What does “modesty” mean?

a woman posing in underwater, loose brush acrylic painting
  1. the quality or state of being unassuming in the estimation of one’s abilities.
  2. the quality of being relatively moderate, limited, or small in amount, rate, or level

What does modesty mean in relation to people, specifically femme people (mainly women and girls)?

  1. Appearing less (capable, smart, athletic, beautiful etc.) than you really are, to maintain the age-old gender hierarchy with men in positions of power
  2. Not being ‘too much’. Where women are expected to provide services of sex and care to men, being ‘too much’ can mean expecting equal care in return.

When I was young, I spent so much time trying to be right.

I tried so hard to damp myself down, to make myself smaller, to not talk so much or put my opinions so forcefully.


I was too emotional, too angry, too shrill, too opinionated, too loud, too talkative, too pushy, too dramatic, too … Well, pick your characteristic, I was too much of it.

What this felt like was that I was just intrinsically, inescapably wrong. I did not fit in. I made hundreds of resolutions to stay quiet, to be demure and modest, to defer. 


Eventually, in desperation after years of therapy, it hit me that there was simply no right way to be a woman.

Jane Caro

Modesty is one of the virtues conservatives prefer in women, alongside domesticity, obedience and emotional warmth.


Modesty culture is a conservative subculture in which girls and women are held responsible for the sexual gaze of boys and men. This attitude is based on the flawed premise that boys and men are “visual creatures” (sexually aroused by looking at women and girls), and that girls and women are not “visual creatures”.

Conservatives tell their young people that respect is a two-way street, which on the surface looks fair and sensible. The ‘two-way street’: Girls dress modestly, and boys respect that.

This is not a two-way street in the slightest. Nothing more than the bare minimum (basic respect) is being asked of boys, unless you start with the mistaken belief that boys and men are are naturally wild, and that the veneer of civility extended to women and girls is already asking a lot.

Instead, the unintended consequence of modesty culture is this: Boys learn that girls who don’t dress modestly are not deserving of basic respect.

Another consequence — though fully intended in a patriarchy: girls and women must prioritise the thoughts, emotions and opinions of men before their own.

A Florida school is under fire this week for altering at least 80 female students’ yearbook photos to appear more ‘modest’. Hints of cleavage were blurred or erased, and shirts were poorly-photoshopped to cover more skin. A Bartram Trail High School representative told The New York Times that the girls’ pictures would have normally been omitted from the yearbook altogether for violating their dress code, and the alterations were “a solution to make sure all students were included.” How magnanimous!

Tellingly, a picture of the boys swim team in Speedos went untouched.

Jessica Valenti

Dress codes assume that it’s male students whose learning needs to be protected – and adult males who need protection from themselves. What girls need doesn’t rate consideration.

Jessica Valenti