Modesty: the protector of intimacy

It would seem that Modest(y) is (the) Hottest topic these days.

I have read some very thought-provoking articles on modesty in the past weeks: what it is, what it isn’t. I’ve read about whether it’s wrong for women to wear bikinis, about how much women are responsible for their dress as opposed to men being responsible for their lust, about how love should be the controlling principle in how we dress.

Against this backdrop, I have another thought on the topic of modesty to add to the discussion: that modesty is integrally related to intimacy. Modesty is, I believe, a protector of intimacy.

Intimacy involves “a close association with or detailed knowledge of” a person, subject or place. It includes the idea of privacy – something shielded from the ‘public’. Intimacy involves being close, familiar, sharing affectionately in a loving personal relationship. As such, intimacy is a word used for the closest of relationships: emotional intimacy, sexual intimacy, “let me not to the marriage of true minds” intimacy.

Couple-Holding-Hands1

I would suggest then that modesty is a word we can use to describe behavior which protects intimacy. If intimacy is about being known and revealing ourselves, then modesty is that behavior which shields the private, which keeps the intimate “covered”.

Physical intimacy involves seeing and touching one another’s bodies. It is private. The bible uses the word “knowing” as a verb to describe sexual intimacy. Modesty protects intimacy by keeping our bodies “unknown” and saving that knowledge for a privileged relationship.

Emotional intimacy involves knowing one another’s deepest thoughts and feelings. We use similar language to describe these relationships: we BARE our souls. We REVEAL our secrets. We EXPOSE ourselves. We UNCOVER truth. The process of building emotional intimacy involves letting down our guard and “letting someone in”.

There is a  corollary to this modesty-intimacy connection: that being that if we have “shown it all”, it is much harder to build true intimacy. If everyone knows my secret, then there is nothing truly special and “bonding” about me telling it to you. However, if there are things about me which no-one-but-you know, then you and I both know that that privileged and private information has forged intimacy between us.

Similarly, if everyone has seen Joe Bloggs naked because he is a well-renowned local streaker, then for Joe Bloggs to reveal himself to me would not build intimacy between us. However, the knowledge that I am the only person who has seen my husband in all his glory does add to the preciousness of intimacy.

I believe  modesty involves choosing behaviors which form a boundary to protect intimacy. The word modesty has fallen on hard and controversial times. Not many want “modesty”. But intimacy is something we all want: we want to be closely bonded, to know and be known. Not by everyone, but by a select loved and trusted few.

The way I see it is this: modesty is more than a clothing choice. Modesty involves choosing to protect what we reveal of our body, mind and soul; and by choosing modesty, we create a protected space for the true joys of  intimacy. 

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15 thoughts on “Modesty: the protector of intimacy

  1. Great connection between modesty and intimacy, Bronwyn. It goes to show that modest behavior is more than a decision about how much skin to show in a given situation, but also about how we behave in general.

  2. Really good points. What do you think about men (and possibly women, but I haven’t met any yet who feel this way) who feel, *ahem*, more intimately-inclined toward their significant others when the significant other wears revealing clothing? I have lots of thoughts on modesty. I won’t bore you with them, but I do have them! Maybe a future blog post. Anyway, I think the “men need to control their lust” awesome is awesome, but the reality is, we’re in a fallen world, and lust isn’t going away anytime soon. So, better get out your too-big cardigan!

  3. I love this post. Especially your thoughts about emotional modesty–so important. Thanks Bronwyn!

  4. hi bronwyn, found your very well written and thoughtful blog from a link posted by shannon smith on fb.

    one question that comes to mind immediately after reading here is:

    what about traditional societies that don’t wear a lot of clothing? does the fact that they see a lot more of each other’s bodies on a daily basis mean that they have less intimacy in their relationships?

    • Hi Noah, great question. I wondered whether I wrote them post whether to address cultural modesty norms, but it seemed beyond the scope of the post.

      My short answer: no. I think what is regarded as “private” definitely varies from culture to culture.

      My longer and illustrated reply: I think what is considered “modest” varies from culture to culture, because what is considered “private” differs from culture to culture. I think the modesty-intimacy connection is very visible if you look at other cultural examples.

      For instance, In much of Africa, breast feeding is as public an activity as any other behavior where you feed your children, so there is no “modesty” issue there with pulling up your shirt when your baby is hungry, even in a crowd… On the flip side, there are things which are regarded as intimate in other cultures which would not be seen so here. For example: I went to seminary in South Africa, and one day our principal asked to meet with the handful of girls at the school. He very kindly and gently asked us to please refrain from wearing shorts to class, as there were a number of older African pastors at the seminary for whom knees were incredibly private things. Apparently seeing our knees seemed as startlingly out of place to them as if someone was walking around bare-chested in the USA. Before meeting us, the only other women whose knees they had EVER seen before was their wives’ and very young daughters’. So apparently, we needed to be more modest about our knees with these older men.
      Also at that same college, I had a good black friend whose head happened to be shaved. We were good friends and sometimes as we were walking back from coffee he would hold my hand while we talked. The third or fourth time that happened I asked him what was going on: hand holding was to me a clearly physical boundary and a bid for “intimacy”. He was so surprised: to him it was a gesture of friendship and not at all romantic. But while we were on the subject, he said, could he ask me not to touch or tousle his shaved head? Apparently touching ones head was a very intimate thing to him too, and I had shown a lack of physical modesty by shining his noggin.

      Thanks for the chance to unpack this idea further!

  5. “He very kindly and gently asked us to please refrain from wearing shorts to class, as there were a number of older African pastors at the seminary for whom knees were incredibly private things. Apparently seeing our knees seemed as startlingly out of place to them as if someone was walking around bare-chested in the USA. ”

    On the flip side, it seems it would be equally as appropriate to show a little grace to others who might be showing more skin than we think appropriate, given that they may have different standards than our own. That’s the thing that never seems to get mentioned when we talk about modesty, at least in my circle of acquaintances.

  6. Is physical modesty really that important? To make a direct correlation between physical and emotional modesty and intimacy seems to give physical attributes undue power in shaping one’s identity and interactions with others.

    “Intimacy”, “Relationship” and “Consent” have very physical connotations that while important are rarely implied to the more platonic aspects of our lives.

    • Interesting question, Gina. I daresay many would say emotional modesty is not that important either. My intention was not to give undue attention to the “what we wear” aspect of physicality, but rather to explore the idea of WHY we cover/reveal, and how that works in relationships.

      I have a further thesis (maybe for a future blog post), that perhaps men are more likely to construe physical “revealing” as a bid for relationship/intimacy (I.e. a girl who catches their eye, a girl who brushes up against them when they walk past), where as women are more likely to consider emotional “revealing” as a bid for relationship/intimacy (he is interested in ME, he asked how I feel, he told me how he feels etc.)

      I don’t mean to do injustice to the differences between the sexes, these were just my musings after years of college ministry where the men developed unrequited romantic interests and complained “she keeps flirting with me – but she doesn’t want to date me!” And the girls developed unrequited romantic interests (often for the youth or worship leader who seemed so “in touch with his feelings”). their complaint seemed to be “he talks to me about really personal stuff, but he doesn’t want to date me!” I’ve been musing about how men and women perceive bids for relationship differently…. And this was where it led.

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