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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, both to conform to community standards or to flout them.


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 Statesmarker, 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.

Also, there are occasions when standards of modesty are waived, as in the case of medical examinations.

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

Body modesty

Standards of modesty usually discourage non-essential exposure of the 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 of clothes (such as on a beach), and the closing or locking of the door when changing or taking a shower.

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,
  • people of the same social class,

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. For instance, wearing a bathing suit at the beach would not be considered immodest, while it likely would be in a street or an office.

Some critics refer to this type of modesty as body shame. 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

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. The main aspect of modesty still not being criticized is that of exposure of taboo areas 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 part 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.

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. 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.

The emergence of homosexuality as a mainstream sexual orientation has prompted an increase in modesty in same-sex situations, such as changing rooms.

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.

Islamic modesty

A headscarf

Modesty has been and continues to be considered important in Islamic society, but the interpretation of what dress constitutes modesty varies. One traditional opinion is that Muslim women are required to observe the hijab, covering everything but the hands and face, as a sign of modesty. Some Muslims are of the opinion, that modesty is not restricted to dress but also depends on the intentions of the the individual. In some Muslim societies, women wear the niqab, a veil that covers the whole face except the eyes, or the full burqa, a full-body covering garment that occasionally does cover the eyes. Wearing these garments is common in some countries with a majority Muslim population.

Though in Islam these expressions of modesty are interpreted as mandatory, most countries do not enforce it by law. However, they are enforced in a handful of countries, such as Saudi Arabiamarker, Afghanistan and Iran.

A taqiyah cap
Likewise, men are required to cover everything from 'navel to knee'; with some men choosing to extend this to the traditional Islamic head covering taqiyah , the male counterpart to hijab which closely resembles the Jewish yarmulke or kippah 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.

Jewish modesty

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. 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.

Christian modesty

Catholic Church

Although Catholics are expected to dress modestly, 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. 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. Another example is Giuseppe Cardinal Siri of Genoa, who stated that trousers were unacceptable dress for women. Many tradition-minded Catholics have attempted to further expand on this latter standard.

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

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 Churches

Many other Trinitarian Christians also consider modesty extremely important, though considerable differences of opinion exist about its requirements and purposes.Amish groups and some Mennonite groups are known for their adherence to modest fashion styles.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon)

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has issued official statements on modest dress for its members. Clothing which can stimulate sexual desires, such as "short shorts and skirts, tight clothing, and shirts that do not cover the stomach" are discouraged, as well as extremes in clothing or hairstyles. Rules on modesty also include women being asked to wear no more than one pair of earrings.This is part of the Law of Chastity.

The Church also requires students of Brigham Young Universitymarker, its private university, to sign an agreement to live according to these standards of modesty before being considered for admission. Such standards must also be accepted by tenants of BYU housing regardless of the tenants' enrollment status with BYU

Modesty in the arts

In some works of art, the depiction of nudity is reduced, in the interest of modesty, by the use of:
  • fig leaves
  • a piece of cloth (or something else) seemingly by chance covering the genitals
  • with regard to nudity in film, filming a supposedly nude person from the waist up (or from the shoulders up, for women)
  • in a movie, maneuvering (turning, having objects in front) and film editing in such a way that no genitals are seen
  • showing nudity from a distance
  • in a movie, showing nudity only briefly

In cartoons, even in cases where the genital area is not covered with clothing, genitals are often simply not drawn. In the film Barnyard, showing anthropomorphized cattle of both sexes walking on two legs, instead of either showing genitals of male cattle or not showing them, the concept of a "male cow" was used, with an udder. In Underdog a partly animated anthropomorphized dog is shown with penis when a real dog is filmed, and without penis in the animated parts.

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. The Laws of Jewish Modesty
  7. See, e.g., The Catechism of the Catholic Church Para. 2521-2524.
  8. See all the following citations, which all expound at least partly upon such guidelines.
  9. Modesty and beauty - the lost connection by Regina Schmiedicke
  10. Notification Concerning Men's Dress Worn by Women by Giuseppe Cardinal Siri (1960)
  11. 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)
  12. The Modesty Handbook (describing the nature of modesty from a Catholic perspective, based on St. Thomas Aquinas and the Church Fathers).
  13. See, e.g., Those Who Serve God Should Not Follow the Fashions by Robert T. Hart (2004).
  14. See, e.g., Modesty: The Undressing of Our Youth, by Lenora Hammond.
  15. The Modesty Survey: An anonymous discussion among Christians concerning various aspects of modesty.
  16. Mormon modesty guidelines
  17. Id.
  18. The Brigham Young University Honor Code, which includes "Dress and Grooming Standards," agreement to which is required for application.

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