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Man and woman in swimsuits, ca. 1910; she is exiting a bathing machine


Recreation on a California beach in the first decade of the 20th century.

Standards of modesty (also called demureness or reticence) are aspects of the culture of a country or people, at a given point in time, and is a measure against which an individual in society may be judged. Though the term can be applied to both men and women, and boys and girls, it is most commonly applied to women, and girls.

Modesty is most often rendered as humility, shyness, or simplicity. The general principles of modesty include:

  • Avoiding attracting attention to oneself by moderating one's actions or appearance;
  • Downplaying one's accomplishments (see humility);
  • Avoiding insincere self-abasement through false or sham modesty, which is a form of boasting.

Fashions and fads at times test the limits of community standards of modesty. People can be subjected to peer pressure either way.


At times of public or private emergency expectations of modesty are suspended, or modified to the extent of the emergency. For example, during the 2001 anthrax attacks in the United States, large numbers of people had to strip to their underwear in parking lots and other public places for hosing down by fire departments, often in front of TV news crews covering the events.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

On the other hand, even in an emergency situation some people still insist on maintaining their standards of modesty.[1]

Body modesty

1868 diagram from Harper's Bazaar, showing a mid-Victorian idea of how the hemlines of girls skirts' should descend towards the ankle as a girl ages

Standards of modesty usually discourage the non-essential exposure of the human body. This applies to the bare skin, hair and undergarments, and especially to intimate parts. The standards not only call for the covering of parts of the body, but also obscuring their shape, by means of suitable clothing. There are also standards covering the changing clothes (such as on a beach), the closing or locking of the door when changing or taking a shower, etc..

Standards of modesty vary by culture, and vary depending on who is exposed, which parts of the body are exposed, the duration of the exposure, the context, and other variables. The categories of persons who could see another's body would include -

  • a spouse or partner,
  • a friend or family member of the same sex,
  • strangers of the same sex,
  • friends or family members including those of the opposite sex,
  • people of the same social class,
  • strangers of the opposite sex,
  • people in general,

The context would include matters such as whether it is in one's own home, at another family member's home, at a friend's home, at a semi-public place, at a beach, swimming pool (including whether such venues are considered clothes-optional), public changing rooms or other public places. So that wearing a bathing suit at the beach would not be considered immodest, while it would be in a street or an office. One's occupation is another consideration, so that the standards that would be expected of, say, a dancer while performing would not be as "strict" as those that would be expected of, say, a school teacher. Some people even argue that a school teacher should not perform as a dancer even outside of the school context. This is usually termed "bringing the profession into disrepute", but is based on notions of modesty and "proper" behavior.

Some critics refer to this type of modesty as body shame[2]. Excessive modesty is called prudishness. As a medical condition it is also called gymnophobia. Excessive immodesty is called exhibitionism. Proponents of modesty often see it as respect for their bodies and the feelings of themselves and others, and some people believe it may reduce sexual crimes. Critics argue that it's not healthy to have a negative attitude toward the human body. Some assert that there may be a correlation between repressive body attitudes and undesirable outcomes such as sexual crimes, violence, and stress.

Modern views of modesty

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The modern western view of modesty is critical of some aspects of the standards. Modern society in general supports the notions of gender equality between boys and girls, and men and women. To further that objective, many groups [How to reference and link to summary or text] advocate and encourage women to be more assertive than they had been in the past and to be proud of their intellectual and physical abilities and potential. The main aspect of modesty still not being criticized is that of exposure of the human body or sexuality, especially in public.

Cultural traditions of modesty

The specific practices of modesty vary widely between religions, cultures, occasions, and the persons who are present. Some such specific standards are examined below.

Generally accepted western norms

In general, Western culture expects intimate body parts to be covered in public at all times. Exceptions are made for situations such as public changing rooms, which tend to be single-sex venues, and saunas, which tend to be mixed-sex venues.

Traditionally, there is an expectation that shirt and trousers or dress etc. be worn in public places. In particular, it is generally unacceptable for women to be shirtless in most public spaces, except places designated for bathing or in the vicinity of these places (such as beaches, and on deck near a pool). However, it is common for formal spaces like restaurants, etc., to overlook a beach or pool, in which case the boundary of modesty is spatial, but not visually segregated. For example, at a poolside or beach side outdoor patio restaurant, there is usually a railing. On one side of the railing, barefoot and shirtless people can converse with those dining on the other side, and may even be part of the same group. More recently, multi-use spaces such as urban beaches are beginning to emerge, washing away even the above mentioned boundaries between more and less modest space. Thus it is now, in many places, acceptable to sunbathe in beachwear next to water play fountains located in the heart of a city or business district.

In private homes, the rules may be more relaxed. For instance, nudity among immediate family members in the home is sometimes permitted, especially in the bedroom and bathroom; or wearing undergarments casually, which would not be done outdoors. Elsewhere in the home, particularly when visitors are present, some simple casual clothing is expected like a bathrobe which can be quickly donned when full clothing is not required, or if it is unavailable nearby depending on convenience.


Naturists reject contemporary Western standards of modesty which discourage personal, family and social nudity, and seek to create a social environment where people feel comfortable in the company of nude people, and being seen nude, either just by other nudists, or also by the general public.[3][4]

Gender differences

Men and women are subject to different standards of modesty. While both men and women, in Western culture, are generally expected to keep their genitals covered at all times, women are also expected to keep their breasts covered. However, images of naked soldiers became somewhat acceptable for mainstream consumption during WWII, with publications such as Life magazine showing photographs of them bathing and advertisements depicting this in cartoon form. High-school age boys began to swim in the nude in many schools during this time as well, a practice that was abandoned in the 1970s. [How to reference and link to summary or text] Additionally, the dictates of fashion and societal norms, some body parts are expected to be more covered by men than women, e.g. the midriff and the upper part of the back. Also swimming pants are often larger for men than for women. Prior to the 1930s, men were generally prohibited from baring their chests in public, even at beaches. Organizations such as the Topfree Equal Rights Association advocate for gender equality in this regard. In 1992, New York State's highest court accepted 14th Amendment arguments and struck down the provision in New York's Exposure of the Person statute that made it illegal for women to bare their chests where men were permitted to do so. [5]

The emergence of homosexuality as a mainstream sexual orientation has prompted an increase in modesty in same-sex situations, such as changing rooms. In America, the majority of group showers are being converted to individual stalls complete with curtains. This process is seen in military and civilian settings. Many students no longer shower after exercise [How to reference and link to summary or text]. Research has shown a dramatic decline in same-sex sexual activity among adolescent males that correlates with the increasing social visibility of gays and the increasing level of modesty.[How to reference and link to summary or text] Related factors are the increasing emphasis on ideal male physiques shown by advertisements of companies such as Abercrombie & Fitch and concern over being photographed and videotaped.

Traditional indigenous modesty

Traditional indigenous cultures, such as some African and traditional Australian aboriginal cultures, are more relaxed on issues of modesty, though how much exposure is acceptable varies greatly, from nothing for some women, to everything except the glans penis for men of some tribes (see foreskin). In some African cultures, body painting is considered to be body "coverage", and is considered by many an "attire."

Religious traditions of modesty

Religion has always had a strong influence on peoples' attitudes to issues of modesty.

Pentecostal & Apostolic Modesty

Under construction

Islamic modesty

File:Kalkan market 2.JPG

A headscarf

File:Burqa Afghanistan 01.jpg


Main article: Sartorial hijab

Modesty has and continues to be considered important in Islamic society, but the interpretation of what dress constitutes modesty varies. Many Muslim women wear a headscarf (hijab) as a sign of modesty. In more conservative societies, women are required to cover everything with the exception of hands and face. A woman who chooses to also cover her face and hands is said to be expressing greater "modesty and holiness".[6] In some Islamic societies, women wear the niqab, an all-encompassing garment intended to conceal every part of the body, sometimes including the eyes. Wearing a niqab (sometimes referred to as a burqa, although this term only technically applies to an Afghan all-in-one garment) is common in some countries with a majority Muslim population.

In most Muslim countries, such expressions of modesty are voluntary, while in others, such as Afghanistan under the Taliban, they were enforced under the threat of severe physical punishment.[7]


A taqiyah cap

Likewise, according to some Islamic interpretations of Hadith, men are required to cover everything from 'navel to knee'; with some men choosing to extend this to the traditional Islamic head covering taqiyah (cap), the male counterpart to hijab which closely resembles the Jewish yarmulke but is slightly larger in size. The taqiyah cap may vary in shape, size or color just as the hijab does, with many regional differences according to tradition and personal taste.

A burqini is a swimsuit designed for Muslim women that covers the whole body except the face, the hands and the feet, that enables them to satisfy the requirements of Muslim standards of modesty while enabling them to take part in swimming activities.

Jewish modesty

File:Women praying in the Western Wall tunnels by David Shankbone.jpg

Three styles of hair covering common among married Orthodox women. From right to left: snood, fall, and hat.

Main article: Tzniut

Modesty is also important in Judaism, especially in the case of women. An orthodox married woman is expected by their community to cover her hair in public, and sometimes at home. The hair covering may be a scarf, hat, snood, or a wig ("sheitel"). Some communities have stricter standards and expect women to cover their elbows and legs, with blouses covering the collarbone and sleeves covering elbows. Skirts are expected to cover the knees. All slits in skirts are expected to be closed. See-through materials may not be used and clothes are expected not to be tight-fitting, provocative, loud in color, or display texts.[8] Some communities apply these standards to girls as young as three.

Non-orthodox Jewish women tend to adopt the fashions of the non-Jewish society in which they live.

Trinitarian Christian modesty

Catholic Church


A placard informs tourists about the minimum dress standards required to enter St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican

Although Catholics are expected to dress modestly[9], there have never been any "official" guidelines issued by the Catholic Church. But, from time to time the Church hierarchy, and even some popes, have given opinions on various matters; although these "guidelines" are not binding on Catholics, many tradition-minded Catholics find them persuasive.[10] Pope Pius XII stated that women should cover their upper arms and shoulders, that their skirts should cover at least as far as the knee, and the neckline should not reveal anything.[11] Another example is Giuseppe Cardinal Siri of Genoa, who stated that trousers were unacceptable dress for women.[12] Many tradition-minded Catholics have attempted to further expand on this latter standard.[13]

Some Catholics have attempted to form cohesive theories of modesty. Sometimes this is from a sociological perspective,[11] while at other times it takes a more systematic, Thomistic approach, combined with the writings of the Church Fathers.[14] Approaches arguing primarily from traditional practices and traditional authorities, such as the saints, can also be found.[15]

The Church also expects men to dress modestly, but the demands are not as strict for them as for women; this is largely because men are often thought to be more inherently susceptible to sexual thoughts.

Other Trinitarian Churches

Many other Trinitarian Christians also consider modesty extremely important,[16] though considerable differences of opinion exist about its requirements and purposes.[17]

See also


  1. We'd rather die than take our clothes off, disaster planners say, By Dru Sefton, Newhouse News Service, Nation & World: Saturday, May 25, 2002
  2. Body Shame
  3. See 2002-2003 World Naturist Handbook, pub International Naturist Federation INF-FNI, Sint Hubertusstraat, B-2600 Berchem(Antwerpen) ISBN 9055838330 The Agde definition. The INF is made up of representative of the Naturist Organizations in 32 countries, with 7 more having correspondent status. The current edition is * Naturisme, The INF World Handbook (2006) [1] ISBN 90-5062-080-9
  4. INF web page
  5. Santorelli & Schloss v. State of New York
  6. Some Islamic interpretations of the Hadeeth, a collection of quotations and testimony taken from first and second hand accounts observers made on the life of the prophet Muhammad, which describes his interpretations of the Qur'an and expounds on its teachings.
  7. Video of flogging in Afghanistan for women who publicly removed her burqa, on 26 September 2001.
  8. The Laws of Jewish Modesty
  9. See, e.g., The Catechism of the Catholic Church Para. 2521-2524.
  10. See all the following citations, which all expound at least partly upon such guidelines.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Modesty and beauty - the lost connection by Regina Schmiedicke
  12. Notification Concerning Men's Dress Worn by Women by Giuseppe Cardinal Siri (1960)
  13. See G. K. Chesterton, What's Wrong with the World, Part III, Chap. V, for an early attempt (1910); see also In Praise of the Skirt, for a more contemporary one (2006)
  14. The Modesty Handbook (describing the nature of modesty from a Catholic perspective, based on St. Thomas Aquinas and the Church Fathers).
  15. See, e.g., Those Who Serve God Should Not Follow the Fashions by Robert T. Hart (2004).
  16. See, e.g., Modesty: The Undressing of Our Youth, by Lenora Hammond.
  17. The Modesty Survey: An anonymous discussion among Christians concerning various aspects of modesty.

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