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A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue
by Wendy Shalit
New York, NY: The Free Press, 1999.
(291 pages; $24.00, cloth)
reviewed by Sam Torode
While a student at Williams College, Wendy Shalit detected a paradox: young women on campus were truly liberated from all patriarchal rules; they lived in a thoroughly nonsexist environment, complete with coed dorms and coed bathrooms; yet, far from flourishing, many were downright miserable. Eating disorders abounded, and the use of Prozac to combat depression was common.
Deepening the mystery, Shalit began to notice contentment in the most unlikely places: couples who observed the Jewish laws of modesty, avoiding any physical contact before marriage; even Coney Island bathers in turn-of-the-century photographs, wearing body-covering swimsuits and flashing mischievous smiles.
Shalit explores the implications of these and other observations in A Return to Modesty, presenting a thesis that many will find startling: “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.” To heal our culture, women must rediscover the lost virtue of modesty, and men must be obligated, once more, to honor it.
At age 23, Shalit belongs to the first generation raised under the assumptions of the sexual revolution. The previous generation dreamed of sexual openness and equality. For the rising generation, openness and equality—manifest in such phenomena as early sex education, condom distribution, and coed bathrooms—are dull realities. When no subject is off-limits, nothing is forbidden, and nothing is to be ashamed of, how can a young woman revolt? The choices, it seems, are two: one can embrace new perversions—self-mutilation, anorexia and bulimia—or one can rebel by returning to sanity. A Return to Modesty is a clarion call to the latter.
In days gone by, men and women followed divergent paths to fulfillment: women became “ladies” by exercising modesty, and men became “gentleman” by acting with honor. Philosophically, Shalit’s understanding of the sexes is “essentialist”: men and women, she believes, are different—biologically and otherwise (a very unpopular notion in academic circles today). Given this understanding, it follows that men and women should fill different roles, be brought up differently, and cultivate virtue in different ways. To argue that the sexes are, or should be, absolutely equal, one would first have to abolish the sexes—and that, Shalit asserts, is exactly what the sexual revolution set out to do.
“I am fortunate to live in a very liberated age,” Shalit writes. “These days a girl can become a doctor, a lawyer, enlist in the military, join a basketball team, expect to pursue a career, to be able to drop her children off at daycare, and have as many abortions as she wishes. Her sexual options are no longer restricted: both the premarital and the extramarital affair are now open to her. In short, a girl can do whatever she wants to do, become anything she wants to be—with one crucial exception. . . . And that, strange as it may seem, is a woman.”
To a mind (or a culture) bent on achieving unlimited autonomy, innovation, and equality, conventions such as modesty and honor are obstacles. The very categories of male and female are suffocatingly restrictive. Limits—whether imposed by tradition, nature, or God—are chains; to achieve liberation, boundaries must be broken, speed bumps leveled, veils torn away.
Demonstrating this mindset at work, Shalit relates the story of Jessica Dubroff, the seven-year-old pilot who in 1996 attempted to become the youngest ever to make a cross-country flight. In this quest to transcend every limit—from the young pilot’s inability to reach all the cockpit controls, to the sleet storm raging on the scheduled day of takeoff—Jessica was pushed forward by her parents (who had vowed never to teach Jessica “negative words” like “risk” or “danger”) and the news media. “The stunt came to a predictably tragic end,” Shalit writes, “when Jessica took off at too sharp an angle, the plane stalled and took a sickening dive.” Yet even in the face of such tragedy, Shalit continues, “Mother Lisa Hathaway said her daughter ‘had a freedom which you can’t get by holding her back.’ Jane Pauley agreed: Jessica may have ‘lost her life, but she’d had her freedom.’”
In Shalit’s own reasoning, we see the workings of an altogether different cast of mind, one that recognizes that life lived outside the boundaries resembles not so much free-soaring flight as a nosedive—and that this is not a good thing. True freedom, Shalit argues, is only attainable within limits. Those limits are found in the traditions of a particular culture. “In Western societies modesty in dress will manifest itself differently from that among [non-Western societies],” Shalit writes, “and within Western societies different things will be immodest at different times.” Given that modesty is relative, how can one recognize immodesty? “When a culture becomes immodest, it is immodest with respect to the conventions that have gone before.”
Paradoxically, Shalit reveals, it is only within the limits of modesty that Eros is preserved. “Someone who is almost naked in front of strangers has little left to reveal to her lover,” she observes. When all inhibitions are shed and all veils are torn away, mystery departs, and having lost the capacity to be “naked and ashamed,” we are left “nude and bored.” Modesty is not prudery, for inside its boundaries, playfulness is encouraged, and by delaying gratification, modesty heightens the reward. Counterintuitively, Shalit states, “Modesty is the proof that morality is sexy.”
Though her defense of modesty is largely on secular, pragmatic grounds, Shalit is well aware of the religious foundation of modesty. “All [religions] are in agreement that modesty is inextricably entwined with holiness,” she writes; “In the presence of the holy, one must cover up.”
For Shalit, the benefits of practicing modesty can be experienced apart from any religious tradition. (Shalit herself is Jewish, though not Orthodox.) Subtly, however, she leads the thoughtful reader to consider why, exactly, modesty makes sense in light of its transcendental underpinnings. “[Modesty] may even be the proof of God,” she muses, “because it means that we have been designed in such a way that when we act like animals, without restraint and without any rules, we just don’t have as much fun.”
The natural law written upon our hearts, of which modesty is a part, suggests a Lawmaker. Moreover, God’s law is a law of love; only in submission to it can we find true happiness. Indeed, during the course of her research, Shalit interviewed several young women who were drawn to Orthodox Judaism because of its modesty laws. After experiencing the practical benefits of modesty, these women asked themselves, “If Judaism is so smart about men and women, what else is it right about?”
The most visible and enthusiastic proponents of modesty today, by Shalit’s account, are Muslim women and Orthodox Jews. She mentions Christianity’s sacramental view of love, and Paul’s use of the “veil” as a symbol of femininity, but few of her practical examples of modesty are uniquely Christian (one exception being the hats commonly worn by women in black churches). This is not an oversight, but simply a reflection of the fact that contemporary Christianity has largely abandoned modesty. (Consider how many sermons are devoted to explaining away Paul’s instruction on female modesty.)
Still, there are signs of a return to modesty within Christianity. Over the past decade, much energy has been exerted to promote sexual modesty, if not modesty in dress. Also notable is the interest being shown by young Christians, across denominational lines, in greater discipline, ritual, and mystery—all things from which modesty is inseparable.
Near the end of his life, the cultural critic Russell Kirk viewed the rising generation with great hope. “In the later sixties,” he said, “some of the rising generation fancied it amusing to pull down what earlier generations patiently had built up. In the nineties, I trust, many of the rising generation will find it satisfying to restore and redeem their patrimony—so to save the world from suicide.” Wendy Shalit bears out Kirk’s optimism. If its counsel is heeded, A Return to Modesty will do much to restore our inheritance.
Sam Torode is a freelance writer and artist who lives in rural Wisconsin with his wife Bethany and their two young sons. A former designer of Touchstone, he and Bethany are the authors of Open Embrace: A Protestant Couple Rethinks Contraception (Eerdmans).