Modesty. The bowed head. The quiet sheep. The careful light. The backbone softener. The “Don’t worry about me, I’ll just be over here.” The back seat. The “You go right ahead.” Modesty is a small, simple practice. It’s covered and safe. Modesty, like anything in our world that is careful and kind, is beautiful. But why must we be careful? Why can’t we be proud without the humble, soft edge? And, possibly more importantly, why can’t we be both?
I’m here today to pick a bone with modesty. So, let’s start with the ever-wise and beautiful Maya Angelou. She discussed her dislike for modesty in The Atlantic.
“I don’t know what arrogance means,” she said. “You see, I have no patience with modesty. Modesty is a learned adaptation. It’s stuck on like decals. As soon as life slams a modest person against the wall, that modesty will fall off faster than a G-string will fall off a stripper.”
The quote lit a spark plug for me. And I couldn’t help but wonder (thank you for watering our wonder pots, Carrie Bradshaw): Are we thinking of modesty wrong?
The immediate answer is, of course, a resounding yes.
Specifically, through the male craving for modest women. Many times over, a modest woman in literature would send the male subject into a swirling fantasy of forever matrimony. To support this, my favorite is a quote from The Taming of the Shrew which comes from Lucentio, a studious character that gets sidetracked by a woman named Bianca. He cries, “I burn, I pine, I perish, if I achieve not this young modest girl!” Men nowadays are less poetic about their desire for a bashful, blushing woman, but there’s still a desire to call out a self-assured woman as improper. Inappropriate, even.
The antonyms for modesty are defined as arrogance, assumption, egotism, huffiness, superiority, and the list goes on. All negative. What’s worse? The Online Etymology Dictionary defines modesty as: […] Meaning “quality of having a moderate opinion of oneself, retiring demeanor, disinclination to presumption, unobtrusiveness” is from the 1550s; that of “womanly propriety, purity or delicacy of thought or manner” is from 1560 […].
Ah, yes, the classic gendered term!! This shit is literally in the dictionary!! Meaning women have always been expected to adhere to a historically oppressive code of conduct. It means some things are appropriate for men. And some are appropriate for women. It means women must cover up certain things, while men are free to be open.
Women have always been expected to adhere to a historically oppressive code of conduct. It means some things are appropriate for men. And some are appropriate for women. It means women must cover up certain things, while men are free to be open.
And what an unfair way to define how life would be without modesty. The idea that if we don’t have modesty within our hearts we will be egotistical, awful people is wrong. We, especially as women, must depend on ourselves; value who we are. The self-deprecation of not taking a compliment and becoming unassuming about our own abilities…it’s out of style.
A woman that checks her modesty at the door is expected to be a self-conceited bitch storm. She’s expected to be haughty and overly persistent. She is substituted out of the conversation and the unassuming consideration. Women are meant to be perfect and polite and modest. But it’s time to beat up the traditional narrative. Art thou whom is modest should be human first. And if she is not modest, she is human again. Is that the correct form of English for the late 1500s? Probably not.
I won’t peg (just) men for this. Women have it against each other, too. We’ve learned to be modest heathens since we were taught not to brag in grade school. Women have been taught to be safe; not to ruffle feathers and follow the rules. And I’ll admit to my own wrongdoings. I’m built quiet and soft, so whenever I meet a loud, confident woman I want to instantaneously shelf her—if just for a moment to gather my bearings. The first impression is that she seems full of herself, as if I want to tell her to stop because I don’t have the confidence to match her. I don’t have the confidence to break the rules, too. BUT HOW DARE I?! WHY AM I QUESTIONING A RIGHTFULLY BRAVE WOMAN? So what if a woman has the entitlement qualities of a strong, white, blonde man?! It’s about damn time.
According to a recent article in Quartz, Sandy Grant, a philosopher at the University of Cambridge writes that modesty is deeply entwined with power. “White straight men have, among other facets of their privilege, carte blanche to think they are the bee’s knees and are expected to manifest extraordinary levels of self-belief, self-esteem, even to boastfulness. Whereas confident, self-enjoying, self-rating minorities are seen by the privileged as wholly unpalatable, enraging.”
I’ve been known to dodge compliments and keep quiet about my professional success. When I got engaged, however, it was as if I was knighted and could personally and openly celebrate myself. Even though, I had done virtually…nothing. This is the most interesting thing about modesty to me. Women push and push and push in their careers to get an emotional standing ovation from their peers. But, until they have children or get married, the celebration doesn’t come. Modesty is a virgin-like quality, gracious and polite. And women are expected to be all of these things at once. Unless. Unless the woman is regulated to their maternal role.
Modesty feels, for women, a lot like trying to fit in a carry-on suitcase, while men sprawl out and express their egos with plentiful, self-fulfilling demure.
Take it straight from the press. Modesty asks women to be quiet about their accomplishments. Articles everywhere give advice about “What To Do If You Make More Money Than Your Boyfriend” so the ladies don’t tarnish the male ego. Which, coincidently, is never **the problem.** That being said, women are wary about how they’re being interpreted, especially in situations like these and additionally in the workplace. Modesty feels, for women, a lot like trying to fit in a carry-on suitcase, while men sprawl out and express their egos with plentiful, self-fulfilling demure.
Modesty is passive. The expectations to be modest keep women stuck in their gender-specific roles. Women are bookended here when it comes to desire and sex (Writer’s Note: I could write a book about this alone). I mean, I could barely write about having an orgasm. It’s not surprising, either. The Latin word for female genitalia, pudenda, literally means, “that of which you must be ashamed.”
We must redefine. We don’t want modesty; we want humility. We want the freedom to choose anything. Take it from Maya, “Humility comes from [the] inside out. It says someone was here before me and I’m here because I’ve been paid for. I have something to do and I will do that because I’m paying for someone else who has yet to come.”
Women can be modest. But more importantly, they can be immodest. We should have the freedom to be moderately clothed, excruciatingly naked, or completely covered. We should have the freedom to yell and speak quietly, scream our successes off rooftops or keep them quiet inside our chests. We should thank others for helping us get to the places we are able to go. We must praise others and lift. We must admit when we’re wrong and ask for advice when we need it. That’s the humility of life—the freedom to do all of it.
On that note, let’s end with a snippet from my favorite poem, Still I Rise.
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard’
Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.
Brittany Chaffee is an avid storyteller, professional empath, and author. On the daily, she gets paid to strategize and create content for brands. Off work hours, it’s all about a well-lit place, warm bread, and good company. She lives in St.Paul with her baby brother cats, Rami and Monkey. Follow her on Instagram, read more about her latest book, Borderline, and (most importantly) go hug your mother.
BY Brittany Chaffee - February 11, 2020
Thank you for being here. For being open to enjoying life’s simple pleasures and looking inward to understand yourself, your neighbors, and your fellow humans! I’m looking forward to chatting with you.