Art by Justine Szeto
I don’t think I would have liked Wendy Shalit in college; and from what the recent graduate of Williams lets fall in A Return to Modesty — her ambitious, sprawling, argumentative and, yes, immodest proposal to restore romance, Eros and long-term love to her contemporaries’ sadly neglected hope chests — I wouldn’t have been alone. Shalit seems to have spent her student years raising hackles. Suffering in silence is not her — or her family’s — style. She was the only fourth-grader in her Wisconsin public school to spend all of her sex-education periods doing research in the school library — at her mother’s insistence. As a college freshman, offended by having to share a dormitory bathroom with men, Shalit took her complaint public, and sold an article on the distasteful trend in unisex facilities to the neoconservative Commentary. (It was subsequently reprinted in the ancien-conservative Reader’s Digest.) I’m not sure which I would have resented more, the ammunition she was providing to people with cretinous social policies or her success in getting published nationally while still in her teens.
Luckily, however, there was never any likelihood of my sharing Shalit’s dorm: A full generation separates us. And approaching her now, with a middle-aged suspicion of partisan labels and a daughter college-bound, I find that I like Wendy Shalit very much, both as a writer and, even more, as a fierce defender of young women’s right to establish boundaries of their own. If she has a debate-team member’s tendency to construct sweeping cultural trends out of slender fashion-magazine headlines, she is also an omnivorous reader. (Shulamith Firestone, the early 1970s feminist, sits next to Gustave Flaubert in the book’s bibliography, which also cites 17th-century etiquette books and contemporary academic journals.) And she’s willing to make fun of herself. “My father,” the preface begins, “is an economist of the Chicago-school variety, so my earliest memories concern Coase’s theorem, Stigler’s laws, and the importance of buying and selling rights to pollute.”
But what, you may be wondering, is this modesty Shalit’s fighting for? The word, as she points out, has two meanings. One might be described as the general quality of not attracting attention. A modest house blends in with its neighbors; a modest estimate of one’s talents involves a reluctance to single oneself out for praise. The second, and more usual, meaning refers to the behaviors that reflect this clouded stance: behaviors that are attention-deflecting, guarded, circumspect. Behaviors that are most often called into play around the opposite sex.
Using her own adolescence and the experiences of classmates as a jumping-off point, Shalit zigzags through history, philosophy and religion, tracing the various prescriptions for dress and behavior that women have been moved to adopt in public. The specifics vary wildly from group ä to group and age to age. European fashions for women in the mid-18th century called for what seems today like a surprising degree of décolletage. Propriety, however, dictated that the cleavage-revealing depths be masked by a detachable half-moon of frills known as a modesty piece. Devout Muslim women in contemporary Cairo satisfy the dueling dictates of exercise and religion by wearing extra-long T-shirts over their jogging suits.
What comes clear in Shalit’s analysis is that if modesty strikes us as old-fashioned, even medieval, it is because it is a largely territorial concept. Modesty is a strategy for establishing sexual boundaries, one that is derived from the belief that the party who is slower to be aroused or who — because of inexperience, say, or vulnerability to pregnancy — feels at risk from the encounter needs a defended space from which to decide whether or not to drop her guard. Traditionally it has been women who have been thought to need this bulwark. And when, as during the sexual revolution, women have seen modesty’s protection as something imposed upon them by society, it has seemed as imprisoning as Rapunzel’s tower. But might there not, Shalit wonders, be reasons for women to choose to establish these sheltering boundaries for themselves?
The most persuasive and provocative reason she discovers is eroticism. If it is true, as poet Anne Carson claims in her brilliant literary and cultural analysis, Eros the Bittersweet (Princeton, 1986), that “a space must be maintained or desire ends,” then modesty is Cupid’s faithful bodyguard, and those ruffled bodice inserts 18th-century women wore were meant as much to arouse the imagination as to keep off prying eyes. Similarly, the Orthodox women Shalit cites who observe Jewish family law by remaining apart from their husbands for a prescribed period each month insist that the procedure helps keep attraction alive.
Inherent in the historical idea of modesty is not only the idea of a protective wall around women, but instructions, made clear to both genders, on exactly how the wall may be breached. A boundary, indeed, may be the fundamental unit of civilization. Owing its existence to an agreement between two parties, its crossing is attended by elaborate rituals of love, war and — perhaps most important in erotic terms — play. Or, as Shalit puts it, where sexual-harassment codes treat men like dogs (“down, boy, down”) instead of like desirable partners, “modesty invites them to consider what the ideal relation between men and women should be.”
Given a choice between the adolescent culture Shalit grew up in — with its brutalities and self-hatreds and deadened feelings as manifested in anorexia and cutting and binge drinking and date rape — and a deliciously extended courtship full of long sleeves, lowered glances and burgeoning lust, it’s no contest, at least from my female point of view. No behavioral code, however, can exist in isolation, unsupported by a community. Which brings us to Shalit’s most compelling argument: Young people today are not given much of a choice. I’m afraid she’s right.
A true story: I am making my way through Manhattan’s Penn Station on a weekday afternoon, a half-read copy of A Return to Modesty in my shoulder bag, when I encounter a group of teenagers. Ninth- or 10th-graders, I suspect, from the disparity of the boys’ heights and the delicate weediness of the girl who is with them. Although my own daughter is a couple of years older, I see echoes of her friends in the boys’ vintage varsity jackets and rough skull-hugging hair. Just as I pass, one of the tall, clear-skinned boys in the center of the circle pulls back his arm and delivers an astonishingly forceful blow to the girl’s slender, blue-jean-clad — well, what in the name of modesty shall I call it? — backside. The girl’s embarrassment was unmistakable, but she was well-trained in the art of male-female relations, ’90s style. She smothered her yelp, tossed her hair and turned her face blank. If she had been 6, an observer might have muttered “Child abuse!,” might even have summoned a policeman. But as an adolescent among her peers, she no longer merited our protection.
At the heart of Shalit’s defense of modesty is a serious charge, laid specifically at the door of my generation. We have abandoned our teenagers — boys as well as girls. By insisting that there are no differences between genders, we have inadvertently erased boundaries that not only demarcate opposing viewpoints but make it pleasurable to observe and explore them. In teaching that there is nothing in sex to be embarrassed about, we have inadvertently taught them to distrust their own and others’ most sensitive feelings. Embarrassment, Shalit insists, is an entirely appropriate sexual emotion, a vivid, scarlet reminder that the self is indeed valuable and well worth protecting.