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.
Community standards of modesty are applied to children immediately that they are born. One of the first thing that takes place after a baby is born is that he or she is dressed. This is not merely to keep the baby warm. The application of the standards of modesty at an early age is most noticeable on a public beach when baby girls, even before they can walk, are dressed in two-piece bikinis.
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 States, 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.
On the other hand, even in an emergency situation some people still insist on maintaining their standards of modesty.
Standards of modesty usually discourage the non-essential exposure of the human 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 clothes (such as on a beach), the closing or locking of the door when changing or taking a shower, etc..
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 -
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. So that wearing a bathing suit at the beach would not be considered immodest, while it would be in a street or an office. One's occupation is another consideration, so that the standards that would be expected of, say, a dancer while performing would not be as "strict" as those that would be expected of, say, a school teacher. Some people even argue that a school teacher should not perform as a dancer even outside of the school context. This is usually termed "bringing the profession into disrepute", but is based on notions of modesty and "proper" behavior.
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.
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. To further that objective, many groups advocate and encourage women to be more assertive than they had been in the past and to be proud of their intellectual and physical abilities and potential. The main aspect of modesty still not being criticized is that of exposure of the human body or sexuality, especially in public.
The specific practices of modesty vary widely between religions, cultures, occasions, and the persons who are present. Some such specific standards are examined below.
In general, Western culture expects intimate body parts 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 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.
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."
Religion has always had a strong influence on peoples' attitudes to issues of modesty.
Modesty has and continues to be considered important in Islamic society, but the interpretation of what dress constitutes modesty varies. Many Muslim women wear a headscarf (hijab) as a sign of modesty. In more conservative societies, women are required to cover everything with the exception of hands and face. A woman who choses to also cover her face and hands is said to be expressing greater "modesty and holiness". In some Islamic societies, women wear the niqab, an all-encompassing garment intended to conceal every part of the body, sometimes including the eyes. Wearing a niqab (sometimes referred to as a burqa, although this term only technically applies to an Afghan all-in-one garment) is common in some countries with a majority Muslim population.
Likewise, according to some Islamic interpretations of Hadith, men are required to cover everything from 'navel to knee'; with some men choosing to extend this to the traditional Islamic head covering taqiyah (cap), the male counterpart to hijab which closely resembles the Jewish yarmulke 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.
A burqini is a swimsuit designed for Muslim women that covers the whole body except the face, the hands and the feet, that enables them to satisfy the requirements of Muslim standards of modesty while enabling them to take part in swimming activities.
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.
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.
Many other Trinitarian Christians also consider modesty extremely important, though considerable differences of opinion exist about its requirements and purposes.
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.
The Church also requires students of Brigham Young University, 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
In some works of art, the depiction of nudity is reduced, in the interest of modesty, by the use of:
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.