You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Feminist Future of Modesty

How a growing fashion for covering up could make feminism more inclusive.

Chris McGrath / Getty Images

I get it,” is Gretchen Carlson’s message to all the American women who wince at the thought of parading around in a swimsuit. Carlson, who is the new Chairwoman of the Miss America pageant and who also won the competition in 1989, announced last week that the swimsuit portion of the spectacle would be axed. The #MeToo-friendly, revamped Miss American “Competition” (the word “pageant” is also no more) would focus on substance instead of appearance; it would promote neither ogling at various female parts nor the premise that a willingness to bare almost all is necessary to winning.

It’s a timely move. As the #MeToo movement has gained momentum, the competition has increasingly looked like a rite from some other America where blatant objectification is openly accepted. Ratings have fallen as critiques have mounted; internal emails written by the former CEO, Sam Haskell, which revealed a culture of slut-shaming and fat-shaming contestants, did not help the competition’s cause either. Carlson is having none of it. Her Miss America promises to showcase the personalities of women, of many sizes and races; attractiveness will be just one of the categories affecting the total score.

Beyond all of that, the move to covering up and speaking up also points to the comeback of modesty, a concept that until now has been rarely taken seriously by feminists. The idea that modesty can be a secular and feminist option—an individual’s woman’s choice to show less rather than more an act of empowerment—has been anathema. Nearly everyone applauded the idea that showing as much as possible was the goal for bold and audacious feminists. Some, like the breast-baring women of the group FEMEN, deployed it as a political tactic, uncovering their bodies at the Cosby trial and at the Vatican as an act of protest. The empowered woman showed everything in an act of continuing rebellion against the corseted and covered-up femininity of centuries past.

Nobody feels the weight of this definition of feminism more than American Muslim women. With an avowed preference for modest attire, headscarves and long dresses, many of these women have found themselves disqualified from being considered feminist. The exclusion has historical roots: Following orientalist stereotypes shored up under colonialism, the veiled and covered-up Muslim woman became the exemplar of oppressed persons. In words and pictures an iconography of Muslim women emerged—one that is used as an emblem of the general backwardness of Muslims. One example is this Economist cover from 2000, which uses the image to pose the question “Can Islam and Democracy Mix”?

These prejudices have found their way into law in many Western countries. In 2004, France banned the headscarf (hijab), essentially excluding all Muslim women and girls who chose to wear it from public schools and jobs. More recently, the burkini, a modest swim garment, was banned from French beaches. In one alarming incident, French policemen in Nice forced a woman to remove her burkini at the beach because covering arms and legs was now against the law. This is not only a French phenomenon; Switzerland passed a similar law that requires arms and legs to be uncovered on the country’s beaches. Modesty, when it came to swimsuits, was not just unwelcome, it was illegal.

In the last decades, a woman’s right to show her body even served as an argument for going to war. In 2001, Carolyn Maloney, then Congresswoman from New York, made a show of putting on a burka on the floor of the House of Representatives. The point of her pantomime seemed to be that even getting bombed was better than being hidden under a burka. In August 2017, H.R. McMaster used a 1972 photograph of Afghan women in miniskirts—apparently a proof that they had once been empowered—to inspire President Trump to order more American troops into Afghanistan.

Media in the United States, however, seemed to be more open to modesty than those in European countries. In 2016, the same year as the burkini incident, Vanity Fair described the phenomenon as “More is More: The Rise of the Modest Fashion Movement.” Profiling a Miss USA Minnesota contestant who had chosen to wear a headscarf throughout the competition, the essay argued that the covered-up contestant was “indicative of a larger movement that’s been happening in fashion for a while.” The Muslim consumer market for conservative clothes had buoyed retailers from Dolce and Gabbana to H&M and sparked productions of Ramadan collections and designer hijabs. But the modesty movement is not just a Muslim phenomenon: The style of the Duchess of Cambridge and the Olsen twins have been offered up as examples of conservative yet distinctive fashion—so have the increasingly popular high-necked blouses, square tops that hide curves, culottes and jumpsuits.

It is unlikely that many American women are considering the virtue of modesty every time they choose a blouse or skirt that shows less skin. But, the presence of conservative or modest options reflects an expansion of the spectrum of what may be considered fashionable—and, in the context of Miss America, beautiful and empowering. Muslim women, particularly the many who ache to prove that one can be covered and cool, can now jump into the fray with a bit less self-consciousness. Their challenge, however, is to push for a similar expansion of limits, so that Muslim women do not have to say no to clothes that do show skin. The choice to be modest is only meaningful if immodesty is an actual option.

“Even ‘Miss America’ realizes that Modesty is about Empowerment,” the Forward declared the day after the announcement. The decision was a nod, the author declared, to her Jewish tradition of modesty and to the “belief that a woman’s worth is so much more than how she looks in a bikini.” American Muslim women might not dare to be so openly welcoming of the news. In the United States of now, the end of the swimsuit competition alone would be enough to brand the competition a conspiracy of Islamic terrorists, a trick to force American women to ditch their bikinis and hide their beautiful bodies. A giant step toward a more complex and inclusive American feminism would in an instant be branded unpatriotic.