Modesty or Something Like It

Am I being modest when I insist on wearing a shirt to the door when I answer a knock? Or is the issue really embarrassment at my physical appearance? I suppose I could try to imagine that I inhabit a much more attractive body; how might I react to the knock at the door if I discovered, when looking in the mirror, a lean, muscled man displaying six-pack abs?

I might tend to grab the shirt, even in the case of that magical bodily transformation. If no shirt were readily available, though, I suspect I’d be willing to open the door anyway. But absent the bodily replacement, I would insist on grabbing a shirt from the laundry hamper; something to cover the embarrassing evidence of my undisciplined—make that nonexistent—exercise regimen and dietary restraint.

What, exactly, is modesty? Is it an expression of puritanical morality? Does it express sexual repression and a deep-seated fear that one’s body is a magnet for—or a breeding ground of—carnal appetites? I suspect there’s an unhealthy mixture of all the above in one’s sense of modesty. And I don’t like the concept of modesty in the least, though I have to admit modesty flows through me like a river. In my case, I suspect the majority of my modesty stems from embarrassment, with remnants of puritanism and carnality rounding out the mental malady.

A quick search for definitions and synonyms reveals what I feared: much of the meaning of modesty rests with that puritanical world view. Both Merriam-Webster’s dictionary and Roget’s Thesaurus equate modesty with shame. Roget also suggests pudicity (a new word for me), which in turn associates with meanings for chastity and modesty. Shame. Chastity. I knew it!

The naked body, or even parts of one’s body, exposed to sensitive eyes is an affront to humanity, to Christianity, and to all of God’s creations. Horse pucky. As I’ve said many times before, the naked body, whatever its condition, is a lovely thing to behold. That having been said, mine would be dramatically more attractive with a visible six-pack, but that’s beside the point. The human body, like the bodies of animals whose beauty we admire (think horses, dogs, cats, whales, dolphins, ad infinitum), is a thing of natural beauty. Those other animals don’t seem to have to deal with modesty, do they? That’s because they have not been infected with irrational thought processes related to their physical appearance, sexuality, and such.

I know some people, perhaps many people, do not agree with my assessment of the human form. I’ve heard more times than I care to remember statements like “I don’t want to see the naked bodies of a bunch of overweight old men…” Typically, I’ve heard such statements in connection with individuals’ distaste for public swimming pools and spas and saunas. Frankly, that upsets me because the statement is wrapped in such unapologetic, thoughtless, non-compassionate, unfeeling judgement of people who may or may not have any control over their appearance. It irks me. And when someone makes such a statement, I think much less of them than I did before they uttered that stupid remark. Okay, enough of that trip down a side road that’s not part of this trip.

I admire, conceptually, nudists. I’d like the opportunity to sit and talk with nudists about their views on nudity and the human body to learn whether my admiration is well-placed. I don’t mean having the conversation in a nudist colony; I’m afraid I’m not sufficiently courageous to do that. I mean sitting, fully-clothed, in someone’s living room or at a table in a bar, with  a round of drinks in front of us; a comfortable, non-threatening environment. I’d like to understand whether they, like me, think fear of nudity is a remarkably silly human construct. And I’d like to know whether, to them, it’s the “freedom of movement” or some other physical attribute of nudity they find appealing. Just, in general, why they do what they do (which is, as I understand it, to disrobe in the presence of others who hold the same views). I probably shouldn’t express admiration of nudists until I understand them, right? So I’ll retract my statement of admiration until such time as I have the opportunity to confirm whether such admiration is justified.

Nudity and modesty are not synonymous, of course, but they are (or can be) related. Just as nudity and sex are not synonymous; but they, too, are related. Unless my logic is flawed, I think I can legitimately state that modesty and sex, then, are related, too. That may be the odd linkage in humans that drives modesty. “If I show too much of my body, or view too much of another person’s body, sex is sure to follow.” Right. The logic in that is convoluted and measurably wrong.

One of the first times I wrote about my thoughts on nudity, I said, “I’m not brave enough to assert my right to walk naked into the grocery store, but I am brave enough to call into question the legitimacy of the social fear of, and reaction to, nudity.” I’m still not brave enough to go into the grocery store without clothes. I’m not even brave enough to venture into a nudist colony to explore nudists’ thoughts on nudity; I want them to come to me, in the comfort of a living room or a bar. That’s a pretty lousy attitude; I don’t want to feel uncomfortable…I’d like you to feel uncomfortable for me. Well, if there’s any courage in the room at the moment, it’s in admitting one’s flaws. Yeah, searching for something to redeem myself; not finding it.

Is this post about modesty or it is about nudity? Or is it about something else? I can’t seem to figure it out. It began as a treatise on modesty. It is ending as a treatise on confusion and shame. Not exactly the most spectacular way to start the day, but it will have to do.


About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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