, E., Newman, D. A., Tay, L., Donnellan, M. B., Harms, P. D., Robins, R. W., & Yan, T., 2015). If anyone is more likely to be immodest, it’s men and not women.
Modesty is not what we wear but how we wear it. Ultimately, our material possessions do not make us immodest but the fallacious belief that they make us better than anyone else and the desire to prove ourselves at the expense of others. The way we shame others, and especially women, is the true testament to the problem of modesty, not whether women wear a little or a lot of clothing. If we cannot understand this, we cannot understand modesty or even remotely achieve it.
Grijalva, E., Newman, D. A., Tay, L., Donnellan, M. B., Harms, P. D., Robins, R. W., & Yan, T. (2015). Gender differences in narcissism: a meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 141(2), 261-310.
Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. New York: Oxford University Press.