Pagans and the Modesty Issue

When I was a child, my parents taught me to respect my body. They explained the changes that my body was going to go through at an appropriate age. They also explained sex and contraception, and told me that they would always be there to help me if I needed them. Most importantly, they told me that if I ever had any questions, no matter how embarrassing, to come to them to ask: they would tell me the truth.

My parents were both teachers and understood the importance of teaching me how to respect my body. Were they trying to encourage me to have sex? Definitely not! In the midst of all of this, they lectured me on the morals and ethics and possible repercussions of a sexual relationship. They gave me a very balanced view of my own body. And while they were at it, my father gave me some good rules for being aware of situations, so that I wouldn’t easily walk into bad ones. This was all wrapped up with a dollop of good common sense.

The term “modest” was never brought into any of it. And remember, I was brought up in a Christian household.

I associate the word “modest” with monotheistic religious values. I know that this is not the only meaning or context of the word, but usually when I hear about women dressing “modestly”, it’s in a religious context rather than anything having to do with age appropriateness or basic common sense. When I hear about women needing to dress “modestly” all my hang-ups about the patriarchal society that we still live in come to the surface. I think of all the Right Wing conservatives who keep hacking away at women’s rights and seem to want to take us back to the Dark Ages.

“Modest” is also not a word that I associate with Paganism.

And yet…this word seems to be cropping up a lot these days in Pagan forums. It started with the issue of women veiling. OK, I may not agree with that, but if your patron/ess is telling you to veil, you veil. It is also the decision that you, as an adult, have made for yourself. I can get behind veiling for religious purposes. There are Pagan groups out there who veil (or robe, or hood)..but not for being “modest”. I see modesty as a way that patriarchal society controls women and tries to control how they regard their bodies. But of course, I’ve already made my thoughts on this subject known. (Read Star Foster’s blog Veiling: A Different Take On Pagan Womanhood for more on Pagan women veiling).

But I’ve also seen the discussion start to branch out elsewhere in the community.

The PaganDad wrote a blog called “Control Yourself”. I go to a lot of festivals, all of which are “family friendly”. And I even think it’s one of the best part of festival to get to see all these little kids running around together and having a good time. The pirates have marshmallow fights with the fairy kids every year. But sex and ecstatic behavior are also a part of a lot of people’s worship/practice in the Pagan community and festivals are places where we Pagans go to let some of these behaviors out. It sounds like, in his situation, that particular festival was probably badly handled, but unfortunately, a lot of Paganism is just not really child friendly. If you take your children to Pagan events, you have to realize that there is the possibility that they are going to be confronted with very adult situations, and I’m not just talking about sex. A lot of what we do in Paganism is very adult subject matter that children just aren’t going to be able to easily understand. There is a reason that most groups won’t accept children.

Another flurry has been going on over the recent blog by Friendly Atheist blogger Amanda on “The Ugly Side of Modesty”. This blog voices her objections to SecretKeeperGirl.com, a Christian website that is trying to teach girls tricks to make sure they’re dressed “modestly” in some really creepy ways. Amanda says: To be clear, this has nothing to do with peer pressure, purity, or an individual’s empowerment: This is about control. There is no sane reason that an eight-year-old should be worrying about whether or not their potential future cleavage is showing when trying on clothing. Advocating this kind of insanity only creates paranoia and concern over the nebulous, constantly changing, unseen forces that dictate “modesty.” And I think this sums the issue up pretty nicely. When you start talking about modesty in these contexts, its all about control and nothing else. So what’s my upset here? The conversation comes to me via the blog Confessions of a Pagan Soccer Mom and her response called “Modesty, a “laughable non-problem” for Pagans?” .

Pagan Soccer Mom makes a very good point that little girls shouldn’t be dressing like adults. We can probably all agree that there is a level of age appropriateness that should occur. I was extremely disturbed by some of the comments that showed up after she posted the blog, like:

We teach our 8 yr old who acts 30 that it is important to show that she deserves respect in how she dresses. We don’t allow belly shirts or shorts that are too short. She hates showing her belly but will walk around the house without any guilt and we have to remind her that daddy doesn’t need to see her body.When she forgets a towel or other piece of clothing.[Sic]“

There’s something about the line that “daddy doesn’t need to see her body” that somehow, just really creeps me out. Is the child’s father a pedophile that she needs to protect her child from? This line is oddly reminiscent of the language in the SecretKeeperGirl ads.

One woman made a very valid point, she said:

I don’t see much of a correlation between modesty and self respect. But that’s just me and those are both dependent on an individuals definition of morality, current social construct, culture, etc. Maybe if humans weren’t consistently being raised to see the human body as a purely sexual object it wouldn’t be an issue? *shrug* my personal opinion is that the modesty=self respect issue just continues to support the “she was asking for it by the way she was dressed” aspect.

Pagan Soccer Mom’s response was:

I don’t think anyone here is saying that an 8 year old girl is “asking for it” when her parents dress her up in something that isn’t age appropriate.

But I think that she’s deliberately missing the point here. When we teach girls to be “modest” in these contexts, we are teaching them that other people can’t control themselves in reaction to their bodies. We are, in effect, creating victims. Why aren’t boys being taught to be “modest” as well? Why are we still encouraging young girls to become victims of society’s double standards? Self respect is acknowledging yourself and all of your own decisions to create a healthy, confident lifestyle. The young Pagan girls that I’ve met, those raised at clothing optional festivals, have had some of the healthiest understanding of and respect for their bodies of any young adults that I’ve encountered. Why are we letting this monotheistic ideal seep into our community?

I think that the Charge of the Goddess sums all of this up pretty succinctly. “And ye shall be free from slavery; and as a sign that ye are truly free, ye shall be naked in your rites; and ye shall dance, sing, feast, make music and love, all in my praise. For mine is the ecstasy of the spirit and mine also is joy on earth; for my Law is Love unto all Beings…Let my worship be within the heart that rejoiceth, for behold: all acts of love and pleasure are my rituals.” I don’t see “modesty” having anything to do with this at all. We need to raise our daughters to be empowered, responsible and self aware, not “modest”.

18 thoughts on “Pagans and the Modesty Issue

  1. Anna Greenflame says:

    I agree with you to a large extent. If modesty is an equal-opportunity thing, then why aren’t little boys encouraged to more “modest” – whatever that would be? I do think much of this sounds like what you’d hear in other cultures – let’s make women dress modestly because really, the men cannot be trusted to behave respectfully.

    On the other hand, I think something very different is going on with the women who want to veil and dress in a more covered way — I am deliberately not using the term “modest” here. As a Witch, I am disappointed that few Pagan women, including the ones who are doing it, seem to be evaluating this trend in terms of energy, the human energy field, and what veiling and/or increased covering is doing *functionally.*

    I’ve spent some time in the past few years in historical dress, with a veil and/or long dresses, while doing some work at a local historical site. And how I felt energetically was quite different than I do normally, which was unexpected and interesting. I felt much more contained and together. I realized that the veiling and increased covering provided a real energetic shield, and different than jewelry or the good ol “bubble of white light” or whatever. In a world where we are in contact with each other all the time via FB and Twitter, and a growing population, and with increased physical contact that many women are having with their children for an extended period of time — I think it feels good to many of us to have more covering – not that I do this in my daily life. I notice that some traditional/tribal religious traditions utilize head coverings for various reasons.

    I think that many of the Pagan women who are veiling and covering are getting energetic benefits out of it that have nothing to do with the dominant culture’s standards for “modesty,” and it bothers me that we are framing this in terms of “modesty” instead of energy.

    • The energetic effects are exactly how we got into head covering. My wife is in an online group of Pagan women who choose to cover, and I am under the impression that energy was one of the main draws for most of them. That’s also why hooded robes are such a common magical accessory.

      Intent is important. It is not men telling the Pagan women to cover, but their deities or other guides.

      Modesty was a classical Pagan virtue, but there it meant appropriateness, not calling undue attention to oneself in general.

      Modern Paganism needs to be inclusive, so this needs to be a non-issue, separate from the dialog about sex and patriarchy.

  2. Triskele says:

    I am so glad that I have boys and not girls. I honestly don’t know how I would handle it, but I do have to say, we are a naked family, and we will always be a naked family. We all hate clothes, we all strip down into our undies and hang out. Maybe that’s weird for people but its how we do things. Don’t get me wrong i’m not nude in front of my boys, but I do have what I call a mini moo-moo (like a moo-moo but not all crazy old lady, its cotton and comes down to my knees) that I wear it is not modest but not revealing, it covers all the important parts, but i’m free in it. The boys all wear basket ball shorts for undies so when they strip down its covered as well. We are by no means a modest family, but we do follow certain society rules. I paint nude women, I love the feminine form its beautiful, and I paint right there while my son plays, he sees what I am doing, its not taboo, its not sexual, its beautiful. He sees how much work I put into each one, and I think that this teaches him respect. I have tried to send these to my sister in the as gifts, tasteful nude paintings of no one in particular, she has returned them stating that her husband and son are not allowed to see other women’s boobs. I was shocked! At least tuck it away, don’t return it. When men are taught that its taboo then they think it is. It will be interesting to see who is overly sexual in their teens. Time will tell. Interesting blog, I enjoyed reading it.

  3. Mambo Racine Sans Bout says:

    ONLY IN AMERICA! In plenty of places around the world, children go naked or nearly so until puberty, men do farmwork naked, women sit naked in the river and wash clothes. It’s no big deal.

  4. Kris Bradley says:

    First a reply to the comment about how little boys aren’t being told to be more modest: because clothing made for little boys aren’t generally created to make them look sexual beyond their years.

    As for my deliberately”not getting it” on the point that dressing our girls in an age-appropriate way is telling them that “teaching them that other people can’t control themselves in reaction to their bodies”, I think we do that every day. We teach them to not walk down dark alleys. Not to leave their drinks unattended. To walk in groups. All these are, at least to me, part and parcel (along with wearing age-appropriate clothing) ways to help keep them safe. There are bad people out there that will do bad things and we have to do things to help keep ourselves safe.

    I’m not talking about a bit of skin showing below a t-shirt. It’s about clothing that is intentionally made to make little girls look older and sexualized before they are ready to take on the role of a sexual being. Let little girls be kids for a while.

  5. Sunfell says:

    I have mixed feelings about modesty- some cultural, and some personal. I broomed monotheistic religion to the curb 32 years ago- mostly because of its horrible treatment of women. But that did not spare me my own horrible treatment both before and after ditching it. I learned at a very early age that certain people did not appear to have boundaries where bodily respect was concerned. My unique appearance attracted a lot of unwanted attention. I hated going out in public. I had to deal with intrusive eyes, words, and hands, and sometimes worse.

    I had to go skyclad as part of my training and ritual in BTW. I was initiated in the proper manner, and worked that way, too. It was OK, but I was never entirely comfortable with it, especially after I learned from actual British Witches that ‘Old Gerry’ was a nudist (and a bit of a perv!), and that skyclad wasn’t traditionally practiced in chilly Northern Europe and Great Britian. I also learned that it was better to keep myself to myself, because sadly, Paganism tends to attract some males who think all the nakedness and sex-positivity means the women are easy. Unfortunate encounters with such men made me cease going to gatherings entirely.

    Robing and veiling were attractive alternatives, but I quickly realized that such practices were equally stifling and had their own limitations. I hate hats and headgear. I hate draggy sleeves. And I really hate garments one cannot run or drive in. Out went the robes, capes, and veils. They might be fun for RenFairs and SCA gatherings, but in this century, they’re anachronistic, and attract attention.

    And attention is the last thing I want. I’ve had more than a few harrowing encounters and incidents in my life involving my appearance, my gender, my youth, and sometimes my dress- and I chose to take matters into my own hands. I wear plain, normal, and yes- relatively modest clothing. Clothing I can run or fight in if needed. Clothing that does not stand out or draw attention (no skirts, heels, dresses, or bared body parts). For me, it’s the condition of the mind that is most important to proper and valuable practice, not what I am wearing. So, I can practice in jeans and a t-shirt. And I’ve also become adept at Veiling myself in a different way- a form of active invisibility that keeps me out of sight most of the time. (Naya can testify to it- I walked in front of her TWICE in a shop, and she didn’t even see me.)

    “All acts of love and pleasure are my rituals…” For me, pleasure is in being comfortable, which means being clothed.

  6. I just posted a reply blog to another woman who responded to “Control Yourself”. She, however went the route of modesty=body shaming. I think that children, MALE AND FEMALE, should be taught to let their bodies be outshone by their personalities. I won’t let my son walk around with a button down shirt kept unbuttoned to show off his “six pack” anymore than I would let my daughter walk around in a mini skirt and midriff shirt to show off her legs or stomach.

    As for the comment about “daddy doesn’t need to see it”, though I agree that there is a certain level of trust that should exist in a family, and I live in a nudist household, you cannot deny the fact that over 30% of sexual assaults occur at the hands of someone the child KNOWS, be it friend or family member. Sometimes, excluding nudity in front of ALL men is easier than making exceptions and lists for the child to remember.

  7. Aubs Tea says:

    I’m honestly not sure where I sit on this issue. I have a four-year-old son. When I take a shower, he sometimes comes into the bathroom when I am finished and he has seen me in all manner of undress because of this. Sometimes, I find myself discomfited by it. It is not because I do not want to to know or respect others’ bodies, but because I, as a victim of sexual assaults, find my body shameful and sinful. I try, however, not to teach my son this particular aspect to my subconscious and I think I am doing well.

    When my son runs around the house naked, who cares? I don’t care if he is naked. His father doesn’t care if he is naked. If we are at his grandparents’ house and having a family shindig and he goes running around naked, no one cares. The human body was created the way it was – there is no changing that. But changing out perceptions of the human body, as sinful or shameful or sexual, is something that we can do.

    Am I doing it right in how I raise my son? I don’t know. I only hope that I’m not bringing him up to have the same hangups I do.

  8. thalassa says:

    I don’t think that teaching a child (male OR female) modesty in clothing–at any age–is synonymous with teaching them “teaching them that other people can’t control themselves in reaction to their bodies””, unless the parent makes it about being ashamed of their body because other people can’t control themselves in reaction to their bodies. And guess what…while there are some people that can’t control themselves in reaction to their bodies (or any body that fits their interest)–that is no reason for shame on part of a child (or an adult) that is victimized, abused or objectified, but rather the problem of the person that has something fundamentally wrong with their ability to control themselves.

    BUT…society still has expectations and society passes judgement. And before I let my child run amok and break the “rules” by which they will be expected to follow and be judged on how well they manage to do so, they are expected to know what they are in the first place, *how* to follow and the ramifications for when they do not. Whether or not those expectations are right/fair/just isn’t the issue–raising well-informed children capable of making the decisions that work for *them* is the issue. Teaching an 8 year old that they CAN wear whatever they want is only realistic if you also teach them that IF they do, they will be continuously judged for as long as they do so in a way that they are not capable of understanding yet.

    And realistically, if Pagan communities don’t want to go the way of the Shakers, they should be a bit more pragmatic about being family-friendly. TBH, a number of groups and festivals in my area have already figured at least that part of the equation out, and its mostly a non-issue. Adult-only camps are walled off from public view, main festival areas follow the “bikini-rule” and adult-only activities and rituals are advertised so that everyone is aware of when/where there will be. Children’s areas and family-friendly camps are also included…so that everyone can, with a little self-control and a little accommodation and compromise, can have a good time. I’m not sure why this is even such a big deal…

  9. Jane says:

    I think a lot of this has to do with ye old double standard of ‘Be yourself, don’t care what others think about you… but DO care about what others think of you”. Women do seem to get hit the worst – if you show too much skin, or the wrong areas of skin, in public, you’re advertising yourself, but if you cover up too much you’re a frump, prude or old-fashioned. Or you must be trying to hide some hideous deformity. No one, male, female or otherwise, child or adult, should be made to feel ashamed to have a body. Everyone has a body, and that’s how we get around.

    In a world where our bodies are pretty much the only things we truly own, and have control over, we lose sight of the fact that we *do* own our bodies, and we can dress them up or down as we please. We need to start fighting ordinances that ban various types of dress/undress, fight media that encourages sexualization of children and body-shaming that encourages risking health & well-being of the target markets. We need to stop voting and paying for movements that make it ok for other people to have more ownership of our bodies than ourselves.

    In other words, if you don’t care for the way I dress or how I modify my body, look away, walk away or ignore me. This is *my* body, *my* home, and that’s all I need to know.

  10. RevAllyson says:

    We have six year old boy-girl twins. They’ve been taught that clothing is for keeping you warm, for dressing up (ie putting on a suit or dress for picture day or a wedding), and for social purposes. In other words, they can run naked around the house (barely a day goes by without “naked baby!” being screamed as they run from the bathroom to the bedroom to get changed lol). But we do specify there are some “modest” habits (though we call them social lubricant) that are necessary. Cover private areas when in public. No penises or nipples or butts allowed. That goes for the boy too, by the by, except at the beach where he can go shirtless because it’s socially acceptable. What they do at home is up to them, but dinner time is “formal” in that clothing must be worn (bottoms and tops). *shrug*

  11. Neferet says:

    Oh wow… that really is a lot to think about!
    I don’t show a lot of skin, but I really don’t like my body. I am a former model and I suppose I am expected to like how I look, but I have little imperfections that I don’t want to expose. But don’t we all? “Modesty” isn’t really the reason why I don’t like wearing barely-there shorts.
    I don’t even know how to properly put this in words, because you’ve hit all the major points so well! Practicing skyclad isn’t sexual at all; in fact, it is almost acknowledging that we were born bare and should not be ashamed of how we are made. Why worry about modesty when the act isn’t suggestive?
    When I started my freshman year of high school, I received a crapload of sexual harassment. I wasn’t walking around showing a lot of skin, and I certainly was not dressing in a way to attract all the attention I got. Still, regardless of how I was treated, I did not let myself be controlled by the harassment. And saying that the boys “can’t control themselves in reaction to my body” would just be wrong. They were obviously not taught respect.
    As for boys not being taught to be modest… well, they generally don’t wear miniskirts and cleavage-exposing shirts (unless they are like Jeffree Star).
    I guess I’m not sure where I am on this issue. I’ll certainly sit down and consider all of your points!
    Blessings!

  12. [...] Pagans and the Modesty Issue and Gender Respect in the Pagan Community (same author) [...]

  13. “our bodies are pretty much the only things we truly own, and have control over” Not really. Try being sick and using cannabis in a state with no Medical Marijuana Law. Or do anything that the mainstream, perhaps even you, disapprove of, and you will be looking at prison time, while no one makes a sound.
    The original poster is right, I believe, it is all in The Charge.

  14. [...] night I was reading through old posts. I had gotten a new comment on my blog “Pagans and the Modesty Issue“. Between that and my blog “Gender Respect in the Pagan Community“, there was a [...]

  15. Delphina says:

    I am a rather odd Gnostic Christian shamanic practitioner and ‘sea witch’ for lack of a better term. I live in a house built in 1891, that is rather historically accurate, about 20 or 30 minutes from Amish Country. I also perform on special events as Snow White, Belle, and Rapunzel from “Tangled” at request for birthday parties and have a love for fairy tales and sweet enchantment in general. Add that to the Victorian, Edwardian, prairie-pioneer-colonial garb i frequently wear, and my own preference for ‘magical’ clothing styles, and it turns out i am rather…odd. I am probably “modest” by most mainstream standards, but it isn’t something i really plan out, or a rule i adhere to. I simply feel more REAL when am dressed like Giselle from Enchanted or Arwen from LOTR. It feels RIGHT.

  16. [...] few months ago I wrote two blogs (Pagans and the Modesty Issue and Gender Respect in the Pagan Community) about modesty and how I think it doesn’t belong in [...]

  17. […] Here is an excellent blog article on the subject.  I wholeheartedly agree with the last paragraph: Blue Star Owl […]

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